Meerschaum Pipes: The Complete Overview
Posted by Matthew Vandenburgh on 19th Jan 2021
So you’re looking for a pipe to smoke and enjoy. You can go with a corn cob, or maybe even a classic briar pipe. For the purist though, you are not likely to get a better smoke than with a meerschaum pipe.
What is Meerschaum?
From a literal translation, meerschaum is the German word for seafoam, while geologists call the material sepiolite, and others yet refer to it by a popular nickname “white gold.” Common myths have it that German sailors saw a chunk of the material floating in the water and mistook it for some seafoam, giving it the name. In actuality, meerschaum is a type of clay naturally made by a composite of magnesium and hydro silicate.
This is found in many places around the world, including France, Greece, the United States, but is primarily located in Northern Africa, Eastern Africa, and Turkey. In fact, the African meerschaum is no longer available, which limits the world supply, but not necessarily the quality. That is because of all the meerschaum in the world it is generally accepted that the highest quality, the purest meerschaum, comes from the city of Eskisehir, Turkey.
While we call it that now, meerschaum actually has many different names, though they all have a similar English translation. In Turkey, it is called “Deniz Köpüğü” while in France it has the name “Echume de Mer.” While we have settled on its German translation, the material’s history and qualities have been appreciated worldwide.
Meerschaum is one of the most naturally porous substances in the world, which makes it perfect for pipes as it absorbs the tars, oils, and nicotine in tobacco. This allows for a cool, dry smoke that most smokers would say is unparalleled. Because it is a naturally occurring clay, combined with its porous nature, meerschaum is also one of the more heat resistant materials, capable of withstanding heat of up to 2,000 degrees Celsius, equivalent to 3632 degrees Fahrenheit.
One amazing thing about meerschaum is how it dries without losing any size. This is tremendously important for pipes due to the moisture it absorbs while smoked.
History of Meerschaum
The history of meerschaum can be split into two sections; pre-pipe and current use.
Meerschaum as a material has been used as a decoration for millennia, with archaeologists discovering it being used to decorate floors in the Early Bronze Age almost 5000 years ago, and even finding a meerschaum stamp in the tomb of a young child that dates back to 3700 years ago. In ancient times, sculptors used the meerschaum because of how easy it was to carve, allowing for incredibly intricate designs and decorations without the challenge of using a more rigid material. Back then, the metal and stone carving tools were softer, before the ability to smelt iron became more readily available. So having an easily sculpted material made it much easier to make detailed decorations. This ease of carving is the same reason you will see the amazing work that is done on the pipes of today.
Even today, meerschaum is also used to make elegant looking jewelry, such as beads, earrings, and necklaces.
Dosseman, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
When it comes to making pipes, there is some thought that meerschaum pipes have been around since 1600, though records only go back as far as 1723. It is very possible that pipes have been made out of meerschaum before then, but without documented proof, 298 years of pipe making is still a lengthy history.
Tobacco was originally native to the Americas and as such, it was not until European explorers came to the “New World” that the plant was brought to the old one. This new, vastly popular item quickly made its way through Europe into the Middle East and then Asia. Back then, the pipes were just made out of clay, which burned extremely hot and were incredibly fragile. Once Meerschaum was introduced as an option, it became the go-to of pipe makers.
How it’s Made
In order to craft raw meerschaum into the intricate designs and beautiful pipes you see, there are a whole series of steps to be taken.
In the villages around the city of Eskisehir, Turkey, miners originally started by constructing a wooden derrick, then began the process of digging down to where they can find the meerschaum. This is a matter of deeper being better. You can get meerschaum close to, or even at, the surface but the quality of the clay is nowhere near as good as by going deep into the earth. Digging down to a depth of at least one hundred meters (328 feet) is when the miners can start their collection, if not deeper. Just think about how deep that actually is. For reference, from pedestal and foundation up to the torch, the Statue of Liberty tops out at 305 feet. Historically, once it was mined the raw meerschaum would be taken to craftsmen who cleaned away any rocks, then dried it in large clay ovens.
