Boswell Pipes: Loud, proud, and hand-made in the USA

Just about all of the pipes I’ve ever owned were manufactured mechanically, mostly through the use of something called a fraising machine that reproduces copies of an original master design from a company’s shape chart like a primitive CNC set-up or a 3D printer that replicates the cuts that slice up wooden blocks. To get a truly handmade pipe, conventional wisdom states that you’ve got to pony up funds that are beyond the threshold of what a normal person like you or me would be likely to spend.

My brother and I own eight Boswells between us. The bottom one came from our grandpa.

I’m not normal, and if you’ve made it this far into a post about an archaic habit that will probably kill you, you’re likely not either. As far as pipes go, I’ve read that every Nørding pipe under the marquee’s “Handmade” label graded 18 or higher on a scale from 11 to 30 is worked on by Erik Nørding himself. The only examples of such provenance available to buy on SmokingPipes right now for range from $528 to $645. A grade 17, a handmade piece nevertheless probably untouched by Erik himself, would still set you back nearly $430. I won’t ever own one.

Pipes from Savinelli’s Autograph series, handmade from “Extra Extra” grade briar, range from $184-$1,920. 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’d never even be interested in owning since I’m positive that I’d inadvertently destroy one, or at least not be able to appreciate it fully. If there’s any extra appreciation to be found, that is.

I guess I lied: stuff like that is all -ahem- a pipe dream that flutters through my head when I’m in a daze after smoking a heavy bowl of Sutliff Crumble Cake in my Boswell spiral freehand.

Never heard of Boswell? Their pipes are different. Let me introduce you to them.

Some Boswell-branded matches I received during a recent purchase.

Boswell pipes are hand-made by J.M. and Dan Boswell of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. At seventeen years old, J.M. met the owner of a pipe shop in nearby Carlisle and was offered a part-time job there. Five years later, he’d developed enough skills to open his own store after he moved to Chambersburg. Today, he and Dan crank out between 6,000 and 7,000 pipes a year, all hand-made. J.M.’s wife and daughter also fill a variety of roles in the business, and the family’s an absolute pleasure to deal with!

New Boswell pipes are posted on their website at eight o’clock sharp on Monday nights, but estate pipes -many unsmoked- occasionally pop up on SmokingPipes for prices that range from around a hundred bucks to nearly $300. New or used, all Boswell pipes sell insanely fast at “refresh your page and your shopping cart’s suddenly empty” speeds. You’ve got to have a keen eye and a quick trigger finger to click that “Buy Now” button for Boswell pipes. Every Monday is a Black Friday for these guys.

My brother John’s Boswell freehand churchwarden.

Smaller Boswells -like my brother’s, pictured above, retail for around two hundred bucks, and they get pricier from there. Look out for J.M.’s Jumbo, Jumbo X, and Magnum pipes, which are cartoonish instruments featuring proportions straight from an orchestra that retail for around $330. But the reason that his normal sizes are generally more 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 $350 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.

J.M. Boswell’s Minie Ball pipe. My brother has it now.

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 when he lived in Wisconsin, 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 during one of our more harmonious stretches. The first that I was ever aware of was Boswell’s Minie Ball pipe, which my father 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! Add that on the list of Tsuges and Florovs I’ll never be able to afford. I’m not sure even Dad could, given his tendency towards embellishment. 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, so I’ll stick with the Boswells, thank you.

Here’s one of Dad’s 1996 Boswells.

Though his older pipes tended to take more of a Danish freehand shape, J.M. Boswell’s contemporary pipes are almost masoschistic, with big, bold designs that feature heavy rustication and fat, acrylic stems. Some even include shotgun shell casings that connect the stummel to the stem! That’s a little bit much for me, but they smoke so well. I’d hate to call these pipes the F-150s of modern offerings, but the description would be on the money it the designers at Ford used a SAWZALL to scallop the hood and rear quarter panel while carving out some room for a stem and mouthpiece.

Each Boswell pipe features a honey-based natural bowl coating that makes them break in faster than most any other pipe I’ve owned, which is about sixty. They’re great smokers right from the get-go, and the importance of that just simply can’t be overstated. These guys are champs right out of the gates.

I want to mention that if you scrub Reddit or look at pipe forums, Boswell tobaccos tend to be more fervently discussed than their pipes. As far as mixtures that the Boswells have created in-house, they’re pretty good, particularly their Christmas Cookie blend, but, again, their pipes absolutely crush.

