Techniques for Smoking Extra-Large Pipes

Techniques for Smoking Extra-Large Pipes

There are pipes large and small, and both can be artfully rendered and enjoyably smoked. Some of us like smaller pipes because they're light, easy to carry and clench, and manifest a pleasing footprint and lightness in hand. Others prefer large pipes because of their reassuring mass and large surface area highlighting grain and texture, and for their large tobacco chamber requiring infrequent refilling.

That large capacity is an attractive attribute. I smoke several pipes a day, which makes big pipes appealing, especially for when I'm writing. Refilling a pipe is distracting when I'm compressing four ideas into two clauses, inverting the sentence, and adding a punchy transitional phrase. Thought puzzles like that do not benefit from interruptions, even those so auto-piloted as filling a pipe.

Yet I do not own a truly large pipe, like the Giants from Ardor and Radice, for example. My colleagues think I already smoke big pipes, but they are mistaken. Most of my pipes are from five-and-a-half to six inches in length and average two inches in height. That doesn't seem large to me, but my friends here at Smokingpipes tend to smoke pipes significantly smaller. Anything under five inches seems tiny to me but normal to them. Though my pipes are perfectly sized, the contrast does amusingly transform me sometimes into a Brobdingnagian colossus towering over them and their Lilliputian smoking instruments.

Aside from personal tastes in pipe dimensions, body type is sometimes a consideration. If you're sized to wear a leather watch strap as a belt, extra-large pipes could look out of proportion. If you're 6' 6" with the general physical impression of a well-fed polar bear, a four-inch Billiard is going to seem laughingly insignificant. As Einstein theorized, it's all relative.

However, few of us care about how we look with a particular pipe. We care about how the pipe looks, but that's for our own appreciation. Gone are the days of Hollywood stars choosing the right pipe for their publicity shots, or college students finding just the right pipe for their graduation photo. Our options for smoking in public are minimal these days, so how we look with a pipe is immaterial. But how the pipe smokes is paramount.

The important consideration here is the way pipes of different dimensions smoke differently from each other. I know this from many conversations with knowledgeable people like Gibb Robinson and Rich Esserman, both Doctors of Pipes and big-pipe enthusiasts, and have noticed it myself on a smaller scale. I like the idea of smoking a single pipe for three hours and sidestepping the constant accumulation of pipes waiting to be cleaned. Sure, it's all part of the ritual, but we don't have to love every element. And I have trouble with simple Pots, let alone Giants. Pots have wide bowls, and I've not yet mastered them. I know it's a matter of simple experimentation, but I've traveled the safe route with bowl dimensions that I have plenty of experience with and tend to avoid Pots. The idea of smoking a Giant, though, is doubly intimidating. Those big pipes are made from briar burls that could reap three or four regularly sized pipes, and they are not budget camping pipes.

I like the idea of smoking a single pipe for three hours and sidestepping the constant accumulation of pipes waiting to be cleaned

It turns out, though, that there are techniques for smoking large pipes. Armed with the knowledge and advice of experienced pipemen, I continue to think about acquiring one. It sometimes takes us pipe people months to make a decision on a pipe (though when the irrefutably perfect pipe materializes, things can move much faster). I'm no different, but now that I know more about the mechanics of smoking extra-large pipes, I may be only weeks away from that important decision. It's good progress.

Techniques for Smoking Extra-Large Pipes

Radice Pipe

The Experts Speak

Both Rich Esserman and Gibb Robinson have been mainstays in the pipe community since before anyone can remember, and each is an imposing specimen with shoulders broad enough to stretch a clothesline on. When motionless, they could be mistaken for large stone carvings made by an ancient civilization. When one of these guys walks into a room at a pipe show, people notice, not only because of their dominating physical presence but because both are admired for their knowledge, generations-long experience, and friendly drive to share what they know.

Rich and Gibb smoke large pipes primarily, though not exclusively. "I'm a big person," says Gibb, "and big pipes just fit my hand and personality better. I really started by falling in love with Bill Taylor's Magnums." Bill Taylor, for those unaware, was the originator and carver of Ashton pipes, a brand that Taylor and distributor David Field started after Bill left his job at Dunhill and that's now continued by Jimmy Craig. "At one time I had about 25 Ashton Magnums in my collection."

BLK WKS Studio Killer Bee Cigar

Rich Esserman

Rich started out about the way we all did. "My first couple of pipes were average-sized, and I smoked Black Cavendish. I experienced a lot of tongue bite, and those pipes clogged up pretty easily."

One day Rich found himself at a Tinder Box in Syracuse, New York. "I looked in the cabinets and saw the pipe of my dreams, a 0-grade Savinelli Autograph for $270. That's why it was a dream pipe: 270 bucks was a lot in those days, when I was making about $50 a week working as a guard."

Rich opted for a different pipe, though still large: a sandblasted Autograph. "I just couldn't ask Nick, the guy who ran the Tinder Box, to put that smooth Autograph on layaway for me because it would probably take six or eight months to pay it off. But he was happy to wait for the $70 sandblast." When he made the final payment, Rich was invited to choose two ounces of any tobacco he liked. "I pointed to the Black Cavendish, and he said, 'I'm not going to let you smoke that crap in this pipe.'"

Nick handed Rich a can of Balkan Sobranie White. Rich had previous experience with Balkan Sobranie, but only the Black. "One of my professors smoked it, and I smoked about two puffs, turned green, and said, 'nope, not for me.'" But he was willing to give the White a chance in his new pipe.

"I smoked about two puffs, turned green, and said, 'nope, not for me.'"

"It was love at first sight when I smoked that Savinelli. I remember leaning back in my chair, just smoking; no one showed me how to load a pipe. I didn't know anything. I just spilled the tobacco in and lit up. Nick had said, 'Never use a lighter. You'll burn the rim.' So I used matches, and I can't describe how great it was. The first really good pipe I ever had was that Savinelli Autograph, which was a large pipe, and that first bowl changed my life. From that point on, I liked large pipes."

Rich went on to become the most famous collector of extra-large Dunhills, as well as other large pipes, such as many Castellos and a pair of extraordinarily rare Bo Nordh Magnums. Gibb, on the other hand, found himself concentrating on Ashton Magnums. "Most of my pipes are big, about the size of a Dunhill Group 5 or OD," says Gibb." (What the "OD" stands for is not incontestably known but is generally accepted as designating "Own Design," and such pipes are typically quite large.)

The largest Ashton in Gibb's collection is, he estimates, about 14 inches long, with a four-inch-high bowl. "I also have 10-12 extra-large J.T. Cooke pipes. Jim and I got to be really good friends, but he won't make big pipes anymore, not even for me." Cooke has been making pipes since 1972 and has developed some trouble with his hands, so he's more careful with them now. "He says making a big pipe is awful hard on his hands." Pipes as large as Gibb prefers, averaging 10-12 inches, have enormous surface area, and Cooke meticulously sandblasts each meanerining line of grain with a blasting nozzle little larger than a syringe. Three times. A giant-sized pipe is a pretty tough contract.

Techniques for Smoking Extra-Large Pipes

Gibb Robinson accepts his award for Best Ashton Pipe Collection from Craig Norris of the Conclave of Richmond Pipe Smokers. (photo: pipesmagazine.com)

Giants are also rare simply because they require so much briar. Good briar is not harvested as ambitiously now as in the past, and it's necessary to jealously guard its potential. For makers, giant pipes represent a large investment in materials for a single pipe compared to the three or four smaller pipes they could make from the same wood.

Good briar is not harvested as ambitiously now as in the past

It's understandable that these pipes are relatively rare, which is why collectors like Rich and Gibb have reputations for hunting down special pieces and arranging new ones through the relationships they've built with makers over the years. They both enjoy the hunt, and the spoils of that hunt are pipes endowed with individual stories as big as the pipes themselves.

Big pipes, though, don't smoke exactly the same way as the more moderately sized. According to those who enjoy them, they deliver enhanced flavor, better evolution of flavor through the bowl, and a long, uninterrupted smoke that develops elevated harmonic tones and nuances as the bowl progresses.

The Pros and Cons of Big Pipes

"I like to load a pipe and smoke — from beginning to end, one of these large pipes will last three hours, no problem," says Gibb. "That's three hours of smoking constantly, and I smoke all the way. I was taught by Tom McCranie [celebrated tobacco shop owner and Doctor of Pipes] to smoke all the way down to white ash. I don't leave any dottle at all in the pipe."

On the negative side of the equation is the difficulty of transportation. "Finding a bag or case that will accommodate these pipes is a painful experience," says Gibb. "They don't fit any standard carriers." Pipe cleaner sleeves are also difficult to find. "You're obviously using 10 or 12 inch pipe cleaners, and normal pipe cleaners are about six-and-a-half inches. And you have to find a very long tamper."

Gibb has never had a problem clenching his large straight pipes in his jaw, but for Rich, it was no more feasible than it would be for any of us with normal dentition. "I had this thing that I had to be able to hold the pipe in my mouth when I was smoking it, and I can't hold a big straight pipe in my teeth. And then one day David Field, who was importing Ashton pipes, told me about a new series: ELX. But it was really a Magnum. I contacted a few dealers and I found a huge straight Panel with perfect ring grain. I decided that for this pipe, I was willing to handhold it. That started me on straight pipes, and it also started me on handholding my pipes."

Big-Pipe Smoking Strategies

We shouldn't expect our first large pipe to deliver an exceptional inaugural smoke, says Rich. "I was lucky with the Savinelli, but when you don't know what you're doing, you may or may not get a good smoke from a very large pipe because you might pack it wrong. For instance, a lot of people can't smoke Pots."

That sounds familiar.

"Well, here's the key to smoking a Pot, and it's the same with smoking a large pipe. Remember, if a large pipe is 3.25" tall and has a chamber one inch wide, that's a Pot, but it's a Pot with the chamber depth of a respectable Chimney. The only way to light a Pot is to light only a section of the top — not the whole surface. Some people start in the middle and work their way out. When there's a section going, it's important to tamp that lit part down just a little, lowering it in relation to the surface tobacco. The other tobacco will pop up a little bit and the ember will start to spread upward. Let's say you have a Pot with the closest half burning — press down with your tamper on the burning tobacco, so the other tobacco is elevated a little bit, and you'll be surprised that the flame will move over." Heat rises and the ember is more attracted to the loose tobacco above than the more dense tobacco below.

Tricks like that need some practice. "You really have to work and learn from your mistakes to smoke a small Pot or a large pipe. A friend of mine is an example. He likes large pipes, but he would say, 'Well, I get halfway down and it goes out and I can't get it started so I empty the ash.' But that's the worst thing you can do."

As the bowl burns down, Rich is constantly maintaining a mound of ash in the center. "I put the match in real quick, then three, four puffs, boom, out. And the thing will start lighting up and I'll use my tamper to get it rolling. But again, it takes a little bit of practice, just like learning how to smoke a pipe."

Techniques for Smoking Extra-Large Pipes

Ardor Pipe

Loading the Bowl

For Gibb, loading the bowl of an extra-large pipe is mostly a bigger version of the way he loads a smaller pipe. "Ribbon-cut tobacco works best. For the first little bit of tobacco in the bowl, I don't press down much at all, and then the next bit, I press just it a little harder, and each additional layer of tobacco is a little firmer up to the top, where I'm packing pretty tightly. I think that the larger pipes tend to appreciate a slightly drier tobacco than other ones. I don't mean drier as in crunchy dry, but reasonably dry. With that method, I don't have trouble."

... larger pipes tend to appreciate a slightly drier tobacco

Rich tends to agree. "No matter what, I rub out the tobacco. Even if I'm using a flake, because to get the best flavor from a tobacco, I believe that the strands have to be separated. Smoking a full flake doesn't offer the same depth of flavor."

