As a relatively newer pipesmoker, I've rapidly advanced my pipe knowledge from working at Smokingpipes, continuously learning different methods and approaches to pipesmoking. Whether it be from observing a coworker's technique, picking things up from conversation, watching video tutorials, reading past blog posts on the site, or good old fashioned trial and error, each bowl I pack has become easier and more rewarding.
In hindsight, there are some things I'm kicking myself for not incorporating sooner into my daily routine or realizing earlier. However, whether you're a complete rookie or a veteran pipesmoker, there's always something to be learned. Here I'll be sharing some things I wish I would have known sooner as a pipesmoker and outline some of my own personal methods.
There's no right or wrong way
One of the many great aspects of pipesmoking is that there's truly no right or wrong approach. There are easier methods or those that are widely popular or have been used for years, but innovation and experimentation are what make pipesmoking fascinating and satisfying. It's just like pipemaking.
What if Sixten Ivarsson never decided to handshape pieces on a lathe and focus on shaping first and drilling second? Classic shapes are certainly nice and considered classics for a reason, but things would become stagnant and there'd be no variety or creativity. Or what if briar was never discovered as a viable alternative to clay and meerschaum as pipemaking mediums? Complacency shouldn't be something to revel in; pushing boundaries and discovering new methods are what caused the craft to evolve in the first place. Pipesmoking is no different; it encourages us to expand our horizons and investigate on our own.
For instance, lighting a pipe is, of course, a necessity and while any flame-producing source can be utilized, they will yield different outcomes. Some people prefer matches, while others favor lighters. Either one is perfectly acceptable, but depending on weather conditions or whatever is readily available at the moment, results may vary. You'll have increased control with an angled, soft flame, Old Boy-style lighter versus a torch lighter that's primarily for cigars. An Old Boy's soft, angled flame can better protect your pipe against premature darkening, charring, or experiencing a burn out. Even a BIC lighter will suffice, but after burning my thumb repeatedly I realized I had to upgrade my arsenal to better accommodate a tilted flame and not expose my pipe (or thumb) to any unnecessary danger. I personally own a Kiribi lighter and it's something I am sure to have on me at all times. Its reliability, versatility, and gorgeous aesthetics are all things I admire in a quality lighter, while the folding dottle pick and tamper combination it conveniently houses are certainly a bonus.
Relighting has always been a point of contention among pipesmokers, but I see no problem in needing to occasionally give a bowl a relight throughout the smoking process. Sometimes the burning ember goes out when we get sidetracked by conversation, get caught up in a book or television show, or perhaps when we're trying to get the feel of a new blend. Most of the time, especially among newer pipesmokers (myself included at one point), there's a misguided belief that relighting means you're doing something incorrectly. But I've been continually reassured by my colleagues and learned from experience that relighting is totally acceptable and just because you didn't smoke the bowl down to the bottom of the chamber in one attempt doesn't mean you're an amateur or should abandon all hope. Most of the time, it's the initial charring light that's the key and plays a major role in setting the tone for the remainder of the bowl, but even then relights are a natural part of the process.
Packing and Tamping
Pipesmoking is all about patience, starting with even the most basic procedures like packing and tamping. Long before I took up the hobby, the concepts of packing a bowl and tamping seemed ridiculously easy and self-explanatory. You fill the bowl with tobacco and gradually tamp the ashes throughout the smoking process to allow the tobacco to burn evenly. What else could there be? But in practice, it's something that trips many newer pipesmokers up and is truly an artform. Unlike learning a new instrument or mastering the art of French cooking, packing and tamping a pipe are comparatively easier artforms.
