An Adventure with Clays
I guess you could say I have a thing for clay pipes. I'm not a fanatic or anything but there is something intriguing about them that draws me in. Maybe it's the history behind them, I can't quite put my finger on it. But over the years I have purchased a few and found that although I'm fan of clays, most of them don't smoke well enough to keep in the regular rotation.
Back in 2004 I took a trip to Virginia and while there I purchased two clay pipes, a long handsome churchwarden style pipe that I found at the Blacksburg Pipe & Tobacco Shop and on our way home I we stopped at Colonial Williamsburg where I found a simple clay pipe around 7 inches long. What drew me to this pipe was the size and shape of the bowl and the stem was long and slender enough that it would probably smoke comfortably. From what I can tell without doing a ton of research is that it is a 1900s style clay pipe. So I laid down a whopping $8 and brought it home. I never really had intentions to smoke the churchwarden clay, I bought it mostly because I liked the way it looked but I was looking forward to trying my Williamsburg purchase.
Unlike some of the other colonial tavern type pipes that have smaller, thicker walled bowls and thicker stems and are not all that comfortable in the mouth; the bowl on the Williamsburg was oval shaped, fairly deep and the seven inch stem tapered to a comfortable diameter that was easy on the mouth. It looked like it could hold a decent amount of tobacco and had a waxed tip for comfort.. So I loaded lit it up and found that it was as easy to smoke as I suspected. Initially you could taste some of the dryness from the clay but after a few smokes that dissipated. Clays get very hot so the longer stem made it easy to wrap your finger around and avoid burning yourself on the bowl. The clay allowed me to get a deeper taste of the tobacco, slightly better than a briar and I found myself settling in comfortably with this exceptional smoking experience.
The Williamsburg clay has become a favorite of mine over these past 15 years. I generally smoke it 3 or 4 times a week and usually as my second or last bowl of the evening. It should be easy to tell from the photo which of the clays is the Williamsburg and my favorite clay smoker. As you can imagine, clays are fragile and not conducive to smoking on the go. If you smoke a clay I recommend a comfortable chair while watching or listening to your favorite show or music.
Care and Cleaning
Cleaning the clay is simple, a regular pipe cleaner down the stem a couple of times and a swab of the bowl and you are good to go. Every so often you'll find a cake has build up inside the bowl. When it gets to the point that I feel it may be robbing me of a couple extra puffs of tobacco, I'll thin it out with the small screwdriver end of the nail file on my Swiss Army pocket knife or any similar object will do. Just scrape it with a downward motion until it's where you want it, dump out the char, blow through the stem and swab the bowl out well with a paper towel. Should be good as new. I've read that you can put your clay in the embers of a dying fire overnight to restore it back to it's white color but I never had the heart to try it. I kind of like the character it's building as I smoke it.
One day I thought I'd try using a fluffy pipe cleaner instead of the standard kind which was a big mistake. In the process of pushing it through the shank I snapped an inch and a half off the end. Doh! That was pretty stupid and I was slightly distressed. Now my seven inch pipe was five and a half inches and the tip was thicker and a little jagged. So down to the basement I went to try to rectify the problem. I found a piece of sandpaper and began smoothing and rounding the tip to where I wanted it. This seemed to do the trick and didn't take much effort. The next time I smoked the pipe I found my lips were sticking quite a bit to the clay because the waxed portion was gone. I found this a little annoying but didn't feel like trying to recreate the waxed end to I kept smoking it the way it was. If you keep the tip a little moist with saliva it tends to stick less. The longer I smoked it this way it eventually built up a coating of some sort and no longer stuck to my lips. Although my pipe was an inch and a half shorter it didn't really change the smoking experience and I was back in business.
I believe the Williamsburg was made by the Sheffield company which is sadly no longer in business. I heard they were purchased by Arango Cigar but after inquiring with Arango about the molds I was told they didn't have them. I was referred to someone else but it was a dead end. Over the years I have purchased a number of other clays looking for a similar smoking experience and I have been hard pressed to find one that equaled the smoking experience as the Williamsburg although I have seen a couple that looked promising that I did not purchase.
At a recent club meeting we all receive a free small clay pipe as a promotion offered by Marken Pipes for pipe clubs. This pipe had a nice size bowl but was shorter than the Williamsburg and had a button on the end. I was anxious to try it out so I brought it home and fired it up. It had the same initial dryness that is typical of clays and overall it was a good smoker. But I wasn't a fan of the button and the shank was a little thicker than I like. I visited the Marken Pipes website to see what else they had and saw that they were offering a free clay with any purchase. I assumed it was the same free clay that we just received but the photo looked more like the Williamsburg and was called the Old German Clay #41. I contacted the owner to verify that the free pipe was in fact the #41 which he confirmed so I went ahead and purchased one along with a set of smaller clay tasting pipes and with this order I got a second free #41. They arrived completed engulfed with wood fluff to keep them protected. The #41 clay was very much like the Williamsburg but too long to take a pipe cleaner. Fortunately, I know how to fix a broken clay to I measured it a little shorter than a pipe cleaner and snapped off the end. A little sanding and smoothing to get it where I wanted and it was perfect. I loaded it up with a favorite blend and set it alight. Same initial dryness and I'll have to endure the period of it sticking to my lips but I think I found another keeper. I've probably smoked a dozen bowls in it so far, and the stickyness on my lips is almost gone and the smoke is great. I also tested out the smaller "tasting pipes" which were fair smokers but not as good as the Old German Clay #41. I also can't hold the small ones in my teeth which is possible with the Williamsburg and the Marken #41 but you need to be careful how you place it between your teeth.