Proper bowl loading is a more complex affair for Rich. "I place oversized pipes in three different main classes according to tobacco chamber size. It's critical to remember that very large pipes smoke similarly to Chimneys. For pipes from 2.4" to 2.75" tall, I'll employ a very tight pack, dropping the tobacco into the bowl in little clumps, gradually pressing harder as the bowl is filled. Then at the top, I really push down hard. As I'm doing this, I'm checking that I am not blocking the draft channel and that the pipe maintains a good draw. Then I like to sprinkle a little dry tobacco over the top so that it lights quickly."

Rich's next size grouping is for pipes with bowls from 2.8" to 3.4" tall. "For this group, I don't pack as tightly as the first." At this size, available oxygen starts to become a concern. To light the pipe and keep it lit, the tobacco must have sufficient air. So if you pack it too tight, it isn't going to light well. If the pipe goes out halfway, relighting is fine, but if it goes out at three quarters of a bowl, take care not to burn the inside of the chamber while trying to light that tobacco at the bottom of a deep hole.

Moving up to Rich's very-large-pipe category for bowls 3.5" or more, even more air and an even lighter pack is necessary. "As I'm loading the bowl," says Rich, "at about a quarter of the way up, I layer in a little dry tobacco, and again at the halfway mark. Then as the ember burns down and reaches those dry levels, it will rekindle and spread." It's an internal rekindling system.

An additional technique for providing enough oxygen to the ember is proper big-pipe tamping. Even when it lights nicely and burns well, a layer of ash will build on the surface of the tobacco. "What I do," says Rich, "is use a very long tamper to pull the tobacco from the chamber wall, not all the way around, but let's say one side of the bowl. That allows air to get into the bowl and drive the flame to the unburned tobacco as you light. Then I cover it again with the ash. Very large pipes can be hard to smoke, even though I enjoy them. Don't dump the ash; pull it away from the sides. You don't want to have to relight a bowl that's three and a half inches deep, and the ash helps it stay lit."

What to Remember

Rich Esserman has five important tips for those considering a big pipe:

  • Moving up in size gradually and become accustomed to the smoking character of the tobacco and pipe.
  • Also try moving up in chamber diameter. If you smoke a pipe with a 0.75" wide chamber, try one with a 0.8" or 0.875" diameter. Incremental steps will provide opportunity to adjust your smoking.
  • Be prepared for a different taste from your tobacco. Flavors previously undetectable will emerge.
  • Puff moderately and use the tamper to move the ember around in the bowl.
  • Give yourself time to enjoy the smoke. Do not rush.

Extra-large pipes have lots to offer for those willing to experiment and anxious to explore their divergent smoking characteristics. Their gigantic proportions alone make big pipes a unique category. They may provide more flavor and an experience in hand unlike any other, and they certainly provide longer smoking sessions. Should you decide that these towering edifices of pipedom are worthy of investigation, remember the advice offered by Gibb Robinson and Rich Esserman. Your own results may contradict or substantiate their counsel, but given their experience, it's a terrific starting point for finding a new smoking experience.

Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   Pipe Culture Tips

Comments

    • wang on February 19, 2023
    • please tell me the first picnic pipe's name

    • Tom Pfaeffle on February 19, 2023
    • An excellent and informative essay. Thanks for writing it! I’m going to pull out one of my ELXs tonight.

    • Bob on February 19, 2023
    • What a elegantly written and meticulously detailed article! Thank you, from a short guy who has always preferred extra large pipes!

    • george ramig on February 19, 2023
    • great thought

    • Blake on February 19, 2023
    • Tried some magnums, but only kept two. Same with Dunhill group 6's. Kept my favorites, and traded the rest. I think I'm settled on group 3-4 on Dunhill pipes for my bulldoggies. Group 4 on my Dunhill patent era billiards and Dublins. Don't have trouble with Pot styles, I like them fine in group 4. Castello pipes feel so good when they are the larger sized. Like those Dublin great line, Fiamatta. I used to load at about 75% capacity, and tamp center like Chuck says. Get the cake going down lower in bowl to improve flavor intensity. Now I load 65% or so on larger shapes/sizes. That way I have shorter sessions, less rim browning, and more pipe breaks during the day. Been doing that trick Chuck mentioned last Sunday, and charring top of tobacco, and let pipe sit for a while, and then relighting in the morning. Works great. Always great idea sharing up here, which builds the community spirit. Enjoy yourselves.

