The Art of Tamping

As indicated by the title, it's clear that this article concerns tampers, and if you remember Chuck's earlier piece The Irresistible Tamper, you know well that our Editor's thoughts on and passion for tampers extend beyond those of even the most avid fan at Comic Con. You might be wondering, then, "Truett, no offense or anything, but why isn't Chuck writing this article? I'm sure you have valid thoughts on the matter, but I read Chuck's previous article: He owns more tampers than the Library of Congress has books, so — again, no offense — don't you think Chuck's perhaps a bit more qualified to speak on the subject of tampers?"

You'd be justified in asking, and I couldn't agree more. After all, to be honest, I don't really care about tampers. To me, they're just tools I'm grateful to use while smoking, but my love for them doesn't extend beyond their utility. I certainly don't have them displayed in glass cases as if they're priceless artifacts from Atlantis. They're just... tampers.

You see, though, Chuck actually asked me to write this article precisely for that reason — because I don't care about them to the extent he does.

It was 3:00 a.m. on a Saturday when he called me. (Chuck and I both prefer to write later in the day — the literary gods having cursed us with nocturnal muses — but that time was too late for me.) I woke groggily and picked up the phone.

"I'm useless, Truett."

"Chuck? Can you be more specific?"

"Tampers. They've been quarrelsome today."

"Okay. They aren't talking to you, are they? I saw you conversing with your shoes the other day; are your tampers sassing you now?"

"Ha. I've been writing an article on tampers — why we tamp when smoking a pipe, how to tamp, the benefits of certain types of tampers — a simple, objective piece."

"I see. Okay, what's the problem then exactly?"

"It's supposed to be an analysis of tamping and tampers, but I care about them too much and my prose keeps lapsing into love sonnets. And not good sonnets either: creepy, bombastic sonnets, with flower imagery, God help me. Flower imagery! I'm too opinionated. To me, a good tamper is the highest form of art and craftsmanship — second only to pipes, of course — and artless, utilitarian tampers that make reasonable sense should be incinerated, melted down and made into garbage cans. I can't force myself to say good things about them."

"I follow you, but how can I help?"

"You gotta write the article for me, Truett. You gotta bail me out. I can be a resource. I'll talk about tampers if you want, but I need you to physically write the thing. It's a subject that sends me into extravagant adulation, or profane tirades, no in between. I don't even want to read it after you're finished. If I were to disagree with anything, it could destroy our friendship — especially if you dare betray me by saying that golf tees are perfectly good ... hang on, sorry, I'll compose myself. See? You've not even written it yet and I'm already mad. Andy and Jeff can edit it. I trust them."

"Wow. That seems like a lot of pressure, but I'll do it."

Here it goes:

The Art of Tamping

For those who have enjoyed smoking a pipe for years, decades even, some of this information may be already known, but it might still inspire new methodology or at least a greater appreciation of tampers and tamping. For those relatively new to pipe smoking, hopefully what follows is a helpful resource and a guide that assists you in smoking a pipe and incites an even deeper love of the hobby.

Chuck's Tamper Collection

Tamping is the act of pressing down the ember closer toward unlit tobacco to continue the downward burning process, especially following the initial light: Introducing heat causes the tobacco to twirl and twist and dance upward, and tamping is essential for bringing it back to rim level. Neglect can cause the ember to die, and correct tamping can also assist in relighting. It's no mystery that as tobacco burns from the top down, it leaves residual ash on top, and that ash becomes thicker the further down the tobacco burns. When relighting, then, the flame must overcome that distance to reach unlit tobacco. If too thick, the ash can make relighting as difficult as when I snuck into Chuck's house and tried to steal a tin from his stash of McClelland's Beacon: I wanted to nab the oldest tobacco possible, which I knew would be at the bottom, but I couldn't reach it from my seven-foot perch on the ladder. Tamping effectively decreases this distance, as if moving the bottom of the box of tobacco closer to my grasp. It's a simple, convenient, and logically sensible procedure but one whose absence would make smoking through an entire chamber nigh impossible.

