Pipe Dreams – Pack it In!

Even after forty years of on and off pipe smoking, I can still get it wrong.

Sometimes it may be a new pipe, or one with a narrower – or wider – bowl, but even with old favourites, I sometimes just pack it wrong. It may not stay alight well, or will burn unevenly down one side of the bowlful. Gah!
I suppose, in mitigation, I have been making omelettes for about the same length of time; now and again they are a genius fluffy collation of eggs and fines herbs, other times an idiot’s scorched, solid mass of egg and greenery.
I generally use the same tried and tested methods – with eggs and tobacco – but occasionally it just won’t come together through a variable mixture of ingredients, utensils, climate and temper.

We just keep trying.

Again and again.

Ready rubbed tobaccos tend to be easier to pack, though some aromatics can be moist and pack down too densely making lighting a challenge. They can burn a little ‘wet’ causing dottle, steam and therefore heat. Those factors and high sugars in flavourings, topping and casings can also cause tongue bite, that nasty burn of too hot smoke on tongue-tip.
The solution, if the tobacco is too damp in the pouch, is to leave it open in the air a little before smoking. It should feel neither wet nor dry, but pliable.

The ‘gravity’, three-stage method of packing a pipe is a good one.

Let a little loose tobacco trickle into the bottom of the bowl. Tamp a little, but not too tight, leaving room for a little air to circulate. Pack a second pinch 2/3rds filling the bowl, tamp lightly again. There should be little or no resistance when sucking air through the stem. Hard to draw, then it’s packed too tight. The third fill should come tufting just above the top of the bowl. Pack down with a finger until you have an even tobacco surface. It will look nice and tidy.
On lighting, char first; matches are always best. Gas will do. Petrol lighters, in my opinion, impart an oily taste.

Just singe the tobacco. It will go out. Tamp with finger or tool, then light again and it will catch, beginning to burn downwards. Sip and puff lightly, you will really get the first taste of the tobacco – the top notes, mild, but characteristic of whatever you are smoking. English blends will reveal the smoky Latakia and spicy Orientals, Lakeland blends; the essential oils, cloves and roses used in the “English’ cure. English blends came about way back when from laws forbidding the addition of sugars and alcohol, but now tend to mean mixtures that include Latakia with few flavourings or alcohol casings.  Aromatics will present their sweet and fruity flavourings. Virginias and Virginia/Perique will give you pure tobacco tastes, grassy and clean, meatier from the addition of Burley to the mixture.

It may go out again. Rest a little, light again, and let the above characteristics develop through the pipe, as a cigar does, bringing out the deeper notes of the mixture as smoke is drawn through the bowlful.

Puffing too fast will get it hot, making the flavours harsher, and the smoke will develop bite, so take it easy. Be patient. If you have packed imperfectly or unevenly, dig a little with a sharp pipe tool and tamp again. All is not lost, it may even out through the bowl. But if it doesn’t, it is still a soothing, diversionary activity, essential to the pipe smoker’s ritual and learning curve.

And relax.

Flakes are a different matter, and often seen as something to develop into for the beginner, but really there is nothing to scare the horses. Flakes are the same tobacco, cut into slices from a bar or pressed block of tobacco, and you can take your pick as to how you ‘rub’ them out and pack them.

I was always taught by my father and grandfather to take two or three flakes (depending on bowl size) place them in the palm of one hand and to break them down to the required thickness in a circular motion with the middle and third finger of the other hand. Rubbed out finely, they will be much the same as the ready rubbed. A little coarser and you will have to pack a little looser, but the smoke will often be cooler and slower burning. I would always choose a flake with a stronger tobacco.  Some flake smokers, especially with lighter flakes, such as golden, rum-cured mixtures simply fold the flakes into the bowl. Others cut the flake into tiny cubes and fill the bowl with small chunks of tobacco. This, however takes us into a more specialised area of tobacco expertise, such as twists, plugs and cakes which are still made by a few specialised producers and require shaving and cutting from the twist or plug with a blade (another time maybe).

There are many bits of advice on YouTube, some of them a bit long-winded, but many recent ones refer to ‘The Frank Method’ or German method – basically subtly different ways of doing the same thing. Have a look, see what suits. Here’s a good start point.

All in all, the import of these musings is to stick at it, to keep trying, changing and experimenting. We are a minority group, especially in the UK, of epicurians, keeping alive a delightful and rewarding habit that supports niche producers, craftsmen and aficionados worldwide. A brotherhood; and in a few cases, a sisterhood (welcome ladies).
Free thinkers, and those who do different, smoke pipes. Pipe smokers never started a war – except Joseph Stalin, and he was counterbalanced by Einstein and Bertrand Russell. Stalinism, maybe just a blip in pipe-smoking history.

My advice is to keep trying new blends, mixtures and cuts, packing and smoking them, you will never go too wrong. You might just find something you like as much as your current favourite. Or you may find a new one. Try a Carey’s Sampler – if you are an Aromatic fan, try the English blends and if an English blender, vice versa.

One more tip, buy a corn cob. This is the best pipe available to try new tobaccos, sample and experiment with packing, rubbing and smoking. A cob does not need breaking in (briars need to develop a bit of carbon cake), it won’t ghost – i.e. take on the flavour of the previous tobacco –  and they are really cheap. The Native Americans and English settlers in Virginia smoked them before clay and root. They invented it. Can’t be wrong.

Some of these musings and opinions have been discussed and distilled from membership of online pipe forums. One is the Facebook group: The Gentlemen’s Pipe Smoking Society. It is a global group comprising Gents, Truckers, Goths, Hobbits and the ‘neuro-typical’ who all share one thing…the love of pipe smoking. I suggest you join, keep the faith.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it!

Filling a pipe
Cocky Dunhill, Nov 2015.

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4 Responses to Pipe Dreams – Pack it In!

  1. avatar Nick S says:

    A very interesting and enjoyable article,I shall be putting your advice into practice when my tobacco arrives later this week.regards,Nick.(new pipe smoker)

    • avatar Marcus says:

      Hi Nick – I’m pleased you found it useful. And don’t forget to review that tobacco once you’d have a chance to taste it – it could be worth a £10 Product Review voucher… Happy puffing!

  2. avatar Steven H says:

    Excellent. A definitive guide to packing, lighting and keeping one’s pipe lit. I’ve been smoking a pipe for roughly the same amount of time and still, as you say, get it wrong or not quite right. But when it all comes together, that perfect smoke is what it’s all about. Thank you. Steve

  3. avatar George says:

    Thank you so much my friend, such a nice article to share with the brethren. One can sometimes feel so alone as a pipe smoker these days so it’s good to know that together we can keep the faith and do the things that we enjoy.
    Good health and long life to us all. My thanks once again, George.

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