If you're new to pipe smoking or considering trying it, you may be wondering where that notion originated and considering the advantages and disadvantages. Lots of people derive significant satisfaction from pipe smoking. Are you potentially among them? What are the pros and cons, and how quickly can one learn to master the skills necessary for truly enjoying the myriad pipe tobaccos available?
It's a curiosity that we enjoy the tobaccos that we so obviously do. Few enjoy their first pipeful. Why do we continue after that? It's among the oldest of clichés that a new smoker becomes ill. Mark Twain explored that correlation when Huck Finn taught his friends Tom Sawyer and Joe Harper how to smoke. They crawled away to be amusingly miserable after their inaugural pipes.
They would become experts, but there's a learning curve for enjoying pipe tobacco. The first few bowls are often unpleasant, though they leave an impression regarding the flavor and potential. We endure pipes that perform poorly because of our inexperience, pipes that we have improperly filled and that produce thin smoke or hot steamy smoke or anything in between except the right smoke. Yet we persevere and even bravely ask for more.
Those who have access to a good tobacconist (like Smokingpipes, for example) achieve quicker success. A few new pipe smokers are naturally inclined, but they are as rare as other savants in other fields. For the average beginner, it can be a disappointing process of trial-and-error before achieving that first smoke that is pleasant and flavorful through the entire bowl.
I remember navigating my first few bowls of tobacco and thinking that the only way anyone could smoke this stuff regularly was to build calluses on their tongue. So for a while, that's what I tried: I smoked through the tongue bite, the burning, the ash, and the self-denunciating profanity, determined to kill the nerve endings that were troubling me or at least induce a localized stupor from the overstimulation. I would endure the pain until it folded in defeat. It was a happy discovery that it was the way I was smoking that needed modification rather than the sensitivity of my tongue, which never did develop calluses, though it sometimes felt like it was coated with creosote. The epiphany of unnecessary tongue modification was welcome, even though I had hoped that oral desensitivity would assist me through my wonderful wife's unfortunate continuing experiments with tuna casserole.
However, it took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out. Those were the old days, before the wizardry of computers and the internet. Now it's easier to accelerate one's progress. With advice, perhaps in the form of a little research from a reputable online source (again, like Smokingpipes, for example), enjoyable pipe smoking is quickly achievable.
Pipe smoking is a skill, like juggling, skateboarding, or woodturning. There's an investment of time, practice, and commitment. Why are we so convinced that pipe smoking is worth it?
Pipe smoking is a skill, like juggling
Why Do People Smoke? Influences
Maybe we grew up with a pipe-smoking grandfather or parent, or maybe we admired someone who happened to smoke a pipe. It seems likely, too, that we observed the satisfaction that person derived from their pipe. When a pipe smoker pauses to light up and enjoys a draw of exotic tobaccos, it's evident that they've been momentarily transported to a better place, and we want a piece of that action.
Literature is influential as well, the work of J.R.R Tolkien especially so. Significant numbers of pipe enthusiasts started because of The Lord of the Rings, in which pipe smokers are often heroes who find solace in pipes during their darkest hours. Their satisfaction in the novels is evident, as it is in other great books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Like Tolkien, Twain was an avid pipe smoker and likewise populated his works with fictional smokers. Then too there is Arthur Conan Doyle and his most famous character, Sherlock Holmes. Many other pipe-smoking authors have also inserted pipe smoking into their novels, such as William Faulkner, Herman Melville, P.G. Wodehouse, and Robert Service, to name a few.
Famous scientists with admirable intellects, like Einstein and Hubble, famously smoked pipes, perhaps influencing our opinions of the pastime. Television shows, particularly of the '50s and '60s, like Father Knows Best and My Three Sons, presented pipe smokers as reasonable, thoughtful, intelligent people. If we ever wonder why there are more older pipe smokers than younger, perhaps a contributing factor is their early social environment. Pipe smoking used to be fashionable and even admirable, but the fabric of society has changed in that regard and fewer pipe smokers are visible; we've been relegated to private or indoor smoking. Because tobacco use is less accepted now, our influencers are dwindling and less visible.
... fewer pipe smokers are visible; they've been relegated to private or indoor smoking
With all of the statesmen, scientists, authors, Nobel Laureates, sportsmen, military figures, and the overall admirable comportment of average pipe smokers who clearly derive pleasure from smoking, it's little wonder that many of us are curious.
