A smoking pipe for tobacco smoking typically consists of a chamber (the bowl) for the combustion of tobacco and a thin stem (shank) ending in a mouthpiece (the bit). Pipes can range from the very simple machine-made briar pipe to highly-prized handmade and artful implements created by renowned pipemakers which are often very expensive collector's items.
The bowls of tobacco pipes are commonly made of briar, meerschaum, corncob or clay. Less common are cherrywood, olivewood, maple, mesquite, oak, and bog-wood. Generally a dense-grained wood is ideal. Minerals such as catlinite and soapstone have also been used. Pipe bowls of all these materials are sometimes carved with a great deal of artistry.
Unusual, but still noteworthy pipe bowl materials include gourds, as in the famous Calabash pipe, and pyrolytic graphite. Metal and glass are uncommon materials for tobacco pipes, but are common for pipes intended for other substances.
The stem needs a long channel of constant position and diameter running through it, although filter pipes have varying diameters and can successfully smoked even without filters or adapters. Because it is molded rather than carved, clay may make up the entire pipe or just the bowl, but most other materials have stems made separately and detachable. Stems and bits of tobacco pipes are usually made of moldable materials like vulcanite, lucite, Bakelite, and soft plastic. Less common are stems made of reeds, bamboo, or hollowed out pieces of wood. Expensive pipes once had stems made of amber, though this is rare now.
Tobaccos for smoking in pipes are often carefully treated and blended to achieve flavour nuances not available in other tobacco products. Many of these are blends using staple ingredients of variously cured Burley and Virginia tobaccos which are enhanced by spice tobaccos, among them many Oriental or Balkan varietals, Latakia (a fire-cured spice tobacco of Syrian origin), Perique (uniquely grown in St. James Parish, Louisiana) which is also an old method of fermentation, or blends of Virginia and Burley tobaccos of African, Indian, or South American origins. Traditionally, many U.S. blends are made of American Burley with sweeteners and flavorings added to create an "aromatic" flavor, whereas "English" blends are based on natural Virginia tobaccos enhanced with Oriental and other natural tobaccos. There is a growing tendency towards "natural" tobaccos which derive their aromas from artful blending with selected spice tobaccos only and careful, often historically-based, curing processes.
The majority of pipes sold today, whether hand made or machine made, are fashioned from briar (French: bruyère). Briar is a particularly good wood for pipe making for a number of reasons. The first and most important is its natural resistance to fire. The second is its inherent ability to absorb moisture. The burl absorbs water in nature to supply the tree in the dry times and likewise will absorb the moisture that is a byproduct of combustion. Briar is cut from the root burl of the tree heath (Erica arborea), which is native to the rocky and sandy soils of the Mediterranean region. Briar burls are cut into two types of blocks; ebauchon and plateaux. Ebauchon is taken from the heart of the burl while plateaux is taken from the outer part of the burl. While both types of blocks can produce pipes of the highest quality, most artisan pipe makers prefer to use plateaux because of its superior graining.
Meerschaum (hydrated magnesium silicate), a mineral found in small shallow deposits mainly around the city of Eskişehir in central Turkey, is prized for the properties which allows it to be carved into finely detailed decorative and figural shapes. It has been used since the 17th century and, with clay pipes, represented the most common medium for pipes before the introduction of briar as the material of choice in the 19th century. The word "meerschaum" means "sea foam" in German, alluding to its natural white color and its surprisingly low weight. Meerschaum is a very porous mineral that absorbs elements of the tobacco during the smoking process, and gradually changes color to a golden brown. Old, well-smoked meerschaum pipes are valued by collectors for their distinctive coloring. In selecting a meerschaum pipe it is advisable to take assurances that the product is indeed carved from a block of meerschaum, and is not made from meerschaum dust collected after carving and mixed with a binder then pressed into a pipe shape. These products are not absorbent, do not color, and lack the smoking quality of the block carved pipe.
