How to Break In a Briar Tobacco Pipe

How to Break In a Briar Tobacco Pipe

Few satisfactions in life equal that of obtaining a new pipe. Of the hundreds of thousands available, we chose this particular briar. Its lines and proportions, grain, and shape resonate with a yearning inside of us, harmonizing with our tastes and experiences and personal artistic appreciation. It's perfect, a pleasure to turn over in the hands and examine from all angles, certainly destined to deliver world-class smokes.

We load it with our favorite, never-fail tobacco, full of anticipation for clouds of smoking euphoria. We light it, tamp, relight, and pause, analyzing the experience, and are horrified to perceive that it smokes like superheated New Orleans dumpster sludge.

It's an appalling betrayal. Maybe we've spent weeks considering this pipe, revisiting the shop or the website over and over, falling more desperately in love with each rendezvous until we decide to build a potentially lifelong companionship. We're invested in this pipe. How dare it not smoke well?

How dare it not smoke well?

Sometimes a new briar pipe smokes great from the first light. Other times, a new pipe can smoke hot, wet, and miserably, making us suspect that perhaps we were villains in a former life and karma has chosen this moment for retribution. Most new pipes smoke fine, and a few need moderate break-in, but now and then a stubborn pipe comes along that takes longer to behave. They're rare, thankfully, so maybe we weren't guilty of excessive villainy.

Why Pipes Require Break-In

Perhaps it's best to start with why some pipes don't require break-in. Those that are well made and well cured usually perform well, but pipes can smoke all kinds of ways, especially when they're new. Much depends on how well the pipe is made in terms of engineering and airflow. If the draft hole is misaligned or there are obstructions in the airway, like rough surfaces or incorrect mortise-and-tenon fit, it will be more challenging to find the right way to smoke that pipe. I have one pipe that smokes well only if I pack the first half of the bowl loosely and more aggressively compress the tobacco in the lower half of the bowl. It's a great pipe, but I had to learn what tobaccos work in it and how to alter my smoking prep and technique to maximize its potential.

The reason that good consistent airflow is important is that airflow turbulence inside the pipe will generate moisture in the smoke, and excess moisture is a contributing factor in tongue bite, heat, and poor flavor performance. However, airflow is not affected by break-in. A pipe with poor engineering that is well broken in will still have poor engineering. It's a cofactor in identifying a pipe's weaknesses, and the need for break-in will be more easily recognized if not compounded by incorrect construction.

A pipe with poor engineering that is well broken in will still have poor engineering

Tobacco Pipes - How to Break In a Briar Tobacco Pipe

Some pipes smoke great even with poor construction, and that's most likely because the briar is so good. Briar has flavor, and when it's good briar, it's a wonderful experience. The soil where it grew had a good balance of nutrients and minerals and the attributes of that soil affect the smoking characteristics of the wood. More important, though, is good curing, which can make even mediocre-tasting briar much better.

When briar is cut in the wild it's full a sap and resins, and when we talk about curing the briar, it's a process of removing those saps and resins. It starts at the briar sawmill, where briar is boiled for days, the heat and water helping to push out the impurities. Then it dries slowly, to avoid cracking, for about 18 months before it's made available to pipe makers.

Those pipe makers then apply their own curing methods, usually by letting the briar stabilize in a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment. Depending on the manufacturer, the briar may get little more time or lots more time. Castello let's their briar sit for five years and sometimes set aside batches for even longer curing.

Most artisan carvers let their briar sit for at least a couple of years. Others have their own techniques, generally kept confidential. Larry Roush does not share his curing techniques, nor does J.T. Cooke, nor do 90 percent of pipe makers. Why would they? They've spent years perfecting their curing methods. Cooke's pipes weigh from 7-10 percent less after curing than before, which is impressive and indicates that the majority of any resins are gone by the time the pipe is ready for smoking.

