How to start smoking a pipe
Welcome to the pipe and all those flavours and aromas.
There is a very good article on the Pipes Digest web site on how to pack and light a pipe, but I’ll add my own comments too since we all do it slightly differently and sometimes different descriptions will just click for different people. It took me about six months to get really good at packing my pipe—partly because several of my first pipes have fairly deep, narrow bowls, and these can be a little trickier. Many folks get the hang of it after just a few times, and sometimes even the first time!
The pipe. Understandably, you may not want to invest a lot in something you’re not sure you’re going to like or continue. However, if you can start off with a not-so-cheap pipe, so much the better. Some cheaper pipes do turn out to smoke quite well, but not all. Here, I’m speaking mainly of briar (wood) pipes, and am leaving meerschaum and clay pipes out of the discussion for now. Corncob pipes are also a good option if you just want to try pipe smoking—they are very inexpensive and require no breaking-in. They do lend a different taste to the smoke, a taste which I generally find more compatible with natural or the so-called English blends, than with the flavoured and sweetened blends.
Cheap pipes sometimes lead to bitter tastes and wet or hot smokes, but sometimes these effects are merely a result of a new briar not being broken-in. Before you blame your pipe, consider that the problem may be caused by your smoking technique or by overly moist or dry tobacco. With a bit of perseverance, you do get better at figuring out what is wrong if you have a smoke that isn’t as enjoyable as it should be. If you’re not sure, always smoke as slowly as possible, and that cures many pipe problems.
The tobacco. Tobacco choice is important. In my case, at first I wasn’t trying the kinds of tobaccos that I would be likely to enjoy, but I had no way of really knowing that. I had always liked the aroma of the sweet-smelling tobaccos but I found they lacked something when I tried smoking them. I finally tried a couple of natural, English-style blends, despite warnings that these were for more serious, seasoned pipe smokers only. Surprisingly, these tobaccos provided the kind of taste experience I was somehow hoping for. Be forewarned though that natural or English-style blends don’t usually have exactly the same degree of sweetness in their aroma, and that they’re not for everyone. Only experimentation will help you figure out what you like and don’t like. Trying new blends can be a lot of fun, but no matter what, always keep some of your favourite blend on hand in case your sampling doesn’t go well!
There is a myriad of different pipe tobaccos available with different flavours and smoking qualities. However, you are not totally hopeless as to where to start—just take the plunge and enjoy. If you have a taste for sweets, why not start off with something commercial and easily available like Sail, Captain Black or Amphora, or ask your tobacconist for their recommendation. Some folks stick with these blends forever, but others find much pleasure in the elusive search that perfect tobacco.
If you have a taste for stronger or more bitter flavours in coffee, chocolate, tea or beer, you should try a light English blend as your first tobacco instead of a sweeter one. Better still, start with a pouch of each of the two types. Just don’t smoke them in the same pipe if you can avoid it . Smoking an English blend in a pipe used for aromatics often tastes rather weird, and vice-versa. Let your pipe take on the flavour of your tobacco for a while and then judge the tobacco. Of course, that doesn’t mean that first impressions aren’t lasting. If you’re smoking a fairly moist blend (like most flavoured tobaccos), be sure to pack your pipe looser than you would a drier, natural English blend.
Packing the tobacco in your pipe. I f you’ve already smoked your pipe, cover up the bowl of the pipe and blow through the stem in case there are small bits of tobacco that are blocking the passage and which could clog your smoke.
I find that there are two key aspects to packing a pipe correctly. First, the tobacco should be only “somewhat” tight in the pipe—it should still be springy to the touch on the surface. Second, the pipe should be loosely in the bottom half of the pipe than at the top, so that it doesn’t get too tight down there when you tamp it while smoking.
Start by taking a wad of tobacco that looks like it might be a bit more than enough to fill your pipe. If the tobacco seems really stuck together, fluff it up a bit before you do this. Hold your pipe over the pouch (or tin) so that the pouch catches the tobacco that falls while you’re filling it. Push the tobacco in until the pipe is full and a bit of the tobacco is overflowing over the top of the pipe a bit. Don’t cram it in tightly; just make sure the pipe is well-filled. Slowly and carefully fill the pipe as if you were trying to measure how much tobacco the pipe would hold under “average” circumstances, not how much you can cram in.
Your pipe should now have some (or a bunch of) tobacco sticking out of the top and may look like it needs a haircut. Pull most of this off, then take your pipe tool (a “tamper” available at your pipe shop) and *gently* push any loose ends down into the pipe. This way, your tobacco ends up a bit more tightly packed on the top than underneath, which is what you want. Touch the tobacco on top lightly with your thumb. It should feel somewhat springy.
Lighting your pipe. Put the pipe in your mouth and take a few puffs of the unlit tobacco. Not only should it taste good, but you shouldn’t have to apply much suction to get air to pass through it. It should only give a little resistance, like drinking liquid through a straw. If you find that you have to draw hard on it, empty it out and start over— you have packed it a bit too tightly and it will not smoke well. Just pry it out slowly with your pipe tool.
