Talking Pipe, Volume 2: Your Pipe
First and foremost, get to know the thing. There are only two parts of most pipes: the bowl, which can be made of a number of different materials, and the mouthpiece, usually made of a hard rubber. There can be a band or collar of metal or other material around the wood where the mouth piece joins. The most important thing to remember here is to never remove the mouthpiece from the pipe while it is still warm. There are a number of reasons for this, but the bottom line is, it could crack the neck of the pipe.
There are is a wide choice in materials used to make the bowl of the pipe: Briar is the most common, being the best wood for even heat distribution and not absorbing liquid from tobacco."Briar" is actually the root burl from a heath shrub, which grows along the Mediterranean sea. It grows very slowly, and usually in loose sandy soil, so pits form in the wood where sand is trapped during growth. The most desirable pipes have no pits, and are perfectly smooth all the way around. These may later be finished rough, but the lack of pits ensures a more even burning smoke. Recently, a process has been developed to harvest pieces of burl without killing the shrub, ensuring that older, more dense root is available for use.
Next comes meerschaum, a clay like substance (actually a sort of petrified microscopic dendrite sea creature) that is also only found in certain Mediterranean regions. It absorbs no flavor, and allows exceptionally clean burning smokes, but must be handled with care. it is very fragile, and shouldn't even be touched with bare skin while warm. The exterior is finished with a blend of special oils (containing whale oil!) and the oils stick to skin when the pipe is warm. The oils SLOWLY change color while the pipe is being smoked, so the entire pipe darkens with careful use. It is a mark of pride among meerschaum smokers to have a perfectly darkened pipe with no inconsistencies (blemishes, blurs, or fingerprints) to mar the wonderful golden red color that can cover the pipe. It is rumored that the type of tobaccos smoked can vary the aging color, but this is yet to be proved. It is important to remember with briar and meerschaum that you rest the pipe at least 24 hours between use. Both materials can retain heat a deceptively long time, and abuse can cause the bowl to crack.
My favorite pipes are probably my clays. They absorb no flavor from previous smokes (as long as you keep 'em clean), they burn exceptionally clean, imparting every bit of flavor your tobacco has to offer, and you don't need to worry about resting a clay pipe. Ever. You want more of that last smoke? Load up and go again. It'll be fine. Sure, you can't hold it with your teeth. Heck, if it's like mine, you can't hold it with your hand anywhere near the bowl, either. Does that stop me? Of course not.
There are other materials you'll see at the pipe shop, too. Corn cob pipes have been around forever, and they're not going anywhere. Do they work? Yes. The work pretty well. And they're cheap. I keep a few around for camping trips and parties where I may drop my pipe, or forget it on a table. Eventually, they'll burn themselves away anyway. So if you need a disposable pipe, and don't mind the taste of flaming corn (I kind of like it once in a while) pick one up. There are hardwood pipes, too. Cherry, maple, there are others, too. I group these with corn cobs. Throw away pipes. They look just funny enough to be cool, and I wouldn't worry about loosing one, I just don't care for them. My opinion, I guess.
I would stay away from other materials. Aluminum, glass, and (Blech) brylon. Aluminum overheats and puts other chemicals into the smoke, glass get the tobacco too hot, and won't trap any of the tars, and brylon? Blech. Brylon is a material pipe makers came up with in the late '60s to make cheap, customizeable pipes out of. It's just a heat resistant plastic, so it can be shaped and colored however they feel. One problem: It's shit. Enough said.
Last important note, them I'll stop. If you like your pipe, treat it right. Clean it every time you smoke. EVERY TIME. It doesn't take a lot of work. While it's warm, pass a pipe cleaner all the way through the mouth piece. In to the bowl if you can manage it. This is pretty simple with straight pipes. With bent pipes, it can be tricky if not downright impossible. Luckily, it's not necessary. Get the pipe cleaner as far into the pipe as you can, pull it back out, blow through the mouthpiece (to blow out any debris you may have dislodged, any any excess moisture) and run the pipe cleaner through again. Simple, right? If you like (and I do) now is a good time to rub the pipe down with a soft cloth. I use the bottom of my shirt more often than not. It buffs the pipe, removes unwanted oils and whatever may have been on your hands, and keeps the mouthpiece clean and black. Once per year, I use bristled pipe cleaners (they look like candy canes with a VERY thin red stripe), dip them in a pipe sweetener (any good whiskey or rum will do) and clean every bit of the inside of the pipe. Bowl too. You shouldn't clean the bowl too often. You actually want an even layer of "cake" there to protect the wood. I inspect this "cake" during my annual cleanings, and ream it back if it's more than 1/8" thick.
Whew. That's pretty much it this time. Don't expect any more essays like this. I'll the rest fairly trim. I didn't talk about "gimmick" pipes (moisture traps, filters, exchangeable bowls, or carbureted models) because I don't care about them. Stay away from them. See "Brylon". I forgot meerschaum lined briar pipes. These are magic. If you have one in good condition, treasure it. It combines the best of both worlds.Thanks for hanging on 'till the end. Until next time: Smoke well.