Did you even know you needed to?
Have you ever wondered why your tobacco pipe doesn’t catch fire?! The simple answer is that actually it could, unless you protect it. And even if it doesn’t catch fire if it hasn’t been prepared properly – broken in – it may suffer hot spots or at worst a catastrophic burnout, where tiny weaknesses in the briar wood (such as changes in grain density or burls) are susceptible to burning too hot, in turn leading to irreparable weakening of the pipe bowl walls and ultimately actual breakage.
So breaking in your new tobacco pipe is a crucial step in tobacco pipe ownership and care. And it actually goes beyond simple protection – a well broken in smoking pipe will last longer, and taste sweeter, than a poorly prepared equivalent.
(It should be noted that some briar pipes come ‘pre-carbonized’, including many EA Carey ranges, which is a stage in the manufacture where liquid ‘carbon’ is painted onto the exposed wood inside the pipe bowl. This should be viewed as a helping hand to creating an effective cake rather than a pre-broken in tobacco pipe, and so the following steps should still be followed…)
How to do it…
The most important thing for a beginner to pipe smoking to understand is that, like with all things ‘tobacco pipe’ you do not want to be rushed. Pipe smoking in general is a gentle hobby, time consuming in the extreme and certainly not for the time poor, and breaking in your latest tobacco pipe is the same. The longer you take, and the more careful you are, the greater the rewards.
The goal when breaking in a tobacco pipe is to develop a uniform ‘cake’ around the wall of the entire smoking chamber or smoke hole. The cake is actually a carbon deposit left by the smoked pipe tobacco rather than charred wood, and this cake serves to insulate the briar (or other material such as meerschaum or corn cob) and reduces the possibility of burning out your new tobacco pipe.
The cake also sweetens the pipe, since the carbon is formed from the sugars in the tobacco. (This is one reason why many seasoned tobacco pipe smokers retain particular pipes for particular blends of tobacco, as the sugars created by a certain blend in making a cake may ‘pollute’ the flavour of a different tobacco blend – a lesson well learned by the beginner pipe smoker). The sweet cake also absorbs the ‘flavour’ of the briar (after all, we use smoking wood to flavour many of our favourite foods) and the result of smoking a pipe with a well formed cake is a mellow, sweet smoke. However, you can also have too much cake which is discussed later.
To create the cake one must fill the smoking pipe only one-quarter full to begin. Light the partial pipeful evenly using a specific pipe lighter. Tamp down the burning tobacco (using a tamper) and again light the tobacco evenly. Smoke the pipe slowly and completely. Taking long, slow draws will help to form a good, even cake. It is important to smoke the tobacco pipe to the bottom to establish the cake all the way down. The cake at the bottom of the bowl is the most difficult to develop and this is why such care must be taken in the breaking in process.
After smoking a few pipefuls at one-quarter, move up to smoking at one-half full, then several at three-quarters. Allow the smoking pipe to cool after each smoke and after a few pipefuls gently remove the residue from the bottom of the bowl using your pipe tool. This must be done very carefully so as not to disturb the cake which you have created with your efforts. The purpose of gradually increasing the pipe tobacco level is twofold – first, it will help form an even cake from the bottom to the top of the pipe bowl and second, it ensures that the new smoking pipe will not become overheated and burn out before it has a thick enough cake.
And finally, do not allow too much carbon cake to form inside the bowl as this may cause the wood to split due to outward expansion when the bowl is cooling after use. The ideal cake thickness is 1.5mm. Any excess can be removed using a pipe reamer.
And now your pipe is broken in – congratulations!