Smoking a pipe rewards the user with more flavor and a slow, steady, and comforting dose of nicotine. This ancient habit requires more thought than most modern ones, but like all things enduring, both teaches patience and depth of appreciation. The ritual of smoking — packing, lighting, tamping, and nurturing the smoldering leaf — provides an activity that is pleasurable in its own right.
Getting Started With A Pipe
Pipe-smoking is a skill like riding a bicycle or swimming. You will have to focus on it at first, and then it will become unconscious repetitive habit, and finally it will transition to second nature where you will “feel” the pipe as an extension of yourself.
This means there is a learning curve. Most sources recommend you start off with a briar pipe and aromatic, or heavily flavored tobacco, but this is actually one of the harder ways to learn the smoking process. Aromatics burn hot and briar pipes are more sensitive than cobs.
Instead, try learning to smoke a pipe the easy way, using some of the oldest and most reliable equipment and tobacco you can find:
- A corn cob pipe
- A (mostly) natural blend
- Pipe cleaners
- Pipe nail
- A lighter
The above will set you back no more than $20 and can probably be acquired locally. If not, you can find all of these from merchants listed in the Sellers section and have them delivered to your door.
A staple of American iconography of a century ago, the corn cob pipe is durable and light. This makes it a more forgiving learner pipe than briar, and less of a tragedy if it gets dropped or lost because it is semi-disposable anyway. If you order online, where cobs are $5-$10, consider getting a couple so you have a backup.
Mostly natural tobaccos come in two forms. Classic drugstore tobaccos are blends designed to be mild, convenient and pleasant-smelling. These are not sticky and moist like aromatics, nor as dry and unevenly-burning as naturals, or tobacco with minimal if any flavoring. Right in the middle, these blends are mostly dry and lightly flavored, which makes them easy to smoke, low in Nicotine and mellow in their effect on those around you.
The two classic blends are Prince Albert and Carter Hall. The former has been popular since before the Civil War, and the latter is rediscovered by generations of pipe-smokers as a “just right” smoke: no extremes, all flavors in balance and nicely melded, and both convenient and affordable.
You can also try an English blend, which is a good place to start because it teaches your tongue to start distinguishing between different flavors in a mix. Some inexpensive varieties include Proper English and Mountain Camp, both of which are available to buy in bulk through mail order. If you start mail ordering tobacco, you can order one ounce samples of any number of blends to try without much of an impact, since these vary from $2-$5 per ounce.
To your tobacco collection, you add some gear. Pipe cleaners are used for more than art projects. Most pipe smokers seem to prefer B.J. Long’s for their rigidity and absorbency. Pipe nails are aluminum tools that resemble an oversized nail with its end pounded flat into a blade like that of a shovel. A regular cigarette lighter of the kind found behind a billion counters completes the kit.
How To Smoke A Pipe
Most literature refers to smoking a pipe as “puffing” or even “sipping,” but neither of these are really accurate. Pipe smoking differs from the method of “taking a drag” on a cigarette where the user sucks in smoke. Instead, you clamp your lips around the pipe and breathe regularly through your nose, unclaping every seven seconds to let out the old smoke. This ensures a constant flow of relatively cool smoke and keeps the pipe from going out. You want the tobacco to smolder, not actively burn.
A pipe smoker regulates the air flow through the pipe by using capillary action. The mouth clamped around the bit of the pipe seals that end of the tube, creating a slow but constant pressure toward which air is drawn through the bowl. This enables smoke to slowly fill the mouth and circulate around the areas where it is absorbed, mostly the roof of the mouth and tongue, and keeps temperature in the pipe low so that more flavor is conveyed.
Veteran smokers demonstrates this technique:
A pipe smoker values flavor, Nicotine and the experience of having a pipe lit as both distraction and enhancement of everyday activities. The ideal bowl of tobacco burns in thin layers, with each layer heating the tobacco below it and releasing the flavor within it as well as drying it. In this way, pipe smoking is more a process of roasting tobacco than incinerating it, although the fuel for the roast comes from the incineration of other tobacco.
Here is how to smoke a pipe:
- Fill the bowl
- Light it
- Tamp it
- Smoke it
Filling the bowl uses the most accurate verb: the bowl is not crammed, stuffed, or packed despite those terms often being used. You want to dump tobacco into the bowl and push it down without compressing it, then when the bowl is filled, compress the tobacco to roughly the density of an angel-food cake or medium pillow. The smoker wants to balance compression and airflow: tobacco should be dense enough that the layers can ignite one another but allow the easy passage of air through these layers to convey flavor to the smoker.
If you are using one of those old drugstore tobacco blends, filling requires taking pinches and pushing them into the bowl until it is full, then giving the heap of leaf a moderate shove with a thumb, of about the same strength required to depress a car or door lock button. Push down until the tobacco has a light springy feel to it.
