On the Classification of Pipes

Bob Kasenchak, Factor

Apart from the obvious health risks involved (one should not smoke too much!), pipe collecting (and occasionally: smoking) makes a wonderful hobby for taxonomists as it involves many types of classification schemes.

This delightfully titled article about the classification of tobacco blends is an interesting primer; the classification of blends (comprising different types of tobacco) suffers from some of the same issues as the classification of different shapes of pipes: there is no standardized body governing these vocabularies, so nomenclature is driven by popular usage (similar in some ways to a folksonomy) and varies by region, time period, and similar factors.

(Before proceeding, my first Google search result for “classification of tobacco pipes” produced–and, indeed, offered as the first result–an AI-driven answer:

Screenshot of Google search query for "tobacco pipe classification" with inaccurate AI-generated answer: https://www.google.com/search?q=classifcation+of+tobacco+pipes, Accessed 26 June 2024.

https://www.google.com/search?q=classifcation+of+tobacco+pipes, Accessed 26 June 2024. I will also note that repeated searches on the same query string produced differing AI-generated results.

Pipes are not characterized by blend; there are naturally, in the pipe-smoking community, arguments about the suitability of various shapes for various blends! But it is not a vector of classification for pipes themselves. I would characterize this answer as about 70% accurate and 50% complete with about 30% related but irrelevant content and half the relevant information missing. Good work! Can we have search back now, please?)

In any event, pipes can be classified among several vectors; it seems natural to a taxonomist to group these into some kind of hierarchy or ontological structure. However, traditionally the shapes are displayed in the form of a chart of individual named shapes, called a pipe shape chart. There are many versions and they tend to differ slightly (for the reasons cited above) but here is a representative example:

Pipe shape chart with silhouettes of the various shapes with names. https://pipeworld.com/pipe-shape-chart/, Accessed 26 June 2024.

https://pipeworld.com/pipe-shape-chart/, Accessed 26 June 2024. Note that the shapes are presented alphabetically instead of by other logical groupings like stem shape or bowl shape, with a few exceptions (see “Bulldog” and “Bent Bulldog).

It’s worth studying this chart, as some of the cracks in this manner of pipe classification are revealed herein. This folksonomic classification leaves some things to be desired. “Billiard” is the shape of a bowl and a straight or bent pipe can be a Billiard; the same goes for Bulldogs, Dublins, and Pots–but notice that Bent versions of the Billiard and Bulldog are represented, but not Bent Dublins or Bent Pots. That’s because some pipe shapes are classified along these vectors (bowl shape and bent-ness) while others have particular names that actually equate to a combination of these factors. Several stand out as having very particular profiles that do not equate to a simple “bowl shape + bent-ness” formula, like the Oom Paul and the Prince; more on this in a moment.

For most intents and purposes, pipes can be classified along a number of axes:

Bowl shape

A Billiard (like the fat end of a pool cue) is a round cylindrical bowl the height of which exceeds its diameter; a Pot is the same shape but with a height shorter than the diameter. Other common bowl shapes include Apple, Tomato, Brandy (or Brandyglass), and Dublin (any bowl tapered slightly wider towards the opening), all of which (besides Dublin) seem to come from obvious resemblances to common [European] foods or other everyday objects. This list is, like the shape chart above providing some more examples, is not exhaustive.

Stem style

While the majority of pipe stems are round and–(whether round or not) can feature either tapered or saddle bits–they can also be oval or, occasionally, square or diagonal; the difference between the latter two is that diagonal stems are rotated 45 degrees so the point, so to speak, is at the bottom rather than a flat section. Bulldogs in particular are usually described as having diamond stems (in addition to the striking signature articulated line on the bowl); there is some dispute whether a Bulldog with a round stem is a Bulldog at all or rather a Rhodesian.

Stem material

Although usually not included in the classification of pipes, stem material is important to collectors. Early briar pipes (mid-to-late 19th century) featured a variety of materials like horn, amber, wood, and antlers; later the industry settled into Vulcanite (not the mineral; a type of hard rubber). Vulcanite stems have the advantage of being soft [on the teeth] but, being rubber, they will oxidize over time without proper care. After dabbling with some short-lived options between the World Wars (Bakelite, a very early plastic, comes to mind) the industry mostly settled on Lucite, although some producers still prefer Vulcanite. Lucite is more durable and easier to clean but is harder than Vulcanite.

Stem length vs shank length

Due to the rarity of large pieces of briar (more on this below) most pipes feature a bowl with a short (1-2 inch) shank–of one piece with the bowl–and a longer (say, 4-6 inch) stem. The scarcity of larger chunks of good quality briar accounts for the relative rarity of shapes like the Canadian (more on this also below) as they by definition feature long shanks and short stems (something like 2, 3, or 4:1 perhaps). This is desirably as the wood is actually lighter (!) than stem material and is more porous, allowing the smoke to cool (slightly) more.

Stem bent-ness

Stems can be straight, ⅛ (very slightly bent). ¼, ½ (common; think the pipe in Magritte’s The Treachery of Images). ¾, and very occasionally fully (180 degrees, but in reality slightly less than that) bent. Sometimes this affects the classification of the pipe and other times it is integral to the definition of a particular shape.