Obviously, this was a dangerous process that has undergone some serious modernization. Now, specialized equipment is used to locate the meerschaum, with pumps and cleaning equipment down in the mines. Doing this allows for the miners to evaluate the raw materials in the mine, finding any issues with it there and being able to deliver the best of the mined clay up to the surface instead of having to sort everything out after the fact. This means the meerschaum heads to the sculptor in a better condition, leading to better pipes.
Block Vs Press
Speaking of pipes, it’s time to get to the fun stuff. Meerschaum smoking pipes can be crafted into almost anything. The sculptors spend years mastering their craft, leading to some true works of art. You can get a bowl shaped like a famous person, an animal, any design you can think of or ask for.
Once dried, meerschaum is hard to work with. The trick the artists use is to submerge the clay in water. Being so porous, it absorbs the water and becomes much more malleable and easy to sculpt.
These amazing looking pipes are made out of one piece of meerschaum and are known as block pipes. The block pipes are the ones that are where meerschaum gets its respect. Unique and beautiful, these pipes are absorptive and give you the cool smoke you hear about from the material.
The best part of block pipes is the coloring that happens when a pipe is used. Known as a pipe’s patina, you will see the meerschaum darken with use, going from pure white to yellow, followed by an orange-red, to finally a rich golden brown by absorbing the tars and oils from your tobacco. You will get some amazing color combinations as your pipes age, leading you to have some incredibly interesting looking pipes.
The leftover scrap meerschaum has some uses too, but they are not nearly as good for making their own pipe. Known as press meerschaum tobacco pipes, the scrap is combined with glues and other binding agents to make cheap pipes that do not have the same quality that you should be expecting.
For one thing, press pipes have a tendency to gurgle which means you will not get the dry, smooth smoke you should be expecting out of a meerschaum pipe. It can be difficult to be able to tell the difference between block and press meerschaum, but there are some tricks to knowing which is which.
First, press meerschaum smoking pipes are heavier than the block variety. So if you’re able to hold a tobacco pipe that you know is block, you can compare the feel to another one to ensure that you are getting what you are looking for.
Another trick is one you should only do with a clean hand. Dip your finger in a little bit of water. Press meerschaum is not absorbent, and when you gently brush your finger against the bowl it will stay wet. Block pipes will absorb the moisture, drying your finger. If you are to test this way, you should proceed at your own risk. While you will find out if your pipe is block or press, the coloring of the block pipes can be disrupted by your finger’s oils which can instead leave fingerprints and a less aesthetically pleasing look.
Another test is for older, used pipes. Remember that block pipes color with use. Press pipes do not, as their composite make up prevents whatever meerschaum in the pipe from undergoing that reaction. So if you are coming across old pipes, a darker pipe is likely to be block while a lighter one might be press. Of course, usage of the pipe needs to be taken into consideration.
Overall, the easiest way to figure it out is through the price test. Press pipes should be much cheaper, meaning this is one of those products where you want to spend a little more because you will definitely get what you pay for.
Benefits of Meerschaum
Meerschaum is an incredibly useful material for pipe making. So when you get yourself a meerschaum tobacco pipe, you are getting one of the best pipes available and you should definitely have an appreciation for what is in your hands.
First, as we’ve said earlier, meerschaum is capable of withstanding incredibly high temperatures. Not that you would ever get there, but the fact that it can take temperatures in the thousands of degrees makes it ideal for smoking, you will never need to worry about burnout with a meerschaum.
Meerschaum smoking pipes are a neutral-tasting pipe so they will only taste like the tobacco you put in there. You will always get the purest tobacco flavor with a meerschaum so you should never be disappointed in your smoking experience if you are using a tobacco you love.
Another benefit of meerschaum pipes is that they don’t require a breaking-in process like you need with a briar or corn cob pipe. You should take the time to get accustomed to your new pipe, true, but you should be able to enjoy it from your first smoke. Just load in your favorite tobacco and get started!
