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  • Blog 1: ENJOYING THE PIPE



    Welcome to the inaugural blog of my new website. My intent is to post useful material about anything having to do with Pipes and Tobaccos. I am one who smokes a pipe virtually all the time, but I almost always smoke the same few tobaccos for years at a time, so most posts on tobaccos will probably be from You as participants.

    It seemed appropriate to start this new endeavor with a posting about basics of packing, lighting, smoking and maintaining the pipe for immediate and lasting enjoyment.

    This is not a scholarly effort, and all material I post will be based on my personal experience and observations from having enjoyed pipe smoking (and pipe making) for the past 40 years. Again, I will look to You for variety, suggestions, knowledgeable information, critique or feedback of any kind. So let's get started.

    This first installment will skip the usual history and other introductory flourish, and go directly to the moment you have your new (or old) pipe in hand and are ready to start enjoying its unique rewards. I hope to keep this simple and straightforward, but include exhaustive detail of small points that usually seem to be missing from such discussion.

    The Tobacco:

    I smoke tinned tobaccos, just because that's where I have found the blends that are most compatible with my palate and that do not burn or irritate my mouth. The best choice of tobacco is so highly individual, that I would have to suggest you talk to a knowledgeable tobacconist for recommendations based on what your preferences are. You will, no doubt, have to explore on your own, and try a number of blends to find your true preferences – for most, though, that's part of the reward of pipe smoking.

    For instance, cigarette smokers may prefer a little stronger (more nicotine), fuller blend that will enable them to slow down on their preconditioned rate of puffing while still feeling like they got a "substantial" smoke. Cigar smokers may have an advantage in starting the pipe, because they are generally accustomed to a slower, gentler rate of puffing, to keep the smoke from becoming hot and acrid, and burning their lips. Those who infrequently smoke anything else, may have a more "perceptive" palate that allows them to appreciate the more nuanced flavors of a lighter smoke – on the other hand, even a beginning smoker with a strong sweet tooth or who enjoys more robust or savory flavors (such as steak or bacon), may want a more flavorful, fuller, or thicker smoke. These preference conditions obviously don't even scratch the surface of possible combinations of personal tastes, and if they did, they probably wouldn't give much more insight into what the individual would eventually choose through experimentation.

    Suffice it to say, Burley blends usually contain more nicotine and burn slower (cooler). Virginia blends have more natural sweetness and flavor, but can require more careful attention to modulation of draw or puffing to avoid becoming too hot and "biting" the mouth or tongue. Latakia blends have a lot of flavor and, in my experience, burn at a rate between Burley and Virginia. Cased or flavored blends are often more challenging to keep cool and they leave a residual taste in the bowl that can be very difficult to get rid of, should your tastes change. That is why I eschew such blends, and prefer the natural tastes of the tobaccos – I regularly alternate among Burleys, Virginias and Latakias without concern for lasting or lingering flavors. Though I know some folks would not agree, the effects don't impair my enjoyment of the separate tobaccos, even when smoked back-to-back. I would not try even one bowl of an aromatic in any of my regular smokers, though – the taste will stick around for 10, 20 or more bowls afterwards, and can become quite cloying if you didn't care for it to begin with.

    Some tobaccos are "ready-rubbed", meaning that they are broken apart to a suitable degree as they come from the bag or tin. Some are "caked" or come in slices that are tightly compacted and can be handled as a small "sheet" of tobacco. In these cases, you will need to take a sheet, or sometimes actually cut off a small piece of a cake, and rub and gently pull the tobacco apart until you have a more or less uniform, loose pile of shreds that are similar in size and density to what you see in the ready-rubbed.

    Packing the Pipe:

    First, let me say that "packing" is really a misnomer, because the whole objective of filling the pipe is to be sure you avoid any real packing that would lead to a significant draw resistance – you want only a barely detectable resistance to draw (much less than a cigarette or cigar). This is critical to enjoying your pipe. Free airflow is everything to enjoyment of the pipe; otherwise the smoke will be hot and thin and the pipe will be difficult to keep lit. If in doubt, always err in the direction of filling too loosely – you can always tamp, but you can't effectively "untamp".

    Before you go any farther, blow through your pipe to make sure there is no debris left from the previous smoke. If you detect any resistance, especially with a pipe that's been smoked for a good while, check to be sure the airhole has not developed a cake of carbon or hardened "goo" (technical term for dried tars reinforced with pipe cleaner hairs) around the entry to the airhole at the bottom of the chamber. Just because it will pass a pipe cleaner, doesn't necessarily mean that hole is still open – actually, it should be capable of passing a doubled cleaner. To clear the hole, I have a stiff piece of 1/8" diameter piano wire I use. Obviously any reasonably stiff wire will be fine, but I'd suggest it be sufficient in diameter to avoid gouging the sides of the airhole or the chamber bottom. I'll remove the stem, insert the wire until it reaches the obstruction, and gently push out all the hardened remnants and tap them out of the bowl. Re-blow sharply to be sure it is completely free.

    When first preparing to fill a new pipe with an uncoated bowl (exposed, unfinished briar), many pipemakers recommend dampening the inside of the bowl to encourage cake and discourage localized scorching of the surface. I don't feel too strongly about this, but I do usually dampen it with a little saliva (typically my own). I know of one very prominent maker who recommends filling the bowl with water and dumping it out, immediately prior to filling! I bought a pipe from him years ago in his shop, and at his urging, prepared it in this manner – of course, it smoked just fine. The moisture probably doesn't survive long anyway, when the pipe is fully lit.

