If you grow wheat just to get the chaff, you're crazy...but if you grow corn to get the cob you're smart. - Mark Twain
Ahh, the corncob pipe. Farmer frugality at it's best. As essential as a slingshot and a sharp tongue for Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. Besides perhaps a stalk of hay between the lips, nothing screams hillbilly/hick/hayseed as much as sitting on your front porch, shooting the breeze, and puffing on your corncob pipe.
Growing up in the south, my mother's father could whip one of these together in under a minute. All he needed was a stalk of corn, his ubiquitous Case pocket knife, and me or my sister's pleas. He'd gather the cob in his gnarled and calloused hand and break off one end with a practiced twist. The knife would magically appear, already opened, in his other (I never thought to ask him how. I suppose I accepted as fact that this man who could wiggle his ears and take out his teeth could also open a pocket knife one-handed.). Two quick cuts later and a cone of pith would be popped out of the center of the cob. With a few more scrapes, the remaining slopes were removed and a bowl formed. Halfway between the base and tip, he would bore through into the bowl. Then it was simply a matter of selecting the correct stalk to form the stem. I remember him using the woody base of wheat and hay stalks, as well as the tip of the corn stalk itself.
I never smoked them, of course, but I'd stuff grass clippings into the bowl and sit puffing beside him on the porch. My grandmother would bring me a piece of cheddar cheese or a bowl of Cheerios. I suppose it was nostalgia for those simplicities of childhood that goaded me into attempting one of my own.
How to Make Your Very Own Corncob Pipe
First, you'll need to find a dried out old corncob. If you live on a farm or near a farm, that shouldn't be a problem. If you live in a city, you're not likely to find any lying on the side of the road. I'd suggest checking your closest Farmer's Market and telling them exactly what you're looking for. Most, if not all, have a father/grandfather that made one or smoked one at some time in the past (at least here in the South), and they'll be more than happy to carry on the tradition by helping you out. I actually had a guy offer to bring me a whole bag of cobs the next weekend, which I happily accepted. You can also look for shell corn, which is grown for feed and dried out. You'll have to shuck the corn kernels off, though.
Once you've acquired a corncob, it's time to go to work. I highly recommend using a pocket knife for the bowl excavation. Kitchen knives are too long and hard to control while working within the small diameter of the corncob, and you'll only end up slicing open a finger. Trust me. Take one end of the cob in your hand and snap it off. For myself, a length of about 3 finger-widths creates an excellent bowl. With the knife, scrape out the pith to within ¼" of the outer edge and about 2 inches deep. You may also want to scrape it out a little thinner on the side you're planning to install the stem.
Before you start boring the stem hole, find your stem! My first attempt was so loose that it would rotate over and dump out the tobacco if I moved my head. Anything woody, at least 4 inches long, strong enough to hold up the bowl, and hollow will work. I've actually been using the stems of a habanero pepper plant that has been dead since fall. With a length of copper wire, it's easy to hollow out the inside. You can also heat the wire with a lighter to burn through particularly tight spots (just remember copper is conductive!). Smaller drafts are better, as pipe tobacco is strong. A smaller draft will limit the amount of smoke you draw in at a time and minimize your chance of getting "tongue bite". You can now bore out the stem hole to the diameter of your stem. You'll want it a little tight, just enough that you have to apply a bit of pressure to insert the stem. I've also heard that using a bit of candle wax on the outside of the bowl to affix the stem helps. I wouldn't recommend glue.
That's it! You're now ready to smoke, assuming you have some pipe tobacco. Some people say that a new cob pipe needs two or three smokes to cure, but I find that I like the slightly sweet taste it imparts right from the first bowl. There is also a danger, I've learned, of souring your pipe. Corncob pipes soak up more moisture from the tobacco then a typical briar pipe and so need to be dried longer between uses to avoid souring. I've heard from one week to one month as typical dry out times.
Why Would I Want a Corncob Pipe?
- It'll get you noticed if you light it up at a bar.
- Cigarette smoke smells like smoke. Pipe smoke is aromatic, fragrant, and pleasent.
- You can sit it on an end table and when people ask about it, you can tell them that it belonged to your great-great-great grandfather and he poked that drunkard "right in the eye" with it at the Appomattox Courthouse.
- You'll be in good company, historically.
- Do it just to piss these guys off.
A Brief History of the Corncob Pipe
No one knows for certain when the first corncob pipe was made. As early as 630 A.D. however, the Mayas had scattered as far as the Mississippi Valley and "smoked pipes with great ceremony after their evening meal"1. The best guess I can make is that the corncob pipe was most probably developed during the 1600's, as the American colonies were exporting huge amounts of tobacco to Europe to support "The Great Age of the Pipe"2. Some enterprising farmer must have cobbled together his own pipe to sample the wares.
What we do know is that the first design for a corncob pipe was patented in 1878 by Henry Tibbe of Washington, Missouri. The company he created, Missouri Meerschaum, is still operating today as the oldest (and as far as I could find, only) corncob pipe manufacturer in the world. The company grows it's own special breed of corn developed with the help of the University of Missouri. This breed has extremely large cobs and small kernels, the opposite of today's commercial brands, perfect for making corncob pipes with. The factory also houses a corncob pipe museum, if any noders nearby want to go check it out. More information about Missouri Meerschaum is available at www.corncobpipe.com.
Famous Corncobbers Through History
alt.smokers.pipes is an excellent resource, much of this node would be worse off without my time spent lurking there