The Five Laws of Pipe Companioning: 5° Law

by Mark Irwin


Case N° 130909



by Mark Irwin
(with no help at all from Charles Mundungus)




     Back in the early 1990s my only regular source for pipes and tobaccos was Jim Robinson’s Cavalier Pipe & Tobacco in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I’d wander as often as I ran out of MacBarens Virginia #1 or the occasional tin of Balkan Sobranie. While I smoked my pipe nearly every day, I only added 3 or 4 pipes to my rotation during the 10 years I was working on my Ph.D., all of them from Jim. After milling around as long as I could and trying not to drool on anything, I’d finally get on his nerves, at which point I’d beat a hasty retreat. One day, however, he was in an uncharacteristically sanguine mood, and instead of getting annoyed asked me why I didn’t consider buying “an estate pipe,” shoving a tray of Ferndown, Upshall heavy Danish free-hands (the kind that are no longer in style) in front of me. 


     Intrigued, I left with one of the latter, but not before having to go through an education about the acceptability and oft-times desirability of an “estate” piece. This was the first time I’d heard of such a thing (I’d only been smoking a pipe since 1975, after all), and it took me a bit before I could accept the notion of a “used” pipe. The Danish turned out not only to be a heavy son of a b****, but I quickly found that my introversion and its flamboyant flowery plateau-top didn’t mix.  It turned out to be $40 well-spent, as I learned quite a bit from Jim that day about my own “pipe aesthetic” (see last week’s Fourth Law): I learned I didn’t like Danish free-hands, I learned “estate” can be something as good or better than new if you know what to look for, and most importantly, I learned that saving up for a better pipe is often better than spending what you already have on a lesser. All of which leads us in a roundabout sort of way to the fifth and final law of pipe-companioning: your pipe community is a growing organism.


Fifth Law: Your Pipe Community is a Growing Organism


     Like the other four laws of pipe-companioning, the fifth isn’t something new—I hope—but rather a phenomenon you’ll recognize at work in your own life. This is where time, which so often seems to be our nemesis, becomes an ally and a friend, because it is only with the passage of time that your understanding of your pipes and yourself as a pipeman develop. I can’t do more here than suggest a very few ways I’ve seen this at work in my own pipe-smoking and a few friends I know, so the point of what follows is not prescriptive in any sense but merely descriptive, designed to help you think about areas where you’d like to go with your pipes and your pipe-smoking.


Every pipe has a story. 


     Having just returned from a week at the Peterson factory and museum in Sallynoggin, Ireland, I have a renewed appreciation for the old adage that “every pipe has a story,” and like most great stories, it’s a story with three parts. The first or “pre-story” of a pipe was brought forcefully home to me as we saw pipes “birthed” in the Bowl Department as they went from bowl grading through boring and turning, sandpapering, staining, banding, pumicing, mounting, finishing and stamping to waiting in trays as they were sorted into their global destinations from Tokyo to Tulsa, OK. We also saw some exciting pipes in the museum that no one in the collecting world is even aware exist, as well as holding Charles Peterson’s own massive 01BC in our hands (and yes, it is a System for those of you were disappointed that your 140th Anniversary reproduction was not).  Tracing the pre-story of your pipe, insofar as you can, is enormously fun armchair detective-work.


1910 Peterson Patent 8B from the Peterson Museum: What stories could it tell?


     But it’s the middle chapter that’s the big one in a pipe’s story, at least as far as I’m concerned, because the middle story is the time it spends with me, how it becomes emblematic of a particular verse of chapter of my life. I can’t pick up my GBD Lovat without thinking of my Grandmother Jesse and seeing the Christmas tree under which it sat for three long weeks. Likewise, when I pick up my first Neatpipes Chubby, a silver-mounted Clear Gold, it brings memories of how my wife helped me pick it out. One of the potential hazards of owning a large number of pipes becomes apparent at this point—a pipe can become something rather anonymous if you failed to stop and consider the narrative circumstances in which you acquired it. 


     The joy your collection yields is something only you can determine—its beauty and richness is the direct outgrowth of the thought and care you put into it. Like Socrates said,  ὁ δὲ ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ --“The unexamined life is not worth living.” Making spontaneous acquisitions or kowtowing to the pontifications of self-appointed experts are two of the biggest killjoys I know insofar as companioning pipes is concerned.  Taking time, gaining experience, and cultivating thoughtfulness in conversation and reading, on the other hand, are sure roads to a lifetime of rich satisfactions with the pipe. I watch with interest my nephew’s pipe-smoking habits and purchases knowing that the more experience he gains, the more enjoyment he’ll find. He’s already savvy enough to have told one prospective mother-in-law that he and his pipes “are a package deal.”


     Then there’s the pipe’s after-story—where it goes when it leaves you. A few years back I won an ebay auction for an almost-new Peterson Antique Reproduction from a man I’d never met or emailed, Regis McCafferty (one of the NASPC founders and author of the Joshua Pitt mysteries) for about $35. I couldn’t believe my luck. At the time I couldn’t think about buying a new pipe and really didn’t entertain serious hopes of winning, as these pipes routinely go for upwards of $100. I theorize that Regis found this wasn’t “his pipe,” and like the gentleman he is, passed it on. He also did something else that’s worth mentioning. When I got the pipe, there was a vintage tin of Dunhill’s Early Morning Pipe in the box. “Thought you might enjoy this,” read the attached note. That’s the kind of thing that perpetuates our breed, isn’t it?  When I say farewell to a pipe that didn’t work out for me, I try to emulate Regis and provide as much information about it as I can both visually and verbally in hopes that it might find a good home.


Your pipe collection has a story.


     I don’t know if you caught the article in ThisWeek Community News way back in December of 2010 about Bill Unger,* but at the time the photograph of him standing by his collection made me wish at the time I could drop by for a cup of coffee and a pipe—there was a visual narrative at work in that pipe rack that made the whole more than the sum of its parts, and helps explain how your pipe community itself has a story to tell. 


Bill Unger and His Companions


     Take a look at Bill’s pipes. You see about thirty pipes, almost all of them blast finishes. When I asked him about it before his passing, Bill said, “Yeah, I like thefeel of the pipe, so I tend to go for sandblasts. And I like darker finishes.” I confess I had expected to see a lot more pipes—and a bunch of Custom-Bilts, but he said he tried to kept his collection to 50-60 pipes, because that’s about the limit he could smoke day in, day out. And while he’d kept a few Custom-Bilts, they were mostly about the fun of researching the company.


You have a pipes-story.


     Finally, you have the joy of figuring out how to tell your own pipes-story. Pipe guys tell their stories in all kinds of ways and all kinds of places, from participating in  clubs and shows and forums to writing for blogs and newsletters to learning how to shoot pipe photography or making a documentary film, to estate sales and retail or learning to restore and even make your own pipes. 


     A couple of years ago I got interested in seeing how far I could remember and trace the pipes in my collection and eventually came up with a book of Pipe Stories that is of absolutely no interest or value to anyone—but myself.


     It gave me a kick to see if I could trace a pipe back through my journals and the cobwebs of an increasingly fuzzy brain, to get the story of where it fit into my life at the time, its mugshot and “vital statistics” all on paper. Sometimes it took a phone call or two, sometimes just sitting and staring at the pipe in my hands. 


A Page from Pipe Stories


     In doing the research, I began to notice that my pipes naturally fall into four ranks. Because of my strong interest in early Christian mysticism, I came upon the idea of using the nomenclature of Orthodox monasticism (every pipe a “cenobite”). At the outer door of the “monastery” are the unsmoked pipes clamoring to get in—the “novices.” After that come the pipes I’m struggling to break in and produce a decent carbon-cake, which I call “Robe-Bearers.”  Third up the ladder are the pipes I can rely on from day to day to produce great smokes, most of them dedicated to the types of tobacco that seems to bring out their best (broadly speaking the divide is between Virginias and English). This is the heart of my pipe community. But there is fourth, highest rank of “Hermit,” like my old Jobey Stromboli, which I give to honor a few pipes that have given long, steady, and reliable service over the years.  


     You can undoubtedly find tropes correlative to your own interests, aspirations and biography to give a little poetic veneer to your rotation. The important thing for your enjoyment is simply the time you take with your pipes-story, however you decide to “write” it.  For the pipe companioner, “the pipe collection is a growing organism.” 


     Happy Trails!








72 pipes in current rotation
18 unsmoked pipes
05 pipes on order or reserved
01 pipe I can’t quit thinking about: Paolo Becker Chubby Dublin Morland
Average time spent daily looking at pipes: 3 hrs 02 minutes
Average time spent daily thinking about pipes: basically, all day
​Average time spent daily smoking pipes: 2 hr 10 min minutes