General choosing criteria
You should begin by careful inspection of high grade pipes, maybe Dunhill’s or Castello’s or the great Danish marques. After you have examined these enough times, you will have a good understanding of what good construction is. Then you can study medium and low grades, if you wish. You will see the difference. And, with persistence, you will often be able to find high-grade construction in a low-grade pipe.
A machine-made pipe can be made to very exacting specifications if you pardoned their bit-work. Actually, some good machine-made pipes use molded stems which are superior to many handcut stems.
Just because a stem is handcut does not make it superior to a molded stem, it simply means that it took longer and is more unique.
Because of their less-than-stellar wood, they just weren’t very good smokers.
A lighter piece of wood generally signifies a well cured piece of briar.
This requires careful inspection and is hard to judge, because it can also signify a bowl without enough wood under the bottom, with an airhole overly large, or worse, with a mortise drilled down the length of the shank.
The pipe has to hang comfortably. If possible stick it in your mouth; everybody has different preferences for feel and comfort.
Tool marks anywhere cost points. Be ready to pay for quality; if you can’t pay for quality, try to choose a lesser pipe that you can tune up yourself to achieve a comparable smoke.
If your first thought on picking up the pipe is, “Wow, this is really well made” keep looking at it. People can sense it somehow when a pipe is really well made.
Overall lightness and balance !
Before you even look at the technical details, you’ll really look at the shape, the balance, the harmony of the pipe, and whether the weight is appropriate to the size of the pipe.
– Do curves flow smoothly, or are they interrupted ?
– Is there a sense of proportion that seems to have equilibrium, or does something stand out ?
– Does the shank join the bowl with intention, or is it just part of the pipe ?
– Is there symmetry to the shape, or in the case of asymmetrical pipes, is the asymmetry in purpose, or does it just comes from sloppy workmanship ?
– How does the pipe feel in the hand ?
You trace every line, every curve with your hands, exploring its aesthetics tactually as well as visually.
If the pipe’s made it this far, it’s pretty clear that the maker really put some effort into making a great pipe, that s/he really cares about the craft.
Look for an overall sense of originality, passion and artistry.
Today we might have too many high grade makers creating boring pipes while doing things just as confirmation that their pipes are “high grade”.
The deciding factor is not whether every tiny detail has been polished, but instead whether the pipe looks like it was made by someone with some vision.
Looking for pits in the wood, making sure the hole in the bowl is low so it burns all the way down when smoking, checking the walls of the bowl to make sure they are regular thickness all the way around and also not so thin to overheat easily.
Then, look into the bowl, poke around with the finger a bit, to see if the bore is smoothly tapered, to ensure there are no abrupt changes in shape which will make the pipe difficult to ream evenly, or tough to smoke. Think twice about steeply tapered, “conical” bowls, though some have excellent results smoking flake tobaccos in pipes that sport them.
A smooth pipe has to feel as smooth as a baby’s butt.
The grain must be clearly visible, for instance with the use of a contrast stain.
A high grade shouldn’t present kit spots and no very visible sand pits.
A blasted pipe should have clearly visible grain. One should be able to feel the grain.
A rusticated pipe should have a rustication that is regular. The briar shouldn’t bare any tool marks or sand paper marks.
The next thing you look at is the fit and finish.
If the form is beautiful, you would expect the finish to be equally so, but it’s not always the case.
Was the wood finished to a glass-like smoothness, or are there sanding marks, or worse, tool marks ?
Virtually every high grade pipe uses some form of lacquer for their final finish – Ashton, Dunhill, Castello, etc; all finish their pipes with a natural gloss lacquer.
It makes no difference at all to the smoking or the “breathing” of the pipe – this is pipe mythology.
The only times a lacquer finish will detract from the smoke is if some form of chemical or acrylic-based lacquer is used and applied too thickly, and this is generally only done on factory pipes in the $100 or under range.
However, the idea that any finish other than wax is unacceptable has become so entrenched that all makers must loudly proclaim that they use only wax, even if they have a room full of people applying dissolved natural flake shellac. No fills or damn few small ones. You are not just looking for a waxy gloss here, but perfectly smooth wood, done with sandpaper, not just a buffing wheel.
This is important for a couple of reasons. Anyone can make a pipe shiny with wax. But, wax either soaks in or rubs off when the pipe is smoked.
If the wood beneath is smooth, the pipe will develop that beautiful patina that we cherish in our older pieces; if not, it will just become dull and lusterless.
Some makers take shortcuts, and just buff the wood on a wheel. While this can provide a smooth surface, it does NOT provide a flat surface. The wheel is indiscriminate, and if used aggressively to make up for the absence of good hand-work, waviness will result.
The only answer is hand sanding, followed by gentle buffing, and final waxing.
These are good points but they apply only to high grades – it’s important to stress that the absence of some of these points is not necessarily a “negative” – it simply means that a pipe was made to fit a lower price range.