So for those of you who are interested in smoking a clay or have tried before but did not have a great experience, maybe you can give the Marken #41 a try. MarkenPipes.com
Here are a few other clays I've tried and my experience with them (see photo):
If you click the image at the bottom of the page it willl open in a new tab so you can see it a little easier while reading the descriptions.
- Bent Billieard Clay: Purchased on Ebay. Cool shape, big bowl, thought it would be great. Smoked terrible and hard to hold.
- Claw Foot Clay: Can't remember where I purchased it. Smaller bowl, a little short. Smokes ok but a little hot.
- Black Clay. Purchased and PipesandCigars.com (I believe). Good sized bowl, smoked ok but not as good as the Williamsburg, maybe due to the process to blacken the clay.
- Lepeltier Double Walled Clay: This was our 2008 Club Pipe. These pipes are pretty cool but because they are double walled the air hole is in the bottom of the bowl and the tobacco tends to clog it up. It takes some practice to smoke but feels normal in the teeth with a standard stem. It gets a little hot and hard to hold. They have some interesting pipes at reasonable prices and I would recommend having at least one of these in your collection, even if only as a conversation piece. Check out LepeltierPipes.com.
- Clay Pipe with Reed Stem:. Used by soldiers during the Civil War period because they broke down and stored easily and reed material was fairly plentiful in those areas. I thought this one would be a keeper, had a nice size bowl and the reed was easy to clench but after a number of smokes it started to impart an off flavor, maybe due to the reed, I'm not sure but it didn't stand the test of time with me.
- Dawn Mist Clay Pipe. I thought these pipes looked cool so bought a couple. They have a hard glazed finish which makes them feel like your smoking a glass pipe which was off putting. I was not a big fan right from the start. I just checked their site and it looks like she may not carry them anymore but she had another pipe that looks interesting however, I think I'll pass. DawnMist.org
- Old German Clay Churchwarden: A very handsome pipe. This is the one I bought in Blacksburg, VA. I never really intended on smoking it because it's not all that practical but wanted to have it in my collection. At the time of this writing I believe you can purchase one at PipesandCigars.com.
- Black Claw Foot Clay: This was gifted to me by a fellow club member. The bowl is small and it burns hot but I really appreciated the thoughtfulness of this gift and happy to have it as part of my collection.
- Colonial Tavern Clay: This looks to be the classic example of the clays the tavern owners would let you use to smoke your tobacco while enjoying a tasty brew. When you were done you'd give it back and the next smoker would break off a bit of the end to keep it more sanitary. When the pipe got too small to smoke they would toss it out. Today you can sometimes find these small bits if your digging around your yard or somewhere they may have been discarded back in the day.
- Marken Tasting Pipes: These are the tasking pipes I recently bought from Marken that come in a set of four. They are great little pipes for tasting tobacco but not as a regular smoker. The shank is a little too narrow and feels fragile.
- Marken Old German Clay #41: This is one of two that I purchased from Marken (although the second one was free). As mentioned earlier, so far it's a good smoker and highly recommended if you want to try a clay.
- This is the second #41: You can see that it is shortened with the pipe cleaner inserted. I've been smoking this pretty regularly since I got it and you can see that the color has already started to darken.
- Yet another Marken Clay Pipe: This is the pipe we got for free as part of the pipe club promotion. It smokes almost as good as the #41 but has the button which I am not overly fond of mainly due to comfort in the mouth but it still works. I do not see this exact pipe available on their website today but there is one very similar. If it looks good to you I wouldn't discourage you from purchasing it. Be sure to check out the Marken Website.
- And last but definitely not least and really needs no introduction is what I call the Williamsburg Clay. Can you tell that it's been smoked a few times? Its color is a testement to its smokeability. I would love to see them come back on the market at some point but for now I'm pretty satisfied with the Markens #41 as a replacement. MarkenPipes.com
I hope that if you have been interested in trying a clay pipe that you found this article helpful and Interesting. Another good place to purchase clay pipes is at PipeShoppe.com. If you'd like to read some more history about clay pipes, check out Odssey's Virtual Museum on clay pipes.
Thanks for reading,