All of the pipes I’ve reviewed here so far have been machine-made, mostly through the use of something called a fraising machine that mechanically reproduces copies of an original master design from a company’s shape chart like a primitive CNC set-up or a 3D printer set to replicate the cuts that slice up wooden blocks. To get a truly handmade pipe, conventional wisdom states that you’ve got to seriously pony up- most often beyond the threshold of what a pipe-smoking breadwinner would find practical to spend on something they set fire to every day.
Here are some examples: I’ve read that every Nørding pipe under the company’s “Handmade” label that’s graded 18 or higher on a scale from 11 to 30 is worked on by Erik Nørding himself. The only pipe of such provenance for sale right now at SmokingPipes is available for $499.54.
For the record, I have a grade 11 Handmade sandblasted bent brandy that I bought used for $90, but I’ve heard conflicting information as to whether or not those lower-grades are truly handmade or not. I’m positive that Erik Nørding never touched it, at least, but similar handmade pipes are usually sold for around $170.
Savinelli’s Autograph series, handmade from “Extra Extra” grade briar, range from $200-$1120. Meanwhile, handmade, artisan pipes from the likes of Alex Floor, Claudio Cavicchi, Hans “Former” Nielsen, Kent Rasmussen, Todd Johnson, and Tsuge Ikebana can easily break the $2,000 threshold and represent pipes I’ll never be able to afford. I wouldn’t even want to smoke one because I’m positive that I’d inadvertently destroy it, or at least not be able to appreciate it fully. If there’s any extra appreciation to be found, that is.
Pieces like those are all -ahem- pipe dreams that flutter through my head when I’m in a daze after smoking a heavy bowl of Sutliff Crumble Cake.
So far on this blog, we’ve talked about the type of budget pipes that I think are best-suited towards the type of pipe-smoking breadwinner I ascribe to be thanks to some character, history, and price. Today will be a little different: Let me introduce you to Boswell.
Boswell pipes are hand-made by J.M. and Dan Boswell of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. When J.M. was 17, he met the owner of a pipe shop in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and was offered a part-time job there. Five years later, he opened up his own store after he moved to Chambersburg and today, he and Dan -his son- crank out between 6,000 and 7,000 pipes a year, all hand-made. Today, J.M.’s wife Gail and daughter Rachel play a variety of roles in the business. It’s truly a family-focused endeavor, and the Boswell family is a pleasure to deal with.
What makes it better is that their wares are also superb, full stop. They’re also absurdly practical, price-wise!
New pipes are posted on the Boswell website at 8 on Monday nights, and estate pipes -many unsmoked- occasionally pop up on SmokingPipes for prices that range from $90 to nearly $300. They all go insanely quick, like, “refresh your page and your shopping cart’s suddenly empty” fast. You’ve got to have a keen eye and a quick trigger finger to click that “Buy Now” button for Boswell pipes!
Smaller Boswells retail for around a hundred bucks, but others can get pricey, especially his Jumbo, Jumbo X, and Magnum pipes- cartoonish instruments with proportions straight from an orchestra that retail for close to $400. But the reason that his normal sizes are generally so affordable is twofold: the Boswells crank pipes out quickly, for starters, but J.M. is also a briar importer: he sells Mediterranean wood to other domestic pipe manufacturers.
Also, for what it’s worth- if you spent $400 on a Boswell pipe, expect to pay half again or double that amount for an handmade import. The bottom line is that if you can find a Boswell at your price point and in a style you love, then it will immediately become a favorite friend for life.
My dad introduced me to the finer things in life like Lon Chaney Jr. in The Ghost of Frankenstein and Bela Lugosi’s derpy turn as the monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Ting Soda in glass bottles was another pleasure, and the work of Al Jaffee, Don Martin, Mort Drucker, and the rest of the usual gang of idiots in Mad Magazine will live with me forever, as will the Nelson’s barbecued chicken we used to pick up while antiquing. It was Dad who also turned me on to Boswell pipes. The first that I was ever aware of was Boswell’s Minie Ball pipe, which dad eagerly described in Guns Illustrated 2011.
“For my money,” Dad said, “they’re among the Top Ten finest makes in the world. I own several Boswells, but one of my favorites is his Minie Ball Pipe. The story goes that during the Civil War, soldiers who were hard up for a smoke used to bore a hole in the hollow base of a lead 58-caliber Minie Ball, insert a straw or reed, and puff away happily. I can’t say I particularly like the sound of smoking a lead pipe, so I was delighted to learn that J.M. has improved on the concept by making his Minie Ball Pipe out of briar and fitting a vulcanite churchwarden stem to it. It makes for a delightful short smoke.”