As your pipe ages and gets used, you might notice the coloring process begin. This is controllable, based on how much you smoke with the pipe. You will never be able to maintain that ivory-esque white unless you don’t smoke with it, period. For collectors, this is not a bad idea, you will be maintaining a brand new, pristine pipe that will look great for many years.
For everyone else, this absolutely defeats the purpose of having a pipe. You can slow the process by limiting how often you smoke with it, perhaps no more than once per day. However, thanks to meerschaum’s heat properties, you can smoke your pipe multiple times per day. This is actually how you will color the pipe, which is due to the beeswax coating the outside of the pipe.
You might find that the pipe colors unevenly, which is natural. Oftentimes, you will see more color in the shank and bottom of the bowl, where much of the oil and tar gets absorbed first. One way to more evenly color your pipe would be with a coloring bowl. This is an extra attachment for your pipe. Once you insert it into your pipe, this would be where you pack your tobacco, which allows the tars, oils, and nicotine that bring start the coloring process to more evenly coat the entirety of your actual pipe, leading to the smooth color that people enjoy.
As with everything pertaining to looks, this is a preference and not a rule. Some smokers enjoy the uneven color that makes the pipe look like a gradual darkening. Others prefer the rich, even tones throughout the pipe that shows off the use and natural beauty of a meerschaum pipe. The choice is always your own.
This isn’t to say that the scrap meerschaum doesn’t have its uses. Some pieces are not up to the quality standards to make a full pipe but can be used to supplement in other ways.
Just because you don’t want to use the scraps for a new pipe doesn’t mean that the small, excess pieces of meerschaum don’t provide a great value for smokers. One major use for the extra material is through the use of filters. Since meerschaum is so porous, it acts as an excellent filter for those smokers that prefer to have one in their pipes. You generally won’t see a filter in a meerschaum tobacco pipe, since the pipe itself acts as a filter, but any other pipe that uses a filter can have a pure meerschaum filter or one with charcoal mixed in. White elephant, for example, carries a great selection of meerschaum and charcoal mix filters.
Meerschaum inlay in briar pipes
Some pieces of meerschaum are too small or not of the high quality required for making a full pipe. Instead of discarding it, or breaking it down for filters, they are sometimes made into an inlay for a briar pipe. Also sometimes called an insert, this inlay would allow a briar pipe to smoke and have the efficiency of a meerschaum pipe, while still having the look and affordability of a classic briar pipe. You can find some options made by Brebbia, Rattray, and Vauen.
One popular style of pipe, the Calabash, commonly has caps and inserts for the pipe. This cap and insert is made of various materials, with meerschaum being one style.
Decoration and other uses
Meerschaum is also used to make decorative tampers and cigarette holders, along with many other decorative pieces for non-smokers. Among the decorations, you can find meerschaum jewelry still being made. Because it is so easy to carve and sculpt, meerschaum is prized as a material for necklaces, earrings, and various small boxes or decorative pieces. Its look, so similar to ivory, also allows it to be a cruelty-free substitute as no animals were harmed for it.
Drawbacks of Meerschaum
Meerschaum is not without its flaws. It is a fragile pipe, especially when heated. You should never begin the cleaning process of a meerschaum smoking pipe until it has completely cooled down, or you risk the pipe cracking. Due to the fact that they are handmade, any cracked pipe is ruined, and since these are so valuable you must take the proper precautions and care.
Also when heated, you should avoid touching the bowl of the pipe. This is because the beeswax coat is going to be soft and easily altered, which means you will not be able to get the coloring you want to see on the pipe. If you do touch it, you will see smudges, fingerprints, and a lack of coloring in certain areas, while other spots might color differently which gives the pipe a splotchy, unappealing look.
Because they can burn so hot, you should handle them with care. The bowl might get a little uncomfortable when warm, but you shouldn’t be touching it too much when smoking in the first place. This is one drawback that can also be viewed as a benefit though, as the bowl absorbing the heat means the smoke is much cooler than from other pipes.