Lighting involves taking short draws on the pipe while holding the flame above the tobacco. After the tobacco is lit, the leaf will rise as it burns. Now the smoker can create the first layer, which is done by compacting the top of the tobacco heap gently with the head of a pipe nail (or the top of the lighter) and then lighting again if necessary.
At this point, the smoker can go into the loop described above: by clamping his mouth around the stem of the pipe, he creates capillary pressure which draws smoke into the mouth, and he can periodically breathe in through his nose, which both pushes out older smoke and advances the burn to the next thin layer. This process will take you some hours of diligent effort to establish in your mind, but like other repetitive acts — playing scales on an instrument, chopping vegetables, and painting walls — if done with precision at a slow pace until mastered, it becomes unconscious proficiency over time.
Generally this cycle runs in seven to ten second intervals: the exhale/draw, followed by a mulling of the smoke, then repeating. The rhythm becomes natural and over time, the smoker learns to sense the burning characteristics of the tobacco, which varies with leaf and cut, and to automatically adjust pace and draw pressure accordingly. You may need to re-light several times; this is normal and preferable to keeping a pipe lit at the expense of an enjoyable experience.
It may make sense to stop reading this now, and to go acquire your tobacco and tools and then master the above. At that point, you will be ready for what comes next, but before then, it is easy to get inundated in aspects of this hobby which will not yet be understood in depth, leading to erroneous conclusions.
After A Smoke
You will know as a bowl is ending because the smoke will be ashier in flavor and thinner. Very few bowls burn down fully to the bottom, usually because the draw-hole must be positioned in such a way that it admits air well for the majority of the bowl, which routes airfow around the final eighth of an inch or so. At this point, it is time to dump ash and clean the pipe.
To dump ash, hold the pipe by the stem and shake it over your trash receptacle or outside dump site. It is not advisable to tap the pipe against any other object as this exerts more force than is apparent and can damage the pipe.
Then, take the flat blade of your pipe nail — the side opposite the tamper side — and move it in a circular motion through the pipe, gently dislodging anything within. You should aim to sweep more than scrape.
Extract a pipe cleaner from your package and check it to make sure the end is straight. Pipe cleaners are stiff wires into which cotton fibers have been woven. If the end of the pipe cleaner is bent, that cut wire can scrape the inside of your pipe. You can flatten the pipe cleaner end with a finger or using your tamper against a hard surface.
Run the pipe cleaner through the stem of the pipe and into the bowl. Leave it in there for a few seconds so it can absorb moisture, and then take it out. Bend the pipe cleaner in the middle so that it forms a loop. Holding the ends of the pipe cleaner, use this loop to swab out the inside of the pipe. Your goal here is to remove the granulated ash that clings to the sides.
If your pipe has a filter, it makes sense to replace this every smoke because it becomes soaked in moisture and fermenting tobacco juice. If you decide to go without the filter, which is perfectly workable, be aware that your pipe will have greater draw and may allow small bits of ash and tobacco to sail into your mouth. You do not want to swallow these, so have water handy to swish out your mouth. (If you do accidentally swallow some, seek this treatment).
Maintaining Your Pipe
Over time, pipes can build up something known as “cake.” This occurs as layers of ash are roasted on top of one another, forming an insulating carbon layer. Generally having a layer of cake about the thickness of a dime is considered positive, but many smokers opt for less or none.
Cake buildup can make your pipe burn hotter because of the insulating properties of the carbon layer, will reduce the aperture size of your bowl, and can produce internal pressure that damages a pipe.
For this reason, many smokers swab their pipes after every smoke to clear out the ash-dust that forms cake, and when cake builds up, reduce it using fine sandpaper wrapped around a finger to gently grind off the cake layer.
Many pipe smokers use a pipe only once a day, and then pick up another for the subsequent bowl. This is the collector’s-level approach to pipe smoking: each pipe is treated a bit like a museum piece and kept pristine. A far larger group however smoke one or two pipes near constantly or use cobs as semi-disposable pipes.
If you are from this larger group, you will need to ensure that your pipe dries out overnight and every two weeks, to pour a bit of whiskey in the bowl, swish it around, and then drain it through the stem. This avoids “mundungus” or the fetid odor of fermenting pipe moisture.
The only solvent worth using on your pipe is alcohol, and it makes sense to use an alcohol that is not dangerous to you, i.e. a consumable kind like whiskey. In my own experience, whiskey always works but other alcohols can be harder on a pipe. Avoid allowing alcohol to linger on the finish of the pipe.
