Like a Fine Tobacco, the Pipe Smoking Revival Has Been a Slow Burn

December 7th, 2018

Kaz Walters, a 28-year-old pipe specialist at SmokingPipes.com, and his wife, 25-year-old pipe photographer Mary Walters, are among the Millennials who’ve embraced the hobby. (Photo by Mary Walters of Walters Photography)

I rarely saw my grandfather with a pipe. My mother didn’t like him smoking around us kids, and he respected that. When he passed away, my family donated his pipes, thinking no one wanted them—which at the time was true. It would be three more years before a chance meeting with a friend at his favorite tobacco shop turned me, a few weeks after my 35th birthday, into a pipe smoker.

“A pipe fundamentally is piece of wood with a hole and a mouthpiece stuck in it. But you are talking about an object that, when well-made, can last a hundred years.”

Long gone, I only remember my grandfather’s pipes as bent-wood statues, silent in a cherry rack on his desk. When I light up, I can’t ache with a memory I never had of my grandfather smoking those pipes. Instead, I try to stop time, if only for a few moments, during what a fellow pipe smoker 10 years my junior called “the productive work of turning leaves into ash.”

Unlike napkins, diamonds, and golfing—traditions that Millennials have supposedly “killed”—pipe smoking is very much alive. In 2014, ABC News postulated that younger smokers and collectors were bringing pipe smoking, a hobby reminiscent of great-uncles and blazered villains of ’80s teen comedies, back into fashion. Nearly five years later, it’s largely agreed that pipe smoking’s youthquake hasn’t saved the industry or the hobby, either, but it has changed how pipe smoking appears in our minds: It’s unlikely that the image of an American smoking a pipe will be only associated with the dark-wooded dens of men in retirement ever again.

This artful photograph of a pipe, a lighter, and loose tobacco reveals the hobby's aesthetic appeal. (Photography by Mary Walters of Walters Photography)

This artful photograph of a pipe, a lighter, and loose tobacco reveals the hobby’s aesthetic appeal. (Photo by Mary Walters of Walters Photography)

“I think people look at how sped up life is now, and in wanting to slow down, mistake pipe smoking for the feeling of a slower, simpler time,” says Kaz Walters, 28, pipe specialist at SmokingPipes.com in Longs, South Carolina, the world’s largest online retailer of pipes. Walters reports that about 60 percent of his colleagues are around his age or a little bit older, and the company’s marketing reflects that sensibility.

Benedict Cumberbatch in the BBC's "Sherlock."

Benedict Cumberbatch in the BBC’s “Sherlock.”

Like microbrews and third-wave coffee, pipe tobacco has also benefited from an elevated national palate. Pipes themselves are objects of craftsmanship, inherently collectible and showoffable in the age of Instagram. The cigar boom of the 1990s that seemed to leave pipes behind ultimately revealed their charms: an association with refinement and wisdom (see Sherlock Holmes, Albert Einstein, Gandalf); a pleasant, non-aggressive smell; and an inherently slow pastime in an overclocked age. (It is impossible to enjoyably smoke a pipe fast. You’ll overheat the tobacco and burn your tongue.)

The slow charms of pipe-smoking notwithstanding, everyone I spoke with was aware of the health hazards of the hobby: Even though it’s easier to smoke less at a sitting with a pipe than with cigarettes and cigars, the cancer risks are the same. But for pipe smokers, such risks are outweighed by the benefits.

Meriadoc "Merry" Brandybuck (played by Dominic Monaghan) is a hobbit that takes pleasure in pipe-smoking in "The Lord of the Rings" film trilogy, which debuted between 2001 and 2003.

Meriadoc “Merry” Brandybuck (played by Dominic Monaghan) is a hobbit that takes pleasure in pipe smoking in “The Lord of the Rings” film trilogy, which debuted between 2001 and 2003.

“I used to sit in traffic for several hours a day commuting, and it would help me calm down,” says Tyler Thomas, a 23-year-old sound engineer in St. Paul, Minnesota, who picked up the hobby at age 16 after seeing hobbits enjoying pipes in “The Lord of the Rings” films.

However, testimonials do not equal trend lines. Greg Vickers, 60, membership-services manager of the International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association in Washington, D.C., says only, “I hear word-of-mouth from our pipe members that younger folk are coming in.” George Hoffman, 67, owner of Pipes by George in Raleigh, North Carolina, tells me that, unlike the cigar boom, pipe smoking has “been more gradual” to catch on. Mr. Hoffman estimates that about 35 percent of his customers now are between the ages of 20 and 30, as opposed to 5 to 10 percent a decade ago.

