In previous blog posts, I’ve discussed the perceptions people have of pipe smokers. When people think of pipe smokers, they think of the generic 1950’s father figure, the tweedy professor, the glasses wearing bookstore owner, the gruff sea captain, and of course, the hipster. The briar pipe has an air of thoughtfulness and wisdom, or rugged determination. Unless you’re one of those anti-smoking types, the pipe generally has a positive reputation associated with it.
The same, however, cannot be said of every tobacco pipe. That unfortunate victim is Washington, Missouri’s very own corncob pipe. The corncob pipe drudges up images of backwoods hillbillies, redneck farmers, and Huckleberry Finn. In cartoons, the cob is associated with Popeye, Frosty the Snowman, and the Hillbilly Bears. At best, the cob brings forth images of General Douglas MacArthur scowling with his gargantuan cob, or Mark Twain. More often than not, when you see a corncob pipe in art, the smoker is more often than not paired with an overalls wearing Appalachian dweller, with a bushy unkempt beard, straw hat, and a jug of moonshine sitting by his banjo.
Not exactly the most favorable of stereotypes, wouldn’t you agree?
Even amongst pipe smokers, there’s a general schism over the ol’ cob. Some pipe smokers think corncob pipes are an eyesore, worthy of mockery and derision. For them, a simple corncob pipe can’t compare to the beauty and craftsmanship of a briar pipe. If given a choice, these pipers would gladly take a generic drugstore Dr. Grabow before ever letting the amber plastic stem of a cob sully their lips.
Yet there’s another group of pipers who not only smoke corncob pipes, they’re crazy for them. They dismiss the general stigma that comes from smoking a corncob pipe, and proudly puff away on their Missouri Meerschaums. Some even smoke corncob pipes exclusively, espousing the benefits of a well-seasoned cob and ignore all briar pipes. These aren’t people from deepest, darkest Kentucky either, but pipers from all over the world.
As for me? I’m a corncob pipe fan, though I dearly love my many briars. I wouldn’t sell off my briars and replace them with cobs, but they’re an important part of my pipe rotation. However, I didn’t exactly run out and buy a cob once I took up the pipe. Rather, I purchased my first corncob pipe on a whim after I had a couple of briars.
Back when I first stumbled upon the pipe web in the late 90’s and searched around pipes.org, I read an article explaining the world of pipe smoking for beginners. This was way before the advent of youtube, so to get information on pipes; you had to find articles instead of watching a helpful how-to video that explained everything. The author gave two different routes a person could go based on their budget: the cheap way and the not so cheap way. For the cheap route, the author suggested a corncob pipe with a classic codger blend like Prince Albert and Captain Black. I remember thinking that if I was going to buy a pipe; I’d rather start out with a briar, since all the pipes that drew me towards the hobby were the classic billiard briars. A corncob pipe didn’t seem cool to a young whippersnapper like myself.
Fast-forward to the 2010’s, about a year after taking the pipe plunge, I was shopping online for some new blends to try on pipesandcigars.com. After filling my cart with a few tins, I decided I’d take a glance at their selections for corncob pipes. Having spent many hours reading pipe forums, I was well acquainted with the pros and cons of corncobs. From reading the various back and forth debates on cobs, I surmised that the main complaint the cob haters had was all based on aesthetics. They just thought cobs looked stupid, which to me felt a shallow argument. A few felt the corn taste from a cob filtered into the smoke, but that was the strongest point that they had.
On the other side, corncob pipe smokers loved their cobs, despite their sullied reputation. A pipe smoker on a small budget could accumulate a sizable collection for the price of one briar pipe. Unlike briars, corncob pipes didn’t need a rest period between bowls. Most appealing of all, corncob pipes were perfect for sampling new blends. With pipe tobacco, some stronger blends and aromatics could ghost a briar pipe, souring the next few bowls with the remnants of the previous blend.
Since I was still a greenhorn in the pipe world, a corncob pipe had the potential be an asset to my collection. I could smoke all the new blends I wanted without fear of one of them haunting one of my precious few briars for future bowls. So I threw in a Missouri Meerschaum Legend into my cart and placed my order. The pipe was only $5, so if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t feel too put out about the purchase.