Now, the fun part— lighting up! Big wooden kitchen matches work well, as does a lighter. If you try to use small paper matches, you may end up frustrated and with burnt fingers. As soon as the sulfur burns off, pass the lit match across the surface slowly and puff slowly but firmly, just enough to draw the flame down into the tobacco. Try not to burn the rim of the pipe. You can puff deeply, but not too hard. Hold the smoke in your mouth, but try not to inhale it. Let the smoke puff out of your mouth as you take the next puff. It can take a good 10-20 seconds to get your pipe lit. The tobacco should fluff up a little, perhaps a lot. Now take your pipe tool and flatten out the surface of the scorched and fluffed-up tobacco so that you have a flat surface on the top of your tobacco again (don’t apply much pressure).
You have just completed what is sometimes called the “false light.” It is called “false” because it is now time to light your pipe again. Pass the flame around the top of the tobacco, swirling it slowly to get all of the tobacco on top lit (which you just flattened). As usual, puff slowly, just enough to bring the flame down into the tobacco. This may take another 10-20 seconds or so and generate a lot of ambient smoke, which you will probably enjoy. Now you’re on your way. your pipe is lit. Take a slow deep puff every 5-15 seconds or so—more often if the pipe seems to be going out, less often if the pipe seems to be heating up a lot.. You can either hold the smoke in your mouth for a few seconds and just let it drift out and stop there, or you can take a puff, keep the smoke and the pipe stem in your mouth, then a few seconds later, take another puff, letting the previous puff escape into the air. Some smokers will swallow a small quantity of the smoke, which causes it to escape through the nose and look like you had inhaled it. But you didn’t. Some pipe smokers actually inhale the smoke like cigarette smokers, but the smoke is very strong and this is not recommended.
If your pipe goes out while smoking, no big deal, just re-light—this is pretty normal. Especially at first, you may need to re-light frequently. It’s always better for your piep to go out from time to time than to prevent it from going out by smoking it hot. Furthermore, there’s no need to panic and re-light your pipe the second it goes out if you don’t feel like it or if you’re busy doing something. You can come back to a partially smoked pipe a few minutes later if that’s more convenient. And if you’re smoking a bent pipe, you can carefully put your lit pipe in your pocket when you enter a non-smoking establishment and it will self-extinguish rather quickly. Every 5 minutes or so, or more or less, tamp down the tobacco a little, just enough to crush the ashes on the surface and to make sure that the tobacco that is lit is touching itself and continues burning. You don’t want to apply so much pressure that the tobacco underneath gets further packed.
As the tobacco burns further down, the pipe will heat up. It should get warm, but if the pipe starts to get hot to the touch, let it go out for a few minutes to cool down; you might be smoking it a bit too fast. Hot smoking can cause the tobacco to become bitter, in addition to being uncomfortable on the tongue. As well, it may create moisture build-up that is very unpleasant if drawn into the mouth (which is particularly easy to do if you are smoking a straight pipe).
If you are smoking a brand-new pipe, it will need to be broken in. Smoke only half bowls for a while (at least 10 times or so) until you start getting some carbon buildup on the lower sides of the pipe’s bowl. Try to smoke to the bottom as much as possible to get this carbon cake built up and your pipe will smoke much better later. On the other hand, if at any time your pipe starts to taste nasty, stop. Pipe smoking is always supposed to be pleasant and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t always be so.
How to start smoking a pipe Welcome to the pipe and all those flavours and aromas. There is a very good article on the Pipes Digest web site on how to pack and light a pipe, but I’ll add my
A Pipe Smoking Primer (Pipe Smoking 101)
Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from AoM reader Jason Mills.
I can remember visiting my best friend when I was younger. It was fun to get together and have adventures like boys do, but one thing I really, really liked was his dad. His dad was an old farm man and looked like it from the weather-beaten lines on his face to his calloused hands. He was quiet spoken and loved smoking his pipe. Since my dad was a non-smoker, this fact really intrigued me as a young boy. I’d see him lighting up and smoking his pipe in complete happiness. He always smelled like pipe tobacco (Sir Walter Raleigh) and now, whenever I smell that brand, I always think of him.
Maybe you had a grandpa who was like my friend’s dad. Maybe you saw him smoking his pipe in quiet contentment and enjoyed that manly smell as I did. Maybe you’ve never known a man who smoked a pipe, so you don’t know what I’m talking about. Either way it doesn’t change the fact that pipe smoking is a manly art.
Why? Well, pipe smoking is as much ritual as it is relaxation. There’s a certain satisfaction you get when you pack the tobacco into the bowl just right. Then, the whoosh of the match followed by that wonderful, aromatic smell. Smoke a pipe with one of your favorite cocktails (maybe an Old Fashioned or a Martini) in the comfort of your favorite armchair, and you’ve got the makings of a perfect evening.