The more resins that are cured from the briar, the better the pipe will smoke, generally. Some blocks are stubbornly dense with impurities, though, and there's no way to know for sure before smoking them, except by weight. If a pipe seems light for its size, it will probably be a great smoker. If it's heavy in comparison to other pipes of equal configuration and size, it's at risk of smoking hot with a slightly acrid taste. However, it takes the handling of many pipes to recognize what to expect in terms of comparative weight.

If a pipe seems light for its size, it will probably be a great smoker.

The lower overall density of well-cured briar makes the resulting pipe smoke cooler and more flavorfully, and allows the briar to absorb moisture and impurities from the tobacco at a more efficient rate.

When curing time has been shorter than optimum, it's up to the pipe smoker to cure the briar by smoking it. Each time a pipe is smoked, it helps break down the resins still residing in the wood.

Cake

Ream a Tobacco Pipe - How to Break In a Briar Tobacco Pipe

An important aspect of break-in is the building of cake inside the tobacco chamber. Cake is the carbon buildup that accompanies smoking. It adheres to the walls of the chamber and provides an insulating effect, keeping the briar more stable in temperature and protecting the pipe and the smoker from excessive heat.

If you have the opportunity to examine many unreconditioned estate pipes, perhaps at pipe shows or in shops that do business in estates, you may notice a tendency for uneven cake buildup. The upper parts of the chambers are often heavily caked while the lower parts have little to no cake, most likely a result of smoking tobacco that is too moist. The tobacco becomes wetter as it is smoked down the bowl because water is removed from the upper region as it burns and migrates downward into the remaining tobacco, making it harder for carbon to adhere to the sides of the tobacco chamber. Cake seems to build more at the top even when smoking dried tobacco, so reaming that cake and keeping its thickness even is essential.

Cake seems to build more at the top even when smoking dried tobacco

One method proposed for helping to build initial cake in the lower part of the chamber is to start smoking a new pipe with only a quarter bowl of tobacco for a few smokes, then half, three-quarters, and finally full. It takes patience, and most smokers do not bother with this technique. If your tobacco is not over-moist and the pipe is reamed when necessary, cake will build evenly.

Uneven cake is dangerous for the pipe because carbon cake expands and contracts when heated and if it is uneven it will expand at different rates according to its thickness. If let go, uneven cake, or cake that is even but too thick, can crack the briar.

Cake will also tend to insulate the flavor of the briar itself, which can be bad or good, depending on the briar, and usually not entirely. If the briar is resin-laden and astringent in taste, cake will improve it. If it's great-tasting briar, that character will be reduced but still evident. Either way, it's better to have good cake.

Tobacco Pipe Diagram-How to Break In a Briar Tobacco Pipe

Bowl Coatings

Bowl Coating in a Tobacco Pipe - How to Break In a Briar Tobacco Pipe

Pipe makers often assist with the initial cake buildup by providing a coating inside the bowl to protect it during the first few smokes, usually a mixture of sodium silicone, also known as water glass, and carbon. Some have developed bowl coatings that are sticky, allowing cake to build very quickly.

Many pipe enthusiasts prefer no bowl coating when they purchase a new pipe, and if one is already in the bowl they remove it with sandpaper wrapped around a dowel of appropriate diameter. The reason is that some don't like the characteristics of bowl coatings or prefer their own. Some use diluted honey, some use a recipe including yogurt, some have their own special concoction that they have developed to build good cake. Some like a prefabricated coating, some do not.

However, the reason that the bowl coating is provided is to protect the pipe while it builds its initial cake. That cake should not exceed the width of a nickel lest it expand too much when heated.

Sometimes a new pipe will have a chamber that is stained, which is never good. Maybe it's fully stained, the result of dip staining, in which the entire stummel is dipped in stain to save the time of painting it on. Most stains are alcohol-based, so wiping it out several times with Everclear or another high-alcohol-content libation is recommended. Stain, no matter how beautiful, does not taste good. It's possible to smoke through it, but expect some substandard bowls while that stain is burning off.

