How to Light & Smoke Your Pipe
Whatever your weapon of choice, lighting a tobacco pipe is not much of a
battle. Be it a true pipe lighter, a box of cigar matches, or even a Bic (Father forgive us…),
the process is straight-forward. See the breakdown below to get started.
Selecting a properly engineered smoking pipe is a matter of the utmost importance. Each channel in a quality pipe is drilled at a specific bore size and with remarkable precision, which allows for an open draw when puffing and a dry, pleasant smoke. There are still some well-respected and longstanding pipe factories producing quality smoking pipes. Chacom, Stanwell, Savinelli, and Peterson of Dublin, just to name a few, are worth your consideration. These factories employ specialized machinery developed specifically for making pipes, yet most of the work is still done by hand. The amount of training that each employee on the factory floor undergoes is quite extensive. It takes a lot of time to learn how to skillfully manipulate difficult materials like briar and silver. That being said, a poorly drilled smoking pipe is a useless smoking pipe, so proper execution in drilling and fitting, whether it’s handmade or factory-made, is paramount!
There are two main, and basic goals in the engineering of a pipe. The first is to combat the accumulation of moisture. It’s not unlike the engineering of manifolds for internal combustion motors. The smoother the passages are, the more effective they will be. Obstructions or depressions in the length of the airway of a smoking pipe will often accumulate foul-tasting fluid, which can cause a gurgling sound while smoking and sometimes even enter the smoker’s mouth. This is an unpleasant experience.
The second goal is to ensure that the airway meets the tobacco chamber at the very bottom and center, which allows the smoker to burn the tobacco all the way to the bottom of the bowl. If the airway enters the bowl too high in the chamber, a greater amount of tobacco will be left unburnt after smoking. As pipe smokers know, it hurts to waste such a fine resource.
Artisanal Pipes vs. Factory Pipes
While both machine-made and artisanal smoking pipes have their place in the world, there are some notable differences between the two that should be taken into account when shopping for a new pipe. Most of this depends on your budget, but practicality and usage are also important to consider. You may not want an artisanal smoking pipe if you plan to shove it in a bag as you go out for a long hike. On the other hand, there are smokers and collectors who purchase pipes not just as smoking instruments but as works of art, and in those cases a factory pipe just doesn’t cut it. For ease of comparison, take a look at the table below which outlines some quick and notable differences between these two types of smoking pipes.
The various styles of smoking pipes are not simply for persons of differing preference. Some of the shapes pictured below have distinct features that make them entirely unique smoking instruments. These unique smoking pipes each serve the purposes of smokers with different requirements. Even still, new types of smoking pipes are being developed today, such as a reversed version of the Calabash style pipe. Click on any of the pictures below for more information on the individual style, and check out our Smoking Pipe Shapes Guide for much more information on all smoking pipe shapes!
The bent pipe is a standard length pipe. Standard pipes are typically around six inches in length, give or take. They are often summarized as "English" shapes, as many of the current standard pipe shapes we know originated in England, but there are exceptions. Standard bent pipes are easy to transport because of their manageable size. Additionally, with bent pipes, more of the pipe's weight rests closer to the smoker's face when the pipe is clenched in the teeth, which makes it easier to smoke "hands-free". They are slightly more difficult to clean than straight pipes.
The straight pipe is a standard pipe, and the quintessential one. Typically around six inches in length, give or take, they are often called "English" shapes, as many of the current standard pipe shapes we know originated in England, but there are exceptions. Standard straight pipes are easy to transport because of their manageable size. Straight pipes are also extremely easy to clean since none of the channels in the pipe are curved or bent. They are, however, more difficult to clench in the teeth than bent pipes.
The Churchwarden pipe is extra long. The majority of the length is made up by the stem which is usually eight inches in length, give or take. The bowl is usually somewhat smaller than that of a standard length pipe, which makes a Churchwarden better suited for shorter smoking times. The extended length of the stem forces the smoke to travel a greater distance before being drawn into the mouth, resulting in a cooler smoke, which is a desirable effect. Churchwardens are also great for reading or watching films, since the pipe sits far enough from the face that it does not impede the view.