“Pipe smoking is seen as an old man’s pastime. But it is also a young man’s pastime,” says Marty Pulvers, 76, of Los Altos, California, who is co-producer of the annual West Coast Pipe Show based in Las Vegas. “Do I think this is a growing hobby? I’m hesitant to say that. It appears to be maintaining.”

Tyler Thomas, a 23-year-old sound engineer in St. Paul, Minnesota, began pipe smoking after seeing hobbits smoke in the "Lord of the Rings" movies. He's pictured with his favorite pipe. He says smoking calms his road rage.

Tyler Thomas, a 23-year-old sound engineer in St. Paul, Minnesota, began pipe smoking after seeing hobbits smoke in the “Lord of the Rings” movies. He’s pictured with his favorite pipe. (Courtesy of Tyler Thomas)

The hobby’s growth aside, pipe smokers are getting younger. As a result of their interest, long-drawn lines between smokers, collectors, and pipe carvers have blurred. Women are also taking up pipe smoking in greater numbers.

“Initially, it was hard,” says Mary Walters, 25, who once worked in customer service at SmokingPipes.com, the company that also employs her husband, Kaz, as a pipe specialist. “At the time, most of our customers were older gentlemen. Some didn’t believe I knew what I was talking about.”

“This is a small enough hobby already” says William “Cliff” Nelson, 59, editor of Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine in Raleigh, North Carolina, on his industry’s seeming lack of room for women. “We could use more of their participation.”

This vintage Sherlock Holmes-style pipe by Orlik is made from a calabash gourd with a meerschaum bowl insert. (Via eBay)

This vintage Sherlock Holmes-style pipe by Orlik is made from a calabash gourd with a meerschaum bowl insert. (Via eBay)

In fact, that’s changing. Mary Walters now runs a photography business shooting for several (mostly male) pipe carvers. At this year’s Chicago Pipe Show, she was inducted into the Pipe Divas, a respected group of women smokers, collectors, and artisans. In November, one of the founding Divas, Silver Grey, became the first female carver to win Best in Show at the West Coast Pipe Show.

Over at the Gentlemen’s Pipe Smoking Society (a Facebook group where Mary Walters is one of the moderators), Michael Curcio, 41, a credit-risk manager from Wantagh, New York, who owns about 40 pipes, also has a side business selling new and “estate” (i.e. pre-owned) pipes. Brent Bowden, 34, a stagehand from Portland, Oregon, decided he could restore estate pipes as a cost-effective way to build his collection. For the last 14 years, pipe maker Steve Norse, 39, has run Vermont Freehand, a one-stop supplier whose “main objective was to cater to new pipe makers,” the majority of whom are in their 20s.

Steve Norse, a pipe maker who runs pipe supplier Vermont Freeland, mostly sells new pipes made by artisans in their 20s.

Steve Norse, a pipe maker Vermont Freehand, mostly sells pipe-making supplies to younger artisans. (Photo by Peter Miller Photography)

“I used to see a few new pipe makers on social media a year,” Steve Morrisette, 65, a 20-year veteran of the craft based in Nashville, tells me. “Now I see three or four a week. And over 90 percent of those new pipe makers are under 30.”

Nattily dressed in a necktie and fedora, Morrisette’s a fixture at pipe shows. His own pipes routinely command $400 to $500 and are as respected as his pointed yet fair assessments of the industry.

He explains that when he first started selling commercially, a well-regarded artisan could get anywhere from $500 to $900 for a single pipe. That price, he says, has been dropping as younger, newer makers enter the space and assume that by following the steps of instructional YouTube videos and posting their work to social media, they will see an immediate payoff.

Show&Teller Pipesmoker says these were his grandfather's pipes, collected between the 1940s and 1960s. (Posted on Show&Telll by Pipesmoker)

Show & Teller Pipesmoker says these were his grandfather’s pipes, collected between the 1940s and 1960s. (Posted on Show & Tell by Pipesmoker)

What’s happened, Morrisette continues, is a saturated market and a focus on pipes as collectibles rather than precision instruments. At the same time, he says, the industry has done a poor job explaining the months and years of honing the craft behind fine pipes and educating customers about what they’re paying for.

“I think people look at how sped up life is now, and in wanting to slow down, mistake pipe smoking for the feeling of a slower, simpler time.”

“A pipe fundamentally is piece of wood with a hole and a mouthpiece stuck in it,” Morrisette tells me. “But you are talking about an object that, when well-made, can last a hundred years. You don’t get to know how to put the various parts of a pipe together in a way that will last until a few come back to you broken.”

