Smoking pipes is really all about relaxation and in that sense fundamentally differs from some other forms of tobacco consumption. One needs time and patience to truly enjoy smoking a pipe, hence the reason why it is traditionally more popular among the ‘time rich’, the upper classes and the retired. However, the pipe is seeing something of a resurgence as a new generation looks for different ways to relax and wind down.
A hobby to most and even an art form to some, one of the greatest barriers to the uninitiated is that pipe smoking often appears a little complicated. Many people, particularly younger generations, may like to try a pipe but simply don’t know where to start whilst the more mature amongst us may have seen an older relative smoking but never bothered to learn the techniques. For this reason we have put together an in-depth guide to pipe smoking that we hope will enable beginners to get up and smoking, and at least establish whether it’s ‘for them’. We will cover the basics such as the anatomy of a pipe, a little about the different shapes and materials used as well as filtration systems, a simple overview of tobaccos, the bare necessities in terms of accessories, and then get down to the nitty gritty of preparing and smoking your pipe. The post smoking routine and general pipe care will be covered in our Beginners Guide to Pipe Care. All of this will provide a good grounding which, should you enjoy pipe smoking, you can develop in line with your own personal tastes… Enjoy!
Like many things in life different pipes serve different purposes. Over time many smokers build up a range of pipes to cover all their needs, be it a short smoke pipe for a snatched 10 minutes or a highly regarded brand name for showing off! This will only come with time but one principle should always apply – a good pipe is a thing of beauty, even if only to the owner! It should be a pleasure to hold, inspect, perhaps even tell a story about, and demands a certain amount of respect. As simple as a pipe seems there is an incredible amount of skill that goes into making a quality example and most conform to the same basic construction:
- Bowl – This is where the tobacco is burned
- Shank – A continuation of the bowl up to the stem
- Stem – Fits tightly to the shank and contains the filtration system
Without going into too much detail in this beginner’s guide, the majority of pipes are made from briar, although other materials commonly used are meerschaum (a white mineral found underground particularly in Turkey and parts of northern Africa), corn cobs (often referred to as Missouri Meerschaum and a cheap, disposable entry into smoking), and cherry or rosewood (often regarded as a poor alternative to briar and less hardy). Each material has its own history and developmental evolution, as do pipe shapes and designs which make fascinating reading, but that is for another time. For simplicity, a briar pipe is a great starting point as they are the most commonplace, provide a neutral smoke and can be long lasting if cared for properly.
Essentially preferences regarding pipe shape, design and finish are a purely aesthetic and thereby individual decision. Although they will all have a bearing on the quality of the smoking experience the differences will be subtle and the understanding of the impact of these variables will likely come with experience. Probably the biggest decision for any beginner will be whether to go for a straight or bent shape and again this will come down to individual preference. If you feel you want to clench the pipe in your teeth to keep your hands free, a bent pipe may be best. Such a pipe has a lower center of gravity and puts less strain on your teeth. A straight pipe must be clenched harder and can give your jaw muscles a real work out. However, there is no right or wrong answer so simply pick a pipe you like…
Often overlooked, the type of filter system can dramatically change the smoking experience and will come down to personal preference after a certain amount of trial and error, e.g. some filters provide high levels of filtration but can create resistance during the smoke and also can sometimes subtly change the flavour of the tobacco. There are brand specific systems such as EA Carey’s patented Magic Inch or that of the Falcon range of metal pipes, and then there are the generic systems such as 9mm charcoal filters, metal filters or even no filter at all. Many EA Carey customers swear by our patented system but it really is a case of personal taste. For beginners however, we would certainly recommend at least some filtration.
To repeat a mantra once again, buying pipe tobacco is entirely down to personal preference and to a large degree trial and error. Many beginners really are drawn to by the aromatic scents that are so commonly associated with pipe smoking, so the best advice as a beginner is to start with a mild aromatic tobacco and let your tastes develop from there. As time progresses you will begin to appreciate the different types of pipe tobacco that are available, with many smokers looking to move away from the flavoured tobaccos and on to the more ‘unmolested’ traditional blends. A great way of understanding your preferences is to buy a sampler pack such as our Carey Private Blend Aromatic Sampler, which includes a range of blends, aromas and tastes – this will give you a great foundation for developing your pipe smoking palette.
