Clay Pipes

Clay Pipe


Clay pipes first appear in Europe and in the archaeological record of early European colonies in the Americas during the 16th century.

Tobacco was an especially common commodity in England, France, Holland and Spain during the early colonial period. A wide variety of styles have been tried, but the ones that have endured are mostly essentially the same : a longish stem, usually straight or very slightly curved, ending in a flared, usually conical bowl.

Clay pipes are normally made in one piece, however there was a little experimentation in a few regions (notably Ireland and South Africa) with composite pipes combining clay bowls with stems made from other materials, such as horn. As these composite pipes turn up quite late (19th century and early 20th) and follow patterns that are common in briar pipes, it seems likely that these were attempts by pipe smokers of limited resources to reproduce the briar pipes they liked in a material they could afford.

Clay Pipe
Clay Pipe

At first, all clay pipes were hand made by craftsmen using press moulds and soft clay.
In the 18th century, as the price of tobacco reached levels that made it more accessible to the common man, production started to shift toward slip casting in plaster moulds. Press casting continued, however, to be the process of choice for those who wanted a quality pipe.

Clay pipes were smoked regularly by people as diverse as sailors, explorers in the New World, and by the nobility in the Old World, and are a reasonably common find in archaeological sites that date later than 1550.

The main reason that clay pipes have been more or less abandoned at present is the sheer affordability of briar during the first part of the 20th century, and the association of the cheap slip-cast pipes with poverty.

In later decades, good briar started to become a little more difficult to find, but the clay pipe making industry had already more or less died out, and at the present time, despite their advantages, clay pipes are a novelty rather than the norm.

Why Choose Clay ?

Currently, pipes made from wood, especially briar, are the most popular type of pipe. However, clay pipes were quite popular for many years, and in fact for a long time were the only type of pipe available in Europe for the smoking of tobacco. The advantages of briar are numerous, and generally fairly well known by the pipe smoking community.
Many people seem to be unaware of the advantages of clay, however.

  • Clay pipes are more forgiving:

— The material from which they are made is not flammable, so one need not be concerned if one has a habit of smoking too hot. Burnout is impossible.

— Since clay pipes tend to have longer stems, have a higher specific heat (meaning they can absorb more heat) and radiate heat more readily than briar, even if one is smoking too hot and hard, it is unlikely that tongue bite will be an issue for most tobaccos (some tobaccos would bite you even if you just sprinkled them on an incense brazier, however).

— Ceramic suffers abuse more stoically than either briar or meerschaum. While it is true that clay pipes are brittle, and unlikely to survive a fall or a sharp blow, it is vanishingly unlikely that you will damage your pipe through over-vigorous application of your pipe tool

2. Clay pipes do not seem to require any break-in period or seasoning to smoke well. No cake is necessary, and the material being incapable of burning while you smoke it does not influence the flavour of the tobacco.
While a seasoned clay pipe does smoke a little better than a fresh one, the difference is not a great one, and a new clay pipe comes essentially “ready to rock” with whatever tobacco you choose to put in it.

3. The absence of any foreign material (burning briar, flavours from the curing oil in meerschaum) in your smoke will result in a brighter, clearer flavour, making clay pipes an excellent way to sample new tobaccos or simply to rediscover an old favourite.
While smoking a given tobacco in a well cured pipe does add a certain something, it is sometimes nice to get nothing but the taste of the tobacco in question. This is particularly true if you are going to be smoking “pure” tobaccos, such as a straight Virginia or Oriental.
Some people also find the spice and exotic flavours of latakia and perique fuller in a clay pipe, probably due to less absorbsion into the walls of the pipe bowl.

4. Since clay pipes can be cleaned completely, or nearly so, they can be used to try completely unfamiliar tobaccos without risking wood or meerschaum pipes, which can have a long memory for particularly intense flavours. If the experiment was a failure, and you truly loathe the tobacco in question, you need only fire clean the clay and it will return to pristine condition, ready for your next foray into the unknown.
For this reason, clay pipes are also excellent for experimenting with non-tobacco smokes such as sage, corn husks, indian tea and the like.
While you might not like the experience, one sometimes gets that curious feeling “what would that be like in a pipe ?”, especially about things that smell good while they are burning. It’s nice to have a pipe about that can be used for such an experiment without worrying about ruining it.

5. Quality clay pipes are much cheaper than briar or meerschaum pipes in the same class, since both the material and the labour involved is much less. This makes clay pipes an excellent addition to the collection of any pipe smoker who needs to pad his or her rotation, but doesn’t have the money to spend on the quality of briar pipe he or she likes.

Types of Clay Pipe

When you purchase your first clay pipe, it is important to know that there are two distinct types of clay pipe : slip cast and press cast.

Slip cast pipes are made by pouring a fairly fluid mixture of clay and water (called slip) into an absorbent mould (usually plaster).
A certain amount of the clay clings to the inside of the mould as water is absorbed by the mould; the excess is poured out.
The mould is then dried for a few hours or a few days before it is cracked open, at which point the slightly damp clay pipe is trimmed, dried further, then fired before use.

Press cast pipes are made from solid clay.
First, a rod is rolled out from a ball of clay, leaving a small bulb with a rod extending from it. A wire or similar object is carefully driven down the length of the rod until just before reaching the bulb.
The entire thing is then placed in the mould, and a shaping device is pressed into the bowl part of the mould to force the bulb into the correct shape.
The wire is then pushed all the way through into the bowl, the pipe is dried for an hour or two, removed from the mould, dried further, then fired before use.

In general, the clay pipes you see most often in catalogues and pipe shops are the slip cast variety, as these are the easiest to make and also the cheapest, so they represent a very small risk to the vendor – remember that most people don’t smoke clay these days, so vendors usually carry them mostly for novelty value.

