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Why a High Grade?
What is a high-grade pipe? Why buy a high-grade pipe? How can you become initiated into the mysteries of briar? The answers to these questions can be endlessly debated. I believe, however, that there are guidelines - although not unyielding ones - that can assist you in making this all-important decision: to purchase a high-grade pipe. Imagine when you hear the statement, "These are our high-grade pipes." Some will impulsively check their wallets, making sure all credit cards are in place, because this must mean money, money, money! I think this is one of the most unfortunate reactions. Let's forget about dollars, let's not mistake green for grain, and let's not be fooled into believing that we are buying pork bellies with the potential for boundless returns on investment.
What we're dealing with are very adaptive, durable, and in some cases, depending on one's aesthetics-quite beautiful works of art. The expression "high-grade pipes" should describe the best pipes produced by any given maker.
In most cases, high-grade pipes will be made from plateau briar, the oldest, outside ring of the burl, which produces the most defined and beautiful grain patterns. This raw material will be harvested from the Mediterranean region. In selecting briar, certain manufacturers prefer some areas over others, choosing Grecian briar over Italian, or Corsican over Sardinian, for example. The choice often depends on esoteric arguments with subjective criteria and results. After the plateau briar has been selected, it is cured or dried. This is the most important aspect of the whole process, because curing/drying the briar determines how the pipe will smoke--how dry it will smoke - and in some cases provides a unique flavor. Talking about curing is like talking about politics or religion. Air curing and oil curing are both secretive processes; experience is the key to understanding the results of each and to determining preferences in smoking.
Once the rough burls are selected and cured, it is up to the master carver to create the pipe. Sometimes the carver has a specific shape in mind, but often the carver will allow the pipe to evolve and reveal itself in its most attractively pleasing form. Until the carving is well underway, the carver may have only a vague idea of what the end result will be. Most pipe makers want to create a straight grain pipe, for these are the most rare and sought after. But no matter how carefully the briar has been selected, it may have picked up bits of sand or soil. Small fissures can develop that will not be noticed until late in the carving process. If these problems are not structural, hand rusticating or sandblasting can take place to keep the pipe in the mix. Are such pipes "high-grade"? Of course they are. The same care has gone into selecting and curing the briar and into carving these pipes, even if they are not flawless and their grain patterns are not straight.
Some manufacturers are not as obsessed with straight grain as the old Charatan factory was years ago, or as some Danish and Swedish pipe makers are currently. Barling and Dunhill (the "Collectors' " line) produced straight grained pipes that they deemed to be extraordinary. However, most Barlings and Dunhills were not straight grains, and people enjoyed, and still enjoy, their smoking qualities. It's care and thoughtful procedures that make great smoking pipes, not necessarily grain. Sometimes one can forget, when in a shop that has a great selection of beautiful smooth briars, that these gems are so very rare. For every smooth, flawless piece you gaze upon, there have been dozens that did not make it to this level, and dozens more that never even made it to the rustication or blasting process.
You now should recognize some of the qualities that characterize a high-grade pipe: selectivity, curing, and carving. All these processes take time and labor. It is in this context that price is determined. Obviously the materials and time involved vary from maker to maker and there will be significant differences in price. You have to determine what is affordable and most suitable for you. I have always maintained that in pipes the difference in price from $25 to $100 is much greater than that from $100 to $1000. What I mean is that once you have reached the threshold of the high-grade level, where pipes in most cases cost in excess of $100, you will receive all the great smoking benefits of the finished product. Beyond that level, you will notice that smooth pipes are usually more expensive than rusticated or sandblasted finishes, and that straight grained pieces will be the most expensive of all.
I always encourage customers to ignore price and just look and feel. Try to determine what pipe will work best for you. There should be numerous choices, so don't get stuck on brand but allow your senses to take overuse your instincts. How does the pipe feel in your hand? Get a sense of the overall weight and balance of the piece. Think about what capacity you require - not everyone needs a pipe that holds an ounce of tobacco. Think about how the size of the pipe fits your facial features. Some smokers prefer a textured finish, how it feels and how it dissipates the heat. Some are strictly into straight grain, and others prefer the small circular birds-eye grain that comes from the ends of fiber bundles. Then there are the different possibilities of form, billiard, apple, and all the others.
Instead of adhering to standard shapes, some pipes have freehand designs; they are carved into unique forms that most often maximize grain patterns.
All these choices create fun arguments that can last into the wee hours of morning. Welcome the opinions of others and attempt to integrate them into your own decision-making.
Now the time has come: your denouement, your moment of truth. Choosing any high-grade pipe eliminates most variables, and what you end up with is a pipe that can be a friend for life. Allow your tobacconist to guide you and make you aware of particular philosophies regarding briar selection, curing, and carving. This should be a give and take experience and one with which you are comfortable. Draw on the opinions of your fellow pipe smokers - some of the best advice I have received has come from customers. And, remember, don't quantify this decision by allowing price to be your only determining factor.
Here's hoping that your future choices are thoughtful and passionate.