One week later, the package was on my doorstep with my brand new cob and tins of tobacco. Upon seeing my corncob pipe, my wife chuckled and gently ribbed me over my purchase. My wife grew up in Kentucky, so she had her reasons for making fun of my pipe. I stuck up my nose defiantly as I marched out to the garage with my cob in hand and the tin of Erinmore I purchased with it, ready to try out my newest acquisitions.
No matter how many pipes I add to my collection, I haven’t lost that excitement that comes with breaking in a new pipe. This time was different, since this was the first time I was smoking a pipe made from a material other than briar. Would I like my new corncob pipe, or would the haters be proven right? There was only one way to find out.
After removing the filter from the black plastic stem, I stuffed a flake of Erinmore into my cob and stuck a charring light, lighting the flake tobacco with a few gentle puffs. After the second light, I sat back and puffed away, paying closer attention than normal at how the pipe smoked.
How did it go? Well, I can’t say I remember much of it. One moment I was lighting my pipe in my cold garage in the middle of February, and the next, I was in a barn somewhere deep in the Ozarks. My heavy winter coat had disappeared, and as I glanced down, I discovered I was wearing a pair of old overalls, slightly obscured by the large beard that had grown on my face. My office chair had been replaced by an old rocking chair, and my coffee switched with a jug labeled “XXX” on the front. Though I swore I had been alone in my garage when I lit my cob, a fiddler appeared on the other side of the barn, scratching away as he called out lines to a square dance. Needless to say, I was quite bewildered as I rocked in my chair, watching the scene play out in front of me while smoking my new cob.
Okay, none of that actually happened. I’ll be honest, I could taste hints of corn in my first few bowls, but once I broke the cob in, the problem went away. Just like a briar, the cob needed a breaking in period to remove the corn taste. On a side note, I later learned that Mark Twain would hire people to break his cobs in for him. Once his cob was well seasoned, he’d put on a new stem and smoke away. Not a bad job if you ask me.
After I broke in my Missouri Meerschaum Legend, it quickly proved its usefulness as a team player on my pipe rack. I could try any blend I wanted without fear of ghosting my pipe. This opened the door for me to try Lakeland tobacco, which is notorious for leaving behind a soapy, floral taste in a pipe. Any new blend that had a strong scent to it went to my cob first for a try out.
Due to the low price point of a Missouri Meerschaum pipe, the cob is the pipe for the everyman. The corncob pipe fits in the rack of the rich and poor alike. For the poor piper, they’re a way to build a rotation of pipes to smoke. For the rich piper, the cob serves its purpose by smoking new blends, so that a particularly nefarious tobacco doesn’t mar their high grade Dunhill.
For the average pipe smoker, though, the cob is the perfect companion for everyday use. The piper can load up a Country Gentleman and mow the lawn or putter around in the garage without fear of dropping and breaking their pipe. While on vacation, a pipe smoker can puff away on their Legend cob in the middle of a lake or stream while waiting for their next big catch. I’ve read tales of pipe smokers who have dropped their cobs in the water while fishing, only to let their cob dry out and use it again a short time later. If a cob gets destroyed or left behind, the piper won’t take a hit in their wallet in replacing it. For just a few dollars, they’ll have a new cob ready to pick up where the last one left off.
One if the biggest strengths of Missouri Meerschaum Company is that they sell a variety of cob shapes to fit the need of every piper. There’s the Legend, which is roughly the size of an average billiard for a normal smoke. Then there are the smaller cobs for quicker smokes, like the mini cobs or the Pony Express. The Country Gentleman and Patriot have deeper bowls for when you want a longer smoke. And if these pipes just aren’t large enough, there’s the Natural Freehand, as well as the gigantic MacArthur cob. Nothing says, “I’m a pipe smoker and I don’t care what you think of it” quite like puffing away on a MacArthur cob while raking the leaves in your lawn. That’ll turn some heads.