Another drawback can be attributed to the very reason meerschaums are so valued and such great pipes, their absorptivity. With how well the pipe absorbs moisture, it can also soak up some of the extra sugars and flavors of some tobaccos, which can then take on the flavors of them.
Though this is very rare for meerschaum pipes, it can happen if you use that tobacco often. This can be detrimental to the smokers that prefer a variety to their tobacco, such as sometimes using English and other times using Aromatics, you can deal with this ghosting. If that happens, you might struggle to remove it without a thorough cleaning.
Another challenge is some of the more oily tobacco variants can choke the pipe when it is absorbed into the bowl, making you need to really select your tobacco with care.
What you need to know before using Meerschaum
So far, you’ve gotten a fairly extensive idea of what a meerschaum tobacco pipe is and their pros and cons. So, what more do you need to know before you decide to add that new pipe to your collection? Here are some handy do’s and don’ts that will make your meerschaum experience as unforgettable as it should be.
Do make sure your hands are clean before handling your pipe. Meerschaum is very sensitive to moisture and dirt, you will stain your pipe with dirty hands if you are not careful.
Don’t be afraid to handle the pipe though. If your hands are clean, you can hold your pipe without concern about ruining the look. Remember why you got this in the first place, to enjoy a cool, smooth smoke. You can’t do that without touching it.
Do remember that each pipe colors differently. These are generally hand-carved pieces, and each block of meerschaum is unique and will react to your smoking habits in various ways.
Don’t treat your pipe like a briar one. Meerschaum pipes don’t need to be broken in like corn cob or briar does. Since those burn and need to be protected by a carbon cake, meerschaum’s have no such need. You can enjoy your pipe right away, no need to get it prepared.
Don’t leave a cake in the bowl. That’s one of the biggest don’ts here. You want to completely remove any cake from your bowl when you are done smoking. You need to be careful to let your pipe completely cool before cleaning, or you risk damaging your pipe. Once that is done, however, you should make sure to remove any residue from inside the bowl. This is because the cake expands with heat much faster than meerschaum, which will then crack the bowl and ruin your pipe.
Do be careful when cleaning your pipe. It is a process that is different from your other pipes, so make sure you know what you’re doing.
Meerschaum Vs. Briar Vs. Corn Cob
This is the big discussion, isn’t it? Which material do you like most? This debate can be long and sometimes fierce (it’s the internet, not everyone is nice here). While we don’t have a preference ourselves (We love Peterson, Missouri Meerschaum, and Rattray’s Meerschaum line equally), we do understand that there is a difference between the three most popular pipe materials.
Let’s begin our look at the differences at the start of the smoking experience. First and foremost, let’s talk about pricing. Corn cobs are very affordable, with the most expensive on our site going for $34.99. Briars can get very pricey, especially special editions like the unique Autograph line by Savinelli, but are usually the middle ground for price with some pipes being very reasonable. Meerschaums will tend towards being the most expensive pipes available, as the block pipes are all hand-carved and crafted. Anything handmade is naturally more expensive and since each meerschaum smoking pipe will usually see the care of a specially trained artist, you will find the prices go up.
Once you get a new pipe, it is time to smoke. Briars and corn cobs need to be broken in, while meerschaum pipes don’t have that challenge. The breaking-in process takes a while, to build up the carbon cake to protect the wood, which you don’t have to worry about and in fact want to avoid with the meerschaum.
When you are smoking, you have a few differences again. First is heat dissipation. Meerschaum pipes burn much hotter than briar or corn cob. This helps the meerschaum give you a cooler smoke than what you can get from the other two, but will still make your pipe hotter than the rest. That said, you will not have the same risk of burnout as you would with a briar or a corn cob. Remember that meerschaum can withstand incredibly high temperatures, so you have less to worry about there.
