Live & Learn: Advice From A Beginner Pipesmoker
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!
Tagged in: Pipe Basics Pipe Culture Tips
Great observations !
An experienced pipe smoker learns THOUSANDS of tips and techniques over the course of his development. And sometimes it's overwhelming to take all that on board and remember it. So, as a pipe smoker who's been at this for over 50 years, I've reduced all of this to just two principles:
1. Easy Draw: make sure you pack the tobacco loose enough so that there's no effort in puffing or keeping it lit.
2. Smoke COOL: without being finicky about it, try to keep the temperature of the burning tobacco low. This gives the best flavour and aroma, and makes the smoking experience more effortless and enjoyable.
Paying attention to just those two principles seems to make everything else fall into place.
You're off to a great start ! Try to remember to come back in 50 years and tell us about your lessons learned.
Lately I have been focusing more on how different tobaccos taste and behave whilst being smoked in different pipes. It is a luxury unmatched in the previous years of my smoking life. Blends that I smoke regularly have shown me new tricks that I would never have thought of if I had not taken the time to play around with my style of packing, tamping and smoking cadence.
I have also experimented with packing styles for different pipes. After the education of a Peterson System packing style, I have found other pipes benefit from using a different style. Whether that be a lighter pack, tighter pack or a delayed tamp when smoking.
Cleaning has had its revelatory moments as well. I wipe down all of my smooth pipes after each smoke and will come back to them now more often for a quick polish to make sure they are clean and dust free so that I can get them into the rotation quickly if I find myself in possession of a wild hair. My cobs have been getting chamber brushing after a smoke and cool down, and I am regularly brushing the rims down with cleaner to remove the tar that tends to gather.
I've been smoking for about 30 years and I still hear, see and encounter new methods all of the time. Pipe smoking is an ongoing exploration of possibility. Learning truly never ends. ~J
@Mark S, Great tips from a Veteran smoker, thank you so much for sharing!
@Jeremy F, "Pipe smoking is an ongoing exploration of possibility." I love that! Couldn't have said it better myself. There is always something new to learn or experiment with.
When I began as a piper 30 years ago I was lucky to have found a splendid shop, Liberty Tobacco, in San Diego. Plenty of couches and easy-chairs rendered it a great place to hang out and talk with other pipe crazies. It was a great education in the hobby. Sadly there's no place like that here in my current Arizona home town.
These articles in the Daily Reader provide a bit of that sense of fellowship. Thanks to Jeremy and all of your staff who contribute.
I have a more consistent draw when I roll into a ball the first tobacco packed.
Nice article, Jeffrey. Much of what I've learned in my first few years has been from Richard C Hacker's first book, and of course trial and error.
The jersey looks familiar in the last photo. Go Hawks! But as they are in the basement at the moment, a good pipeful is a needed relaxer after a game!
An observation that I believe I've had regarding life in general (and often share with others) is; "it's not what you go through in life as much as how you go through it...". As applied to pipe smoking, I believe it's significant to remind yourself that this is something undertaken to provide and/or enhance times of relaxation and enjoyment. People, when first taking up pipe smoking, are usually and unfortunately, confronted with a seemingly endless variety of pipes, tobaccos, and accessories (all at a considerably wide range of quality, cost, and value). Once you're ready to get smoking, another myriad of variables are there waiting for you, such as tobacco variety, moisture level, density, cut, possible toppings, etc., and that's just related to the facet of your tobacco choice. I definitely encourage and support all to be open to the process of continuing to learn new things, but also warn against how easy it is for one to find themselves missing out on the enjoyment of pipe smoking sessions due to some pursuit of an attempt to somehow master the process. With the abundance of written materials and videos on the topic, I sometimes wonder if someone starting out with pipe smoking is doing so just out of curiosity, as the sea of details available on just about every aspect of it seem to create an unnecessary appearance of complexity, only achievable by members of a secret society (lol?). I say relax and enjoy the process of learning and gaining experience. Fortunately, there are many great resources, such as found here, to help stave off discouragement and frustration as anyone begins the journey down this road. ;)
I found out an angled or soft-flame lighter works even better than a torch to light a cigar.
It's twice as fast and even chars the sides all in one light instead of with a torch lighter that some think make you look sophisticated by charring the rim of the cigar before smoking and lighting it up.
Now I use the angle soft-torch as an elegant solution for BOTH my pipes and cigars.
I'm sorry for buying a Zippo pipe lighter. I found it's the weakest way to light a pipe especially to get it started. Only good when you smoked it down a little for a relight. And it needs constant refills every few days as the fuel evaporates whether you are using it or not.
Someone also mentions he never cleans his pipe with "solvents" unless it is edible. That is drinking it and thus only uses whiskey (bourbon, rum, etc) fueled alcohol.
I forgot to add. I wish someone would invent bristles and brushes that are run by a drill for a QUICK and THOROUGH cleaning that you should do once in a while.
Custom sizes for bowls, shanks and stem. What say you Smoking Pipes?
Re: '... Advice From A Beginner Pipesmoker'
Well done, Jeffery. Good to be enlightened as to the many intricate complexities, critical nuances, and sophisticated etiquette involved concerning the efficient and proper techniques integral to such a pastime regarded by so many as a mere habit. BRAVO!
I have an appreciation for Bill Meyer’s comment. Living in So. Cal. where it’s illegal to smoke in many cities it has become hard to find other pipe smokers to learn from. In fact it’s becoming very hard to find any pipe shops at all. I have been wanting to join a pipe club but the closest one is in an area far away and very difficult to get to. It’s sad to see these old traditions fade away. On a positive note, I love Smokingpipes blogs and website. Being a rookie pipe smoker you make the learning and shopping experience much easier.