Briar Impurities

Even longer lasting than stain, though, are the impurities within the briar if it has not been well cured. Break-in refers to smoking through those resins, heating the pipe moderately over and over until they break down. If the briar is full of impurities, it will take many bowls, as many as 30 or even more, with gradual improvement throughout. Eventually, the pipe will smoke cooler, will manifest less heat in the hand, and will project the full flavor of any tobacco chosen — but it takes work to get there.

Most experienced pipe smokers have favored brands that they return to when purchasing a new pipe, because they have experienced those brands and know how well-cured the briar is. They know what to expect of an artisan maker who cures the briar well before carving, or they know a particular factory tends to have good briar and they can trust the construction.

Curing briar is time intense and expensive for manufacturers, so cheaper pipes are more prone to needing more break-in. To reduce costs, the time invested for curing is reduced, leaving that curing to the smoker who performs it during the break-in period. Just as one might season an iron skillet or wok, or run a new engine slowly at first to break it in for better performance, smokers slowly break in their pipes for optimum characteristics.

Castello Workshop

The Steps in Breaking In a Pipe

Here's a concise list of things to keep in mind when breaking in a new pipe:

  1. Be sure the pipe is well constructed with no internal alignment issues. When you purchase a pipe, draw through it empty. If there's any sort of whistle or high pitch accompanying that draw, return the pipe before smoking it because that sound indicates obstruction somewhere in the airway.
  2. Check for bowl coatings or stain in the chamber. If there is stain, remove it with consumable alcohol. It's best to leave any manufacturer bowl coating in the chamber, but if it's bothersome, sand it out before smoking.
  3. Fill the pipe and smoke it slowly. Fast puffing is rarely positive, but slow smoking is especially important with a new pipe.
  4. Smoke the pipe all the way to the heel, or as close as possible without scorching the floor of the chamber.
  5. As the cake builds, use a reamer to keep it evenly distributed around the chamber walls.
  6. Enjoy the pipe as it becomes a better and better smoker as break-in proceeds.

There's never a guarantee with briar. It's a natural product and the only way to know its potential is to smoke it. Some expensive pipes smoke poorly; some cheap pipes smoke admirably. But with break-in, they all improve, and sometimes a pipe can start terribly but finish as a cherished performer. It takes just a little patience, but the rewards are often astounding.

Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   Briar Pipe Basics Pipe Culture

Comments

    • David L Morgan on September 2, 2022
    • I never bother breaking a pipe in . I’m from the old Codger school. Buy it, fill it smoke it. If it works for others fine, do your thing. In my humble opinion I think it’s nonsense. Nevertheless a well written article as always.

    • Dr. H on September 2, 2022
    • I have broken in every pipe I own. 10 smokes each at 1/4 full, 1/2 full and 3/4 full. I don't put it into full rotation until there is another 10 smokes at full. Each smoke has a minimum 24 hours rest between. Takes a long time but I find it worthwhile.

    • Dr. Hemorrhoid on September 2, 2022
    • Interesting article, thank you. For the 23 years that I've smoked a pipe, I have never given the breaking in process any thought or worry...que sera, sera. I am of the camp, maybe I'm alone in this camp (which would make me a solitary camper), where I don't do cake. I will use a crumpled up paper towel or napkin after every smoke to ream out the bowl. I don't smoke all the way down to the heel, I will end my smoke session with the tobacco right above the draft hole, which could help to prevent charing around the airway(as you can read in some of the pipe descriptions on the estates page here... charing around the airway). I have always just took my time while smoking and paid attention to the temperature of the bowl in my hand (backing off when I felt it was getting too warm), moisture in the stem and bowl (utilizing pipe cleaners to absorb the moisture), flavor, and wherever my drifting thoughts take me. The pipe will break in on it's own if it needs to without me fretting over it. I just enjoy smoking my pipes and tobacco....simple enough. But, I really do enjoy all the science and psychology behind it all.