A pleasurable smoke relies on many things—the thickness of the tobacco chamber’s walls, position of the drought hole where breath meets burning leaves, smoothness of the passage from tobacco up the shank to the pipe’s mouthpiece. Even minuscule sloppiness can make the experience clumsy, hot, or painful. A great-looking, badly engineered pipe is a knickknack.

An antique Native American pipe shaped like a bird. (Via eBay)

An antique Native American pipe shaped like a bird. (Via eBay)

The earliest-known smoking pipes were found in Native American burial mounds are at least 2,000 years old and look a bit like knickknacks themselves, palm-sized surfboards with animals figurines emerging from the board’s middle. Historians believe the animals represented spiritual presences in the communities that made these pipes, the act of smoking linked with religious ritual.

Pipe tobacco and smoking didn’t reach Europe until the early 1500s where, as an enormously profitable cash crop, it became both a method of relaxation and indelibly linked to economic might and power: Whole cities in Europe, like Bristol and Glasgow, grew rich on the import of tobacco from slave plantations in North America. Pipe smoking took its place in our collective tableaux of spaces imbued with the benefit of those riches—political war rooms, corporate executive meetings, and university supper clubs—exclusionary spaces defined by access acquired through race, gender, and economic status.

This 1627 artwork "Gentlemen Smoking and Playing Backgammon in an Interior" by Dutch Golden Age painter Dirck Hals depicts 17th century pipe-smoking culture.

This 1627 artwork “Gentlemen Smoking and Playing Backgammon in an Interior” by Dutch Golden Age painter Dirck Hals depicts 17th-century pipe smoking culture.

None of this kept African Americans from the hobby, even before the Civil Rights era: Legendary bluesman Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown marketed his own blend of pipe tobacco. The relative affordability of pipe smoking over cigarette or cigars (cigarettes/cigars are gone the moment you finish smoking; a tin of pipe tobacco can last a month) led to its working-class popularity as well. The ranks of famous women pipe smokers include such pioneering feminists as Simone de Beauvoir and Angela Davis. But say the word “pipe smoker” and, at least until very recently, the image brought to mind is probably an older white man in a sweater and a dark leather chair.

We’re several generations past the time when parents sent their sons to Yale with pipes and tobacco alongside a fresh toothbrush and new shoes. So it doesn’t feel quite right to say pipe smoking is going through “growing pains,” despite large shifts brought on by technology and culture. Maybe we’re talking about “inclusion pains,” as the hobby grows younger, more wired, and more diverse. Pipe smoking remains, as Kaz Walters put it, “like the wizarding world of Harry Potter. Everywhere, but hidden just below the surface.”

The cover of Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown's 1992 album, "No Looking Back."

The cover of Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown’s 1992 album, “No Looking Back.”

I am, at best, an adequate pipe smoker. I pack the tobacco too loose, puff too quickly, get frustrated re-lighting. At pipe-club meetings, I sit next to wiser members, ask versions of the same questions, thank them for their patience. They never seem to mind because we never feel in a hurry.

Younger pipe smokers often speak of this, of the hobby connecting them to a past they only know from movies and old photographs. They conflate nostalgia with the feeling it creates that time has stopped.

A vintage 1980s "Sara Eltang" Dublin pipe, a series that Danish pipe maker Tom Eltang named after his daughter. This unusually craggy piece is made of briar, with an acrylic stem. (Via eBay)

A vintage 1980s “Sara Eltang” Dublin pipe, a series that Danish pipe maker Tom Eltang named after his daughter. This unusually craggy piece is made of briar, with an acrylic stem. (Via eBay)

Perhaps memory of my grandfather would burn brighter when I smoke if I had known him that way. But when I select a pinch of tobacco, strike a match, and wait for it to ignite, I feel as if the years between my grandfather’s death and now have disappeared. For me, time is held apart from its turnings, and my fellows at the long table at the back the tobacco shop are here seeking the same sensation.

It’s a lie we tell ourselves, that we control the clock hands of our lives, but it’s at the very human heart of why we build homes, make art, or collect beautiful things: To order and mark a moment even when we know it will soon disappear like smoke.