Two-chambered pipes such as the Calabash and reversed Calabash have a second chamber where the smoke is temporarily stored once it leaves the tobacco chamber or bowl, and before being drawn through the stem. Thus the smoke is given more space in which to expand and release heat, cooling down in the process. This is a similar effect to that of a Churchwarden, only it is achieved by a different mechanism. Two-chambered pipes typically require more effort to clean than either of the standard pipes, or Churchwarden pipes.
You may notice that if you’ve ever seen someone smoking a pipe, it has likely been either a simple bent or straight one. There’s a reason for that. At the risk of being closed-minded, we strongly suggest that your first pipe be a standard length pipe, either straight or bent. Why? Because long and/or heavy pipes like a Churchwarden or Calabash are wonderful cool-smoking pipes, but with very limited practicality. It’s difficult to carry a Calabash around town, or fit that Churchwarden into a pouch to bring to a friend’s house. The longer and larger shapes are great for a leisurely smoke at home or in a lounge, but where ease of transport and versatility are concerned, the standard shapes win.
Don't Forget Your Own Opinion
Strong suggestions aside, remember that your own opinion is of high importance. If you truly want a cool-smoking Churchwarden in bright orangey-brown, then you shall have it. If you inexplicably prefer a pocket-sized stubby Bulldog, then by all means singe off your nose hairs. After all, this is your smoking pipe, not anyone else’s. As an encouragement, we offer a very reasonable return policy, so if you’re not 100% certain, you can hold it in your hand before making a final decision. Equally as important as mechanics and practicality is that you love the way your pipe looks and feels.
Professional advice is your best friend when it comes to choosing your first tobacco. A good recommendation goes a long way, and can save you quite a bit of money that would otherwise have been wasted on tobaccos you didn’t like. Professional advice can take a couple of forms. We are always more than willing to help answer any questions you might have and recommend a blend based on your preferences. Just get in touch, or ambush us on Facebook or Twitter. You can also ask around in smoking circles to find out if there is a good tobacconist’s shop in your locale. A good tobacconist, much like a good barber, is always happy to help a customer out, or sometimes even just shoot the breeze.
The main goal of selecting your first tobacco is simply to end up with something you enjoy. Your tastes will change over time and perhaps someday you’ll have a go at a tin of that old school, full-strength English blend. Perhaps you’ll even like it! At the outset, though, you’ll likely enjoy a lighter tobacco more fully. In the same way that many are introduced to beer via light beers before enjoying stouts and porters, you will likely find that something with a simpler profile and lighter feel is the right way to go in the beginning. All that being said, do not let anyone, even a professional, tell you that your first tobacco has to be an aromatic one! There are non-aromatic tobaccos out there that are suited to beginners as well. If you prefer natural tobacco, ask for a recommendation in the non-aromatic section. Choose a tobacco that appeals to you!
Aromatic vs. Non-Aromatic
Aromatic tobaccos are tobaccos that have had flavors or “casings” added to them. There are many types of flavorings, and they are added in different ways. Sometimes they are added before the tobacco is blended and pressed. In other cases they are added to the finished product just before tinning. For the most part, these flavorings are mostly noticeable in the aroma, rather than the taste. Complaints such as “my vanilla tobacco doesn’t taste like vanilla” are common when beginners have unrealistic expectations. Aromatics are often a good choice if you’ll be smoking in the vicinity of those who might be offended by strong smells. Common flavorings include: vanilla, whiskey, nuts, and more.
Non-aromatic tobaccos are in fact not always devoid of any flavoring, and so the distinction can be a fuzzy line at times. The rule of thumb tends to be that if a tobacco has been flavored indirectly, such as having been aged in sherry barrels as opposed to having sherry poured into the tobacco mixture, it is considered a non-aromatic tobacco. There are several ways of doing this, but in most cases, the flavoring is derived from a spirit like whiskey, sherry, or rum. Rum is a notable exception, since Navy blends sometimes have rum added directly to the leaf, yet are still considered by many to be non-aromatic tobaccos, due simply to their historical and traditional nature.
