Hi, thanks for writing. You have a lot of good questions and I'll try to address one at a time.
First, most of what I know, I learned from browsing the pipe forum http://forum.pipes.org/ . It looks like they have reorganized somewhat since I was last there. There is a parent page http://pipes.org/ which also has a lot of interesting links.
I own a Big Ben and am quite happy with it, though it isn't quite broken in yet. Most of my "regular" pipes are Nording, about which I'll have more to say soon.
I have an article on ordering my own custom tobacco, and that is what I smoke exclusively now. It is mostly like the Golden you are fond of, but with Latakia added in moderation.
At first I was tremendously taken with the idea of Falcon pipes. Clean, logical, sensible - yet I found my wooden pipes smoke "better" and I am not sure why. I have a number of Falcons but rarely smoke them any more. You can do a better job of cleaning them, but it takes a little longer. You hold them by the wooden bowl, though the aluminum stem does not get that hot.
The Nordings that I vastly prefer are all relatively heavy pipes made of massive amounts of better grade briar. They smoke cooler, probably because of their size and mass - Falcons are lightweights and heat up quickly.
Nording makes a big variety of pipes and styles. Mine are the "orange" briars, a little hard to find, and a little more expensive. They run around $100 or a little under. They are all well broken in and by far the best smokers I own. The lighter, less expensive Nordings are not bad and sometimes you can get a set of 6 for under $50.
I ordered a couple of Meerschaum bowls for my Falcons back around 2004 but never really cared for them. I also ordered a Meerschaum clay pipe. They all taste like they are never broken in - you don't want a cake in them, they say. I like the cake. I never got the hang of them and abandoned that experiment, though others swear by them.
Switching tobaccos in the same bowl is said to not be a good idea and I found through experience that I agree. A bowl acquires a "flavor" quickly and it takes a long time to change it.
If you like the aromatics, that is fine, but from my experience above I think it would be best to stick with one of them and not jump around, though I know that makes it tough to experiment. I tried a corncob for experimenting, and that was a lot of fun.
I like them smell of many aromatics but they don't often taste as good as they smell. Many additives make me cough - what the veteran pipe smokers call "casings" I think. Commercial mixes like Rum & Maple are so heavy with casings that, to many pipe smokers, the casings interfere with the tobacco experience.
My own experience comparing "Blender's Gold" with my own best imitation mix was a case in point. After I made my own, there was no going back. You might order a few ounces of Lane HQ3, try it, and go from there:
Alex's No. 1 Mix (new)
My current order formula: 1 lb Medium Burley from Altadis, 1 lb Lane Limited BCA black cavendish, 1 lb Latakia blending pipe tobacco, and 2 lbs Lane Limited HS-3. I experimented with Perique, but went with the Latakia, which complements and defines the full flavor in a very satisfactory way. I am very happy with this mix and have stayed with it for over a year. I still order my bulk tobacco from Habana ( PipesandCigars.com ). Despite a respectable stock of other enjoyable blends mentioned on this page, I rarely smoke them.
There is one flavored blend called " Trout Stream " I really liked. But there are really so many fine blends out there, both "straight" and delicately blended aromatics, that my suggestions are just the favorites of one out of tens of thousands of pipe smokers! This topic always reminds me of the youngster who says, "If you like the United States , you should visit my home town" - not because it's the most representative, or the prettiest, or even a particularly nice place to live, but just because it's the only one the youngster knows!
As far as protecting yourself against the tar, I tried some of the filters and balsa wood inserts and it just seemed too messy, increased draw pressure, and reduced flavor. At least with the Falcons you can SEE the tar it has condensed out into the aluminum bowl, and you spend extra time cleaning that out with tissue, so I suppose that is beneficial.
A cool smoke helps prevent "scorched palate" which I quickly got from the Falcons, and my dental people lectured me badly. I get less from wooden pipes but there is still some.
We are not supposed to inhale and I don't, but you get enough "second hand smoke" to irritate. I have developed what they call a "pipe smoker's bark" over the years, and I have to lay off or cut back if I get a chest cold. So I sure can't make any health claims for pipes, except perhaps that is does not seem to affect me as badly as cigarettes which I smoked for 40 years up until the year 2000.
I haven't really posted to my Tobacco page in quite some time, so I might post just my own reply (this one, with no name or address info of course). I do hope some of this is helpful, but the only hard and fast rule I know is experiment, experiment, experiment - and you're doing a fine job of that!