Unlike smoking a cigarette, e-cig, or even a fine hand-rolled cigar, pipe smoking requires a certain amount of patience, practice, and skill to get the most out of it and to ensure a pleasurable experience.
From selecting and caring for your pipe, to selecting the right pipe tobacco, to properly filling, packing, and lighting your pipe, there’s a lot that can go wrong.
This often leads new and novice pipe smokers to become frustrated and to abandon the pipe, leading them to miss out on one of the most relaxing and pleasurable of pastimes.
It was not more than a few generations ago that a sizable number of men smoked a pipe. In fact, receiving one’s first pipe as a gift was often part of a boy’s passage into manhood. The proper use and care of a pipe were skills passed from grandfather and father to son, if not by instruction then by simple example.
Today, many if not most men (and many women) now drawn to try the pipe therefore have little to go by in their experience, and their foray into pipe smoking becomes a somewhat hit-or-miss, and often times frustrating experience.
Properly Filling and Packing Your Pipe
Filling and packing your pipe in preparation of smoking involves compressing the tobacco into the bowl loosely enough to ensure a even burn and an easy draw, but tight enough to ensure that the burn will continue through the bowl with a minimum of relights.
The result of a poorly packed pipe can be either dottle left over at the end of the smoke, an excessively hot smoke, tongue bite, or a pipe that is hard to draw on and won’t stay lit.
Some of the factors that come into play are the type of tobacco being used, the moisture content of the tobacco, the cut of the tobacco, and even the shape of the bowl.
All of these are reasons why packing and lighting a pipe is something of an art form, taking practice to master. Mastery of the pipe as well as the ritual of preparing and packing the pipe is however one of the reasons for its enjoyment.
The method described here works well for most people and for most kinds of tobaccos, and is a good place to start. With experimentation and practice you will undoubtedly refine this technique to suit your own preferences. (The key is learning the proper packing density).
- Make sure your pipe is free from obstructions and leftover ash from previous smokes. Run a pipe cleaner through the stem, dump out any dottle, and gently blow through the stem to clear it of any leftover ash or tobacco pieces.
- Holding your pipe in one hand, with the other pick up a bit of tobacco and let it trickle into the bowl of your pipe, repeating until the bowl is filled to the top with loose tobacco.
- Take your tamper / pipe nail / etc and LIGHTLY tamp down on the tobacco in the bowl to compress it, until the tobacco half fills the bowl. The tamped tobacco should NOT be tight, but should have a springy, almost soft consistency.
- Put the pipe to your lips and take a test draw. At this point there should be almost no resistance – about the same as drawing through and empty pipe. If there is resistance, dump out the tobacco and start over.
- Take your half-filled pipe and again fill the rest of the bowl with loose tobacco, perhaps just a bit over-full.
- Again, tamp down the tobacco gently, until the bowl is about three quarters full. You probably will have to tamp with slightly more force than the first time. The tobacco in the bowl should feel springy.
- Again take a test draw. There should be a slight amount of resistance this time, but if you have any trouble drawing on the pipe, dump out the tobacco and start over.
- Fill the partially-filled pipe again with loose tobacco to the top of the bowl, again over-filling it slightly.
- Tamp down on the tobacco until it is even with the top of the bowl. This should take a bit more pressure than the first two tamping steps, but don’t over-do it. The tobacco should still feel springy in the bowl, but a little less than after the second tamp.
- Take a test draw. The resistance should be greater than the first two test draws, but still minimal – like sucking a soda through a straw. If there is any more resistance than this, dump out the tobacco and start over. Otherwise, your pipe should now be properly packed and ready to smoke!
Lighting Your Pipe
Lighting your pipe is a fairly straightforward operation. The method depends on your preferences and the lighting source you have, whether matches or a lighter.
Matches are inexpensive and readily available. Wooden matches are usually better as paper matches will burn down too quickly and scorch your fingers. Just let the match burn for a second after lighting to burn off any chemical residue from the head, to prevent that flavor from being added to your tobacco.
If you prefer to use a lighter, use a soft flame lighter rather than a torch-style, which are intended for lighting cigars and will quickly burn and damage the bowl of your pipe.
If possible, pick up a lighter that is specifically designed for lighting pipes. These lighters have a right-angle flame that is easy to direct into the bowl of a pipe without scorching your fingers or damaging the bowl.
For lighters, choose a butane lighter over the lighter fluid variety. Butane burns clean, while lighter fluid will impart a taste to your tobacco.
Your lighting technique is almost as important as your packing technique. Properly lighting your pipe will also help minimize the need for mid-smoke re-lights.
- Getting a good light on your pipe is a two-step process. The first step is the charring light, which helps to expel excess moisture from the tobacco, and gives a nice even bed for your final light.To achieve this, light your match or lighter and apply the flame to the tobacco. Move the flame in a circular motion around the entire surface of the tobacco in the bowl.
While doing this, take a series of shallow puffs.Most tobaccos will at this point swell up and slightly overflow the pipe bowl. This is due to the moisture in the tobacco and is perfectly normal.
- Allow the first charring light to go out. With your tamping tool, lightly tamp the tobacco down even with the top of the bowl. Use a light touch – not much more than the weight of the tamping tool itself. You just want to even out the surface and return the tobacco to the level it was before the charring light.
- Light a new match or your lighter and apply the flame again to the surface of the tobacco, moving it in a circular motion around the entire surface of the tobacco.While doing this take a series of shallow puffs on the pipe. This time the tobacco should not unravel or puff up as it did the first time.
- Extinguish your flame source, sit back and enjoy your pipe!
Relighting your pipe is normal, and part of the experience (or to some people, the frustration) of pipe smoking.
The number of relights you need will depend on many things such as your tobacco, how well you filled and packed your pipe, and your smoking cadence (how often you draw on your pipe).
Constant re-lighting is probably a sign that you either packed your pipe too tightly, or didn’t pack it tightly enough. It may also be a sign that your tobacco was too moist, which is sometimes the case with heavily-cased aromatic or flavored tobaccos.
As the burn progresses through the bowl of your pipe, you will occasionally need to re-tamp the bowl. This helps keep the burning ember in contact with the un-burned tobacco below it, enabling the burn to continue downward.
When re-tamping, let the weight of your tramping tool do the work. Focus on tamping down around the sides of the bowl rather than the center where the burning ember is. You should be able to do this without needing to apply a re-light, but if your pipe does go out during tamping, just re-light and continue your smoke.
What do you think? Let us know your pointers for packing and lighting a pipe in the comments below.