Pipe Tobacco vs. Cigarettes
Pipe smoking is not like cigarette smoking. Pipe smokers don't typically inhale smoke; it's an activity for appreciating the flavor of the many tobaccos available, and pipe tobacco is not made for inhalation the way cigarette tobacco is. Pipe tobacco is also natural, including any flavorings, while cigarettes contain burn accelerants and nobody-knows-how-many chemicals.
One of the reasons that people inhale cigarette smoke is nicotine. Nicotine is not an inherently harmful compound (except, like everything else, in cases of nearly impossible overdose) but the smoke that carries it is. Some studies have shown nicotine to increase mental stamina and focus one's thoughts. When I was in grad school I could efficiently study 14 hours a day if I was smoking regularly and about eight hours a day if not. That's a big motivation: the brain boost.
... nicotine can increase mental stamina and focus one's thoughts
The nicotine (along with the occasional respite of pausing to relight) that helped me study was not delivered by inhalation but by absorption through the tissues of the mouth. The effect is reduced in comparison to inhalation, and safer, though not without risk. Any activity has pros and cons to consider. Driving is awfully convenient, but is far from safe. Foods high in sugar lead to multiple health problems and diseases, but we sure do enjoy them. Skydiving is a thrill, but not as safe as, say, chess. We make decisions every day about what risks to take, balanced against their immediate gratification and other personal benefits. Smoking is the same. Do your research, and make an informed decision.
Why Do People Smoke Pipes?
Many pick up pipe smoking without previous tobacco experience, but some migrate. One factor that has motivated some to change from cigarette smoking to pipe smoking is cost. Pipe smoking is much less expensive than cigarettes — until you start gravitating to and collecting expensive artisan pipes. However, those who aren't tempted by gorgeous works of rare art as combustion devices save considerably over cigarettes, and there are certainly beautiful and artful pipes in all price ranges.
Others, like me, wake up one morning with the unforeseen determination to buy a pipe and start being a pipe smoker. Maybe all the hints from Einstein and Tolkien nudge our subconscious.
Pipe smoking is a soothing activity. The nicotine may help take some of the sharp edges off of emotions in difficult situations, but the necessary deceleration inherent in pipe smoking is more important to attaining calm and relaxation. We have hectic lives. Pipe smoking offers a comforting envelope of smoke and tranquility. Josh Burgess, Managing Director of Kapp & Peterson, once said, "Cigarettes seem to raise you to the occasion. Pipes, on the other hand, work inversely, lowering the occasion to you." Pipes make situations better, and there's a clear difference between pipe and cigarette smoking.
Pipe smoking offers a comforting envelope of smoke and tranquility
Jeremy Reeves, Head Blender for Cornell & Diehl, has noted that pipe smokers tend to exhibit their own particular characteristics: "People who smoke pipes are often charmingly eccentric, introspective, intellectual, patient, and boisterous, all rolled into one. Without souls of such a variation of experience, personality and vibrancy, our hobby would be just a ham sandwich, tasty and enjoyable, but devoid of culture."
"I like that pipe smoking is more hobby than habit," says Ted Swearingen, COO of Laudisi Enterprises, the parent company of Smokingpipes. "When I smoke a cigarette, I feel like I'm managing my stress in a tense way; but when smoking a pipe, I feel like I'm managing my stress in a much more relaxed, natural way."
Pipes don't provide instant gratification the way cigarettes do. One must slow down, gather the necessary elements, prepare the tobacco and the pipe, and light and tamp the tobacco two or three times before a good rhythm mobilizes and keeps the pipe lit, and then it must be relit and re-tamped throughout the smoke. To do all of that, it's necessary to let at least a little concentration drift from the pending bills or assignment or the disagreement with Chad in Accounting and indulge in something more pleasant. Lighting a pipe manifests a sphere of calm that blunts incoming pressures. Sometimes I think of my pipes as individual deserted tropical islands, and when I light one, I'm stepping onto that island, separated from the rest of the world in my own parallel universe. When the pipe is done, I come back refreshed. Pipes are mini-vacations.
Pipes have sustained me in troubling times and celebrated with me on momentous occasions, indisputingly enhancing both. I'm unable to explain these phenomena, but I'm not alone in appreciating them. It's estimated that there are approximately a million pipe smokers in the U.S. alone, and millions more worldwide. They all find something in pipe smoking that makes their lives better.
Some people are fidgeters. Observe, for example, the popularity of fidget spinners. I am more composed when my hands are occupied, and pipe smoking is a simple task that requires continuous but easy monitoring, like driving but without the irritation of other drivers. With a pipe, there's always something for my hands to do, whether shifting it from one to the other, relighting, tamping, running a pipe cleaner through it, or just turning it to appreciate its shape and construction from all angles. If you're the same, pipe smoking is a solution.