Briars and corn cobs need more rest between smokes to be effective. Smoking too much, too fast will burn through those two, while the meerschaum will actually benefit from more frequent uses by gaining that color they are so known for. That’s why briar users have more of a rotation for their pipes.
While smoking a pipe, you will notice different flavoring between the pipes. Briar tobacco pipes can influence the flavor of the tobacco with the natural flavor of the wood, something that does not happen with corn cobs or meerschaums. This can give you a different taste of the same exact tobacco based on what pipe you are using, so sometimes it would be interesting to try a blend in both a briar and a meerschaum to see the difference.
Meerschaums are more fragile than the others, so you need to be more careful with them than different pipes. Because of the very intricate designs on your pipe, and the nature of the material itself you need to take precautions to ensure the health of it, more than a briar or corn cob. That’s not to say you can abuse either of the other two, but they might be a little easier to care for.
Overall, the debate between pipe materials will still continue probably forever. Our stance on it is, and always has been, smoke what you like and you’ll never regret it.
Care and Maintenance
If you take proper care of your meerschaum smoking pipe, it should last a lifetime. Remember that your pipe is more fragile than a briar or corn cob, so extra care should be taken. All these extra steps are worth it though, for the smoking experience you get with your meerschaum pipe. First, remember to thoroughly wash your hands before using your pipe. We’ve said this before in this blog, but it is worth repeating.
For your first ten to twelve bowls smoked with the pipe, you should hold the pipe by its stem. Doing this lets the initial beeswax coat to get absorbed by the bowl, letting it color well and adding a small layer of protection. After those initial smoking sessions, you should feel free to handle the bowl with your hands.
After each smoke, let your pipe cool completely before further cleaning. Once cool, you will want to remove any leftover cake from the bowl. You can do this with a non-bristle pipe cleaner. Simply bend it in half and start to very gently wipe the inside of the bowl, removing the cake as you brush. If some of the cake is stubborn, you might need to ream the bowl, but you should do this extremely carefully, as the meerschaum can easily be damaged by a reamer. If you are not confident in your abilities, you might be better served by getting this taken care of by a professional.
Make sure you use enough pipe cleaners. Bristle pipe cleaners can damage your pipe, so avoid using them frequently. On the occasion that there is some gunk or other build-up they are okay to use, but not more than that. That said, remember to be gentle when you are using any pipe cleaner. Rubbing too vigorously can wear away at the meerschaum, leading to thin spots on the bowl that can very easily crack and ruin your pipe.
Just as in all pipes, the connection between the bowl and the pipe of a meerschaum is done through a mortise and tenon. Here though, if you allow moisture to build up you can weaken the threads of the mortise which will cause your stem to become loose or even fall out. Your best option to prevent this is to ensure you air dry your pipes when you are done smoking with them. When air drying, it would be best to remove the stem and let both bowl and stem dry separately.
When it comes time to clean the stem, take care how you remove it. To remove the stem, you hold the bowl in one hand and gently rotate the stem clockwise with the other hand. Pull while rotating and it should come out. Once that is out, you can remove the tenon by taking a pair of pliers and unscrew it counterclockwise. You want to protect the tenon first by covering it in a heavy cloth or some other protective material, to make sure you aren’t crushing or distorting it.
Never remove the mortise unless there is visible damage or cracking. If you remove the mortise you risk damaging the threads which can lead to the pipe not working properly.
Once you have finished cleaning, you can reinsert the stem by again rotating clockwise but this time pushing in.
There might be times where a deeper cleaning is needed. To do this, use a 40-50 percent alcohol solution on the chamber. Be careful to not use stronger alcohol, as it can damage the pipe.
Rewaxing your pipe
There will be times you might need to reapply beeswax to the pipe. This happens because as you use your pipe, the wax on the pipe naturally melts from the heat. While most of it gets absorbed by the porous meerschaum, you can lose some of it that won’t get soaked up. This will happen, and there is no reason for any undue concern, but that does mean some more wax is needed. You will be able to tell when you need to re-wax because the pipe will start to look dull, chalky, or rough to the touch.
