A good cigar is just a cigar, but a fine pipe is a thing of beauty forever.

A good cigar is just a cigar, but a fine pipe is a thing of beauty forever.

Those are words to live by as far as Northland resident Bill Unger is concerned. He's the longtime secretary-treasurer and newsletter editor for the North American Society of Pipe Collectors.

"I guess I started smoking a pipe when I started graduate school (in English at Ohio State University) in 1965," Unger said last week. "It seemed like the thing to do."

Of course. Crooner Bing Crosby was still in his heyday. Uncle Joe on "Petticoat Junction" often puffed away, as did amiable Fred MacMurray on "My Three Sons."

If smoking much of anything is hardly the thing to do any longer, the craft and artistry that went into crafting pipes remains, for Unger and others like him, a draw, so to speak.

"It's a hobby and an obsession for many," he said.

The society it's not a club, Unger pointed out, because they don't have meetings was created by Columbus area residents Regis McCafferty and Phil Bradford as the Ohio Pipe Collectors in 1994 "with a goal of producing a newsletter and an annual show," according to the website, naspc.org.

"The club had good support from the local smoke shops," the site states.

Bradford, since deceased, was a travel agent and McCafferty, who now resides in the Akron area, worked for American Electric Power.

They came up with the ideain 1993, the website says, "after a long evening spent over a pot of good coffee and more than a bowl or two of good tobacco."

McCafferty was the original editor of the society's newsletter, but Unger took over when he moved out of the area, and has been doing it ever since.

The December issue went out to 1,124 members, who live in every state save South Dakota. Washington, D.C., likewise doesn't have any members, but about 20 reside in Canada and a similar number live in Australia, Europe and England, according to Unger, a semi-retired freelance writer.

The question is obvious: Why pipes?

"The thing about pipes versus cigars, when you smoke a $10 cigar, at the end you've got a little butt," Unger said.

A pipe, once smoked, remains a pipe, and in fact gets better over time, developing a patina and a character all its own.

The old pipe makers, of which the United States had hundreds over the centuries, are all gone now, and only a handful still remain around the world, principally in Italy, England, Denmark and Sweden, according to Unger.

The United States does have about 50 craftspeople who make pipes by hand out of briar, a hardy shrub that grows in semi-arid countries. Algerian, Corsican and Spanish briar produce a dense ball of very hard wood at the root, and someone, somewhere, somehow discovered this was the perfect material for withstanding the heat of having tobacco leaves inserted and set aflame.

"The fewer pipe smokers there are, the more pipe makers there seem to be," Unger said.

The society commissions a pipe from one of these artisans every year that is sold exclusively to members.

Some collectors adhere to one of the famous brands, such as Dunhill or GBD or Sheridan.

"Then there are the shapes," Unger said, including ones known as "billiards," "bulldogs" and "pots."

"There's history there and things to argue about," the news-letter editor said. "There are always things to argue about."

While some "museum-piece" pipes might be valued at thousands of dollars, and an Italian maker recently held a contest in which first prize was a pipe valued at $12,000, Unger said that none of the 60 to 70 in his collection are worth that much save to him. He smokes anywhere from 30 to 40 of them, in rotation.

"I'm pretty eclectic in terms of shapes, maker; all of that," Unger said. "I don't have any one focus."

The North American Society of Pipe Collectors puts on an annual show, in late August at the Ramada Hotel on Sinclair Road not far from Unger's home. It features 90 some tables of people selling collectible pipes and related items, and is open to the public.

More information about the organization is available at www.naspc.org.