Tobacco originates as a leafy plant in the genus Nicotiana which when cured, dried, pressed and cut becomes a vegetable substance that humans can smoke. When ready for a pipe, tobacco generally takes the form of a blend or mixture of different tobacco types. Blends have several important attributes:
- Types of tobacco
- Cut or form of the blend
- Topping and flavoring
Tobacco types are determined by the specific species grown, how it is grown and how it is cured. The strains of leaf are:
- Rustica. Natural tobacco, with a vegetative sweetness and cigar-like richness.
- Burley. Also compared to cigars, or described as “nutty” with a slight hint of natural chocolate-like flavor. Low in sugar, high in Nicotine.
- Virginia. Virginias are often described as tasting like honey or hay. High in sugar, low in Nicotine.
- Oriental. The classic “sweet and sour” taste of Orientals is often describe as tangy or spicy.
These are then prepared by the following methods designed to bring out the flavor and Nicotine:
- Flue-cured. Tobacco is air-cured in heated barns.
- Fermented. Leaves are subjected to heat and pressure to initiate fermentation.
- Cavendish. Cut leaf is soaked in a sugar solution, stoved and pressured.
- Perique. Barrels are stuffed with leaves which are then compressed and fermented.
- Smoke-Cured. Hung in barns where wood fires burn, tobacco is cured by smoke.
- Dark Fired Kentucky Dark Fired and Dark Fired tobacco are Burleys cured with hardwood fires.
- Latakia Named for the area in Syria from which it came, Latakia is smoked with pine wood and herbs.
- Stoved. Heated with pressure and/or steam, tobacco roasts and loses some of its sugars, increasing Nicotine levels.
Tobacco comes in several cuts which reflect how the leaves are presented:
- Shag. Cut laterally across the leaf, leaving an interlocked mess like peat moss that loads easily and burns well.
- Ribbon. “Normal.” Thicker slices that seem to be vertically up and down the leaf.
- Flake -> Ready Rubbed. Flake occurs when tobacco is pressed in blocks and then sliced; Ready Rubbed is the result of “rubbing out” those slices.
- Plug. Full tobacco leaves are pressed together and allowed to mature that way, then cut into little pucks.
- Cake. Like a plug, but made with already cut tobacco, resulting in a crumbly “coffee cake” style.
- Cube. Cross-slicing the tobacco produces tiny cubes; sometimes hard to keep lit.
- Twist -> Slices. Tobacco is twisted in ropes, then cut into little “coin” shaped bits called slices.
These are used in the following blend archetypes:
- English (blend). Originally referring to any mix of natural tobaccos, it also includes the “UK plug” variety: dark fired, Burley and Virginia.
- English (mixture). Mostly Virginia, with Latakia for body and Oriental tobaccos to provide spice.
- Scottish. Similar to an English mixture, the Scottish blend uses less Latakia and more Virginia, with little or no Orientals.
- Balkan. Strong in Orientals and Latakia, this tobacco blend uses Virginia to balance those dominant flavors.
- American. Although there are some similarities to the English, the American blend uses more Virginia with possible Cavendish or Kentucky style tobaccos.
- Danish. These resemble the English, but with a deeper flavor and less spice, using more Burley and Cavendish but emphasizing stronger, more balanced flavors.
Blends are generally assessed according to the following traits:
- Flavoring. Almost all tobacco is cased or soaked in fruit juices, liquors and/or sugars. To some, a “top note” or complementary flavoring is added. For the Danish-style aromatics, this top note is a syrup that mostly overwhelms the natural tobacco taste.
- Taste. Degree of flavor is assessed on a Mild, Medium and Strong scale.
- Room Note. This refers to the scent of the burning tobacco, running a gamut from pleasant to horrible cigarette-like or worse afterstench.
- Strength. Amount of Nicotine, usually measured in Mild, Medium and Strong.
The following resources may be helpful for those seeking to know more:
- G.L. Pease FAQ
- Pipe Glossary
- Brick and Mortar (B&M) and Tobacconists Locator
- “The ABCs of pipe smoking” (PDF, 70kb)
- Savinelli pipe instructions (PNG, 2mb)
- “A Pipemans Handbook!” (PDF, 2.8mb)
- Tobacco Industry Documents
Reviews of pipe tobacco blends:
- Smoking Pipes
- West Virginia Smoke Shop
- Pipes and Cigars / Cigars International
- Pipe and Leaf
- The Pipe Guys
- Mars Cigars and Pipes
- Pipe Place
- Payless Pipes
- Cup O’ Joes
Places to buy OTC tobacco, which online is sold in bulk:
Resources for those who wish to grow or blend their own tobacco:
Tobacco blenders and brands:
- Altria/Phillip Morris
- Cornell & Diehl
- Gawith, Hoggarth and Co.
- G.L. Pease
- J.F. Germain
- Kohlhase & Kopp
- Nat Sherman
- Peter Stokkebye
- Samuel Gawaith & Co.
- Scandinavian Tobacco Group
Pipe smokers forums: