When I first started smoking a pipe and encountered the phrase "pipe rotation," the vagueness and degree of personal preference confused me and incited questions. How many pipes do I need in my rotation? How often do I need to rotate those pipes? And why is rotating my pipes even important?
The inspiration behind pipe rotation is the fact that briar is an organic material that absorbs moisture from tobacco when smoked. While this feature is a benefit, allowing for dryer smokes and an impartation of the briar's natural flavor, it does necessitate rest in the same way that any absorbent material requires time to dry and return to its original state.
To facilitate this rest, many pipesmokers rotate their pipes, meaning they wait a certain amount of time after smoking a certain pipe before returning to it. Everyone's smoking schedules and habits are different and everyone's collections are different sizes, however, so the amount of time defining the rotation will vary from pipesmoker to pipesmoker.
One of the many beauties of the pipesmoking hobby is the unity of shared process in spite of differing personal preferences: We may differ in our individual packing techniques and cadences, but every pipesmoker is united in that we all engage in these processes. The same is true of pipe rotation.
Like cadence, tamping, and packing techniques, pipe rotation is often discovered through a trial and error process dictated by each pipesmoker's preferences and individual habits. In my own experience, learning what is helpful to others informs my own process, either in subtle ways or fully mimicked, both approaches having influenced my personal pipe rotation.
To answer my original questions of how many pipes I need in my rotation and how often I need to rotate them: It all depends on how many bowls you smoke per day.
For those just now exploring the world of pipesmoking, I would recommend owning a collection one pipe greater than the number of bowls you smoke per day.
A general rule of thumb I've noticed adopted by many pipesmokers is the "24 Hour Rule." In essence, it maintains that a pipe should be rested for 24 hours for every bowl smoked from it. For example, if I smoke three bowls back-to-back-to-back from the same pipe, it's accepted that the pipe should be rested three days before I smoke it again.
This "rule" has informed my personal pipe rotation, yet it lends itself well to differing schedules, allowing one to tailor it to their own preferences.
I find that most pipe rotations fall within two categories. In one, the same pipe is smoked each day throughout the rotation; in the other, a pipesmoker reaches for a new pipe after each previous bowl. Both can easily follow the "24 Hour Rule," but the time it takes to cycle through the rotation will differ.
The former allows for multiple bowls from the same pipe throughout the day, requiring several days' worth of rest time. The latter limits that to one bowl from each pipe, but each pipe only rests for one day. Then, of course, the third option is to combine these two methods into a unique rotation all its own (though I've personally tried it, and it becomes increasingly difficult to remember out of which pipes I smoked only one bowl versus those of multiple bowls. Not recommended).
Following these two approaches, the number of bowls smoked per day usually dictates how many pipes ought to be in a rotation. If you smoke between three-and-five bowls each day, then four-to-six pipes should easily accommodate a rotation according to the "24 Hour Rule."
I've found that after a pipe has rested several days, that first bowl is one of the best that pipe has ever offered.
All of this, however, is assuming that one smokes the same tobacco out of each pipe. If you're like me and have different pipes devoted to different tobacco blends (Latakia-based, Virginia-based, and Aromatic blends being the most common, though one could add Burley-based blends to that list), then the number of pipes rotated will invariably increase.
For those just now exploring the world of pipesmoking, I would recommend owning a collection one pipe greater than the number of bowls you smoke per day. This strategy should allow for an appropriate rest time, whether each pipe is smoked all day or once per day. As your palate becomes more inclined toward certain tobacco blends, then I'd suggest devoting certain pipes to certain blends and expanding your rotation from there. But for now, while you're still trying new blends, simply keep in mind the "24 Hour Rule," and enjoy the journey.
To you more veteran pipesmokers who have smoked a pipe for years but perhaps never considered rotating pipes or never understood what all the "fuss" was about it, try it out for yourself, and see if regularly rotating your pipes results in more forgiving, flavorful smokes. I've found that after a pipe has rested several days, that first bowl is one of the best that pipe has ever offered. You might be surprised at how much better your favorite blends start tasting once smoked from well-rested pipes.
Those of you who already rotate your pipes, share your wisdom in a comment below. We're all figuring this out together and can learn something new through the varied methods of shared processes.