I still remember a pipe repair guy years ago telling me that he could tell I consistently smoked my pipes all the way to the heel. I felt a sense of pride in that accomplishment. That guy was Ronni Bikacsan, one of the best to practice the craft. He stopped doing repairs, sadly, overwhelmed and overcrowded. I had high regard for his insightful assessment of my superior smoking skills.
I figured Ronni had paid me a compliment about my comprehensive consumption of a bowl of tobacco, but it recently occurred to me that it wasn't necessarily complimentary. It was just the other day when another expert, our pipe restoration manager, Adam Davidson, mentioned that smokers could probably better preserve their pipes by not smoking dottle. I started wondering if I'd been damaging my pipes by smoking to the floor of the bowl. Maybe Ronni had been warning me instead of admiring my technique. I remembered that when I turned some pipes over to Smokingpipes for store credit (to buy more pipes of course), a couple had condition statements noting minor char around the airways. I'd not thought much about it because I'd purchased them used, and it was less existentially damaging to fault some anonymous previous owner than to reexamine my own smoking technique.
When the tobacco in a pipe is near the end and starts tasting bad, it should just be dumped out. - Adam Davidson
Let me clarify that by "smoking dottle" I do not mean like Sherlock Holmes collecting dottle in a slipper for later smoking; I refer only to the unsmoked tobacco and ash remaining in the heel of the tobacco chamber after a smoke. It's often damp and stubborn and won't relight, and when it's more trouble to smoke than merited, or is delivering substandard flavor, it's time to stop. At least that's how I handle it. Life is barely long enough for all the good tobacco; I'm not wasting it on smoke that tastes bad. However, if a pipe is smoking well toward the end, I don't stop. A smoke is over when there's no tobacco left, or when the flavor becomes dissatisfying. Or when being chased from a non-smoking parking lot by irate security guards who have already warned you repeatedly. Those are the three circumstances.
But now I was wondering if, to preserve the integrity of the briar, I should stop smoking before reaching the heel, even when the pipe is puffing along beautifully and the tobacco is maintaining those wonderful, deeper tones of complex flavor that the Virginias I smoke deliver in the bottom third of the bowl. I might need to curtail that experience? That cannot be. No, I must be overthinking this thing.
I was content with that, but my brain wanted to know more and kept throwing embarrassing memories at me during important meetings until I complied. Brains, in my estimate, are overrated. I called Ronni Bikacsan, who likes me more than my brain does. He'd started this thing and owed me his opinion on the subject. He laughed that I called to resume a conversation from 10-15 years ago, but said he had as many opinions as anyone and was willing to share. Still, the opinion of someone who has done years of pipe repairs is valuable.
"If there's an extreme effort to smoke every last grain of tobacco," he says, "that can mean relighting and forcing more heat into a small area in the heel. That can cause excessive charring there and around the draft hole." Ronni says that when he was still repairing pipes, he could recognize if one had experienced non-excessive, even heat all the way to the bottom. "And if there was no glossy little heel section, that told me there was experience behind smoking that pipe." But not all pipes will readily do that. "There are some pipes I can smoke right to ash. But some will not burn that dottle unless I hit it extra hard with a lighter, and when I've tried that, I don't really get good tobacco taste. It's futile and risks damaging the pipe. Why bother?"
Adam Davidson walked past my office just after that conversation and I flagged him. The subject was haunting me, so Adam clarified his previous comments. "Pipes are essentially pieces of wood that we're setting fires in," he says. "Lots of pipes have minor charring; minor charring is not a big deal. It's only when it becomes cavernous that it's an issue. Surface char will build up cake just fine. Some English pipes, 50 years ago, weren't putting precarb in the bowls, they were putting the pipes on heat pegs and charring the insides of the bowls. Some old Comoys and other brands, they actually carbonized the tobacco chamber and charred all the wood. Cake builds on it fine because it isn't at all deep. It's like charred barrels used to age whiskey."
I imagine that many of us have char in our pipes we don't know about, and we probably don't need to know. I'm happy thinking my pipes are sound, as long as they smoke well and last forever. Of course, some enthusiasts are particularly careful, examining the tobacco chambers regularly for any of the "burnt log" creasing of char.
If you find yourself relighting the bottom of the bowl several times, or puffing like mad to keep it lit, or if the pipe becomes more than slightly warm, I think you're just asking for trouble. - Ryan Alden
"A lot of pipes that have minor charring are perfectly fine to smoke," says Adam. "Some pipes we get for restoration may have nice cake, and when you ream them out, you find the chamber is charred all to hell, which means it was charred for the past 20 or 30 years of smoking."
