The Truth About Bowl Coatings

The Truth About Bowl Coatings
March 20, 2013 The Pipe Guys

So you think coating the chamber of a tobacco pipe is blasphemous, huh? This is a hot button issue for many pipe smokers, with stark opposition on both sides of the argument, so we’re going to demystify the subject for you. What’s the big idea behind bowl coatings, anyway? Many individual pipe makers and large factories alike put the finishing touch on each of their pipes by painting the tobacco chamber with something the pipe community has dubbed a “bowl coating.” They claim it offers a head start to the smoker while trying to build up precious “cake,” and even protects the chamber from burning during the initial break-in process. On the other hand, many pipe smokers adamantly refute these supposed qualities, and go a step further in contending that bowl coatings actually ruin the taste of good tobacco. Others claim that bowl coatings are simply a ploy to hide ugly flaws in poor quality briar.

To Arms!

So who’s right about all this? At the risk of being burned on the altar, the short of it is, the makers and factories are right. I could hear hell raising as my fingers tapped those keys!

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The Pipe Guys have spoken with many professional pipe makers and even visited major pipe factories abroad, and all the evidence points to bowl coatings being fair game. Most bowl coatings are made with activated carbon as their main ingredient, which is the same stuff a lot of you use to filter your water and make it taste better. Plus, activated carbon traps contaminants and is sometimes prescribed for oral consumption to combat food-borne illnesses, so there should be no major health concerns about it.

The Pipes Speak for Themselves

Secondly, if we can use the attestation of the professional community as backup, take a look at how many respectable and long-standing pipe makers have been using bowl coatings regularly. We’ll give you a hint; there are a lot of them. We know that these makers are using some of the best quality briar in the world, so what would they have to hide? Some offer both coated and non-coated bowls on their pipes to satisfy the entire crowd.

With all that being said, however, bowl coatings on a very cheap pipe, such as a basket pipe, may very well warrant the grumblings of the pipe community, as they may certainly mask some of the inferior briar’s exposed flaws. Then again, if you’re in the market for a basket pipe, you shouldn’t let your expectations run wild.

We feel that all this naysaying about “bowl coatings” is unwarranted when it comes to quality smoking pipes, but many people still remain on the other side of that fence.

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What are your thoughts? Share them below!

Comments (4)

  1. carlc01686 7 years ago

    I’ve broken in pipes with and without coatings.,and I like pipes without coatings better.Exposing the bare wood
    (in my opinion) allows the smoker to come into direct intimate contact with his or her pipe,and really know what kind of workmanship,engineering, and curing they are dealing with,and have paid money for.Some of the top pipe makers alive today coat their bowls.During my formative years as a pipe smoker,I was advised by pipe men much more senior to myself to coat the bare walls with honey,or honey diluted with water.On occasion,I chose honey diluted with water,and I have to say that this did accelerate the formation of the cake.My dilution left only a suggestion of honey,just enough to darken the walls,and did not leave a heavy,sticky surface.Still,With all due respect to my mentors,I think that leaving the walls bare and dry will allow the wood to absorb what it can of the moisture,and cause the pipe to have to deal with it as best it can until the cake starts to take hold.
    Of course,I do not light my new pipe with an oxy acetylene torch,but with a match,or another soft flame.I Smoke the virgin wood slowly,over the span of a few hours with a small pipe,or an entire day(24 hours) with a large bowl.In one case,I nearly had a new Savinelli Giubilleo D’oro petite broken in in one day.The wood was/is that fine.Some of the Better English and Danish pipe makers coat their bowls,and I wish they would not,but that is only the wish of this unworthy.Remember,my smokers,when breaking in some virgin wood,smoke all the way to the heel,then light up the ashes to get the cake formed on the bottom,and use a soft flame……………Carl

  2. Caveman Dave 8 years ago

    Interesting. I have been finishing the inside of the chambers on the one’s I make by bow-drilling (yes, that thing you do to make fire with sticks) them with an appropriately sized hardwood spindle. You just clamp the bowl up against a post or other vertical object. This has the doubled effect of burnishing the inner chamber as well as slightly charing and hardening the wood which helps it to burn in and (I find) creates a smoother bowl that’s easier to pack and clean. Just my two cents. I try to avoid chemicals as much as possible when making pipes, but then again, most of my methods are pretty primitive (I make my shanks with a homemade awl, lol).

  3. Eric 10 years ago

    If the pipe maker has not applied a proprietary bowl coating, then I add my own, invariably consisting of a thin coating of honey, sometimes with some ground up activated carbon mixed in. Here’s the science behind it: if you smoke tobacco in an uncoated pipe, The natural sugars in the tobacco will oxidize, and leave a fine deposit of carbon on the pipe’s walls. Eventually this will build up into what we refer to it as cake, but you will go through a time period which we refer to as “breaking in, that period of time from when the first bowl is smoked until a suitable cake is built up. Bowl coatings are simply a way of building the cake up quickly. If the bowl is coated with honey, the natural sugars in the honey will oxidize and form the cake that much quicker. The trick is to apply the honey thinly, so you don’t end up with a very soft cake that breaks into flakes and chunks. Simply warm the honey slightly and rub it vigorously over the interior surface of the bowl. Or, if you choose, grind up some of the activated charcoal, mix it with the warmed up honey, and again rub vigorously over the interior surface. Voila! A hard cake built up much quicker, a fully broken in pipe in one or two days.

  4. My favorite pipe maker…J.M. Boswell of Chambersburg P.A. coats his bowls with a secret coating. Every Boswell i have ever owned smoked great from the first bowl….and then got better… I think it is a good idea…especially for the new pipe guy. E. Spear

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