Beginning pipe smoking can be an intimidating ordeal. Many people try smoking a pipe and give it up because they aren't experiencing the way a pipe should smoke. But if you can avoid these common mistakes, you'll find yourself enjoying pipe tobacco much more quickly. If I had these tips at my disposal when I started smoking, I'd have avoided years of trial and error and immeasurable frustration.
1) Choosing the wrong first pipe
So many pipes, so many shapes, so many materials – how is one to choose? Of course, those multi-hundred-dollar artisan pieces look great, but you don't want to invest like that before you know if pipe smoking is something that will appeal to you long term.
Corn cob pipes are inexpensive and smoke very well. They don't last as long as briar or meerschaum pipes, but they are surprisingly robust and able to take a beating. They will let you experiment with tobaccos and try smoking to see how you like the pastime. They deliver excellent flavor, require no breaking in, and provide very good smoking quality at an affordable price. And if you break it or if your dog chews it up, you've not lost an irreplaceable smoker.
You may be particularly drawn to briar pipes, and you should be. Briars are beautiful and impart a subtle flavor that most smokers truly appreciate. They can last a lifetime if properly smoked and maintained.
If you want to try a briar, consider starting with the estate market. Estate pipes are used pipes. Most estate vendors thoroughly clean and sanitize estate pipes, and if purchased from a reputable dealer, estate pipes are refurbished to as like-new condition as possible. We carry a large inventory of professionally cleaned and reconditioned pipes. They cost much less than equivalent new pipes, and have the added benefit of being already broken in. When you buy an estate pipe, you're getting more for your dollar than if buying a new pipe.
Very inexpensive new briar pipes are not typically well cured, because curing takes time and adds expense. Curing is a process that reduces the tannins, resins and saps that are inside all briar wood and make a pipe smoke hotter and wetter and more likely to cause the dreaded tongue bite that dissuades so many new pipe smokers. New, $20 basket pipes (so called because they are often displayed by the basketful) are unlikely to deliver a good smoke. They aren't as well engineered as more expensive pipes, so their air flow will be more difficult and produce excess moisture, which can cause an acrid, uncomfortable smoke.
However, you can still experience the excellent smoking qualities of well-made briars by purchasing a used pipe. The cost is greatly reduced from the new price, the pipe is usually already broken in, and it will be engineered as if it were new. The savings are significant, which is important when you're starting out. Later, when you know that pipe smoking is something you wish to pursue, you can invest more in a pipe and know that it's worthwhile.
2) Smoking your tobacco too wet
Tobacco typically contains more moisture content when purchased than is best for smoking. Too much moisture means more heat to keep it lit, more trouble keeping it lit, and often results in steamy, oversaturated smoke that is uncomfortable in the mouth. This is the tip that I most needed when I started smoking. It took years to figure it out on my own, and I'd have avoided considerable misery had I known.
Let your tobacco air out before smoking it. Sprinkle it onto a piece of paper and permit it to dry for a couple of hours. If it's an aromatic, it will take longer to dry than, for example, a straight Virginia, so you'll need to pay attention to the feel of the tobacco in your fingers. If it's near crunchiness, it's too dry. If the strands clump together, it's too wet. Experiment with what produces the most flavorful and comfortable smoke for you as an individual.
3) Packing the pipe too tightly
We all begin our pipe smoking journey with little understanding of how to most effectively pack a bowl. Our initial impulse is often to load a pipe with as much tobacco as will compress into the bowl, but that impulse can cause unpleasant experiences. Tobacco that is packed too firmly will be difficult to keep lit and will require more aggressive puffing, causing excess heat and tongue bite.
Don't even think of it as "packing" a bowl. Instead, let gravity do the work. Fill the bowl so that the tobacco is loose, then push it down with a thumb or finger to about two-thirds full, making sure that it retains a light "springiness." Now fill it the rest of the way and push it down again, this time with even less pressure. If there's room, fill it again. Drawing in through the unlit pipe will produce a pressure similar to sipping a beverage through a straw. If you draw on the pipe and hear a whistle similar to wind in the trees, the bowl is packed too lightly. If it takes any effort at all to draw through the pipe, it's packed too tightly. If you pay attention with each bowl you smoke, it will take little time to find the right level of compression, and each bowl you smoke will provide the experience you need to properly fill the bowl.