I suspect that most pipe smokers enjoy being alone with their thoughts. While it may be a cliché that cerebral-types smoke pipes (Einstein and Hubble were pretty smart), it remains an excellent activity for both daydreaming and focused thinking. Sometimes the solution to a tough problem is just on the other side of a bowl of fine Virginia tobacco.
Sometimes the solution to a tough problem is just on the other side of a bowl of fine Virginia tobacco
The Pipe Smoking Community
Pipe smokers are relatively rare. I think I've seen one other driver smoking a pipe in the last two years, and otherwise, since smoking isn't permitted anywhere, we're relatively invisible. Some cities have pipe clubs with regular meetings where stories may be told, pipes shown around for the admiration of others, trades instigated, and tobaccos shared. Pipe clubs and pipe shows are the last bastions of public pipe smoking.
There are also thriving online communities. Here on the Smokingpipes website, for example, you can see some of it in the comments for Daily Reader articles and in the product reviews. There's a dynamic YouTube community of pipe smokers with lively commentary. There are Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, Instagram accounts, and many very active forums like PipesMagazine, r/pipetobacco Reddit, The Briar Patch, Pipe Smokers Forums, and more. While pipe smoking is not as prevalent as in previous generations, the opportunity for interaction with other pipe smokers has never been so robust. Questions posed and thoughtful, informed, unforeseen answers are mere mouse-clicks away.
... the opportunity for interaction with other pipe smokers has never been so robust
In addition, finding favorite tobaccos is easier now with sites dedicated to reviews. TobaccoReviews is the largest, with tens of thousands of reviews written by regular smokers voicing their opinions. It's a terrific resource and an enormous benefit for those searching out new tobaccos among the thousands of choices.
The Modern Convenience of Online Pipe Shopping
With the gradual reduction in the numbers of pipe smokers since the mid-20th century, brick-and-mortar tobacconists have likewise diminished. Where there once stood pipe shops within walking distance of any urban location, now there may be only one in an entire city or none at all. However, we pipe smokers have compensated. We have developed online resources, and they're easy to use.
One need only browse the site of any reputable tobacconist (like Smokingpipes, for exam— nevermind, you get it) to see excellent photos of more pipes than could ever be contained in a physical shop, and more tobaccos as well. We send newsletters at least twice a week and a digest of weekly articles on Sundays for those who sign up for email delivery (note the red "subscribe" button at the top right of our web pages), and we publish articles and videos weekly about tobaccos, pipe makers, historical and interesting pipe smokers, smoking techniques, and everything else pertaining and of interest to pipe smokers. We are pipe smokers who work where we do because we love pipes and everything about them.
There's a key advantage to pipe smoking that has yet to be discussed: the freedom to modify one's smoke in infinite ways.
Not only are there thousands of tobacco blends with myriad individual characteristics to choose from, but the flavor and performance of any tobacco are dependent upon numerous adjustable factors, including moisture level, cut, the type of pipe used, the dimensions of the pipe used, the pressure used to load the bowl, and puffing cadence, rhythm, and technique.
Pipe smokers also have the option of mixing different existing blends or purchasing component tobaccos and developing personal recipes. Can't do that with cigarettes. Pipes win.
If you're thinking of delving into pipe smoking, now is the best time in history. The available pipes are the most carefully crafted, beautiful, and advanced, efficient smoking instruments known, and while we miss some of the classic tobaccos of old, modern tobaccos are some of the most nuanced and flavorful ever produced. For new pipe smokers, we recommend pipes in the Savinelli and Peterson lineups, as well as Estate Pipes, which provide lower cost and pre-break-in properties while being entirely refurbished and a source of pride.
... modern tobaccos are some of the most nuanced and flavorful ever produced
No one wants to spend hundreds of dollars on a potential new pastime without experiencing it, and the lowest-cost option is corn cob pipes, which smoke very well. They don't last as long as briar and are arguably not quite as comfortable in the teeth as pipes with more time-consuming and expensive stem shaping and finishing, but they offer the pipe smoking experience without excessive investment and perform well. Cobs are a great way to see if pipe smoking is for you.
The reasons for pipe smoking are simple: the pursuit of relaxation and enjoyment, whether in the company of other pipe smokers or alone. If that interests you, have a look at our store and our blog. Amazing new worlds are about to reveal themselves.
This article was originally published on September 30th, 2014. It has been updated and expanded for 2022.