Materials and Construction

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Sandblasted briar (smooth top). A beautiful Freehand, by Rad Davis

Materials and Construction

The material and shape of a pipe has a profound influence upon the aesthetics and smoking qualities. Tobacco pipes come in many shapes and styles. For an excellent chart showing classic pipe shapes, see the chart by Bill Burney: Pipe Shapes. To see an excellent chart showing pipe parts along with their names, also by Bill Burney, see Pipe Parts.

The basis for this section is from the Wikipedia entry Smoking Pipe (tobacco).

A Comprehensive list of Pipemaker materials suppliers can be found here: Materials and Supplies


Castello Old Antiquari GG, courtesy of

The majority of pipes sold today, whether hand made or machine made, are fashioned from briar. 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 heath tree (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.

Alternative Woods Used For Pipemaking

Although briar pipes are by far the most popular, various other woods are also used by pipe makers. See Alternative Woods Used For Pipemaking for a list of the many wood types and examples of pipes made with these woods. Many thanks to pipemaker Elie for suggesting this section. Also see Pipes in Other Woods an article written for The Collector by Tim Fuller


Meerschaum Pipes

Meerschaum (hydrated magnesium silicate), a mineral found in small shallow deposits mainly around the city of Eskişehir in central Turkey, is prized for its plasticity which allows it to be carved into many decorative and figural shapes. It was used as early as the 17th century in Turkey in the production of various utilitarian articles, but the first use as a pipe was not earlier than, according to translated documents, about 1725-1750. Along with clay, meerschaum represented the other common medium for pipes before the introduction of briar as the material of choice in the mid-19th century. See Antique Meerschaum Pipes.

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 prized for their distinctive coloring.

In selecting a meerschaum pipe it is advisable to determine if the pipe is indeed carved from a block of meerschaum, and is not made from meerschaum dust collected after carving and mixed with an emulsifier then pressed into a pipe shape. These products are not absorbent, do not color, and lack the smoking quality of the block carved pipe. It is not always obvious. Some collectors believe that some pipes marked "solid block meerschaum" may not be genuine. With no uniform grading authority, it is difficult to be sure in the case of an unknown maker, unless you are purchasing it from a trusted, well informed tobacconist. Be wary of inexpensive pipes from untrusted sources. Also look for the quality of the carving. Better carvers are unlikely to waste time carving composite meerschaum.


Fox & Grapes, Pollock Clay Pipes

Clay in this case is almost always a very fine white clay. Low-quality "clay" pipes are actually made from porcelain forming techniques known as slip, and 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 Historical re-enactors. Clay pipes were once considered disposable items and the large quantities discarded in the past are often used as an aid in dating by industrial archaeologists.

For additional information see, A Short History Of Clay Pipes, by Heather Coleman


Calabash Gourd Pipe With Meerschaum Bowl Insert & Removable Bamboo Stem Extension Courtesy of Frank

Calabash gourds (usually with meerschaum or porcelain bowls set inside them) have long made prized pipes, but they are labour-intensive and nowadays quite expensive. Because of this expense, pipes with bodies made of wood (usually mahogany) instead of gourd, but the same classic shape are sold as calabashes. Both wood and gourd pipes are functionally the same. They both have an air chamber beneath the bowl 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.

The construction of a calabash pipe generally consists of a downward curve that ends with an upcurve where the bowl sits. This low center of gravity allows for the user to easily hold the pipe by the mouth alone, leaving his hands free. This advantage was often used by actors who wanted to depict their character smoking while permitting them to do other business simultaneously. That is why the character Sherlock Holmes, who never used this kind of pipe in the stories, is stereotypically depicted as favoring it because early dramatic productions, especially those starring William Gillette and Basil Rathbone, made this artistic decision. In fact, Holmes, who preferred very harsh tobacco, would probably have disliked the calabash because of the above-mentioned mellowing effect.

Gourds specifically intended for pipemaking are usually "hand trained" while they are still green & growing. Every few days, after the fruit has begun to develop, the grower will bend the "neck" of the gourd, until it has formed into a near semi-circle. These are mainly grown in South Africa.

Family:  Cucurbitaceae (koo-ker-bih-TAY-see-ay);
Genus:   Lagenaria (lag-en-AR-ee-uh);
Species: Siceraria (sy-ker-AR-ee-uh); 
Cultivar: Dipper(?)

Calabash Interpretations: Also popular with some collectors are Calabash shaped briar pipes, or Calabash interpretations. Fred Heim has written an interesting article on collecting these called Calabash, Calabash, Wherefore Art Thou Calabash?, The Genesis of a Collecting Motif By Fred Heim, with photography by Joe Harb.


Corncob Pipes
Gen. MacArthur

On the other end of the scale, "corncob" pipes made from maize 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 United States.[2]. Missouri Meerschaum has produced the pipes since 1869. General Douglas MacArthur 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.

Metal Pipes

Image Courtesy Tony Pringle of Smoking Metal
Vintage Falcon Shillelagh Pipe (Manufactured Ca. 1968)
Image Courtesy K. A. Worth

An excellent website devoted to metal pipes: Smoking Metal.
Includes various Falcon aluminum-stem pipes, plus Kirsten, Yello Bole, Dr. Grabow (Viking) and many others.

An interesting book on the subject: Back From The Ashes, Uncovering The Lost History Of G. L. Hunt and the Falcon Pipe, by K. A. Worth ~ Winner, 2008 Illinois Historical Society Book Award. Available from the author: Worthy Works Press and at Amazon: For more info. see Books/Publications page...

Build your own custom Kirsten Metal Pipe at Kirsten Pipe Company

Kirsten Pipe Company - An article by Dave Whitney