4) Tamping improperly
Proper tamping is essential to keeping a pipe lit and for the delivery of the best flavor a tobacco can provide and for keeping the pipe going, though you should expect pipes to go out often. Sometimes, when we're beginners, we press too firmly, compressing the tobacco and causing restricted airflow, inefficient combustion, and excess heat in the smoke.
The purpose of tamping is to keep the tobacco properly burning. As the top layer of tobacco smolders, it expands, which is most noticeable at the initial light, called the charring light, because it chars the first layer of tobacco. The tobacco must be in good contact with the tobacco beneath it to keep the bowl burning. The natural expansion as it kindles causes the tobacco to separate from the next layer, and the pipe will go out. Tamping is the way pipe smokers feed the fire. A light touch is required, often little more than the weight of the tamper itself. Be careful not to compress the tobacco into the bowl as you tamp; you're only pushing the embers into contact with the tobacco beneath them. It's important to maintain the density of your initial fill, though you can experiment with the density of the pack to find the most comfortable draw.
5) Not using enough pipe cleaners
Pipe cleaners may seem like mere cleaning supplies at first, but they are necessary for enjoying a bowl during the course of smoking. Keeping a pipe clean is essential to the delivery of good flavor. Moisture accumulates in the bowl and stem as a natural byproduct of combustion — the moisture in the tobacco has to go somewhere, and that which does not evaporate will accumulate in the heel of the bowl and imbue the smoke itself with more moisture than is necessary. That moisture interferes with smoking. It's recommended that you run a pipe cleaner through the pipe three or four times during a smoke. Moisture can migrate up the stem of a pipe even without signaling itself with the "gurgle" sound that we always want to avoid. And if that moisture reaches your lips, you'll wish it hadn't. It's a foul-tasting tincture to be avoided.
By inserting a pipe cleaner through the stem and shank and into the heel of the bowl, you'll wick up the moisture that is accumulating as well as keep the smoke hole clear. Tobacco can sometimes block the smoke hole in the heel of the bowl. A pipe cleaner pushes that blockage aside and clears the way for good smoking properties.
Pipe cleaners are also important after a smoke. Keeping your pipe clean will provide a better smoke next time you light up. After finishing a bowl, run pipe cleaners through the pipe until they emerge as clean as they went in. Fold a pipe cleaner in half and swab out the bowl to remove any flakes of tobacco adhering to the walls of the chamber. Blow through the pipe to make sure there are no blockages, then let the pipe rest and dry out. Some say that rest is unnecessary, but in my experience, a day of rest provides a better smoke next time.
6) Limiting yourself to aromatics
When I decided to start smoking, I insisted on the best smelling tobaccos possible. What I didn't know was that tobacco does not taste like it smells. It's unlikely you'll smell your tobacco at all the way those around you will. Often, a pipe smoker must leave the room where they've been smoking and return a few minutes later to get an idea of the room note left by a particular blend. You may want to provide pleasing aromas for your family, but you have to let that notion go. Light some incense for them, but smoke tobacco that tastes good.
Aromatics are the most popular category of pipe tobacco worldwide. Many of them do taste great, but they are more difficult for achieving a good level of moisture, more difficult to keep lit, and more likely to produce tongue bite. Experiment with three different categories of tobacco: Aromatic, English, and Virginia. They are the most prominent categories, though many would add Burley to the list, so keep that in mind.
English tobaccos are most often thought of as those containing Latakia, which is a particularly woodsy tobacco with lots of smoky aroma because it is cured with smoke. English tobaccos are the easiest to smoke and the least likely to produce mouth discomfort.
Virginia tobaccos are generally thought to be more prone to producing tongue bite. They must be sipped very slowly, but they are high in natural sugar content and are adored by pipe smokers, though usually those with a little experience. But once you're secure in your bowl-packing and tamping technique, they are well worth getting to know. Most often, pipe smokers go through stages of preference, from aromatics to English blends to Virginias. Most continue to enjoy all three as they progress.
Proceed and enjoy
If your interest in pipe smoking has led you this far, you're already well on your way. Pipe smoking is the oldest form of enjoying tobacco. It's rich with tradition and history, and today's pipes and tobaccos are probably the best the world has ever seen. It's a great time to start, and with plenty of information and advice online, you have a wealth of knowledge at your disposal. Pipe smokers are also famous for their patience and willingness to help those wanting to enter into the interest. The pipe smoking community is knowledgeable and friendly, and those who take the time and trouble to learn how to best appreciate this form of tobacco consumption are rewarded with one of the most relaxing and contemplative pastimes ever known.