Pressing down the ember may be tamping's main objective, but the process has other benefits as well. When packing a bowl, I often err on the side of packing it more loosely than tightly. If I realize while smoking that the tobacco is too loosely packed, then I can apply some added pressure through tamping and correct the original packing. Were the tobacco packed too tightly, however, I would be resigned to suffer a tight draw and poor smoking performance or would have to surrender my losses completely, empty the chamber, and re-pack the bowl. Tamping, after all, is a one-way street, but it can effectively assist in packing if one plans appropriately beforehand.

Chuck also remarks on this aspect from personal experience: "Some of my pipes — pipes with a slightly smaller-diameter airway — require a bit tighter pack than others, and I might forget as I'm loading it, but then am able to compensate after the charring light with more aggressive tamping at intervals throughout the smoke."

However, tamping has its uses from a purely aesthetic perspective as well. We pipe smokers tend to be something of an OCD lot, or at least I am. I appreciate everything in its place: pipes neatly arranged on their rack; lighter, tamper, and pipe cleaners all organized in parallel formation on the desk ordered according to length; tobacco tidily rubbed out to the side, formed to a perfect, rounded pyramid. Similarly, I appreciate the tobacco and ash inside the chamber to be flush and kempt, free of uneven pockets or blemishes. After a relight, I will instinctively tamp to correct any ash that might have been disturbed. Most times it's unnecessary, but like so many aspects of pipe smoking, tamping has become a routine ritual and a calming activity that barely reaches my conscious mind.

If too thick, the ash can make relighting... difficult...

In fact, my subconscious obsession with tamping has pervaded other, non-pipe smoking areas of life: When eating cereal, I naturally tamp all the Cheerios evenly across the milk's surface; the flour in my cupboard is always perfectly flush within its jar; I even fell asleep on a friend's couch once and I awoke from their laughter at my mimed, pipe-tamping motion mid sleep. I'm on tamper tempering medication, but it's a long recovery process.

Regardless of my perhaps over-frequent tamping, though, the act is an essential element of the pipe smoking process; however, while its defining principle and general action are quite simple, certain techniques can either add to or detract from tamping's utility.

One of the most important factors to consider while tamping is the amount of pressure applied to the ash. Obviously, too little pressure won't actually tamp down the ash, but that extreme is rarely an issue: We're talking about tiny flecks of carbon that can float on the wind. Rather, too much pressure is the most pervasive issue when tamping, and restraint is a skill that beginning pipe smokers often struggle with without even knowing. I remember when I used to tamp as if it were a game of Whack-A-Mole and I was paranoid a mechanical gopher would suddenly spring upward from the tobacco ash. My therapist at the time asserted it was symbolic of my tendency to push down emotions, but I know it was just the result of years spent at the Chuck-E-Cheese arcade as a kid. I'm two years Chuck-E-Cheese-free now, though, and my tamping technique is the better for it. I used to practically pile-drive the tobacco deeper into the chamber and then wonder why the draw was so tight. Go figure. Now, though, my touch is much lighter, and I've also switched therapists.

Excluding the scenario Chuck discussed previously regarding a too loosely packed chamber and assuming that one has packed the chamber appropriately, a tamp should be minimal of downward pressure. Oftentimes I find it helpful to let the tamper do most, if not all the work, the weight of the tamper alone able to compress the ash to the desired depth without inadvertently packing the tobacco beneath any tighter.

... let the tamper do most, if not all the work...

Another aspect of tamping technique concerns the shape of the chamber itself, and it's an element I hadn't thought of before reading another of Chuck's articles. In it he describes different types of chambers, the positional relationship of the draft hole at the bottom, and how tamping can be used for a more favorable smoking experience:

For a long time, I avoided pipes with flat-bottomed tobacco chambers, finding that "V"-shaped chambers provided me with more ease of smoking. Flat-bottomed chambers needed more finesse and care when approaching the end of the bowl. The tobacco tended to burn unevenly for me in flat-bottomed chambers — until I altered my tamping technique [...]