“J.M.’s pipe is also quite a bit larger than a real Minie ball, and its grease grooves are not quite to scale. But as a smoking pipe it’s as clean and cool as a good Dunhill, and that’s saying plenty.”
A good Dunhill- hah! Put that on the list on pipes I can’t afford. I’m not sure even Dad could. But even with 15% off as a silver VIP member of SmokingPipes, the cheapest Dunhills are $352.00. And those cheapies are all uglier than the skyline of Redkey, Indiana, at least to my eye. I’ll stick with Boswells, thank you.
Boswell’s hand-carved pipes generally take what I’d almost call a masochistic shape: they’re big and bold. Some even include shotgun shells at the connection between the stummel and stem! Because they smoke so well, I’d hate to call these pipes the F-150 of pipes, even though it’s sort of apropos.
But each of these pipes features a honey-based natural bowl coating that makes them break in faster than most any other pipe I’ve owned- and that’s about sixty. They’re great smokers, right from the get-go, and the importance of that just simply can’t be overstated.
I want to mention that if you scrub Reddit or look at pipe forums, Boswells tobaccos are oftentimes more discussed than their pipes. Their tobacco blends -all created in-house- are pretty good, but their pipes are absolute champs.
I’m not super clear on when J.M.’s pipes first grabbed Dad’s attention, but I do know that, at some point, he got two similar Boswells that were made in 1996 and gave one to my grandpa. When I got into pipe-smoking, both were among the thirty or so he gave me. Because I didn’t give a shit when I was a kid, I don’t remember which was Dad’s and which was Grandpa’s, but one of them is still in the household today under my brother’s ownership. They were both smooth freehands of the Danish style with some plateaux (the rough, natural edge of the briar block) around the rim.
I’ve mentioned before how spoiled I was to get that many pipes from Dad- great Italian, Irish, and Danish makes like Savinelli, Stanwell, Lorenzo, Caminetto, and Peterson. The reason he deaccessioned them wasn’t because they sucked or were broken: I got those awesome pipes because Dad had long moved onto larger ones he could smoke for hours and hours at a time as he edited books from home. One of those was a phenomenal Boswell Jumbo sitter. I swear- if you drilled some tone holes in it, you’d have yourself a baritone sax!
Eventually, Dad got me my own Boswell -a much smaller freehand sitter- for my birthday in 2009. I loved that pipe and kept it in my backpack in order to smoke it while I crossed the suspension bridge from California Road to the IPFW campus. It felt great in my hand and was the first new pipe I’d ever owned. It came with me back home to Muncie in 2010, by which point I guess I didn’t love it enough since, well, I lost it. It’s history! I hate to sound glib here, but it helps me cope: Losing that pipe was a huge reason I stopped smoking them for so long. I still hope it’s somewhere in my white backpack in the unexplored hinterlands of my stepdad’s garage. I’ve pored over the entire place several times, but I still hold out hope to find it one day.
The second reason I quit smoking pipes was that my dad died in 2011 at the age of fifty, just two weeks before his birthday. It sucks to have a hobby without a mentor, and for a long time, I couldn’t get over it.
After he died, my brother and I were allowed to go purchase items from Dad’s estate, and John picked up the remainder of Dad’s pipes he hadn’t given me. One was the Minie Ball, and another was that freakish Boswell Jumbo sitter. Unfortunately, the Jumbo was but a stummel: at some point, the pipe was dropped and the bit cracked off. That was unusual, since Dad always kept his pipes in smoking-order: For him to be so careless as to drop a pipe was unheard of, particularly after he deservedly roasted me for dropping a $500 Savinelli Autograph on the pavement outside of my apartment!
It’s an unlikely and useless theory since he mostly smoked that pipe while he was concentrating on work, but I idly wonder if dad had this guy in his hand and dropped it when he died.
When I finally got back into smoking a pipe, I knew I’d have to get a Boswell of my own. The trouble was my schedule: I’m the quality engineer/process analyst/yadda yadda at the factory that makes the lids for Ball and Kerr mason jars, and we run our shifts from 4am to 4pm and vice versa. I wake up at two in the morning, and unless our machine operators want to find themselves on the business end of a hissy fit, I’ve got to be asleep no later than seven.
Boswells go on sale at eight in the evening, so damn-diddle! I kept missing out. I emailed the Boswells to see if they had anything in stock at their store to sell me, but they didn’t respond for a long time given the demand for their pipes.