This late 19th-century pipe by esteemed pipe maker Joseph Koppenhagen is described thusly: "An exquisitely shaped meerschaum with a bent-bore curved shank, its amber mouthpiece remains perfectly preserved, its intricately engraved sterling mountings look like new, and atop its bowl it features a hinged wind cap topped with a rich orange amber dome." (From the collection of John Fabris and offered by SecondHandSmokes.com on eBay)

This late 19th-century pipe by esteemed pipe maker Joseph Koppenhagen is described as “an exquisitely shaped meerschaum with a bent-bore curved shank, its amber mouthpiece remains perfectly preserved, its intricately engraved sterling mountings look like new, and atop its bowl it features a hinged wind cap topped with a rich orange amber dome.” (From the collection of John Fabris and offered by SecondHandSmokes.com on eBay)

Kevin Smokler is the author of the books “Brat Pack America: A Love Letter to 80s Teen Movies” and “Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books you Haven’t Touched Since High School.” He lives in San Francisco.

7 comments so far

  1. keramikos Says:

    “The ranks of famous women pipe smokers include such pioneering feminists as Simone de Beauvoir and Angela Davis.”

    Not to mention former First Lady Rachel Jackson, whose hot-headed husband Andy fought and killed a man in a duel to defend her honor. It wasn’t over her pipe-smoking habit, though.

    Superficially, it was about the fact that her divorce from her first husband hadn’t been finalized when she married Andrew Jackson. In reality, it was about politics being dirty even way back then.

    Lest anybody begin to wax nostalgic about what a great guy Jackson was for defending his little woman: he did plenty of things that don’t bear close scrutiny, to say the least.

    Also–lest anybody begin to wax nostalgic about pipe smoking, and think of taking up the habit: I’m sure most people know about the cancer risks of tobacco smoking in general, and pipe smoking in particular, but be aware that it’s a risk factor for macular degeneration, and abdominal aortic aneurysm. My late father who inhaled Half & Half pipe tobacco down into his toenails for about a quarter of a century had both of those ailments.

    Do what you want, but know the risks. Gratuitous PSA over and out. :-)

  2. VR Says:

    Those vintage pipes are beautiful, for sure. However, fellow millenials, I cringe reading, “But for pipe smokers, [health] risks are outweighed by the benefits.” You sure about that? Visit a radiation unit or oncology ward and tell me if that doesn’t change your mind.

  3. Rick Campbell Says:

    Good article. I’m a third generation pipe smoker and I’ve smoked pipes, off and on, for over 40 years. A very relaxing hobby. One thing that should be pointed out is one does not need to or should inhale the smoke when smoking a pipe. Pipe tobaccos are very favorable and you don’t need to inhale to enjoy the tobacco. My wife started the hobby about four years ago and is also one of the Pipe Divas that meet at the pipe shows.

  4. Matt Guss Says:

    Wonderful article!
    To the moral critics of pipe smoking here’s one of my favorite quotes, “I don’t want any of your statistics; I took your whole batch and lit my pipe with it. I hate your kind of people. You are always ciphering out how much a man’s health is injured, and how much his intellect is impaired, and how many pitiful dollars and cents he wastes in the course of ninety-two years’ indulgence in the fatal practice of smoking; and in the equally fatal practice of drinking coffee; and in playing billiards occasionally; and in taking a glass of wine at dinner, etc. etc. And you never try to find out how much solid comfort, relaxation, and enjoyment a man derives from smoking in the course of a lifetime (which is worth ten times the money he would save by letting it alone), nor the appalling aggregate of happiness lost in a lifetime by your kind of people from not smoking.” — Mark Twain from the Moral Statistician
    Our Seattle Pipe Club just lost one of our favorite & dear members Jim Lissner. A life long pipe smoker, he was 96 years old.

  5. Kevin Says:

    Great, well thought out article that highlights what is hopefully a continued trend among the growth of pipe smoking.

    One thing I’d quibble with is the statement that pipe and cigar smoking have the same cancer risk as cigarette. Aside from the fact that the cigar and pipe smoker do not inhale – reducing their risk significantly, there are also fewer (read, no) additives to premium pipe and cigar tobacco – which are often the cancer-causing ingredients associated with tobacco. There have been numerous studies – some of which are pointed to in articles like this one – http://pipesmagazine.com/blog/pipe-smoking-lifestyle/where-will-pipes-be-in-100-years/.

    While certainly not risk-free, the risks are significantly less than cigarettes.

    Other than that, well done!

  6. Cody Easom Says:

    One of the most exiting new Pipemakers This Century is Moon Valley Pipe Works in Boise Idaho

  7. ben rapaport Says:

    Kevin: I posted a query on your Facebook site, requesting that you contact me about this article, and I hope that I hear from you: I’ve looked everywhere for information on “pipe divas” w/o success. Can you enlighten me? I would like to be more descriptive/expansive about this league or society in an article I am crafting now.

    Ben R.


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