    • Ron on February 19, 2023
    • Very useful article. And the insights apply to more than extra large pipes. I have an old aversion to pots, my experience being they burn too hot and fast. So I smoke mainly 6-inch billiards, Dublins, and chimneys. I have a six inch Ashton LX billiard that I have not been entirely happy with: burns a bit hot and fast. I thought it might have something to do with the diameter of the bowl (one inch), as opposed to the quantity of taboo. When I compared it with my only remaining pot, an old GBD Virgin, sure enough the diameter of the Ashton was the same as the pot. The extra height and extra thickness of the Ashton's walls were not helping much to slow the burn. So it was nice to learn the trick of starting the burn on an edge and being extra mindful of its progress.

    • Pierre Leslie on February 19, 2023
    • In reply to Bob, I’m taller than Napoleon and enjoy large pipes . MacBaren’s roll cake do exceptionally well in large pipes and that’s basically all I smoke. And thanks for a delightful and informative article which I wholeheartedly agree.

    • G on February 19, 2023
    • I snagged that exact Adri pipe. Cool to see it in the article. Nothing better than XL pipes.

    • DAVE SOMMER on February 19, 2023
    • My dear friend Chuck,You have hit a nerve. I personaly don't care if it's a smallpipe or one that makes me look small. Just sitting in my desk chair reading wonderful pipes from your bosses makes me VERY HAPPY. So from a fellowpipe smoker it doesn't matter as long as you enjoy your pipes to the fullest. KEEP ON PUFFING!!!!

    • Linwood Hines on February 20, 2023
    • Because I now usually smoke my pipes in the evening, after a long day - aa my reward (another perspective from Mr. Stanion), and am going to read a book, etc. and/or listen to music, I've evolved to larger pipes overall. ODA, gp 5-6, 3x-LX - such. I enjoy them tremendously! Smaller pipes do have the advantage of in the same time period giving one variety (more pipe-fun), but the largeer pipes allow for no break in the reverie of the evening! Great article Chuck! Please put this one in THE BOOK!

    • Linwood Hines on February 20, 2023
    • Because I now usually smoke my pipes in the evening, after a long day - aa my reward (another perspective from Mr. Stanion), and am going to read a book, etc. and/or listen to music, I've evolved to larger pipes overall. ODA, gp 5-6, 3x-LX - such. I enjoy them tremendously! Smaller pipes do have the advantage of in the same time period giving one variety (more pipe-fun), but the largeer pipes allow for no break in the reverie of the evening! Great article Chuck! Please put this one in THE BOOK!

    • james strathy on February 26, 2023
    • I see you have a bigger pipe than I! If time permits I smoke my larger pipes. Still haven't broken in my Sav silver pipe. Would have to set aside a solid day for that one.

    • Jack koonce on March 3, 2023
    • Another informative article Well written and very enjoyable Thank you

    • Charles Funn on March 31, 2023
    • I usually smoke average sized pipes. Got a Lestrade and am trying St. Bruno in it. Have had an Estate Wilke Om Paul for several years from The CORPS Show I've just started smoking with St Bruno. Using the techniques in the article both smoke great. Just got a Peterson Pub Pipe I'm thinking about interchangeably smoking Bruno and English in it. I am finding a large bowl offers a true tobacco taste unlike the other medium sized pipes I'm accustomed to. The investigation continues. Great article!!

    • Brian D on May 19, 2023
    • I have enjoyed pots, and larger pipes since I first started pipe smoking. I have never found them difficult to keep lit. I enjoy the way they fit in my hand too. I cannot say I ever found them hot smokers but I do take my time smoking my bowl of tobacco. Am I a big man, no, pretty average height, and a bit tubby. Pots are comfortable pipes, fuss free.

    • THEMFW on June 5, 2023
    • This was a very helpful article, I am a noob with a few small and big pipes. I feel like I am learning to smoke each pipe just a bit differently as i strive to understand the differences of each.Regards

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