Clay in this case is almost always a very fine white clay. Low-quality "clay" pipes are actually made from porcelain slip poured into a mold. These are porous, of very low quality, and impart unwanted flavors to a smoke. Top-notch clays, on the other hand, are made in a labor-intensive process that requires beating all air out of the clay, hand-rolling each pipe before molding it, piercing with a fine wire, and careful firing. Traditionally, clay pipes are un-glazed. Clays burn "hot" in comparison to other types of pipes, so they are often difficult for most pipe-smokers to use. Their proponents claim that, unlike other materials, a well-made clay pipe gives a "pure" smoke, with no flavor addition from the pipe bowl. In addition to aficionados, reproductions of historical clay styles are used by some re-enactors. Clay pipes were once considered disposable items and the rapidly changing designs in the past are often used as an aid in dating by archaeologists. They were once very popular in Ireland, where such a pipe was called a dúidín.
Calabash gourds (usually with meerschaum or porcelain bowls set inside them) have long made prized pipes, but they are labour-intensive and today quite expensive. Because of this expense, pipes with bodies made of wood (usually mahogany) instead of gourd, but with the same classic shape, are sold as calabashes. Both wood and gourd pipes are functionally the same. They consist of a downward curve that ends with an upcurve where the bowl sits. Beneath the bowl is an air chamber which serves to cool, dry, and mellow the smoke. There are also briar pipes being sold as calabashes. These typically do not have an air chamber and are named only because of their external shape.
A calabash pipe is rather large and easy to recognize as a pipe when used on a stage in dramatic productions. Early portrayers of the character Sherlock Holmes, particularly William Gillette and Basil Rathbone took advantage of this fact when it was required to portray Holmes smoking. This is why Holmes is stereotypically depicted as favoring a calabash. In fact, most stories, particularly The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, described him as preferring a long-stemmed cherry-wood or a clay pipe.
On the other end of the scale, "corncob" pipes made from corn cobs are cheap and effective, even if some regard them as inelegant. The cobs are first dried for two years. Then they are hollowed out to make a bowl shape. The bowls are dipped in a plaster-based mixture and varnished or lacquered on the outside. Shanks made from pine wood are then inserted into the bowls. The first and largest manufacturer of corncob pipes is Missouri Meerschaum, located in Washington, Missouri in the USA. Missouri Meerschaum has produced the pipes since 1869. General Douglas MacArthur, Mark Twain and George Lincoln Rockwell were perhaps the most famous smokers of this type of pipe, along with the cartoon characters Popeye and Frosty the Snowman.
Corncob pipes remain popular today because they are inexpensive and require no "break-in" period like briar pipes. For these two reasons, corncob pipes are often recommended as a "Beginners pipe." But, their enjoyment is by no means limited to beginners. Corncob pipes are equally valued by both learners and experienced smokers who simply desire a cool, clean smoke. Pipesmokers who wish to sample a wide variety of different tobaccos and blends also might keep a stock of corncobs on hand to permit them to try new flavors without "carryover" from an already-used pipe, or to keep a potentially bad-tasting tobacco from adding its flavor to a more expensive or favored pipe.
A variety of other materials may also be used for pipes. The Redmanol corporation manufactured pipes with translucent stems in the 1920s and a series of pipes was manufactured and distributed by the Tar Gard (later Venturi) Corporation of San Francisco from 1965-1975. Marketed under names such as "the pipe," "THE SMOKE" and "Venturi," they used materials such as pyrolytic graphite, phenolic resin, nylon, Bakelite and other synthetics, allowing for higher temperatures in the bowl, reduced tar and aesthetic variations of color and style. After Venturi stopped making pipes, several companies continue to make pipes from Brylon, a composite of nylon and wood flour, as a cheaper substitute for briar.
Metal is an uncommon material for making tobacco pipes, but they are not unknown. The most common form of this is a pipe with a shank made of aluminum, which serves as a heat sink. Mouthpieces are made of vulcanite or lucite. The bowls are removable, though not interchangeable between manufacturers. They are made of varying materials to allow the smoker to try different characteristics or to dedicate particular bowls for particular tobaccos.
Other metal tobacco pipes include the very small Japanese kiseru and Arabian midwakh. Hookahs also may have metal stems, but fall into the general category of water pipes.
