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Saturday 21 November 2015

10th Anniversary Classic Rant: The Basics of Pipe Smoking

Its hard to believe, but to the best of my recollection, I have gone a full three years of near-daily writings on this blog without once having dedicated a blog entry to the basics of pipe-smoking!

So I figure, what better moment to do so than on International Pipe Smoking Day?

Ok, so the first thing you need is a pipe, obviously. There are tons of brands to choose from, and the best way to get one is to find a well-stocked local Tobacco shop. If you're in or around Edmonton, Alberta, Canada; or indeed anywhere in Western Canada, you couldn't do better than to go to Burlington's Tobacconist. Not everyone has a local tobacconist though, so if you haven't got that luxury I would recommend that you get a good online tobacconist. is an excellent choice.

I'm not going to go so far as to recommend a specific pipe, because there are many different kinds of pipe novices, suffice it to say that you could get a good pipe for anything from $50-100, and a really good pipe from $100-200 (there are several brands I might recommend at that range, but you couldn't go wrong with either a Stanwell or a Lorenzetti, two of my favourites at that range). If you're really strapped for cash, I'd recommend a Corncob (Missouri Meerschaum brand is the best), which might look a bit silly, but a $15-25 corncob smokes MUCH better than a $15-25 briar pipe, as a rule; so if your main concern is affordability, corncobs are the way to go.

You'll also need a pipe tool; its a little device that you use to tamp, empty and pinch tobacco in your pipe; simple pipe tools don't cost more than $3.

Next, you'll need some good tobacco. There are lots of blends and brands to choose from; the main thing is that you should avoid going for the "drug store" brands (the mass-produced chemical-laden junk you find in grocery stores or convenience stores) if ANY other option exists. Personally, I would rather not smoke than smoke Amphora or Captain Black or whatever; if you really have no where else to begin go with either of those, but as soon as you can switch to some higher-quality tobacco. There are a few brands (like Balkan Sasieni, Dunhill, or Erinmore) that are usually not hard to find even in non-specialty stores, so that's always a good option. In the states, Barking Dog is also a good option.

Some more guidelines for finer tobaccos: There are basically three types of tobacco you can purchase. The first are aromatics; in most of the world these are by far the most popular. They are made of what is called "Cavendish" tobacco, which is really virginia or burley that has been treated with various essences so that it tastes and smells like vanilla, chocolate, cherry, or other sweet aromatic essences when being smoked. Of the three, aromatics are the most common, and the nicest smelling, but the flavour usually isn't very much of actual tobacco, and the quality varies immensely; a lot of these tobaccos end up tasting like chemicals or cough syrup.

The second is Virginia. These tobaccos are pure tobacco and taste like it, but NOT like a cigarette. Cigarettes don't actually taste like tobacco at all, they taste of the chemical sludge that they're treated with. Plus they're very low-quality virginia tobacco. Pipe tobacco that's Virginia will have a natural woodsy flavour that's very nice, with a bit of natural sweetness too. Sometimes Virginias are flavoured with perique, a type of tobacco from Louisiana that adds a touch of spiciness to the smoke. I like these very much, myself. One note of warning, however: Virginia tobaccos pack a punch, they're heavy; I usually don't smoke one on an empty stomach. I'd recommend in this area Dunhill's Elizabethan, Escudo, Ashton III, or Peter Stockebbye's Bull's Eye Flake.

The third choice are tobaccos with Latakia. Latakia is a turkish tobacco that's been treated, it is dark black and has a peaty flavour to it. These are mixed with Virginia and Burley to produce what's called an "English" blend; or they're mixed with Virginia and other "oriental" tobaccos (from the balkans or turkey, usually) to produce what are called "Oriental" or "Balkan" blends. 
These, English and Oriental tobaccos, are by far my favourite. They taste like tobacco, have a rich range of flavour and an intricacy that you feel as the pipe is smoked. They are always relatively high-quality. The ones I'd most recommend are Balkan Sasieni, Dunhill 965, Esoterica's Penzance, or anything by GL Pease.

Finally, packing a lighting a pipe: for most new pipe smokers, the biggest obstacle to enjoying a pipe is learning how to pack and light it. This is a cause of frustration, and most people who quit pipe smoking do so because of issues related to this.
Learning how to pack a pipe takes patience and practice. Over time, you'll be able to pack a pipe quickly and in most cases it'll smoke well all the way down, and you won't use more than 2 matches. But even the most experienced pipe smoker has occasions where he has a pipe get plugged, or has to use a mountain of matches to relight. So don't be too hard on yourself; remember that lighting the pipe is part of the fun, and relighting it can be just as fun.

First select your tobacco. Note that some tobaccos are ready to fill into the pipe from the get-go, while others require "rubbing out" or "breaking up", when they come in flakes, coin-cuts, wedges, etc. Once your tobacco is good, loose, and ready, you start by taking a pinch of tobacco between your fingers and stuffing it gently into your pipe. Tamp it down with your finger, but not too hard: "the hand of a child". This should fill up about a third of the bowl; if it doesn't, add some more.

The next third you fill the same way but pressing down harder: "the hand of a woman". And finally the last third, right to the top, you fill with the "hand of a man", pressing down fairly hard. The end result should be that air will be able to flow through your pipe, without the tobacco being too loose.

Take a few puffs on your pipe before lighting it: it should feel like sucking through a straw. If it feels like you're caving in your cheeks trying to draw, you've packed it too tight: you need to empty the whole thing and try again.
On the other hand, if you hear a whistling noise, you've packed it too light; push down relatively hard with your finger, and probably fill in a bit more.

When you're satisfied that the pipe is ready to light, take a first match, light it, let it burn past the chemical tip, then hold it over the pipe (not touching the pipe) when the pipe is in your mouth; draw in breaths, making the flame come down over the tobacco. Circle around with the match, try to get every area lit up; then put out the match. Then you get your pipe tool. Tamp down hard with the pipe tool; the tobacco (which might have fluffed up while you were lighting it) should press down. You want to be sure the tobacco is always kept tight in the bowl, otherwise it'll go out.

After tamping down, your pipe will likely have gone out; take a second match and again light it, drawing down hard; the first match should have created a layer of ash on the surface of the tobacco; now you want to light the tobacco that's under that layer; the topmost layer of ash will insulate the smoke and allow it to keep burning. As you light, there should be a lot of smoke coming out of your mouth; make sure to use a lot of the match and get it really well-lit, then you won't have to be relighting it again in a few minutes.

Then you can sit back and smoke. As you go along, you're going to need to tamp down on your pipe every little while, to keep it well-packed as it burns. From now on, when you tamp, keep your pipe in your mouth and draw softly as you're making the tamping motions, that way the tamping won't end up putting out the pipe.

Again, it takes a long while of practice to get a really good rhythm for smoking a pipe, don't be discouraged at the beginning. Remember to keep practicing, to always smoke your pipe down to the bottom (though you don't have to do it all in one sitting, you can smoke a pipe over several hours), to always clean your pipe after each use (with pipe cleaners, of course), and to experiment with many different brands of tobacco, keeping track of which you like and which you didn't, until you find the ones that are right for you.

Smoke, and enjoy.


(Originally posted February 20, 2008)

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