Another great aspect about owning corncob pipes is that they’re easily modified. Most corncob pipes come with a plain, plasticlike finish to them. If you search around online, you can find ways to give your cob a personal touch. Using wood filler, sand paper, and a furniture marker, I was able to give one of my cobs a makeover, making it look a bit more rugged in appearance. There are some creative pipers out there that give their cobs a complete overhaul, completely changing the cob from its original appearance. If you’re interested in making your own pipe, it’s not a bad idea to take a cob and mess around with it to get your feet wet.
Despite their usefulness, there are a few downsides to a corncob pipe. As stated before, cobs need a few bowls to hit their sweet spot. Corncob pipes also come with plastic stems, which can crack if the piper clenches too hard. I also find that cleaning the plastic stem of a cob isn’t the easiest, due to the width of the airway in the stem. However, there are some online pipe vendors that sell forever stems for cobs. Forever stems are made from vulcanite or Lucite, like the average briar pipe. While I don’t have a Forever stem, I plan on purchasing one or two in the future for my favorite cobs. This is a great option if you hate the idea of smoking a pipe with a plastic stem. Truth be told, I don’t mind plastic stems, but they don’t hold a candle to vulcanite or Lucite stems.
Finally, cobs have a much shorter lifespan than the average briar. Depending on the size and width of the bowl, a cob will eventually burn out after repeated use. I haven’t had a cob burn out on me yet, but looking over the bowls of my cobs, its evident that one day they’ll break down. On the other hand, once that cob falls apart, its just one quick stop online to purchase an exact replica of the fallen pipe.
So should you pick up a corncob pipe? I think so, but ultimately that’s up to you. While it’s true that a cob doesn’t exude sophistication like a Peterson or a Dunhill, you’re still purchasing a useful, hard working pipe. The pros of owning a corncob pipe outweigh the cons, and you’ll have a pipe with a rustic and rugged reputation. Sure, you’ll get some weird looks from passersby; but you’re smoking a pipe anyway, so that comes with the territory. Smoke what you like, and who cares what a stranger thinks?
If you’re interested in buying a cob and you don’t have one, you can’t go wrong with a Missouri Meerschaum Legend. A Legend is a great entry point for a cob, with a bowl that’s just the right size for an average smoke. If you end up enjoying the Legend and want to pick up a second one, look at the selection offered by your preferred pipe shop/online vendor and pick a shape that fits your smoking style. My personal favorite cob is the Country Gentleman, as the larger barrel shaped bowl holds a surprising amount of pipe tobacco.
I have one word of caution if you choose to dip your toes into the world of corncob pipes. Once the cob bug bites, you’ll find more and more corncobs sitting on your pipe rack with your briars. You’ll place orders online for tobacco, and to your surprise, you’ll find that a cob somehow slipped into your cart. I wouldn’t be too concerned about that, though. It’s only natural that you have a few cobs on hand for the right occasion.
I also wouldn’t be too alarmed if you and up buying a rocking chair for your porch or backyard. After all, you’re not just limited to smoking cobs while sitting in a rocking chair. I mean, you can smoke a briar pipe in a rocking chair; it’s not a rule you can only smoke cob while sitting in a rocking chair. That’s ridiculous.
If you wind up with a pair of overalls for when you smoke a cob, though, that might be a reason for alarm. Then again, that front pocket is mighty handy for storing a corncob pipe and tobacco pouch. Now that I think about it, overalls are very practical attire for a pipe smoker.
If after a few months of smoking a corncob pipe you’ve joined the local jug band, then you’ve reached the point of no return. If you spot a washboard while antique shopping for estate pipes and think, “I bet I could play that”, then I suggest sticking with briars for a few weeks until the feelings subside. Keep an eye out on your favorite Pandora stations, and make sure that a Country music station hasn’t found its way into your list. Once you’re part of The Possum River Jug Band, there’s no escaping your fate.
But don’t let these dire warnings deter you from trying a corncob pipe. You might end up with a new favorite pipes if you do. Or two. Or ten. Now if you’ll excuse me, the neighborhood kids are playing out on the street in front of my house. Those no good hoodlums keep goin’ on my lawn to get their kickball. I have my Country Gentleman cob filled with Old Joe Krantz, so I’ll be sittin’ on my porch givin’ ‘em the stinkeye while puffing my cob.
Darn kids these days. No respect, I tell ya.