Pipe smoking is a centuries old art. And there are great men throughout history that made it their vice of choice – or at least one of their vices. For example, Edwin Powell Hubble – whom you might know as the person for whom the famous telescope was named – was an adamant pipe smoker. So was author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – which makes sense, considering that his most famous character, Sherlock Holmes, enjoyed it just the same. Even the great general Douglas MacArthur was frequently photographed with his favorite corncob. The point is this: smoking a pipe can be a rewarding and relaxing endeavor for anyone willing to take the time to learn how to do it properly.
The problem is, this art appears to be fading away into the ether and is, subsequently, more difficult than ever to learn. In light of that, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to put together this step-by-step guide. From selecting your tobacco to taking your first long draw, these are the ins and outs of this dying art. So, if you find yourself wanting to take it up and join the ranks of great ponderers, explorers, and other men of notable stature, the following will teach you how to smoke a pipe.
Anatomy of a Pipe
There are a number of different pipe shapes that have been popular throughout the years. But each of them; whether they are stout and carved from corncob, curved like the one owned by Sherlock Holmes, or the exceedingly long churchwarden-style (like Gandalf’s from Lord of the Rings); are comprised of two basic parts: the stummel and the stem. The stummel is the larger main portion of the pipe into which the tobacco is placed and the Stem is the secondary portion through which the smoke travels on its way to the user’s mouth. The subsequent parts of each are as follows:
Chamber: The rounded interior of the pipe into which the tobacco is placed.
Bowl: The rounded exterior of the chamber; typically the part of the pipe that is held.
Heel/Foot: The base and forward portion of the bowl that faces away from the shank.
Shank: The hollowed portion of the pipe that protrudes from the bowl through which the smoke travels.
Bit: The narrowest part of the stem that’s held in the mouth by the teeth or lips.
Button/Lip: The endmost part of the pipe and the portion through which it is smoked. This piece is often widened to prevent it from slipping out of the mouth.
There are literal dozens of styles of pipes with an equal number of confusing and seemingly unrelated names, but – at the end of the day – your choice of pipe is going to come down to personal preference. Whether you want a simple minimalist pipe straight pipe or you appreciate the sweeping curve of a bent pipe, you can track down a worthwhile one with relatively little effort. Though there are differences in shapes and materials, there’s really not a much of a difference between how they all function. Find a style that you like and go for it.
Choosing A Tobacco
Before you even try to pack your pipe, you should do a little research into the type of tobacco you want. As is the case with craft beer and fine cigars, there are a number different types of pipe tobacco and each is going to have a different flavor palette, level of smoothness, etc. It’s also important to keep in mind that, like craft beer, there isn’t any standardized way of naming a tobacco outside of overall varieties, so a brand may name their blends whatever they choose. The best bet for any newcomer navigating the realm of tobacco is to speak to an actual tobacconist. These purveyors of all things smokable are – more often than not – experts in their craft and will be able to guide you on your way. You can also purchase small tins of a wide variety of different blends, cuts, and otherwise if you’re having trouble deciding. That way, you can try a few and figure out which types you like. It can be said, however, that tobacco will fall into two main categories: aromatic and non-aromatic.
Aromatic tobaccos are those which have had flavors added to them. Common types include vanilla, chocolate, whiskey, and fruit. Keep in mind, however, that these flavors will be most notable in the scent of the tobacco rather than the actual taste; hence the term aromatic. Don’t expect your vanilla tobacco to taste like ice cream and you should be fine. That being said, these types of tobacco do tend to be a bit on the milder and sweeter side and are your best bet if you are not a seasoned smoker.
These tobaccos have a much more natural and traditional smell and flavor to them. Though nearly all tobaccos are mixed with an alcohol-based liquid – called a casing – which is used to make them more palatable, the non-aromatic varieties feature a casing that is more neutral and does not compromise the natural flavor. Those with more experience in smoking tend to appreciate these blends for their more nuanced profiles.
Breaking In A Pipe
Once you have your pipe and your tobacco picked out, the time has come to smoke it, right? Well, not if you want your pipe to last for a long time and enhance your smoking experience. The first step you should take after purchasing a new pipe is to break it in. Keep in mind, however, that this is not an absolutely necessary step; it’s just what we recommend if you want to make the most out of the experience. After all, smoking out of a pipe is a labor of love and is not for those seeking instant gratification. Sure, breaking in your pipe could take some time and patience, but it will be worth it in the long run.
