Do a quick search on tobacco pipe bowl coatings, and you'll find about a million different instances of smoking enthusiasts arguing the merits of coated or uncoated pipe bowls.
What is pipe bowl coating?
Many pipe makers, large factory makers like Peterson, for example, paint the tobacco chamber of their pipes with a coating. Advocates for the coating say it offers a little help when trying to develop cake on a new pipe. The coating is also meant to protect the chamber from possibly charring during the initial break-in. This coating would only be used on pipes that require a cake. Smoking with a meerschaum or clay pipe would not require a cake, and so this is unnecessary.
The benefits of bowl coating
Before we discuss the opinions on bowl coats, we should talk about their benefits. There are two main reasons bowl coating is used on a tobacco pipe, aesthetics or protection.
When staining the outside of a smoking pipe, the artisan would be doing their best to ensure that the inside of the bowl stays clean. Sometimes it will not look as good as the pipe maker wants it to, whether from something dripping or just that the briar is extra absorptive and the outside stain seeps through to show up inside.
When a coating is used for purely aesthetic reasons, it is generally a stain similar to what goes on the outside of the bowl. This can be done to hide drips of stain from the finishing of the outside of the bowl, which can be difficult to hide or sand away.
Another reason would be the maker's preference. A tobacco pipe is the maker's artwork, and their art is something they control, not you. If a pipe maker wants to have a coating on the inside of the bowl because they feel it looks or smokes better as a result, that is their prerogative.
Finally, the main reason why a pipe maker would add a coating to the bowl is for an improved smoking experience for the user. As we've said before, a coat can be considered a smoking pipe's primer. It acts as the first layer of defense for new pipes to help provide burnout as well as helping build up the first cake much faster. Without a cake, the briar would be exposed and much more vulnerable.
Building up the first cake takes time, what we call a breaking-in process. By taking advantage of the coating, you are cutting down the pipe's breaking-in.
This second reason, the pipe's protection, results in two different types of coating--organic and nonorganic.
Organic bowl coating
Most coatings made on high-grade pipes fall into this category. The coating is a mix of carbon powder or charcoal with a binder like egg whites or a sugar, like honey. The majority of these coatings are generally not detectable when it comes to flavor. You can apply these easily enough, take your carbonizing agent and binder, usually a 1 to 1 mix, and lightly coat the inside of the pipe's bowl. A light coating is all you should need. If you apply it too heavily, you can have a thicker cake that flakes off or doesn't work. Remember, the cake in your pipe should only be between 1 and 1.5 millimeters, roughly the thickness of a dime.
Nonorganic bowl coating
Non Organic coatings are often called "waterglass" and are a chemical solution combined with powdered carbon to paint the tobacco chamber. Pipe makers who use this type of coating believe it protects the pipe against burnout and allows for an easy break-in. These waterglass coatings used to be much more common, but the negative backlash against them means manufacturers are less likely to produce a smoking pipe with a waterglass coat today.
This is the type of coating most likely to be complained about since there are many smokers who believe it inhibits the flavor of the briar completely.
The varying opinions
There are many pipe smokers who will light up their tobacco without ever noticing the coating. Most of them will just smoke a bowl and enjoy their smoking session, and that's perfectly fine. For some of the hardcore smoking connoisseurs, however, opinions on coated bowls pop up. These opinions typically fall into one of three categories: they don't care, they're used to it, or they hate it.
They don't care
Some pipe smokers are ambivalent; they see the merits in both coating and not coating. When it comes to the quality of a tobacco and a smoking pipe, they will judge based mostly on other factors. It doesn't matter to them, as long as they can enjoy the tobacco and the smoking pipe.
They're used to it
Many smokers have more recently fallen into this category, even though they may agree or disagree with the practice. This is how things are done, and they adjust. So long as nothing affects their smoking experience, it is better just to accept it and move on.
They hate it
Finally, there are those hardliners who cannot stand a coated bowl and will not buy a pipe treated this way. There are a few reasons they state for this passionate rejection of pipe coatings.
Some smokers prefer to break a pipe in from scratch. They believe that you get the best taste this way, on the bare briar.
Coatings can ruin the break-in process for some people, defeating the purpose of a new tobacco pipe. Since a pipe coat speeds up the break-in of new pipes, anyone that likes to take their time and gradually get a pipe done might be bothered by that.
Here's what people say are downsides of bowl coating
While there are a few different reasons people do not like bowl coats, the negatives of coating a tobacco pipe's bowl can generally be boiled down into these two main arguments.
Unscrupulous artisan producers
One of the biggest problems some collectors have with bowl coating is that they believe it is used to cover up issues with craftsmanship or flaws in the briar.
This seems like a strange argument for a couple of reasons. First, pipe makers treat their creations like pieces of art. Most, if not all, manufacturers will not release a pipe for public consumption if there is a flaw in it. They will want to only have their best pipes out for sale, so any defects would likely wind up in the reject pile. Secondly, a flawed pipe can ruin a pipe maker's reputation. Knowingly letting a bad pipe get sold will have a disastrous effect on their standing in the smoking pipe world. Why would any pipe maker risk their reputation when they can simply not release a lousy pipe?
While you can never say never, it is likely a far more rare issue than people would think. If this happens, you will probably only encounter this specific instance in the super cheap tobacco pipes that you see in buckets, what we know as basket pipes. Those pipes are always a "you get what you pay for" situation, and you should not find this being a concern with the more well respected pipe manufacturers. When it comes to getting yourself a new smoking pipe, you should be fine if you do some research before buying it.
A negative effect to tobacco's taste
Some smokers believe the coating negatively affects the taste of the tobacco and keeps the briar from enhancing smoking. Since taste is a subjective matter, this is not something that will get a consensus from smokers. Everyone that smokes a tobacco pipe has different tastes and preferences, so what smoker A likes, smoker B might detest, and smoker C could go either way. We can't find much actual evidence that there is genuine scientific proof to this claim.
The only complaints that merit consideration happens with the waterglass coats that we talked about earlier. With waterglass, though some people might note the less pleasant taste that is the basis of this problem. Again though, this is mostly an opinion based complaint and less of a fact based one.
For that reason, we consider it a non-issue since the opinions can and likely will vary so much.
We usually like to remain neutral in many of these debates and let you decide for yourself. However, on the topic of tobacco pipe bowl coating, we're firmly going to come down on the side of whatever the manufacturer believes is right for their pipes. Whether it's a large factory maker or a small artisan craftsman, the pipe maker puts their love and time into producing their pipes, and we'll trust that they know whether or not a coating is appropriate. After all, if you don't like it, you can always remove it.