I agree with Jeff's advice to throughly clean your pipes. I prefer to clean the bowl with a cotton ball rather the a pipe cleaner. After cleaning the stem and shank with the pipe cleaner I grasp the center of a cotton ball with a pair of forceps (tweezers) and wipe out the bowl. Be careful not to scrap the forceps on the walls of the bowl. I find a can clean the bowl more throughly in this manner. You can purchase a bag of cotton balls from you local pharmacy.
The most important thing I wish i understood earlier is how the various component tobaccos act differently in differently sized/shaped bowls. Didn't think much about it for years.. When you've spent a bit of time smoking one or two blends- lets say they're similar blends even- in a few pipes and one pipe handles them better, it's easy to assume that the other pipes might be inferior in quality. But learning to match the bowl shape and size to the tobacco in density and component was a huge thing for improving my personal overall experience. This is subjective, of course, but I like mild english blends in wide, shallower 'u' shaped bowls which seem to enhance sweetness. Strong balkan or english blends I like in a deep and narrow bowl like a canadian or stack. I like to smoke aromatic or virginian blends -anything which might bite me- in similar 'v' shaped bowls. I also like virginian blends in longer shanked pipes, as they allow for more cooling. Anything coarse cut in a large bowl. Denser flakes and plug in a small bowl etc.. These are just a few rules I sort of live by now through trial and error, ymmv (of course!)
This is another great article from Smokingpipes. Thank you Jeffrey. I too have been smoking a pipe for over fifty years now and am constantly learning new things from reading articles that I find here. When I first started smoking a pipe the only place there was for me to purchase one was from a country store where you got a pipe along with two pouches of pipe tobacco, which I think was Carter Hall or Sir Walter Raleigh. The reason I got into smoking a pipe was that I use to see some older guys around the country side who smoked a pipe. I thought they always looked so cool and calm as they went about their business. I remember one was a mail carrier that always had a pipe in his mouth as he pulled up to the mailbox. He always seemed so happy and to be enjoying his pipe as he made his rounds. I also remember seeing men at college, both students and professors that smoked a pipe. There was a pipe shop down on the corner at the University of Virginia called Mincers Pipe Shop that catered to the pipe smoker. Today the shop is still there but it's only called Mincers but they don't sell pipes and tobacco. I was so impressed with this that even only in high school at the time I would carry my pipe to school and stick it in my mouth during class. It was not lit or did it have any tobacco in it at the time though. I have learned some lessons the hard way too when I first started. The biggest mistake was being told to cut a slice of apple and keep it in my tobacco to keep it fresh! I was also told to only smoke a certain tobacco in a pipe and nothing else. Maybe they knew about ghosting, I don't know. Since that time I have tried many different tobacco blends in the same pipe and have no problem with it. I never learned that you should rotate your pipes, just clean it once in a while. I just wish I would have had more access to a broader range of knowledge such as a site like Smokingpipes. In closing I feel it somewhat ironic that we have so much information to lean on now but just don't see guys or gals out smoking a pipe in public like I use to see when I was young. I feel like somewhere out there is a young person who years down the road wished he had seen a pipe smoker so he too may take up this wonderful hobby of a lifetime. Sorry if I rambled on.
I have been a pipesmoker for the pas 52 years and along the way,learned a few tricks to enhance my smoking pleasure. The best advice I ever received came from the master blender of Oregon, now deceased. He recommended inserting a pipe cleaner into the pipe bowl prior to filling. Makes all the difference in how each bowl full of tobacco smokes.
I am a new pipe smoker having spent many years exploring and enjoying fine cigars. One of the aspects that so attracted me to pipe smoking is the exploration of every nuance mentioned above. I look forward to all of it and it’s a pleasure to read through the blogs and comments.
What I found most challenging in my earliest days was tongue bite and learning what causes it and ways to avoid it. Initially this was my greatest obstacle and I nearly gave up completely a few times. Then I ran across a comment somewhere about allowing your tongue to “get accustomed” to pipe smoking. I found this very interesting and began paying close attention to my tongue training regime. There were a few times I had to put my pipes down for a day or two the help the process. Now after the proper patience my tongue is broken in just like my pipes. It’s easy to forget there was this period of frustration but it’s made all the difference for my enjoyment of the pipe. Now I can dive confidently into all of the fun learning that awaits me!
I started smoking a pipe just three years ago only to quit for almost a year because I didn't enjoy any of the tobaccos I tried (all aromatics). About a year ago I decided to try it again but this time I watched some SPTV videos and found I was packing my pipe all wrong, way too tight. Once I learned how to pack my pipe, I have enjoyed most every tobacco I've tried so far, even non-aromatics. And the great thing is, I'm just getting started. And now I know more about pipe cleaners which I will be putting to use right away. Thanks.
As a fairly young pipe smoker I've learned to take everything into consideration and use what work's for me .starting out I had no idea about drying out tobacco and would get frustrated trying to keep way to wet stuff lit. Then thanks to sites like this I've learned more then a thing or two the biggest of which is if you're not enjoying your pipe smoking educate you're self a bit more until you get the hang of it and try not to get to lost in all the variables .I still enjoy my first Dr.Grabow with its charred rim as much as I do my new Rattray .it's comforting knowing there is no wrong way and making mistakes is part of the process of getting to a place where pipe smoking is enjoyable. Thanks again to everyone.