Paralysis by Analysis
If all this information seems a bit overwhelming, you’re not going crazy. There are many, many choices when selecting a tobacco. Without years of experience under your belt, it will be difficult to decipher all the signs, and separate the marketing hot words in a tobacco’s tin description from what’s really going on under the lid. Let’s bring it back to basics. Take a look at the statements below, and choose which one best describes you:
I’m a sucker for mom’s Christmas cookies and always will be.
You may enjoy a simple, straight-forward aromatic tobacco like Nutty Cut.
I like the natural smell of leather and the taste of a milder whiskey.
A mild English blend such as Frog Morton’s Cellar would be a good starting point.
I thoroughly enjoy a good English Stout, and I drink my coffee black.
Try a matured Full Virginia tobacco such as McClelland’s Blackwoods Flake.
I sprinkle dried peat on my tree bark before I eat it for breakfast.
Then you might enjoy a very strong blend like Sam Gawith’s Squadron Leader.
Before we get to talking about how to pack your pipe, take a brief look at the cuts below. Each individual cut has it’s own advantages and disadvantages, mostly with regard to how well they will keep over time, and how easily they will pack into your bowl. They are ordered from easiest packing and smoking to most difficult. Since ease of packing and smoking depends mostly on the fineness and uniformity of the tobacco, and aging ability depends on the density and resistance to air exchange, the two qualities are truly at odds with one another. A tobacco that takes much preparation will normally age more gracefully than a tobacco that is light and fine, and packs easily. Our Tobacco Cut Guide goes into a bit more depth, but the descriptions below will help ease you into all the different cuts that are out there to choose from.
The Art of the Pack
The most important skill in pipe smoking is being able to pack the bowl properly. Without this skill, it is impossible to enjoy the act of smoking a pipe. Packed too tightly, it will be difficult to draw smoke and the tobacco will not burn evenly. Packed too loosely, the pipe will get very hot and will not stay lit for very long. For this reason, proper packing is extremely important.
Unfortunately, while packing properly is the most important skill for a pipe smoker, it is also the most difficult to master, and even after many years of smoking, one may still make a mistake from time to time. However, it is in part the fostering of patience and determination that makes pipe smoking the great form of smoking that it is.
What is paramount is that you do not become overly frustrated, and give up. You will master this skill if you try, and once you do, you will feel quite accomplished. You’ll also likely want to begin teaching others, which is equally as rewarding as doing it yourself!
For step-by-step instructions on how to pack your pipe properly, see the three methods below. Different people choose different methods. It doesn’t matter which you use; the important thing is that it works for you.
The two-pinch method is exactly what it sounds like and is perhaps the simplest of the three methods.
Pinch out the most tobacco that you can comfortably hold between your thumb and two fingers. Work it into the bowl and stuff it down. There’s no need to use excess pressure. This means the tobacco is not firmly packed, but not loosely packed either.
If you turn the pipe upside down over your tobacco tin, the tobacco should be packed tightly enough that it doesn’t fall out without a good shake of the pipe.
Step two is to take a bigger pinch of tobacco between your thumb and all fingers but the pinky, and follow suit. This time the pinch should almost look to be too much to fit in the mouth of the bowl. Using a bit more pressure, work it into the bowl, then pack it in until the tobacco is compacted but slightly spongy to the touch. The bowl is now packed!
As with the previous method, you will take a pinch between your thumb and two fingers, and gently pack it into the bowl. The three-pinch method begins to differ at the second pinch, though.
The second pinch will be slightly larger than the first in this method, but not by much. You can pack the second pinch more firmly than the first. There’s an old adage: the first pinch should be packed with the strength of a baby, the second with the strength of a woman, and the third with that of a man. The important thing is to use the strength from your fingers, not from your arms.
The third and final pinch will be large; as much as you can comfortably hold between your thumb and three fingers. Work the tobacco in as with the other pinches, and tamp down firmly with you finger or tamper, applying even pressure to make the tobacco surface flat. The bowl is now packed!
Begin by cupping the palm of your non-dominant hand. So if you’re right handed, cup your left. Fill the palm of your hand with more tobacco than you will need to pack your pipe.