Although part of the enjoyment of pipe smoking is tailoring all the paraphernalia to your exact tastes and preferences such as pouches, stands, lighters, etc there are really only three must have accessories for the novice pipe smoker. These are a gas and flint lighter (preferably specifically designed for pipe smoking with a side or angled flame aperture), a 3-in-1 pipe tool (reamer, tamper and pick) and pipe cleaners.
Art of Pipe Smoking
Now that you’re kitted out with your pipe and tobacco of choice, and a few of the basic accessories, its time to put it all to good use. It’s important to remember that learning how to pack, light, and smoke a pipe is something to be perfected over time. You won’t be an expert the first time you light up no matter how many pipe smoking guides you read. But just remember, it’s supposed to be both relaxing and enjoyable!
If you grew up watching your grandfather or an older relative smoke their pipe, they probably loaded it by dropping the pipe into a pouch of tobacco and jamming the bowl full with their thumb. They would then withdraw the pipe completely filled with tobacco, and light it. And light it. And light it some more.
The problem with simply stuffing a practically solid column of tobacco into the bowl of the pipe is that there is very little air for the combustion to take place when you light the pipe. The result is you find yourself having to light it over and over again, creating a very hot and wet smoke. And a hot and wet smoke often results in what is called “tongue bite”, a sharp stinging sensation on the tongue.
The solution is to let gravity be your friend. Hold the pipe in one hand and with your other take a pinch of tobacco between your fingers. Sprinkle it into the bowl of the pipe, and keep adding more in the same manner until it’s filled. Only then will you take your thumb or finger, or pipe tamper, and gently push down the tobacco until it’s about halfway down into the bowl (or less). Repeat this procedure once or twice more until the tobacco is now at the top of the bowl, and is spongy to the touch. Between each filling of the bowl try sucking a little air through the mouthpiece – if it remains unimpeded it’s loaded correctly. If done as outlined above, the tobacco will be very loose at the bottom of the bowl and tighter toward the top, allowing ample combustion to take place without excessive re-lights.
Now to light the pipe…with a gas and flint lighter or matches (preferably wooden), approach the top of the bowl with the flame. As soon as the flame is over the tobacco, draw air in through the stem like you’re sucking from a straw. You’re not going to inhale the smoke but rather draw it in to the mouth and exhale it back out. Give the pipe several good deep puffs while moving the flame evenly around the opening, lighting all areas. Remove the flame and give the pipe several more good puffs, which should generate a lot of smoke.
Counter intuitively, it is important at this point to let it die out. This is known as the “charring” or “false” light, and ensures that any excess moisture has been removed from the tobacco prior to the actual smoke. At this point you want to very gently tamp down the thin layer of ash using the tamper on your pipe tool. Light the pipe again using the same procedure as in the charring light, but this time the pipe should stay lit. Give it some good puffs to get it going, but then slow down the pace and vigor of your puffing. The object now isn’t to produce great volumes of smoke, but rather to keep the fire going by light, even puffing and occasional tamping down of the ashes. Never force the ashes down – always use easy, gentle pressure when tamping. Many pipe smokers will relight at least once during a smoke. In order to best enjoy the tobacco flavours, experienced smokers will take the smoke into their mouths and roll it round, as if tasting a wine. It is extremely unusual to inhale pipe smoke.
You may find the pipe getting a little ‘juicy’ as you smoke. To avoid this try keeping your mouth as dry as possible. You may want to consider running a pipe cleaner down the stem to clear it out should it become particularly bad. Let the pipe cleaner sit for a moment and withdraw, but whatever you do, don’t take the stem off the pipe while it’s still hot as this will eventually cause the stem to become loose or even break. If you find that the pipe becomes too hot in your hands put it down for a few minutes – although briar pipes are heat resistant, they will burn or crack if smoked too hot. Wait until the pipe is warm to the touch, but not hot, and re-light. If at any time your pipe starts to taste nasty, stop. Pipe smoking is supposed to be pleasant and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t always be so. This is most likely caused by smoking too fast or the pipe not being properly broken in.
Depending on the size of the pipe, the type of tobacco, and how slow or fast you smoke, a pipe can last anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour or more. The taste of the tobacco will often change as it gets closer to the end of the smoke as the oils from the leaf will concentrate in the bottom of the bowl causing the tobacco to taste a bit stronger.
Hopefully this simple guide will help you to enjoy your first few smokes before developing your own routines and preferences. The beauty of smoking a pipe is that other than some of the basics there are no hard and fast rules or trends, thus allowing those that partake to develop their own habits, routines and rituals and to express themselves. As long as you are enjoying it, you are doing it right… Enjoy!