    • Dr. Hemorrhoid on September 2, 2022
    • And besides, cake encroaches on the volume of tobacco in the chamber. Cake equals less tobacco, a gut wrenching thought...

    • rob schrire on September 4, 2022
    • Fantastic article. Chuck always delivers.Apart from obvious technical issues, I find the quality of the briar the key factor. My two best ever pipes-a small Dunhill and a Nordh, had wood where you coul;d cover the top of the bowl and almost smoke from the sides-the powerful aroma was almost overwhelming.WHO M

    • Willie on September 4, 2022
    • I use a light coat of honey on most new pipes. Let it set a few days and then smoke a little from the bottom up. Turns out great and it been done for many years. Very light coat on fingertips.

    • SO on September 4, 2022
    • Thank you for another very informative article.

    • Bob on September 4, 2022
    • Another beautifully detailed article. I wish I would have read this 50 or so years ago when I first started smoking a pipe. Everyone (myself included) seems to have their own method of breaking in a pipe, which is fine, but I do appreciate reading this informative and fascinating article.

    • Michael Cherry on September 4, 2022
    • One would think after smoking a pipe for 60 years, I wouldn't find out anything new. You sir are a treasure. Thank you for learn-in me up yet again.Your Obedient Servant;Mikey da Bull

    • Blake on September 4, 2022
    • Been smoking four decades now. Been sticking to quality briar, like Dunhill, Castello, Becker, Cavicchi, and some other named brands. Filling a new pipe to 75% capacity is how I have started most pipes. When pipe gets hot, take a 30 second break. Most of the time, I give each pipe three days of rest after smoking a bowl. I prefer lightly sanding the cake versus tools. I smoke my tobacoo after it has been packed and slightly dry at top. Blow two breaths from bowl back to button, false char, light tamp, and relight. Never had a bowl heat crack, yet. My biggest irritation is when a pipe cleaner fuzz gets lodged in the stem. I try to get those fuzz off before using a new pipe cleaner. Still happens on occasion. I use an average of three pipe cleaners per session. Enjoy yourselves.

    • J-R Curtin, PhD on September 4, 2022
    • I have smoked a pipe for 60 years and have over 300 pipes. I love them all and each one received a bit of Irish Whiskey from a pipe cleaner before I smoked it the first time. I do that for good luck and to let the pipe know it has come to a good and loving home.

    • Bill Wright (NYC) on September 4, 2022
    • Chuck, I have two weekend habits--Your weekly column and I Do Cars-engine teardown on YouTube,I've finally come to the conclusion that breaking in a pipe is best handled--buying good Estate Pipes from smokingpipes.com. There is a decent base for the type of cake I like..all the way to the bottom. (Yeah, I'm a no-dottle guy).The only exception...corncob pipes. I make a slurry of honey, water, and cigar ash. I stick a pipe cleaner through to the heel of the pipe, then apply a thin coat of the slurry to the bowl and heel. Works great.IMHO/YMMV

    • JoeD on September 4, 2022
    • Great advice as always. I'm a breaker-inner. I've found filling the bowl very, VERY loosely all the way to the top for the first several bowls is the way that works for me. That way the whole bowl is exposed to combustion, but after the first tamp I have about 1/2 bowl to smoke very slowly. My question: I don't do anything different after I have reamed a pipe's cake back. Should I?

    • Joe, PhD. on September 4, 2022
    • KUDOS, Chuck!I’ve been smoking a pipe on and off since 1959, 63 years.You are so on target with this article. Learning from others, I listened to many of the “remedies” for breaking in a pipe. I learned from experience and my tobacconist at The Smoke Shop in Ft Worth to follow your basic recommendation of 1/4, 1/2, 3/4, and finally full. I don’t count, some take less, some more. My old favorites include Comoy, Barling, Castello, Caminetto. I have other good and great pipes. It all depends on the pipe. It’s not Ferrarri speed, but turtle slow.Thank you, again.