There are differing opinions on how to reapply wax to your pipe, but regardless of how you do it, you will still need to acquire a few things to make your application process go smoothly. First, and rather obviously, you will need to get some beeswax. Some people prefer natural yellow wax, others the white variant This is a personal preference thing, so whatever you are comfortable with will be fine. You will need something to heat the beeswax with, and you can easily do that with something like a hairdryer that you should already have at home. When you are spreading the wax you will need some cotton swabs or some more non-bristle pipe cleaners. You will then need a cloth, for finishing touches, and something to hold your pipe while it cools. For certain processes, you will want to get a cork or anything else you would use to plug your bowl with.
Now that you have everything, let’s get started. Begin by making sure your hands are clean and dry. Yes, we know we sound like a broken record but if you use dirty hands your pipe will not look how you want it to.
Your first actual waxing step will be to heat up your beeswax with the hairdryer. Heating the wax makes it easier to spread onto the pipe. Some places will tell you that you will want to get the wax to a point where it is malleable and easily spread, but not yet liquified. Others completely liquify the wax. Overall this will be a personal preference, so whatever you most feel comfortable with will be the way to go.
Your second step is to apply the now heated wax. Do your best to avoid using your fingers, since your fingerprints will alter the smooth spread you want for the wax and your pipe. Also, melted wax is, well, hot. Some people have the wax in a pot, and dip their pipe bowl into it, after you plug the holes to make sure no wax gets inside the pipe. Others use a cotton swab to basically paint the wax on. Further still, there are people who melt the wax onto a paper towel and wipe the wax onto the bowl while smoking it. For beginners, we would recommend using the painting method, as it gives you the most control and room for error.
After the wax is applied, you will heat your pipe. You can do this with the hairdryer, or you can smoke a bowl to get the heat. Regardless of how you choose to heat it up, do not touch the bowl yet, only handle it by the stem. Again, this is because of your fingerprints altering the wax, especially now that it has been heated twice and your pipe is warm.
Now you want to allow your pipe to cool down. Remember, meerschaum pipes are most fragile when warm, so you never want to do too much with them while warm. After the pipe has cooled off you will take a cloth and gently rub the pipe, polishing it to a good shine.
Once you are done, you might see a buildup of excess wax. You can see this or you can feel it, as your pipe will be sticky or tacky to the touch. This is fixable, by simply heating your pipe and very carefully using a cotton swab to wipe off the excess wax while the wax is less solid.
Best tobacco to smoke in a Meerschaum
Because a meerschaum tobacco pipe is flavor neutral, everything you taste will be from the tobacco itself. This is great because you will always be able to enjoy your favorite blends, or experiment with new flavors and get an honest taste for it, without the risk of the pipe taking away from the flavor or adding to it.
The only thing to avoid would be tobacco with a heavy casing, these leave a large residue that can clog up your meerschaum easily and make it more difficult to enjoy a cool smoke.
Brands that make Meerschaum pipes
Since meerschaum tobacco pipes have such a rich history, you are likely to find many have been made by older, well-established brands that have stood the test of time as quality pipe makers. However, because of the popularity of briar pipes, meerschaums have dwindled in manufacturing. Another major reason is how Turkey controls the exporting of raw meerschaum in order to have the sculptors and artisans inside the country have primary access to the material. This will naturally lower the availability of meerschaum since the companies need to rely on the Turkish makers more and more.
One incredibly well known and respected brand was Peterson. In the recent past, they had meerschaum variants on their Sherlock Holmes lines, but that seems to have gone away for now and it is unsure if they will be releasing any more.
Currently, Rattray and Altinay are major meerschaum smoking pipe providers. The expertise they show with this ancient and incredibly useful material shows the versatility of meerschaums.
From elegantly simple to simply elegant, meerschaum pipes have the history and quality that any pipe smoker should appreciate.