You can think of it kind of like seasoning a skillet. The end-goal here is to create a uniform coating on the inside of the bowl of your pipe. First, take a pinch of tobacco and fill the bowl about 1/4 to 1/2 full and gently press it down with your finger or a tamper (a small, flat-bottomed tool used to pack pipe tobacco). This is what’s referred to as “packing,” which we will go into in more depth later. Then, place your lips over the bit of the pipe and suck some air through. If you struggle to draw air, your tobacco is packed too tight and needs to be loosened up.
Once your tobacco is packed, you can take a wooden match or a lighter, ignite it, and evenly spread the flame over the surface of the tobacco, taking small puffs through the stem to get it started. If you know how to smoke a cigar, the lighting method isn’t all that dissimilar. Once the tobacco is lit, you’ll want to take long and slow drags to ensure that the tobacco burns all the way down. Once that’s done, repeat that step a few more times. Then, fill it slightly higher and repeat again another couple of times. Finally, fill the bowl to 3/4 (you never want to fill your pipe any more than that) and repeat the step another few times.
All in all, you should follow this process a total of about a dozen times. We know that terms like “a few” and “about” are hardly scientific, but the process of breaking-in a pipe is more of an art than it is a science. You’ll have to determine on your own whether you’re happy with the result or if you want to continue the process. What you should end up with is a thin layer of carbon coating the entirety of your pipe’s tobacco chamber. This will both protect the longevity of the piece and will aid in enhancing the flavor profile of future bowlfuls.
Filling The Pipe
The first step of filling your pipe is determining the cut, and therefore density, of the tobacco you are using. If you can’t identify it by the label on the tin, there are a few telling signs that will aid you. Ribbon cut tobacco, for example, comes in dry strands of varying length. This type tends to hold more air and requires a more firm tamp. Conversely, Plug style is a kind of tobacco that has been compressed under heat and is, therefore, more dense and requires a lighter hand to avoid clogging your pipe. If you are unsure which cut suits you best, consult your tobacconist. And remember, you can always test to see if your pipe is packed properly by drawing air through the mouthpiece.
A Pinch At A Time
As is the case with adding spices to food or feeding a fish, the best way to fill your pipe is a pinch at a time. This deliberate method will not only help you keep from clogging your pipe, but it will also ensure that your tobacco burns both evenly and completely. If you pack too little tobacco into your pipe, it will burn fast and hot and will, therefore, be less enjoyable. If you add too much, your tobacco will not properly combust and drawing smoke through the stem will feel like sucking on a plugged up straw. To avoid this, take the time to meticulously fill your pipe pinch by pinch. Usually, two to three pinches should be enough. And remember, never fill your pipe to the brim, lest you want to risk dropping burning tobacco onto yourself or any flammable things nearby.
Tamping The Tobacco
Tamping, which is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “ram[ming] or pack[ing] a substance into something firmly,” is the unsung hero of smoking tobacco. It’s also the hardest skill to master because it takes the most practice and finesse. A perfectly tamped bowl of tobacco wont burn too quickly, nor will it require frequent re-lighting. It can be done with your finger, or you can buy a device called a tamper (which is usually made from metal or wood) to complete the task. We recommend the latter, as it is both more precise and more sanitary.
With the first pinch of tobacco, you want to press down on the it very gently and evenly, so as to leave a good amount of air between your tobacco leaves and the bottom of the bowl. With each subsequent tamp, the press should become more and more firm. Remember not to crush your tobacco into a paste – it’s not a mortar and pestle. You want to be sure that the bowl is tight enough that the tobacco stays secure, but – as always – you need to be able to draw air through it.
Lighting The Tobacco
To ignite your tobacco, you’ll want to use either a wooden match – not the flimsy paper kinds you find in bars – or a butane lighter. The difference between a butane pipe lighter and your average disposable Bic is that butane pipe lighters will not change the flavor of your tobacco, whereas anything with a liquid combustible can negatively affect the taste of your smoke. Pipe lighters are also typically designed to keep the flame away from your digits in the process of lighting. You can try to light your pipe with a cheap throw-away, but you’ll likely find it frustrating and you’ll probably burn yourself frequently. With matches, you can at least hold the end and hover the flame above the bowl.
With either your lit match or lighter, you want to draw the flame in a circular motion across the surface of the tobacco. As you do this, you should take long and steady draws to pull the flame downward into the tobacco. This first step is called ‘charring.’ Once you’ve charred the surface of the tobacco, the time has come to tamp it again – another reason we recommend getting a tamper rather than using your finger. Press down firmly on the tobacco to even out the surface again. Once it is even and the embers are out, you’re ready for what’s called the ‘true light.’