Bowl material

Most contemporary tobacco pipes are made of briar: a dense, porous, and naturally heat-resistant wood found in the Tree Heather (Erica Arborea) (actually more of a shrub than a tree) native to the Mediterranean region. Prior to around 1850 other materials were common, including ceramic (this gets extremely hot) and other woods. In the mid-20th century there was a fad around metal pipes; these often feature interchangeable bowls and were popular with service members. There are still some adherents today. Meerschaum is still popular, probably second to briar today; these pipes are made from a mineral from former sea beds. The best Meerschaum comes from Turkey (or so goes conventional wisdom); one feature is that the white pipe will gradually take on a patina after repeated smoking (this is considered desirable). Finally, some other (“alternative”) woods and materials are occasionally used, notably olive wood and Morta, a sort of petrified Bog Oak.

No particular mention need be made of corncob pipes, which are in my opinion only suitable for outdoor activities during which you will not be upset if your pipe is lost or destroyed (other people like them, so, you know, to each their own).

Size

Although no standard classification of sizes exists, some manufacturers and pipemakers (notably the well-known and formerly prestigious marque Dunhill, whose pipes have long been outsourced to third-party manufacturers) have their own size classifications; Dunhill Group Sizes range from from 1-5. Otherwise some pipes, like the Bing (more below) have particular dimensions; otherwise vague descriptions of size need to suffice.

Rustication/Finish

Briar pipes come in three standard finishes (in a variety of stains and colors). Smooth pipes are stained to bring out the grain, so this finish is generally used on briars of superior grain; pipes with some good grain but perhaps some small flaws (often upon carving the briar is found to have tiny holes) may be Sandblasted (just what it sounds like) to produce a pleasant-to-the-touch slightly rough surface, or Rusticated, which produces an even rougher and bumpier surface. (Some pipe smokers claim that Rusticated pipes, due to the increase in surface area, are better for cooling the bowl; I have not done the (I am sure remarkably complicated) math but I seriously doubt this.) Other styles of finishes exist but are quite rare.

Special characteristics

I hate this as a taxonomist, but there is an assortment of “other” markers used to describe pipes, including but not limited to:

  • Grain quality or briar quality: some makers and manufacturers have a rating system by which they indicate the quality of the raw materials and/or finished products; Ferndown, for example (now a defunct marque; he retired!) has an interesting rating system.
  • A Sitter is any pipe of any shape featuring a flat bottom, allowing it to rest on a flat surface and stay upright (without need of a pipe stand).
  • Windcaps, drains, various tenons (the smaller piece of the stem that fits into the shank), and other devices have at various times been fashionable to include with pipes.
  • Decorative bands at the joint of the stem and shank; sterling silver is the most common but other variations are not hard to find.
  • And too many other tiny details to enumerate here.

Combinations of the above axes of classification result in the names of the various shapes, with many notable exceptions. The generic formula is something like ““bowl shape + bent-ness” with allowances made for other special descriptors. The simplest of which are perhaps (all photos are own work from my own collection) the Billiard family:

Mauro Armellini Straight (Smooth) Billiard with acrylic taper stem. Medium-sized. Italian, probably early 2000s.

Mauro Armellini Straight (Smooth) Billiard with acrylic taper stem. Medium-sized. Italian, probably early 2000s. Note the white dot logo, larger than Dunhill’s White Spot.

Ser Jacopo Quarter-Bent sandblasted Billiard with acrylic taper stem. Italy, probably late 20th-early 21st century.

Ser Jacopo Quarter-Bent sandblasted Billiard with acrylic taper stem. Italy, probably late 20th-early 21st century.

However, even in this simple system there are variations; a Straight Billiard with an Oval Shank and a Short Stem/Long Shank is called a Canadian. (Reasons behind names like this are mostly undocumented and a matter of mythology and speculation; the general consensus is that at some point in the mid-to-late 19th century this shape was popular with Canadian lumberjacks as the short stem was less likely to break while in your pocket.)

Ferndown Three-Star (out of three, their highest grade) Smooth (90% of Ferndowns were rusticated, only the finest grain were selected for smooth finishes) Canadian with sterling silver band and taper vulcanite stem; UK, probably 1980s.

Ferndown Three-Star (out of three, their highest grade) Smooth (90% of Ferndowns were rusticated, only the finest grain were selected for smooth finishes) Canadian with sterling silver band and taper vulcanite stem; UK, probably 1980s.

The same pipe with a round (not oval) shank is called a Liverpool; a Liverpool with a saddle instead of a tapered stem is a Lovat.

Palm (not much known, made in England (marque on stem) but apparently a German brand?) Lovat with vulcanite (saddle) stem; since it’s a Lovat that it is also a  Straght round-shanked Long-Shank Short-stem Billiard is implicit. UK, date unknown but likely mid-20th century.

