Your pipe’s quiet giant
by Tad Gage
Briar, morta, cob, calabash, clay, meerschaum. Metal, ceramic, cherry, olive, stone, strawberry wood. Straight-grain, crosscut, bird’s-eye, ring grain, flame grain, no grain. Smooth, blasted, carved, chunked, stained, painted, chopped. Billiards, bulldogs, Bing, bent. No matter the pipe, the finish, the shape, size or material, what is a pipe without a stem? A stummel (bowl and shank) of unsmokable incompletion. Michelangelo’s David without a head. Magritte’s The Treachery of Images (“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”) without the pipe.
I am no expert on stems—at least, making stems—but I know what I like. From my earliest days of smoking a pipe, more than 30 years ago, the comfort, mouth-feel and aesthetics of a good pipe stem were important. Maybe it was by starting with what I didn’t like. After several years of smoking cigars, my first pipe was borrowed from my briar-loving father-in-law on a trip to the north woods. Filled with Mixture No. 79, the putty-filled briar sported a sharp-edged molded rubber bit, grass green with oxidation, and a sliver of a button that concentrated hot smoke and moisture from the draft hole like a back-woods still. I loved the experience, but I quickly learned to appreciate the value of an attractive, comfortable bit without the taste of sulfur.
Being the bit fanatic that I am, I’ve long felt the stem has been taken for granted. A recent experience working with an expert pipe restorer to design a new bit for a 1980s vintage artisan pipe (broken tenon on an acrylic bit too fragile to repair) really brought home the importance and complexity of the oft-ignored but not so humble bit.
I interviewed at length several of today’s fine pipe craftsmen: pipemakers Jim Cooke (J.T. Cooke Pipes), Adam Davidson (Adam Davidson Pipes), Jeff Gracik (J. Alan Pipes) and David Huber (DSH Pipes) and restoration experts George Dibos and Ronni Bikacsan. These are all gentlemen I know and respect for their skills, but I could have spent six months picking the brains of so many more experts. In turn, they all cited makers and companies that inspired their work: Hiro Tokutomi, Jody Davis, Lars Ivarsson, Kei’ichi Gotoh, Michael Parks, Michael Lindner, Rad Davis and many of the great companies. The list of makers and companies could fill an entire article.
The acrylic and Ebonite evolution
The earliest pipes were generally fashioned of stone, tusk or minerals and probably wood. Many were a solid piece of material, although many early pipes featured a detachable shank/stem of something like wood, horn or bamboo. However, all were basic extensions of the draft hole. Pure function. One-piece glass and the popular clay pipes gave way to meerschaum, hardwoods and briar, which functioned beautifully for bowls but were unable to withstand moisture, clenching and tooth marks at the stem end. This led pipemakers in the 1800s to find sturdier materials from which to make bits.
Amber, an elegant and popular stem material for meerschaum and briar, was beautiful but rare, and it shattered easily. Like amber, stems made of briar, bone and horn (meerschaum, which softens with moisture, is a total nonstarter for bits) have been used over the years, but the fragility of these materials has always been problematic. Hard rubber, patented by Charles Goodyear in 1844, combined heated (vulcanized) rubber and sulfur to create a hard, durable material.
Also known as vulcanite or Ebonite, hard rubber became, and remains, the most popular material for pipe stems. Various chemical combinations and vulcanizing processes result in different qualities of hard rubber, and bits made from higher- quality material result in greater resistance to that annoying green/brown sulfur oxidation. As a collector of mostly older pipes with hard rubber stems, I can attest that storing pipes out of sunlight and occasional cloth polishing and stem treatment or oil to protect the rubber and clean the bit’s exterior go a long way toward forestalling oxidation and maintaining a nice sheen.
Acrylic (known by many trade names, including Perspex), developed and refined in the 1930s, was first used for pipe stems when World War II rubber shortages prompted some pipemakers (including Barling and GBD) to introduce Perspex bits. Acrylic was embraced by many pipemakers, particularly the Italians, after the war, and it remains a durable, easily worked and popular material choice for bits. Acrylic doesn’t oxidize, and it is resistant to tooth marks and the saliva dulling that comes with pipe smoking. Cheap, easy-to-mold plastics have also been used, but generally on less expensive pipes owing to its softness and limited workability.
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