A hookah, ghelyan, or narghile, is a Middle Eastern water pipe that cools the smoke by filtering it through a water chamber. Often ice, milk, or fruit juice is added to the water. Traditionally, the tobacco is mixed with a sweetener, such as honey or molasses. Fruit flavors have also become popular. Modern hookah smokers, especially in the US, smoke "me'assel" "moassel" "molasses" or "shisha" all names for the same wet mixture of tobacco, molasses/honey, glycerine, and often, flavoring. This style of tobacco is smoked in a bowl with foil or a screen (metal or glass) on top of the bowl. More traditional tobaccos are "tombiek" (a dry unflavored tobacco, which the user moistens in water, squeezes out the extra liquid, and places coals directly on top) or "jarak" (more of a paste of tobacco with fruit to flavor the smoke).
Smoking a pipe requires more apparatus and technique than cigarette or even cigar smoking. In addition to the pipe itself and matches or a lighter, smokers usually require a pipe tool for packing, adjusting, and emptying the tobacco in the bowl, and a regular supply of pipe cleaners.
Pipe smoke, like cigar smoke, is usually not inhaled. It is merely brought into the mouth, pumped around oral and nasal cavities to permit absorption of nicotine toward the brain through the mucous membranes, and released. It is normal to have to relight a pipe periodically. If it is smoked too slowly, this will happen more often. If it is smoked too quickly, it can produce excess moisture causing a gurgling sound in the pipe and an uncomfortable sensation on the tongue (referred to as "pipe tongue", or more commonly, "tongue bite").
A pipe cleaner can be used to dry out the bowl and, wetted with alcohol, the inner channel. The bowl of the pipe can also become uncomfortably hot, depending on the material and the rate of smoking. For this reason clay pipes in particular are often held by the stem. Meerschaum pipes are held in a square of chamois leather, with gloves, or else by the stem in order to prevent uneven coloring of the material.
The ash and the last bits of unburned tobacco, known as dottle, should be cleaned out with a suitable pipe tool. A soft or bristle pipe cleaner, which may be moistened with a solvent such as isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol, is then run through the airways of the stem and shank to remove any moisture, ash, and other residue before the pipe is allowed to dry. A pipe should be allowed to cool before removing the stem to avoid the possibility of warping it.
A cake of ash eventually develops inside the bowl. This is generally considered desirable for controlling overall heat. However, if it becomes too thick, it may expand faster than the bowl of the pipe itself when heated, cracking the bowl. Before reaching this point, it needs to be scraped down with a reamer. It is generally recommended to keep the cake at approximately the thickness of a U.S. dime (about 1/20th of an inch or 1.5 mm), though sometimes the cake is removed entirely as part of efforts to eliminate flavors or aromas. Cake is considered undesirable in meerschaum pipes because it can easily crack the bowl and/or interfere with the mineral's natural porosity.
When tobacco is burned, oils from adjoining not yet ignited particles vaporize and condense into the existing cake on the walls of the bowl and shank. Over time, these oils can oxidize and turn rancid, causing the pipe to give a sour or bitter smoke. An effective measure called the Professor's Pipe-Sweetening Treatment involves filling the bowl with kosher salt and carefully wetting it with strong spirits. Many experts feel that is important to not use iodized salt, as the iodine and other additives may impart an off flavor. Some people find that regularly wiping out the bowl with spirits is helpful in preventing souring. Commercial pipe-sweetening products are also available.
Pipes have been used since ancient times. Herodotus described Scythians inhaling the fumes of burning leaves in 500 B.C. Romans, and Greeks adopted pipes from their neighbors to the east and they were subsequently used by Germanic, Celtic and Nordic tribes.
As tobacco was not introduced to the Old World until the 16th century, the pipes outside of the Americas were usually used to smoke hashish, a rare and expensive substance outside areas of the Middle East, Central Asia and India, where it was produced.
Native Americans smoked tobacco in pipes long before the arrival of Europeans. Tobacco was introduced to Europe from the Americas in the 16th century and spread around the world rapidly.