Adam agrees that flavor should be the main influence. "When the tobacco in a pipe is near the end and starts tasting bad, it should just be dumped out. You keep hearing that you have to smoke it down until there's no more tobacco. For guys that love to do that, that's fine, but a lot of the problems we see, when you have charring around the airway, it's because someone was left with damp plugs of dottle in the heel and kept lighting them and puffing harder, which charred the wood around that dottle and over the airway. So just to smoke the last little dottle of tobacco, all it does is offer an unpleasant couple of minutes of smoking, and it can char the airway."
Cake is basically cooked onto the walls of the tobacco chamber, but the floor of the chamber is more stubborn. "The only way for cake to form at the heel is to burn all that dottle, but the airway is to one side, so the flame will be pulled to the airway, rolling over the tobacco. No one should think they have to smoke every last particle of tobacco. That's the kind of thing that damages pipes."
Building cake on the floor of the tobacco chamber could be counterproductive, if done aggressively. It may help protect the wood, but for most pipes, the airway is at floor level and located to one side. If cake is built up, it will necessarily begin to block the smoke channel. And if the smoke channel is cleared, the same potential problem persists.
Other artisan pipemakers have opinions but don't seem terribly worried about the issue. Ryan Alden says that as long as the tobacco smokes cleanly to the bottom of the bowl, without overheating the pipe, there shouldn't be any problems. "The problem," he says, "is tobacco that doesn't want to gently burn to the bottom on its own. If you find yourself relighting the bottom of the bowl several times, or puffing like mad to keep it lit, or if the pipe becomes more than slightly warm, I think you're just asking for trouble."
Ryan designs his pipes with fairly thick heels to provide more wood and insulation to that potential trouble spot. "And I put a very slight chamfer on the top edge of the airway where it meets the bowl. It takes off that sharp edge of wood that is prone to charring on the initial few bowls. These steps help, but they won't stop the truly determined!"
Personally, I have always considered a pipe not properly broken in unless it had been smoked to the bottom. - Brad Pohlmann
He himself smokes to the very bottom only when the tobacco wants to without coaxing or relights. "If I reach the bottom third of the bowl and it doesn't want to stay lit on its own, I may give it a bit of a stir or gently pack the ash, and try another relight, maybe two. If that's not enough to get it gently smoldering again, I call the pipe done."
The craftsman behind Pohlmann pipes, Brad Pohlmann, says the dottle smoking issue has never come up in conversation with a customer. "None have ever mentioned it. Personally, I have always considered a pipe not properly broken in unless it had been smoked to the bottom. I like the reamers of the type like the Senior that Smokingpipes carries. The angle at the bottom of the blade affords an extra thickness of cake at the bottom of the chamber to keep the heat at the end of the smoke to a minimum. Once a pipe is broken in, all the way to the bottom, it should smoke to the bottom on its own without much effort from the smoker."
Jeff Gracik of J. Alan pipes sees mainly hazards in smoking to the last strand of tobacco. It's a short but convincing list of dangers: "Lighting and therefore overheating the pipe by trying to relight ash with little or no combustible material remaining; ingesting a mouthful of powdery ash and/or a few hot embers; and last, awful flavor. But, if a customer wants to risk any or all of those, they're more than welcome to do so. Lots of fuss is made about making pipes that 'smoke to a fine grey ash,' and while I agree that in theory they ought to be able to, I never smoke that way, for the aforementioned reasons."
In the wild, uncharted regions of Vermont, which is, I believe, inside the Antarctic Circle, J.T. Cooke has been crafting what many regard as the most sophisticated sandblasts in the world for the past 40 or 50 years (time moves differently in environments that experience absolute zero temperatures. I visited Jim in 2010 and five years later visited him in 2003. Go figure).
You have to pay a great deal of attention to that bottom area. - J.T. Cooke
Cooke has repaired and refurbished thousands of pipes in his career, and made, well, a lot. But not enough. He currently has a three-year waiting list for his pipes. He designs his pipes to be smoked completely. "My customers tend to smoke all the way to the bottom," he says. "I spent a fair amount of time trying to minimize the thin wood around where the air hole enters the tobacco chamber. You have to pay a great deal of attention to that bottom area. One of the main reasons I developed the bowl coating I have is to protect that area. In my opinion, you can smoke a pipe all the way down, at least my pipes.."
