In my mind, the pipe absolutely and positively, does not at all start & stop with the briar. For me the pipe starts with the briar and ends with the stem. The importance of the stem both as our main sensory/tactile connection to the pipe as well as the comfort it produces which by extension defines the ultimate enjoyment in the pipe, can absolutely not be ignored. The stem is our connection to the smoking experience. It is not just a tool with which to inhale air through the pipe. A comfortable stem will completely change the entire smoking experience.
If you have not and can, experience the difference between a regular stem and one that you and your mouth find comfortable, you will be stunned and amazed at the difference in comfort you can attain. I myself did not know this and had absolutely no idea how much of a difference was even possible when I first began smoking. I frankly did not think about it After it happened though, I had something to compare to and the comparison was undeniable. Another criteria for pipe evaluation (crap!) was added towards the pursuit of the ultimate smoking experience in a pipe. Even if you are not set up for that deeper (often silly) pursuit, I still recommend you give this one a go just for ‘a-ha’s’ sake.
My personal taste leans towards very thin and not wide stems. I find comfort when my lips are very close to one another. Other people surely have different preferences. I chatted with Marty Pulvers of PulversBriar.com on this topic and he kindly added his opinion to the matter. He said: “I think that stems are as personal as each person’s mouth. For a lot of true old pipe guys, the only important part of the pipe is the stem, and of the stem, the only important part is the last ¼” of the pipe.” Marty added that although he knew this for himself, Ingo Garbe told him the last ¼” of the pipe theory.
With this additional element of pipe criteria in my pocket for the past few years I too am now able to very quickly glance at a pipe’s stem and know with a high degree of certainty whether or not I will be able to experience this ‘higher level’ of enjoyment in the pipe. I am not as focused on this issue as the ‘true old pipe guys’ that Marty mentioned but pretty close to 80% of the time, it is a critical factor for me.
Very surprisingly I actually experienced a very high level of comfort in a thick stem with a much older pipe. A Dunhill from 1919, made with our well-known vulcanized rubber but much thicker than my usual thin preference. Even with this added thickness, something about it makes it extremely pleasant in the lips, producing an almost pliable and bouncy (for the teeth) feeling. I heard that their process for stem making during that time was slightly different than it is today, producing this altered tactile sensation in it.
I am sure that there are many who find these words to sound strange and perhaps laughable. For those people, I do recommend you give this area of evaluation a go because you will likely be as blown away as I was with the facts you find.
It does get annoying sometimes. The more options we have, the more criteria we have to evaluate. While it can turn into a never ending process of ‘what next do we have to consider with pipes?’, at some point, hopefully with age or wisdom, we simply pick and choose those factors which are most important to us. Knowing all the factors out there however, this is a very important thing for me and I would rather know what I am rejecting or accepting, than not knowing at all.
I am very thankful to the people who shared this and other pipe insights with me. One of those people is Marty Pulvers and while I clearly have little choice, I will now give him the last word on the topic. Please note that Marty is always full of humor (often dark humor) and the people he mentions know this full well so there is no need to gulp on their behalf when reading some of his words.
Marty’s final thought: “Look, if you’ve been smoking a pipe long enough, you don’t have to do much more than a quick glance to know if the pipe is the right general shape, size, etc…for you. That’s automatic. It would be stupid, for instance for me to look at a big, clumsy hunk of wood with nothing more to speak for itself than straight grain. That’s for amateurs and Fred Hanna. We also know which makers use good, aged briar and which also employ proper construction methods, thus we do not waste time mulling over those issues. So, I, and others, look to see if the stem is going to be comfortable in our mouth. That is the only and the last consideration. 99.9% of the time it is not going to be to our personal liking. That is just a fact because no pipe maker can make a pipe that will appeal to one and all. And by the way, that is the way some of the most astute pipe makers feel too.”
I must say that I literally could not have said it better myself.
*Please note that the pictures of stems I added to the blurb are there to bring visual life to your reading. While I myself may find these stems to be comfortable, this may and likely is, completely different for you.
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