Pipe? Check. Man chair? Check. Grab the sports section and you’ve got the perfect evening ahead of you.
Even in cinema from the 1930s and 1940s, oftentimes you’ll see men with a pipe in their mouths. Movies like The Quiet Man, Goodbye Mr. Chips, and even It’s a Wonderful Life find men of all stripes smoking their pipes. Today, men who smoke a pipe are taking part in a manly ritual that stretches back to the dawn of time and has continued unbroken to the present. Convinced? Then let’s get started.
Since this article is for newbies, I don’t want you to go broke trying something you may not like. So, I’ve provided a list of the minimum items you need to start. When I first started smoking a pipe, I paid $12 for all of my stuff, but prices may vary in your area. Here’s what you’ll need:
- A pipe. I recommend starting with a corn cob pipe. Yeah I know it sounds corny (no pun intended) but they’re cheap (mine was $4) and if you find you don’t like smoking a pipe, just toss it with little out of your pocket.
- Pipe tamper/tool. Although not absolutely necessary, this is very helpful in packing the tobacco. Mine was $3 and was a combo tamper/cleaner.
- Pipe cleaners. Obviously for cleaning your pipe when you’re finished. Most tobaccoists will gladly provide you with a handful at no charge
- Wooden Matches or a pipe lighter.
- Tobacco. This is where a knowledgeable tobacconist is HIGHLY needed. Tobacco comes in a variety of flavors and strengths. I recommend starting out with a blended flavor. The one I started with is called Almost Heaven and is a vanilla flavored tobacco. My tobaccoist sold me a 3 oz sample pouch for about $5.
Once you have all this, you can get started.
How to Smoke a Pipe
“I believe that pipe smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgment in all human affairs.” -Albert Einstein
To start with, smoking a pipe is a leisurely activity. I’d recommend setting aside at least 20 minutes. That’s one of the reasons pipe smoking is so enjoyable. It lets you take some time to slow down. Again, make yourself one of the 5 Classic Cocktails Every Man Should Know, grab your pipe and tobacco, and take a seat on the porch to enjoy the evening. Now you’re really ready to begin.
1. Fill the bowl of your pipe. This step is the most difficult to master, but it affects the rest of your smoke. Fill the bowl loosely with tobacco and press it lightly down with the tamper. The bowl should now be filled halfway from the bottom. Fill the bowl again to the top and compress a bit more, packing more firmly. Now your bowl is about 3/4 full. Now top off the bowl with more tobacco and press down. There should be a slight space between the top of the bowl and the tobacco.
2. Put the pipe to your mouth and take a test draw. If air doesn’t flow freely through the tobacco, it’s too tight. If that’s the case, remove and try again. If your test draw is fine, you’re ready to light.
3. When lighting your pipe, use a wooden match or pipe lighter. I recommend wooden matches because they’re cheaper. Pipe lighters are made specifically for tobacco pipes and don’t alter the taste of the tobacco. If using a match, strike it and let it burn for a few seconds to get the sulphur off. Then, as you take gentle draws on the pipe, move the match in a circular movement over the surface of the tobacco. Do this until the tobacco is evenly lit. Once it’s lit, you’re still not quite there. This is simply the “false light.” Let it go out, then relight the same way. Once it’s evenly lit, this is the “true light” and you’re ready to smoke. Note: It is suggested that you NOT inhale the smoke into your lungs. Pipe smoking is different than cigarette smoking. This type of tobacco is a bit stronger and is more for the flavor.
4. Take it easy when smoking your pipe. Slow and steady, this is a marathon, not a 50 yard dash. If you puff too quickly, you’ll get what’s known as “tongue bite”– a burning sensation on your tongue. Definitely not what you want. Your pipe may go out 2 or 3 times during your smoke, but that’s OK. Remember, relax and enjoy. If you have a friend over, your pipe may go out more often as you talk! Enjoy the flavor of the tobacco.
That’s all there is to it. If you enjoy your first and subsequent smokes, you can buy the more expensive pipes and tobaccos. Who knows, there may be another article on the types of pipes and tobaccos in the future.
Some Other Tips
- If you find that the pipe starts “gurgling,” there’s too much moisture in the pipe stem. Simply take the pipe out of your mouth and put a pipe cleaner in the end for a second or two to remove the moisture. Try to keep your mouth as dry as possible to prevent this from happening.
- If the pipe gets too hot on your hand, let it go out and then relight. If it’s burning too hot, it can alter the taste of the tobacco.
- When finished with your smoke, always allow the pipe to cool before cleaning.
Editor’s note: If you’re intrigued by the idea of pipe smoking but for a variety of reasons want to avoid tobacco, you may wish to look into trying an e-pipe. E-pipes are electronic pipes that produce a vapor-like smoke but don’t contain tobacco. You can control the level of nicotine in the vapor from high to none at all. It’s a far cry from real pipe smoking, but an interesting alternative.
Pipe smoking is as much ritual as it is relaxation. Here's how to do it right.