Because the smoke has further to travel from the far side of the bowl than the near side [in flat-bottomed chambers], the near side will burn a bit more quickly, leaving a disproportionate amount of tobacco unburned on the far side. It catches up, but unevenly. In a "V" chamber, the ratio remains more even, though there is still some difference in the distances from burning tobacco to smoke hole [...]

Here's what I do, and maybe it will work for you, too. As the tobacco burns down to about the halfway mark, I start to tamp at an angle, pulling from the far side toward the near, so that the distance from the burning tobacco to the smoke hole is more even:

In this way, tamping distributes the ember more evenly throughout the entire chamber and improves the overall burn, making for a more even and more manageable smoke.

Tamping can be accomplished without a tamper as an accessory; one's finger functions sufficiently. In fact, Shane has often said that he appreciates the control afforded by tamping with his finger, as he's able to discern exactly how much pressure he's exerting on the ash. Personally, I'm too afraid of burning my fingertips. Sure, it would render gloves inessential in my safe-cracking endeavors, but only at the expense of my aspirations of being first-chair violinist for the NYC Philharmonic. Not worth it. Plus, there's the aspect of ashy fingers, an annoyance equal to that of Cheeto dust but considerably less delicious. For these reasons, many pipe smokers, including myself, prefer a tamper designed for the task, especially at the beginning of a smoke when the ember is near the top. But with so many tampers to choose from, how does one know which is best for their needs?

Stylistically, tampers present a wildly broad spectrum that rivals even that of pipe varieties, ranging from entirely utilitarian to stylishly avant-garde and to the point of barely being recognized as a tamper. Their differences sometimes alter their tamping ability too, so one must consider these aspects when choosing the right tamper for their needs.

... tamping distributes the ember more evenly throughout the entire chamber and improves the overall burn.

A tamper's foot is the end of the tool that comes into contact with the ash, making it one of the most important attributes of a tamper. Feet can come in a number of styles: Oval, circular, square, concave, and flat are some of the most common orientations, with combinations between them possible. There are even tampers with vented feet, allowing air and smoke to pass through to avoid the risk of smothering the ember.

While these varieties are relatively equal in their practical use, a factor to consider is that a pipe's tobacco chamber is circular, so any tamper with squared edges will find it difficult to compress ash close to the chamber walls. Similarly, a tamper with a shaft that expands beyond the diameter of the foot will be unable to tamp close to the chamber wall, unless tilted at an angle. Neither of these aspects render such tampers useless, but they do pose specific challenges.

I personally prefer a circular, flat-footed tamper with a slender shaft, such as a classic pipe nail or the pick/tamper combo tool housed in the bottom of IM Corona Old Boy lighters: I enjoy chamber ash that's flush and evenly flat, rather than the rounded aspect resulting from a concave foot. Chuck is similarly minded regarding the shaft being of smaller diameter than the foot, but he prefers an oval, concave foot on his tampers. He wouldn't use the word "prefers" though; he'd say, "The only appropriate tampers are those with stunning artistic personality and an oval, concave foot. Anything else is an imitation and those who think otherwise are delusional." But he'll never know about my mention of personal preference anyway since he has no intention of reading this article. Chuck's opinion is certainly valid, but it's just that: a personal opinion. Personal preference plays a significant role regarding tampers even if differences in practical benefit remain irrelevant.

Even considering the pros and cons of certain foot styles, though, a tamper's aesthetic appeal or other practical features may outweigh the specific challenges posed by the foot shape. Both Chuck and I have tampers (well, he considerably more than I) that while technically not the most practically efficient are valued equally because of their beauty, and some tampers have multiple pipe tools integrated, making up for a less-than-ideal foot shape or another undesired aspect. For example, I have a tamper composed almost entirely of antler. It's not the most practical of my tampers, but it's visually stunning and I'm never disappointed to use it. I imagine that Chuck has tampers he loves that he refuses to use at all, their existence validated by his adoration alone. At least, that's the impression I got from reading the tamper poetry I peeked at on his desk while trying to steal that tin of Beacon.

... any tamper with squared edges will find it difficult to compress ash close to the chamber walls.