On January 20, an unsmoked Boswell estate poker popped up on SmokingPipes for $125. Score! I bought it immediately. Poker-style pipes feature straight bowls with flat bottoms that can sit on a flat surface, but this Boswell’s almost a Poker churchwarden due to its long, creamy stem that measures nearly five and a half inches long and curves ever so slightly. I love this pipe, though it doesn’t stand well on any of my cheap-ass pipe racks I got from Amazon. I was so excited to get a new Boswell, but a little bummed that I didn’t get it from Boswell himself. In addition to directly supporting a family-owned, American-based business, I’d have gotten a free ounce of proprietary tobacco -which I’ve held in high regard since I smoked J.M.’s aromatic “Christmas Cookie” blend twelve years ago- and some other goodies that usually include everything a new pipe-smoker needs to start.
Monday was three days later. I got repositioned to work second shift that night, so I was awake at work and bought a Boswell curved poker from the family, directly, for $140 online. I sat there refreshing the blank page in Safari until it took a couple of seconds to load. Then I knew I was in business! Both pipes smoke just as well as you’d think thanks to that inner coating, and, as expected, I was sent a pipe sock, a pipe nail, some pipe cleaners, matches, and an ounce of Boswell’s Majestic 586 blend. The styling of the pipe is unique, with a curving channel of rustication that I find interesting, but I don’t find this piece to be at the top of Boswell’s game. That’s understandable, though, since this pipe was bought at the lower end of the pricing spectrum. At 16 pipes a day, Boswells can’t all be aesthetic winners! They do all, though, smoke phenomenally, and this pipe isn’t ugly by any means. At least it’s mine.
I realize that these prices blow the costs of the other pipes I’ve reviewed out of the water. But for a pipe with character made by hand in Pennsylvania? They deserve a premium, particularly with regards to the experience as a whole, including what the Boswell family will send to accompany them. As far as how I’ve been able to blow so much cash on Boswell pipes lately- I know this isn’t everyone’s circumstance, but I’ve been an “essential worker” putting in 60 or 72 hours a week during the pandemic. I had some time-and-a-half built up.
I never set out to blow an entire paycheck on a Boswell, but on February 8, I spent $250 for a Boswell freehand spiraling blond pipe which was much larger than my others, more expensive than any pipe I’d ever bought, and more akin to a Nørding. This one came with some of Boswell’s Magnum Blend, one of Dan’s creations that takes the characteristics of a light, English blend of tobacco with a little Latakia that reminds me of Peterson’s -formerly Dunhill’s- Nightcap. I confess that, despite many smokes of its peers, I’ve not found the time to properly appreciate the spiraling freehand, so I haven’t smoked it yet. My schedule has been awful!
Valentine’s Day was Boswell Day for this household, and my brother bought a $180 Natural Blonde Churchwarden Bridge that’s in many ways the younger brother of the Spiral Freehand. He smoked it and he loved it. It, too, came with a baggie of Boswell’s Sweet Tea. That was the best-smelling aromatic tobacco I’ve ever experienced secondhand! It was smoked in a great little pipe, the churchwarden stem cooling the smoke as it made its way towards John’s mouth. I’m usually not a fan of staining a pipe with an aromatic and I’ve not found one to enjoy a bowlful of Boswell’s Sweet Tea in, but I might choose that little Ropp. Just be advised that if a little Boswell nosewarmer comes up soon, though, I might snag it out from under you.
I missed Boswells’ most recent staging of their pipes, though I saw some expensive ones pop up the next day that were sold within hours of my first check. If you’re interested in a handmade, American pipe to smoke every second day while you put your cheapies through their paces, a Boswell would be a phenomenal investment! The top tier of Boswell pipes is a hundred dollars less than a handmade Nørding, Savinelli, or Tsuge, and they smoke better from the get-go and just as well after those other guys are broken in.
I’ve not been to the official Boswell outlets in Alexandria or Chambersburg, but John and I have it on our list. As far as I know, Dad never made it to visit J.M. in person either, but despite my poor stewardship of a couple of the Boswells he gave and gifted me, I hope to make it up for my own pipe-smoking pursuits. If you’re ever in the Michiana area of the upper-midwest, the Tinder Box in Mishawaka is a Boswell dealer. I’d call ahead, if I were you, to make sure they’ve got one handy.
Boswell pipes are great. What’s more is that, whenever I smoke one, the experience connects me to my dad- my pipe mentor and, well, my dead dad. He’s been gone for nearly twelve years now, and I wonder how he’d take me if he found me absent of any context. It’s heartwarming to know that, despite how I’ve changed, he’d still find me with a Boswell. I’ll smoke these until the day I drop, and I can’t wait to see what’s on offer Monday night!