Now, you’ll want to follow the same first steps as the char, but draw the flame around the bowl several more times. While doing so, again take long and deep draws from your pipe. You should notice that the smoke is getting thicker and a bright red ember should be visible in your tobacco. Once this occurs, your pipe is fully lit and you’re ready to enjoy that smoke.
Relax & Enjoy
Now that you’ve taken care of all the tedious and/or hard work, the time has come to enjoy your pipe. Remember, there is no rush in this step. Pipe smoking is meant to be a steady and relaxing experience. Set aside whatever else you are doing and focus on appreciating your achievement. Long and consistent draws should be all you need to keep your tobacco lit. If it goes out, however, don’t fret. Simply follow the steps for lighting it and continue to smoke. The one thing you want to avoid as much as possible is smoking too fast. If you take drags too quickly, it’s possible to get what’s called ‘tongue bite’ – an very uncomfortable burning sensation.
Maintaining The Pipe
Once you are finished smoking, you should immediately take steps to clean your pipe. This will not only ensure that each time you use it, your tobacco will taste fresh, but it will potentially save your pipe from incurring damage that might be caused otherwise. There are three methods by which you should clean your pipe. In order of frequency, they are as follows:
After each smoke, you should take a pipe cleaner – yes the same thing you used in arts & crafts as a kid or as an amateur plumbing tool – and feed it through the mouthpiece and down into the bowl. This will prevent any buildup from clogging up the smoke channel. You don’t need to use any soap or corrosive cleaning supplies. In fact, we recommend against it entirely, as it could impart flavors or toxins into your pipe. After you’ve run the pipe cleaner through, you should blow through the mouthpiece to expel any loose particles. You should also take a scraper – a piece of metal designed for this purpose – and remove any excess ash from the bowl. If your pipe can be disassembled, you should take it apart when you clean it. This will ensure a more thorough cleaning and will make the job easier. Once this is done, simply leave your pipe out to dry (smoking inherently imparts moisture into your pipe). Ideally, you should give your pipe a break for about a day between each smoke to allow ample time for it to dry. This will keep your pipe from acquiring a sour taste.
Select a drinking alcohol – you can use scotch, vodka, rum, brandy or our personal favorite, whiskey – for a more thorough cleaning. Do not use rubbing alcohol, as it is not safe to drink and therefore shouldn’t be used on your pipe. Simply take a pipe cleaner, dip it in the alcohol and follow the same steps as above. This type of cleaning should be done periodically, but not nearly as frequently as a dry-cleaning. Every few weeks or so should be fine.
Scraping The Cake
The more you smoke, the more carbon buildup you will get on the inside of your bowl. The ideal thickness of that beneficial buildup should be about the same as a dime. If it is approaching the thickness of a nickel, the time has come to scrape some of it off. Using the same scraping tool used in the pipe cleaning step, simply scrape away at the buildup until the thickness matches about that of a dime. Don’t be too eager in this step, however, as you don’t want to take off too much of that ‘cake.’ It does, after all, benefit both your smoking enjoyment and the health of your pipe.
Pipe Smoking Essentials
- Visol Coppia Pipe Lighter [$20]
- Mr. Brog 3-in-1 Pipe Tool [$7]
- Old Army No. 21 Pipe [$25]
- Dill’s Premium Pipe Cleaners [$9]
While you’re going to find that the world of pipe smoking is fairly vast in regards to gear and you’ll develop preferences over time, you’ll still need some things to get you started. Again, your best bet is to speak to your tobacconist – as they can give you one-on-one attention and impart years of valuable wisdom – but sometimes you just need to take that first step. A basic pear wood two-piece smoking pipe is a solid starter. It’s easy to use, maintain, and features a classic style that has been proven for centuries. And this one has a wind guard. Visol’s Coppia pipe lighter is the perfect counterpart – boasting some modern tech (like a fuel viewing window and flame adjustment dial) – and it will ensure a full and even light when used properly. Then of course, you’ll need a set of tools. Well, the 3-in-1 from Mr. Brog is a tamper, scraper, and reamer in a single easy-to-manage package. And, lastly, you could do far worse than Dill’s premium pipe cleaners for your after-smoke maintenance. They’re all cotton, disposable, and can absolutely be depended on to get the job done.