Once your palm is filled, take the pipe in your other hand, and point the bowl of it down toward the tobacco in your palm. With very gentle pressure, place the empty bowl of the pipe atop the tobacco, and move it in circular motions. Be sure to keep your palm cupped, otherwise you may end up with tobacco all over the table and none in your pipe.
Look inside the bowl. You should see that the pipe has essentially filled itself with tobacco. However, the tobacco will not be packed very densely, so feel free to tamp it with a finger or tamper, and repeat the process until the bowl is packed fully. Once the tobacco feels just a bit spongey to the touch, the bowl is packed!
Ready for the Light
Whichever method you chose, you should now hold in your hand a smoking pipe that is full of tobacco and ready to light. A fully packed bowl, when turned upside down, will hold it’s contents in, and the tobacco will feel only slightly spongy to the touch. You’re getting tired of hearing me say “spongy to the touch” aren’t you?
At this point, you are ready to light your smoking pipe. Rejoice! Lighting and smoking is the fun (and relatively easy) part! You’ve earned your Bachelor’s degree in pipe smoking, scroll down to continue your education…
The first order of business is getting your hands on something that makes sparks! If you can, it’s highly recommended that you get yourself a pipe lighter such as those made by Colibri, IM Corona, and a couple of other brands. Since you’re just starting out, though, a box of wooden matches can work just as well. We offer 4″ Swan Vestas matches, which give you a lot more time before your fingers start to feel the heat!
To perform the charring light, hold the flame of your match or lighter over the tobacco in your bowl. It should be held low enough that when you draw air through the pipe, the flame is pulled down and touches the tobacco. Then, pull long, slow draws through your pipe, all the while moving the flame in a circular motion to ensure you light the entirety of the tobacco evenly.
Now you’ll want to get the surface of the tobacco nice and even again. Use your pipe tool to tamp the surface with equal pressure all around. This will put out any embers you created when you charred the tobacco, and that’s OK. The tobacco will have a flat black appearance when you’re finished. Now you’re ready for what pipe smoker’s call the “true light”!
This is not a very different process from the charring light. Hold the flame of your match or lighter closely above the tobacco once again, and moving it circular motions, take long, deep draws on the pipe. Go around several times. More is better in this case. If you light it very well in the beginning, you will have fewer troubles keeping it lit. Look for a nice red ember!
Once you have your pipe lit, continue to draw on the pipe. If you sense the pipe needs some help to stay lit, use short and quick draws to create more intense heat, and tamp gently at the same time. If you’re getting enough smoke and all seems to be going smoothly, use draws that are slow and deep. In this way you can control the burn of the tobacco. The pipe is lit!
Once you’ve lit your smoking pipe properly, you don’t have to repeat all the steps again if it goes out. You need only take a few draws with the flame held over the tobacco. A tobacco pipe, unlike a cigarette, will not stay lit without help. If your pipe goes out, don’t fret. Just tamp down to keep the contents of the bowl compacted, and light again. Even long-time smokers have to relight their pipes from time to time!
When tobacco is burned, it produces moisture which condenses in the bottom of the bowl. If too much moisture accumulates, you’ll hear a gurgling sound when you draw on it. To remedy this:
1. Make sure your tobacco is at a proper moisture level. It’s better to be on the drier side than the moist.
2. When you hear the gurgling, run a pipe cleaner through the stem until it won’t go any further. The pipe cleaner will absorb the fluid and fix the problem temporarily.
It is challenging to smoke a pipe down to the bottom when you’re new! Here are a few pointers:
1. Moist tobacco is hard to burn, so let it dry on a paper towel before smoking for a few hours, or even overnight depending on how moist it is!
2. Tamp periodically throughout the smoking of the bowl to help the tobacco burn more evenly.
Sometimes a small piece of tobacco can become lodged in the draught hole or airway:
If this happens, try running a pipe cleaner down to dislodge the particle. If you try a couple times and it doesn’t work, you can try using the aerator on your pipe tool to poke down into the tobacco chamber and free it up. If nothing works, you may have to empty the contents of your pipe and clean it out!