    • Preparation H on September 4, 2022
    • The only time that I will consider building a cake is when I've purchased an estate pipe that has spiderwebbing or divots in the bowl, then it's honey (localized of course) for the cake foundation and an ash coating after every smoke....but I will keep the cake thin (half of a dime's thickness). Smoking a pipe is one of the best pastimes, and it can accompany other pastimes. Love this HOBBY and all the minutiae that goes along with it. Thank you for the intriguing article, Chuck.

    • Blake on September 4, 2022
    • I forgot to mention another trick that helps breaking in a pipe on the previous post.After the bowl is almost finished, run a pipecleaner down to the end of vent, but not touching the bottom of the bowl. Then with a piece of antler I made into a tamper/pick combo, I stir the ashes. After stirring, I cover the top of the bowl with a folded paper towel and shake up and down, side to side, and then dump ashes. It kind of coats the bowl with a light dusting of ashes. Every 10 bowls or so, wad up a paper towel, and twist to burnish the inside of the bowl. It helps smooth out irregularities in the cake.

    • Preparation H on September 4, 2022
    • @ Blake: We're pretty much on the same page with that cake building method 👍🏼

    • Steve Torino on September 4, 2022
    • returning to pipe smoking after 43 years, wonderful to be back,

    • Steve Torino on September 4, 2022
    • These articles and your comments are greatly appreciated

    • Bill brooks on September 4, 2022
    • The truth is that some pipes never smoke well and it’s a fact that all pipers know . Price , engineering 0r pedigree makes no difference.

    • Zen Master Raven (not me, but me...I like his name) on September 4, 2022
    • As Chuck stated in his article "There's never a guarantee with briar. It's a natural product and the only way to know its potential is to smoke it. " And I will add: smoke it (he mentioned), pay attention, be patient (he mentioned), and in a zen sort of way.... become one with smoking your pipe...be in the moment... notice everything🎍☸️🦉

    • DAVE SOMMER on September 4, 2022
    • Good job as usual Chuck. my self I cheat I buy a lot of Estate pipes from our weekly updates. But I have had an often bought the once in a while new one, but it is mucheasier to let someone else do the "dirty work".

    • DAVE SOMMER on September 4, 2022
    • Good job as usual Chuck. my self I cheat I buy a lot of Estate pipes from our weekly updates. But I have had an often bought the once in a while new one, but it is mucheasier to let someone else do the "dirty work".

    • Gustavo Chiaramonte on September 5, 2022
    • Gracias Chuck por otro artículo bueno y mejor escrito, realmente lo disfruto. Por razones de presupuesto, me inclino por comprar estados donde el trabajo ya lo ha hecho otra persona. Si me ha llegado entero a las manos lo más probable es que tras una buena limpieza fume medianamente bien, bien o muy bien. Sin embargo, de vez en cuando cae en mis manos alguna zarza inmaculada, y aquí sigo los preceptos de los materos de mi país: el mate se cura tomándolo un par de veces y dejándolo reposar 24 horas con la infusión adentro, repitiendo el proceso varios días hasta que se forme la primera capa protectora (o torta para la pipa).Good smoke and thanks again

    • Gustavo Chiaramonte on September 5, 2022
    • Thanks Chuck for another good and better written article, I really enjoy it. For budget reasons, I am inclined to buy states, where the work has already been done by someone else. If it reached my hands whole, it is most likely that after a good cleaning it smokes moderately well, well, or very well. However, from time to time some immaculate briar falls into my hands, and here I follow the precepts of mate drinkers in my country: mate is cured by drinking it a couple of times and letting it rest for 24 hours with the brewing inside, repeating the process several days until that the first protective layer (or cake for the pipe) is formed.Good smoke and thanks again

    • Emery J. on September 24, 2022
    • Great article Chuck. My dad always taught us to be patient and enjoy the smoke. Take your time to break in and enjoy the first smoke to the last. Good method and there are several. We always fill the bowl and take a slow leisurely smoke.

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