But he saw his share of charred briar back in the days he was restoring used pipes for Barry Levin. "If it starts to look like alligator skin, that means you've fried the wood. With the bowl coat I developed, it's dry to the touch when you buy the pipe, and when you add heat and moisture in the tobacco, it makes it tacky and the fly ash from the tobacco sticks to the walls. A couple of times and you have the basis for a decent cake. Char is bad. You don't want to remove char from a bowl, either, because that would be removing wood, making the walls thinner, and that will inevitably exacerbate the problem."
The old pipe brands that charred the tobacco chamber, says Cooke, probably made the break-in of the pipe easier. "But as much as possible I like to protect the wood. I know some people will sand the interior of the tobacco chamber back to raw wood. But that's not a good idea because you're taking off wood that was supposed to be there. You gotta remember that it's different today than it was when a lot of the classic pipes were made. Nobody was expecting them to last for generations. They were pipes. If it cracked or got some char, if the wood started to alligator, you chucked the thing in the trash and got another one. It wasn't spending $500 on a pipe; they weren't big-ticket items like so many are today. So it's a matter of perspective. And some older pipes, you pick them up and they weigh next to nothing. That may be because there ain't a lot of wood left. If you smoke it two thirds down and the bowl gets uncomfortably hot, that's an indicator of excessive char inside that bowl."
In Denmark, Ulf Noltensmeier and Per Hansen of S. Bang approach the issue with elegant simplicity. "We always recommended to fill a new pipe and just smoke," says Ulf. "No breaking in the pipe, and if you can't smoke it to the bottom, just don't keep trying with a lighter. If you will never be able to smoke to the bottom, just accept it. Smoking should be a pleasure, why spoil it by burning the ill-tasting remains in the bottom?"
Tom Eltang is of the same mindset. Tom doesn't advise clients one way or the other. "Whatever floats your boat," he says, "as long as you enjoy your pipe smoking."
The smoker should always make the decision about how to smoke, says Jess Chonowitsch. "In my 54 years of pipemaking, I have heard many ways of smoking a pipe. I just make pipes as well as I can so they become good smokers. From there, the smoker must do what they think is right, as long as they enjoy the pipe and tobacco. I don't have a wrong way or a right way. I will never become a good pipesmoker, but I like to smoke a pipe my way, so I hope other pipesmokers will do the same."
If you will never be able to smoke to the bottom, just accept it. Smoking should be a pleasure, why spoil it by burning the ill-tasting remains in the bottom? - Ulf Noltensmeier of S. Bang
It makes sense that pipemakers would continue to make pipes the best they can and let smokers decide how to smoke them. They have no control over how that pipe is treated after purchase. They do not want their pipes sent back for repairs, though, so they take what precautions they can and let the pipe find its own future.
It's the pipesmoker who causes char, not the pipemaker. It's done by lighting ash and wet dottle, employing too much concentrated heat around the airway. Mostly, it doesn't matter; pipes can have minor char and experience no reduction in performance, but most pipe owners would prefer to know their pipes are structurally sound and maintaining value for potential resale.
In my 54 years of pipemaking, I have heard many ways of smoking a pipe. I just make pipes as well as I can so they become good smokers. From there, the smoker must do what they think is right, as long as they enjoy the pipe and tobacco. - Jess Chonowitsch
For me, the problem is in those moments when I'm working and have several smoked pipes scattered about, and I want a quick puff or two to get me through a stubborn metaphor or transition. I don't want to recalibrate my head space (it's delicate) to fill a new pipe, I just want a couple puffs, so I look at the dirty pipes and find one that appears to have a little tobacco left, and light it.
That needs to stop. Those extra couple of puffs may be more expensive than I realize if I'm lighting only ash with a few strands of wet tobacco. The heat I'm generating to attain those last puffs has the potential to affect the briar I rely upon. My pipes are like friends, each with its own personality and back story. I don't want to damage them, and if that means losing a good metaphor so I can fill a fresh bowl, so be it.
While opinions differ slightly, and pipemakers take steps to reduce the potential for charring at the most vulnerable areas of the tobacco chamber, the overall opinion is that we should smoke until our tobacco stops tasting good, or until it starts taking too much extra puffing, or until it takes fiddling with the tobacco to keep it lit. Those are warnings. Your pipe is telling you it's time for it to tag out of the relay and pass the torch to a fresh carrier. There are other pipes waiting for their chance; no need to overwork any of them. We could extend the lives of our pipes by listening to them, and when they slow down and get tired, letting those loyal, faithful briars rest.