When you purchase a clay pipe, you should inspect it for the following qualities:

— seam lines
— pits
— airway (esp the entry into the bowl)
— chips or cracks

Slip cast pipes will usually have marked seam lines. These are the weakest part of the pipe, and sometimes begin to separate during firing or as the pipe begins to age.

Press cast pipes often have no seam lines, or seams that are very difficult to make out.
In the case of press cast pipes, the seams do not indicate any weakness, but do indicate that the maker wasn’t very consciencious with regard to the finishing touches, and the price should reflect this.

Pits in the surface of the pipe indicate that it was press cast, and can indicate weak points in the clay. Clays that have been mishandled during shipping may also have developed chips or cracks.
During the heat stress of smoking or cleaning, these are the points that are most likely to give way.

A pipe with these flaws is still smokable, but you may want to buy a different pipe if the chips are in vital spots such as large flaws on the bowl or cracks/chips at the point where the bowl meets the stem.
Chips at the end of the bit and around the rim of the bowl are just an aesthetic problem, however, and you needn’t worry about them provided you are paying a very good price for the pipe.

The airway of a clay pipe is a sticky problem.
Press cast clay will shrink approximately 20% during the drying and firing process, while slip cast clay will sometimes shrink as much as 35%.
This makes it very difficult for the manufacturer to judge the size of the airway before the pipe is complete.

Many clay pipes (especially slip cast pipes) have their airway restricted to the point of being unable to pass a pipe cleaner through them. As clay pipes don’t often need that sort of thing while smoking, it shouldn’t pose a problem for you, and shouldn’t prevent you from buying the pipe.

If, however, you tend to prefer blends that typically smoke wet (heavy aromatics and such) you may want to do the pipe cleaner test on any clays before buying them. Remember however that clay is very absorbent (especially slip cast) and that not only the bowl but the whole stem will work to absorb moisture while you smoke.

The main issue will be cleaning. You also need to be sure that there are no obstructions in the airway that will restrict draw unreasonably.
It’s unlikely you will get a complete obstruction, but slip-cast pipes sometimes have an uneven interior, depending on the process used by the manufacturer.

The easiest way to test the airway of a clay pipe is to run a length of florists’ wire down the stem – if it meets any resistance at all, you have an obstruction.
Usually, the obstruction will be small and easily removed by gentle pressure from the wire.
If it doesn’t move with gentle pressure, you will need to gauge where in the stem the obstruction lies, and if it is at least 5 or 6 cm from the bowl you should be able to shorten the stem so that the portion including the obstruction is removed.

In addition to the main airway, however, you need to pay special attention to its entry into the bowl. Sometimes this entry is partially obstructed, and this can usually be cleared easily by picking at it with a pipe tool or some other hard, narrow object (needles and nails work well).
If it is a press cast pipe, the wire used to make the airway sometimes fails to make it all the way through to the bowl, in which case there is really nothing to be done.

All of the above flaws can be problematic, but remember : they are flaws, and if you didn’t notice them before purchase it’s almost certain your vendor or the manufacturer will replace it with no problem. It’s also useful to remember that briar has flaws too. These are different flaws from the ones usually encountered in briar, but there aren’t any more of them, really.

Clay Pipe Smoker

In addition to the basic slip cast vs press cast distinction, it should be noted that some clay pipes have been glazed. A glazed pipe will have the characteristic glassy surface of your fine china.

A glaze pipe can be very attractive, since it is a good way to permit more intricate and durable decoration. However, it should be noted that there are some difficulties with glazed pipes:

— if the inside of the bowl is glazed, the pipe may not be smokable. The airway may be completely blocked by glaze, which would require a needle file to remove.
Other than this, it is likely that a pipe that has been completely glazed, inside and out, will not smoke like a clay pipe at all, but more like a glass pipe. This is because the interior glaze prevents the clay from absorbing moisture and tars as you smoke. A glazed pipe will require more thorough cleaning of the stem as well.

— even if the inside of the bowl is not glazed, glazed ceramics of this sort are often made from porcelain clay which is much denser and less porous than the usual sort of clay used for pipe making. This will cause problems similar to those found in a pipe with the interior glazed, and means that cleaning will probably not be able to return the pipe to nearly new appearance.

— glazes are generally fired at a much lower temperature than the clay was originally fired.
If the temperature was low enough, fire cleaning may cause the glaze to sag, run, crackle or discolour.

If the vendor doesn’t know for certain, you can hazard a guess: porcelain clays (very fine grained, white clays that produce a dense, light ceramic when fired) and stoneware clays are fired at very high temperatures, and the glazes used with them are similarly hardy at high temperatures.

On the whole, due to the uncertainties a glazed pipe may well be best left as a display piece.

Where to Buy Clay Pipes

Unfortunately, clay pipes are rather difficult to come by at present, however they are available if you know where to look.
Clays appear to be more popular in Europe following a resurgence of historical recreation in the 1990s, and can often be found in the catalogues of large pipe and tobacco companies such as Dan Pipe.

There are also a number of individuals who make press cast pipes, usually replicas of historical pipes, and many of these people have web pages from which you can order.

Another place you may find replica pipes is in museum shops or the gift shops of historical villages (the type where the staff play the parts of everyday people in a community of a specific period in history). Surprising as it may seem, these pipes, while intended as display pieces, are smokable.

Finally, some pipe shops do stock clay pipes, though due to problems finding other suppliers these are often slip cast pipes. Your local vendor may be able to order some clay pipes for you, particularly if you guarantee to buy three or four of them.

To be continued



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