Here’s Dad’s other 1996 Boswell.

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 pipes from the brand that were made in 1996. Dad gave one to my grandpa. When I got into pipe-smoking after my grandpa died, both were among the thirty or so Dad gave me.

Because I was a typical kid who was either overwhelmed with responsibility or ambivalent about the things I’d been given, 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 and some a little spot rustication.

I’ve mentioned before how spoiled I was to get so many pipes from my dad. 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 a MacBook at home. His favorite was a phenomenal Boswell Jumbo sitter. I swear that if you drilled some tone holes in it, you’d have yourself a baritone sax!

My own 2009 Boswell, now lost because I’m a dumbass.

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 in Fort Wayne. I smoked it every other day, as it felt great in my hand and was the first new pipe I’d ever owned. That Boswell 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 after last smoking it near Lucina Hall at Ball State. It’s history!

I hate to sound glib here, but writing that way helps me cope with its loss: Misplacing that pipe was a huge reason why 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, maybe, but I’ve pored over the entire tundra a thousand times and haven’t found it. Maybe some 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.

The stummel of Dad’s Boswell Jumbo sitter.

After dad died, my brother and I were allowed to go purchase items from his estate, and John picked up the remainder of Dad’s old 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 had been dropped and the bit broke 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!

I sort of idly wonder if dad had this guy in his hand and dropped it when he had his fatal heart attack as my stepmom stepped out of the room while they watched a movie together. John and I will never know.

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 was the quality engineer/process analyst/yadda yadda at the factory that makes the lids for Ball and Kerr mason jars, and I worked from 4am to 4pm. I woke up every morning precisely at two, and I went to bed no later than eight. The problem was that Boswells go on sale at eight, so 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. 

My first “modern” Boswell, made in 2020. 

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 the Boswell I purchased was almost a Poker churchwarden due to its long, creamy stem that measures nearly five and a half inches and curves ever so slightly. I love it, even though it doesn’t stand well on any of the cheap pipe racks I got from Amazon.

My first new Boswell that I bought from J.M. himself. 

I was so excited to get a new Boswell, but felt a little spiritless over not buying it from the family itself. That nagging feeling alleviated itself three days later during a Monday night I that managed to stay up for. I bought a bent poker from Boswell directly for $140. 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. As expected, I was also 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.

My most expensive Boswell- Jesus, what a pipe! Please don’t take that quote out of context.

I never set out to blow so much of my overtime pay on pipes, but on February 8th I coughed up $250 for a gorgeous Boswell freehand spiral 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 shouldn’t have been shocked that it smoked as well as it did right out of the gate. I took it outside to smoke while I let my foster tortoise spend an afternoon roaming around the yard.

Valentine’s Day of 2022 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 but also a sicker pipe in that it’s basically a spiraled fan shape. He smoked it and he loved it.

It, too, came with a baggie of Boswell’s tobacco, their Sweet Tea blend. It was, without a doubt, the best-smelling aromatic tobacco I’ve ever experienced secondhand! It burnt well in John’s great little Boswell, its churchwarden stem cooling the smoke as it made its way towards his cilia. 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 my little Ropp. Just be advised that if a little Boswell nosewarmer comes up soon, though, I might snag it out from under you.

Here’s my brother’s Boswell Churchwarden Bridge. What a nice pipe! He’s really enjoyed it.

I’ve missed Boswells’ most recent online stagings, though I saw some expensive ones pop up last Monday that were sold within hours of my first check. But I finally caught another Boswell estate pipe – a partially-rusticated bent brandy sitter- as an unsmoked estate on SmokingPipes that I picked up for $142.50. It pays to shop around!

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 at least a hundred dollars less than a handmade Nørding, Savinelli, or Tsuge. They smoke better from the get-go and just as well after those other guys are broken in.

I bought this bent billiard sitter made by J.M.’s son Dan back in August. It looks just as great, to my eye, as it smokes.

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. 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.

I’ll smoke Boswell pipes until the day I drop, and I can’t wait to see what’s on offer this coming Monday.

4 thoughts on “Boswell Pipes: Loud, proud, and hand-made in the USA

    1. Last I checked, there were a couple of $300 Boswells on sale on their website. If you want to pick one up and surreptitiously meet at the Zaxby’s parking lot, I’d be all in!

      Liked by 1 person

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