The perfect tamper, then, is one that checks the boxes you personally prioritize as a pipe smoker. Do you appreciate precious metals and sculptural flourishes? Then look for a tamper whose aesthetic intrigues you and don't worry about its exact foot shape. Are you someone who prefers a more simple, utilitarian tool? Then find a tamper that embodies minimalism and fits your needs.

Even with these variances in style, one's tamping technique remains most important, and a tamper's specific shaping can be accommodated for by slightly altering how one holds or angles the tool. Tamping down with only the lightest amount of pressure possible and perhaps experimenting with Chuck's angled tamping technique can be realized with any tamper style, so instead of focusing on the Tamper of All Tampers, find a tamper that suits you and spend more time developing solid technique. May you find it makes for more enjoyable smoking sessions, allowing you to spend more time appreciating the artistry of pipe, tobacco, and tamper together.

Just remember that if you're ever enjoying a bowl alongside Chuck, keep your golf tee tampers in your bag.

Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   Humor Pipe Basics Pipe Culture Pipe Science


    • Dan on February 26, 2021
    • Informative and entertaining, Truett. How about an article about the utility of picks that are often part of a tamper ensemble? Thanks

    • Adrian on February 26, 2021
    • I have to admit, tampers aren't something I'm particularly passionate about. Typically I just use one of the Czech tools or a spent cartridge case from one of my rifles. In a pinch I'll use my finger, but for the reasons listed tend to avoid that when possible.Thoroughly entertaining article, thanks Truett.

    • Smokey Moose on February 27, 2021
    • This article was great. I have been avoiding tamping because I didn't understand it. Now I've done it correctly my last 3 bowls and what a difference! Smooth, cool smoke right down to the bottom.

    • Anthony M on February 28, 2021
    • My favorite tamper for at-home use, is well designed, made of briar and stainless steel and was a gift from a fellow pipe smoker.

    • voodoochile on February 28, 2021
    • I'm more like you, Truett, and view tampers as a utilitarian tool, but I can certainly understand Chuck's interest in collecting the more artistic ones. I've used a plain old one dollar pipe nail for years, but I've also been known to use a wide-headed lumber nail from the hardware store in a pinch. Like you, I could never understand why anyone would choose a square-footed tamper for a circular pipe bowl, but also like you, I suffer from severe OCD and can't spend time worrying about that since it would cut into my floor rug tassle straightening time. As a former English/grammar teacher I thoroughly enjoyed your excellent writing style and entertaining thoughts. Chuck should be very pleased with the result! Good smoking!

    • astrocomical on February 28, 2021
    • Interesting about tamping at an angle and getting an angled tamper. Never thought about that before.

    • Scott on February 28, 2021
    • Up to now, I always considered the use of tamper when smoking a pipe to be intuitively obvious. Once, when out walking, I had forgotten my tamper and used a key in its place. There's a lot to think about here.

    • North of Bangor on February 28, 2021
    • Being from Maine, I was born into the ethic of Making Do. Countless volumes have been written on the subject, mostly by Northern New Englanders. Honest, look it up.... So, while I know the importance of tamping, spending money on a tamper has never entered the realm of likelihood for me. Rather, I Make Do with what I have on hand. Such as a .45 shell casing stuck onto a wooden dowel, a Maine Central railroad crosstie date nail (1956), or my current fancy favorite an aluminum roofing nail. As I subscribe to Chuck’s angled tamping technique, the latter is easy to bend and angle a bit. I have these stashed all about my truck, pockets, packs, etc... But, since I do most of my pipe smoking while out in the woods, my most common tamper is the simple twig. When I light up I look for any pinky finger-sized twig lying about, snap it to a useable length, and tamp away. When I am done, just drop it back onto the ground to decompose (no, I have never started a forest fire 🔥). As Maine is allegedly the most forested state in the Union, we have plenty of twig tampers to go around. The pinnacle of Making Do.

    • Paul on February 28, 2021
    • I didn’t know that there were square and concave tampers out there. The square one might be good for compressing the center and the concave one for compressing the periphery. Maybe there are advantage to one or the other?