Palm (not much known, made in England (marque on stem) but apparently a German brand?) Lovat with vulcanite (saddle) stem; since it’s a Lovat that it is also a  Straght round-shanked Long-Shank Short-stem Billiard is implicit. UK, date unknown but likely mid-20th century.

Any Billiard (mostly but not exclusively Straight Billiards) with smoothed panel edges “squaring off” the outside of the bowl is called a Panel Billiard; Panel Billiards with 4 sides are called Foursquare Billiards and a Panel Billiard with any other number (usually more; usually an even number; usually 6 or 8) of sides is called a Quaint.

Ropp Quaint (that is, Straight Panel Billiard with more than 4 sides; this one has 6), small to medium sized, with tapered Lucite stem.France, produced in the 2020s but bowl from ??? decades ago.

Ropp Quaint (that is, Straight Panel Billiard with more than 4 sides; this one has 6), small to medium sized, with tapered Lucite stem. Bought only several years ago, but the bowls were found in an old factory when a new owner (Stokkebye? I forget) revived the Ropp brand–what they call “New Old Stock”, a term also sometimes applied to stuff that’s been lying around, new and unsmoked, for over 20 years or so. France, produced in the 2020s but bowl from ??? decades ago.

The degree of bent-ness can also be used here, as can the finish. So one could have a Rusticated Quarter-Bent Foursquare Panel Billiard. (I do not, in fact, have one of these.)

Other shapes, much like the Canadian, are accepted combinations of stem and bowl shapes that have acquired other names for whatever reason. A Bing is so named because the shape was adopted (and popularized) by Bing Crosby; it is in our classification a Small Long Straight Billiard. (Sorry, I don’t have a Bing, so no picture.)

A Full-Bent Billiard is called an Oom Paul or Hungarian; these are relatively rare and seldom produced by contemporary pipemakers.

Ropp (again) Smooth Oom Paul (Full-Bent Billiard) with Vulcanite Saddle Stem. France, mid-20th century-ish.

Ropp (again) Smooth Oom Paul (Full-Bent Billiard) with Vulcanite Saddle Stem. These are very hard to clean. France, mid-20th century-ish.

I am also fond of the Prince or Prince of Wales, an elegant little shape popularized (or perhaps invented? Accounts vary) by the very Prince of Wales who would go on to become King Edouard VII. The Prince is characterized by a small rounded (I would perhaps say a small flat Apple) bowl and a longish stem with a ⅛ bent.

Barling Smooth Prince with Taper Vulcanite stem. 1960-63. UK.

Barling Smooth Prince with Taper Vulcanite stem. Based on markings (pipe collectors love to date their pipes) from the Transition era, so 1960-63. UK. The bowl is lovely–approaching Straight Grain!

Some “shapes” are actually unique styles and defy the bowl/stem classification, either because they have unique features or otherwise do not fit nicely into this system. A Calabash is made from a dried and hollowed-out gourd with a Meerschaum or Ceramic bowl insert (although there are now Meerschaum and briar pipes made in this shape without the gourd). The chamber inside the gourd acts as a cooling place for the smoke. Classic but unwieldy.

Calabash, maker and date unknown but probably 1910-1930ish. I had the bowl replaced but it still doesn’t have a good seal, so it remains unsmoked.

Calabash, maker and date unknown but probably 1910-1930ish. I had the bowl replaced but it still doesn’t have a good seal, so it remains unsmoked. But damn does it look cool.

It should be noted (because it’s super interesting!) that for a short period around the turn of the 20th century some Calabash bowls were made from asbestos (!) due to its resistance to flame but before its deleterious health effects were known. Naturally, the prevailing wisdom today is that one, ah, should not smoke out of asbestos.

Also of honorable mention is the Churchwarden, characterized by a very, very long (usually 9-12 but even up to 16-inch) stem; the Germans sometimes called this a Reading Pipe (it keeps the smoke away from your face and book so you can read) and, for a short time in the mid-20th century, a Television Pipe (for the same basic reason).

Peterson (perhaps the most famous pipe brand in the world) Churchwarden with original box and literature, tapered Vulcanite stem, perhaps 11 inches long. Ireland, early 1960s. Bowl and stem are both thin and delicate.

Peterson (perhaps the most famous pipe brand in the world) Churchwarden with original box and literature, tapered Vulcanite stem, perhaps 11 inches long. Ireland, early 1960s. Bowl and stem are both thin and delicate, I usually only break this out on Halloween.

Other speciality shapes like the Vest Pocket, sometimes called an Opera Pipe (although this name is sometimes applied to any tiny pocket-sized pipe), which features a unique oval bowl and a stem that folds over the bowl; this makes the entire shape compact enough to slip into and out of your vest pocket during intermission.

As you can see, pipe classification is a fascinating but inexact science; new shapes appear from time to time, and some persist (the Blowfish seems to be hanging around) while others are faddish and ephemeral.

One of these days I’m going to build myself a pipe shape ontology.

Picture of part of the author's pipe collection sprawled out among other items on a wooden bookshelf.

We in the game call it Pipe Acquisition Disorder (closely related to Guitar Acquisition Syndrome).