You, my friend, are experiencing tongue bite! This is caused by several factors:
1. You may be smoking too fast. If you smoke too fast, the tobacco becomes very, very hot. Intense heat can burn your tongue.
2. Poor quality tobacco. Some poor quality tobaccos have unnatural ingredients added, which may not only burn hotter than the leaf, but could also irritate your tongue.
3. Tongue placement. Try placing your tongue at the bottom of your mouth while smoking, not directly behind the button! The tongue is very sensitive, so placing it directly in the line of the smoke is uncomfortable.
It’s OK for the pipe to go out time and again, especially if you set it down for a bit, or get caught up in a story you’re telling, and forget to puff for a while. Simply relight. On the other hand, if it’s going out even when you’re smoking:
1. It may not be tamped down enough. Try tamping every now and then to keep things tight.
2. The tobacco may be too moist. If the unburnt tobacco becomes wet while smoking, it will be very difficult to keep lit.
If your smoking pipe is brand new, it will need to be broken in a bit before you’ll get the best flavor from it! Smoke a couple of half-bowls first, then a couple of full bowls, and you should be in much better shape. Remember to clean the pipe out and wait approximately 24 hours before smoking the same pipe again. It needs time to rest and dry out.
If you’re smoking out of a pipe that’s already been broken in, then it is certainly possible that you’ve picked up a less than stellar blend. It can be difficult to make heads or tails of the thousands of blends that are out there, but there are some great resources in the form of tobacco review sites that you can use to separate the sheep from the goats, as it were. If you are certain that you have a decent quality tobacco, make sure you give it a fair chance. Sometimes a blend will grow on you over time. If you don’t like it now, set it aside, try a different tobacco, and revisit the old one in a few months. You may find you like it more then!
Something to be Passed Down
There aren’t many things in today’s world that are worth holding onto for more than a few years and most that are were forged or fangled before our generation had even walked the earth. Quality smoking pipes, however, are still in production today, and if properly taken care of, can easily outlive you. A good smoking pipe is something that can be handed down when the time comes, preferably along with a few of the memories you developed with it. In a world of disposable things, the smoking pipe is a refreshing and beautiful exception.
A few simple steps can be taken to ensure that your smoking pipe lives long upon the Earth, and they won’t cost you dearly, in time or in dollars!
Cleaning Right After a Smoke
Cleaning your pipe soon after smoking is a quick and simple process that will keep your smoking pipe in tip-top shape, and ready for a smoke when you are.
A thorough periodic cleaning of your smoking pipe will remove odors and buildup of carbon from your pipe, and keep it young for years to come.
This type of cleaning is very simple, and takes no more than a minute, so if your pipe is dirty you have no excuses. To clean your pipe:
1. Take your pipe tool in hand. Using the spoon-like scraper, gently break up the ash that is in your pipe. Discard the ash, and any dottle (unburnt tobacco) from the bowl.
2. Remove the stem from the pipe. Run a single pipe cleaner through the draught hole located in the mortise of the pipe. Just a few swabs should do the trick, just to remove any small pieces of dottle or ash that may be lodged in the draught hole.
3. Run another clean pipe cleaner through the stem a couple of times to clean it out. Blow through it to get rid of any loosed particles, or any dust left behind by the pipe cleaner itself.
4. Reassemble the smoking pipe, and you’re good to go!
Periodic cleaning can be done as often as you please, but should certainly be done if the pipe begins to taste “off”. To do this:
1. Select a grain-based alcohol like whiskey. Rubbing alcohol is toxic and just won’t do. Dip a pipe cleaner in the alcohol, and run it through the passages of the pipe. When the pipe cleaner begins to look very dirty, repeat with a new pipe cleaner. Continue until the pipe cleaner comes out clean. Finally run a dry pipe cleaner through to absorb any excess fluid.
2. Repeat the same process with the stem.
3. If there is a lot of carbon build up in the bowl, use a reamer to scrape it back approximately 1mm in thickness. Cake of this thickness only accumulates after many, many years of puffing.