    • John Schantz on February 28, 2021
    • I was born, raised, and live in Montana, so when I’m in the woods I just use an old bearclaw.....while the bear is still using it.Not buying it?😬

    • D. on March 1, 2021
    • I grew up hunting and fishing in Indiana, I Make Do with my thumb, index finger, or pinky finger. After you build up a good charred callus on the end of your appendages, I find that you have more control and a better feel for the tension of the tobacco. Good to use when you're in a pinch, sometimes you can light the callus on fire 🔥 if you need a flame further down a tall bowl but you have to be quick⚡

    • DRC on March 1, 2021
    • I enjoyed the article very much. I always learn things since I don't know an experienced pipe smoker. The part about the ash piling up half way down seems to be my problem and I anxiously read hoping for more information. Can you/should you dump the loose burnt ash or not? Thank you!

    • Tad on March 1, 2021
    • Great read, thanks. One thing I thought you should have mentioned though, scraping the sides of the bowl. I tend to do this to much which slows the growth of the caking. I use a metal nail type tamper that makes this issue even more prevalent. I’ve been looking for a wood tamper for this reason.

    • W. French on March 1, 2021
    • I have been smoking pipes for a few years now, and have finally got how to use certain tampers that I have. As for DRC question on dumping out ash, for me it depends on the pipe. Pipes that have deeper tobacco chambers, I will dump out some of the ash about half way thru the smoke. If I am smoking one of my Falcon pipes I will dump out ash more often, since you can remove the bowl easy from the pipe.

    • DRC on March 1, 2021
    • Thanks to Mr. French for his comments on ash dumping. I would really appreciate comments from Mr. Truett as well. Thank God for YouTube videos or I probably would have given up this wonderful hobby.

    • Truett on March 1, 2021
    • Hey, all. Sorry for the late reply; I'm still figuring out the best way to respond to positive feedback haha. Thanks for the great comments! Love the engagement and the advice and personal preferences offered here. @Dan, great idea on a piece about picks -- definitely something that I could have included here or perfect for another article. @DRC, I'm with Mr. French on this one: I'll often empty out some ash about halfway through, allowing the flame to better reach unlit tobacco. You have to be a little careful not to dislodge the tobacco you've packed, so no knocking, but gravity is usually sufficient, I find. Great to hear from everyone else too, including a fellow Hoosier @D. :)

    • DRC on March 1, 2021
    • Okay. I appreciate the info. I feel better about that now. I have to remember not to do that with my Peterson System pipes. I look forward to all of your articles.

    • D. on March 1, 2021
    • Thank you, and likewise. There's more than corn in Indiana! Keep up the good work, I appreciate Smokingpipes and all you do.

    • Joseph on November 17, 2021
    • Enjoyed this piece. I've been through my share of tampers. The oval-footed ones are usually impractical for smaller bowls. Only an idiot would use a square-footed tamper in a round pipe chamber. My current favorite is the slightly concave, vented, round-footed tamper sold by Adecco. They work flawlessly on any bowl, but you do need to scrub them once in a while.Someone should write a paean to the world's most perfect design... the lowly but ingenious Czech tool. Yeah, they look get gungy after a while because they're so cheap you just toss them in the ashtray. But it's all there, all completely serviceable, and cheaper than therapy.

    • Ryan on November 17, 2022
    • I enjoyed the article very much. Informative and entertaining. I wouldn’t say I’m a collector, but I do have a few different styles and colors of 8deco’s vented foot tampers. I love using them. They save me from having to relight when the embers are getting weaker from too long of a break in between sips. The holes in foot allow me to tamp and puff at the same time getting the embers nice and hot again. I’m not really sure what the pic tool is for, it doesn’t fit in draft hole, or stem so I’m not sure what it’s for, however if you pack to tightly, you can loosen it up or poke a hole or two in the tobacco to open up the airway a little bit to loosen a tight draw. I can see why people would collect them though, and I’d like a few more myself. I’d rather have a bigger pipe and tobacco collection though :)

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