Packing a bowl is not only a necessary part of pipe smoking; it affords us the opportunity to experiment with alternative methods based on our pipe's dimensions, the style or cut of blend we plan on enjoying, and the environment in which we will be smoking the mixture. However, bowl packing can be frustrating if done incorrectly, resulting in a less than satisfactory smoking experience that leaves us disappointed and unfulfilled. It's something most of us have grappled with at some point, leaving us to ask others for advice or search for other options. I struggled heavily with properly packing a bowl when I became interested in pipe smoking after I started working at Smokingpipes, but I gradually improved with practice and from utilizing tips offered by my more experienced colleagues.
Recently, I came across an article published in the winter 2007 edition of Pipes and tobaccos magazine written by Fred Hanna that explored a bowl-packing technique he called the Air Pocket packing method. Wanting to add another approach to my repertoire, I experimented with the Air Pocket method to experience the results firsthand. What sets the Air Pocket method apart from others is that it's specifically designed to leave an air pocket in the bottom of the chamber during the initial packing and lighting phase.
I was immediately skeptical when I read that the bottom of the bowl shouldn't have any tobacco in it. Not completely filling my bowl sounded like I'd be depriving myself of tobacco and I wouldn't be able to savor the nuanced flavors of what I wanted to smoke. Initially, the method seems unnatural and counterintuitive but it has the potential to be a valuable asset for many pipe smokers as there's no tobacco at the bottom of the bowl to interfere with the draw and little to no relighting may be required.
Fred Hanna, the man who popularized the technique, mentioned in his article how he feels it provides a more intense flavor right away, as the smoke is not filtered by the unburned, packed tobacco that sits in the bottom of the bowl. He believes that the tobacco that sits in the bowl's bottom half may absorb and dilute the flavor of the burning tobacco that sits on top.
What sets the Air Pocket method apart from others is that it's specifically designed to leave an air pocket in the bottom of the chamber during the initial packing and lighting phase.
I tested the technique by using different cuts of tobacco, including ribbon, flake, and cake varietals in a variety of pipes I own. The pipes I used ranged in Group size, chamber shape, and chamber dimensions as I wanted to objectively assess how well the method suited my smoking style and could perform when applied to my collection. I found it works quite well in large- to-medium sized bowls though it can also be applied to pipes with smaller chambers. When I smoke, it tends to be on the hot side and I have found the Air Pocket method helped me significantly reduce the heat I experience, while each bowl often lasts just as long compared to when I fully pack my pipe.
The Air Pocket method, like other packing techniques, may not appeal to everybody but it's certainly worth trying and could circumvent recurring problems. Before attempting the method, it's also important to be cognizant of other factors such as the tobacco's moisture level, the cut of the tobacco, and the shape/dimensions of the pipe's chamber that will be used.
If done properly, the Air Pocket method can be done fairly quickly, taking only a minute or so, and consists of five easy steps. If you typically use a tamper when packing, set it aside until after the pipe is finally lit as the tamper will push tobacco into the bottom of the bowl — which is what we don't want to happen in this method.
Step One: To begin, grab a large portion of tobacco, forming it into a clump between your thumb and two or three fingers. The clump's size should be large enough so it fits tightly in the bowl's upper half and applies no matter the cut of the tobacco you're using. For flakes, you may want to fold and roll the slices into a ball in your palm or rub them out so that they're more pliable and easier to work with. Either way, it's important that they're short enough so that they don't extend into the bottom of the bowl.
Step Two: Take the clump and shove it into the bowl's upper half while ensuring that the lower section of the bowl remains empty. You'll want to force it in the bowl rather tightly so that the upper half of the chamber is packed while not exerting too much force so that the draw ends up being too tight and restrictive. The crucial part is that the bottom of the bowl stays empty. Getting the tightness of the pack correct may take practice or a few attempts. Some stray tobacco strands may fall to the bottom during this step but that's perfectly acceptable and natural for this method.
Step Three: Building on the previous step, after lodging the clump in the bowl's upper half, you'll twist the remainder into the bowl like you're screwing something into place until it goes just a little further into the chamber than before. Technically speaking, you could combine this step with the previous one by simultaneously shoving and twisting the clump into the chamber but when starting out it's best to break things down in more manageable segments.
Note: The key with this step is to avoid pressing the center of the tobacco into the bowl as it should be one entire clump and be as evenly distributed as possible. The clump should be twisted deep enough into the chamber so that when you light your pipe it won't char or damage the rim. If a significant amount of tobacco is sticking out, it's possible that the clump may be too large for your pipe or was not shoved and twisted far enough. It may take some experimenting to figure out the proper amount to form the clump and how far to shove and twist the tobacco into the chamber. If there's any excess sticking out after performing this step, it can either be removed or pushed in with the rest of the clump if you have space left, using the flat of your thumb. The important part is that you don't press directly down on the center.
Step Four: After packing the bowl, test the draw to ensure the airway isn't obstructed and there's an appropriate level of resistance. If you have trouble drawing air through the pipe, the bowl is packed too tight and if that's the case, it's best to dump the tobacco out and try again from the beginning. Attempting to smoke while the draw is restricted takes too much effort and will prove to be frustrating. The draw should have just some slight resistance but not to such a degree that you're straining to create proper air flow.
Step Five: Now you're ready to light the tobacco, but you'll want to focus on lighting the center of it. Though the center is the target, don't fret too much over it, as it will naturally burn outward to the chamber walls. If you normally do a charring light, just barely tamp the ashes from your initial light, being careful to avoid pushing the tobacco into the bottom of the bowl.
Tamping should never be excessive while using this method, but should primarily be used as a way to touch up and keep the tobacco organized to ensure even burning. After some time, later into the bowl, the tamper should move easily through the tobacco clump and slide it down into the bottom half of the bowl, which prior to this has remained empty. I've found that once the tobacco reaches the bottom of the chamber, it continues to burn quite well and requires little to no relighting.
Like many aspects of pipe smoking, the Air Pocket packing method takes some trial and error, requiring patience and practice for it to work well. It was an entirely new process for me and completely changed how I thought about packing a pipe. I highly encourage anyone who is unfamiliar with Air Pocket packing or has stuck to other traditional methods to give it a try. It has the potential to become a new favorite, or at the very least, another technique to add to your pipe smoking arsenal.