I used to pack each bowl the same no matter what blend or cut of tobacco I was smoking, which I now realize made enjoying a bowl difficult and frustrating. Not only that, but I wasn't mindful of the shape of the pipe's chamber I was packing, not realizing that each pipe requires a slightly altered packing method. I learned to rub out flakes instead of just folding and stuffing, dedicated pipes with larger chambers to ribbon cut tobaccos, and observed the behavior of my briars loaded with unfamiliar blends. I'd have an obstructed draw, resistance, and struggled to even get the tobacco lit due to my inexperience and faulty approach. Currently, my method consists of gradually filling the bowl, gently pushing the tobacco down with each pinch that I add and occasionally testing the draw to ensure I have a smooth air flow and if I don't, I dump it all out and start fresh.
Tamping is another aspect of pipesmoking that I underestimated and didn't pay attention to when I started. I'd easily get carried away with tamping, unintentionally extinguishing the ember burning inside the bowl and having to constantly relight, becoming frustrated in the process. Long before becoming a pipesmoker, I associated the hobby with contemplative thinking and patience, with patience being especially applicable to tamping. It's easy to get carried away with tamping or second guess yourself, but I learned to resist the urge the frequently tamp and have experienced far fewer instances of discontent.
Tamping remains an area of over-contemplation for me, with some smoking sessions requiring more tamping than others. Other times I'll become enthralled experimenting with tamping at different angles to ensure a smooth, even burn within the chamber and observing the nuances of the pipes in my rotation. I have noticed gradual improvements with my tamping techniques over time but there are many underlying factors, such as the pipe used, the tobacco, and even the rhythm and cadence unique to each pipesmoker. While tamping technique isn't something that keeps me awake at night, there's room for refinement and it's not as troublesome as it used to be for me.
Despite tamping's intrinsic mysteriousness and challenges, I can take solace in the wide variety of tampers that exist. While Chuck Stanion's vast collection dwarfs most mortals, the sheer number of tamper options is staggering. From handcrafted tampers from artisans such as Scott Tinker, Alexander Glotov, and Abe Herbaugh to the vibrant, colorful kind offered from Neerup and ZapZap, there's plenty of tampers for those who appreciate fine craftsmanship. Even if you're more of a back-to-basics, utilitarian pipesmoker, you have an abundance of choices readily at your disposal like 8deco's bamboo tamper or a Czech pipe tool, which is my personal favorite tamper design. I've even known and read about pipesmokers who use a golf tee, a nail, or even their own finger. Regardless of what you choose to tamp with, it's comforting to know there's a tamper to cater to everyone's personal style and preferences.
Maintenance and Upkeep
One of the most essential things I've learned through pipesmoking is the importance of regular maintenance and basic upkeep. Even if life gets too hectic or procrastination occasionally triumphs, time should be set aside to clean and care for your pipes. Whenever a rotation or collection is established, it's easy for us to neglect certain pieces since we can simply move on to another one. Most of us have probably experienced at some point the unpleasant surprise of our pipes tasting sour or not performing like we fondly remember, both problems that could be easily remedied if fundamental steps are taken to ensure their longevity.
Fortunately, pipe cleaners are inexpensive and are offered in a variety of lengths and styles. Whether they're standard tapered cleaners, bristled, extra absorbent, or Churchwarden length, there are practical and affordable pipe cleaners that no pipesmoker should ever be without. I'm partial to Blitz cleaners and use them after each bowl, thoroughly cleaning the shank, stem, and chamber with no shedding issues or incidental fluff. Dipping the pipe cleaner in Pipemaster Clean and Cure or some other form of near-pure, non-denatured ethanol after several bowls assists greatly in avoiding pipes taking on a "sour" taste. It took some discipline to incorporate regular cleanings into my daily ritual but since then I have been more satisfied compared to when I neglected to properly care for my pipes.
I've learned to become more receptive to differing ideas and opinions, keeping an open mind when talking with other pipesmokers. I'd encourage anyone to do what works best and easiest for them but maintain a willingness to try new techniques or approaches, since there's always the chance that it may be better than your current technique.
What are some things you wish you would have learned sooner? Do you have any personal methods that have been effective that you continue to use? Tell us about it!