    The next step is to take a small pinch of tobacco, sufficient to fill about a third of the bowl, and drop it in. Just kind of herd it into place by tapping the side of the bowl, or using very gentle coaxing with your tamper or finger. Be careful not to apply any more pressure than you need to coax it into place on the bottom of the bowl. The airflow at this point should be almost completely free and unobstructed. Take a light draw to make sure. If a flake of tobacco has made its way right into the airhole entry, you may have to gently blow and dislodge it – then take another gentle draw to ensure it didn't fall back in place (it usually won't). If it does, you can insert a pipecleaner to push it out, resettle the first pinch and continue. If that fails, scoop it out, and start over.

    Now, add another pinch in the same manner, and settle it, using only enough finger pressure to push the flakes around and get them into place. For a brand new pipe, especially one that has an uncoated bowl, you should probably stop filling here, and prepare to light. For a pipe that's been smoked a few times, go ahead and top it up with a third pinch, herd the last bits of tobacco into place, and pull off any loose strands on the rim of the bowl. At this point, I have a personal habit of taking the pipe in my left hand (I'm a "righty") with the palm flat on the top of the bowl, and holding the whole package so my right is free to prepare for takeoff. This adds very little compaction, but the heat, moisture and gentle pressure from the hand seems to settle the surface of the tobacco nicely for lighting, with a minimum of "spring-up" as you apply the first flame.

    Lighting the Pipe:

    For the initial light, whether using a match or a soft flame from a butane lighter, pass the flame around the surface of the tobacco, trying to char the surface bits somewhat uniformly. At all costs DO NOT USE the intense-flamed "blowtorch" lighters intended for cigars – you WILL damage the rim of the pipe irreparably that way, and no one will warrant against it.

    To continue, I find myself taking five or six steady, long puffs while doing the initial light – not too hard, so I don't discomfort my mouth. Then allow the tobacco to "simmer" or even go out completely (only takes a few seconds). The tobacco will have sprung up a little (with some tobaccos, a lot). When it's out, or almost so, you can tamp very gently to level the surface. I actually measured the pressure I use at about 2 -3 ounces; about enough to crush a well-cooked English pea (we all do that regularly, right?).

    Now you are ready for the secondary light. Again puff steadily and gently as you light the surface as uniformly as possible – shouldn't take more than a few slow draws. No need to obsess over this, though. If you don't get the entire surface lit evenly, just puff or "sip" slowly and enjoy the flavor of the smoke. You can always relight when it goes out, and it'll taste even better.

    Smoking the Pipe:

    Now that you're lit, let's ramble a little about the actual act of sitting back and enjoying the smoking experience. Slow, gentle puffs rule the day. Many appropriately refer to this as "sipping" the smoke. At this stage, the tobacco should be uniformly lit across the surface, and forming a whitish or grayish ash. The smoke should be full and flavorful. It will take very little to keep it going, and your puffs or sips, at this point, will be maybe 5 or 10 seconds apart, and tentative or exploratory in nature. Draw the smoke in a little way to the back of the mouth (don't inhale it, of course – no offense intended, but your epiglottus is now closed for business). The whole draw is produced then, not from the lungs or throat, but simply by filling the mouth with air and smoke via the airway through the pipe and its little honey pot. Now effortlessly breathe it out through the nose and mouth, so it mostly just drifts out.

    What you are looking for is the frequency, length and strength of draw that is optimal for keeping that full, rich production of smoke, while not exceeding the draw or frequency required to just keep it going. It's a delicate balance, and assuming you are puffing smoothly and gently, it depends mostly on frequency of draw. This is where the "exploratory" nature comes in – small exploratory sips can tell you whether the smoke is getting too warm without contributing to that condition with a long "inflammatory" draw.

    Of course, those little sips may also indicate the frequency and length of draw is inadequate, and the pipe is dying out. Not to worry; this is very normal, and is actually the more desirable condition, because you can give it a few minutes to cool and rest, then shortly relight. It will taste just as good or better, and there will be no "monitor" to slap you on the wrist for letting it go out.

    If the pipe gets too hot, either to the hand or the mouth, you have to just put it down and let it cool. When this occurs (and of course it will occasionally) you'll need to let it cool almost completely after it goes out, and meanwhile ponder whether there was another cause besides frequency, length or intensity of draw. The usual culprit is that it has become too tightly compacted – either from the initial filling or from aggressive tamping. There's no pipe smoker alive who hasn't been there/done that, and if you don't have another pipe to start, you can go for a cup of coffee and come back to it in 20 minutes or so.

    As I mentioned, tight packing is probably the most common cause for this, but it could also be that a flake of tobacco has gotten lodged in the airway at the bottom of the chamber. If this occurs, run a pipe cleaner through to the obstruction and push it free. Sometimes that will loosen the whole bowlful of tobacco a little, and contribute a little extra "fix" to the situation. It will also soak up a little of the moisture and tar that accumulates at the bottom when hot smoking occurs. Remember, the draw needs to be very free – freer than a cigarette or cigar smoker would be accustomed to or expect. If you can't get back to that point, simply scoop out the offending bowlful, and start over. There is no reason and no gain to suffering through a hot, wet bowl. Just let the pipe cool, clean it out, be sure it's relatively dry, and start over. That might mean waiting until tomorrow, but your mouth and your satisfaction are more important.

    I might point out, also, that a new pipe will usually be prone to smoke warm and/or get overly warm to the touch on the outside of the bowl, particularly if it is smallish or thin-walled. This is normal, and should gradually improve over the course of the first ten bowls or so, until a good cake begins to form. It is necessary to be a little more gentle and patient with a new pipe, letting it go out more frequently to cool for a bit between lights.

    Assuming everything is going well – the draw is right, the smoke is reasonably cool, and you're enjoying your experience – you're in business. If the smoke starts to fade a little, it may be time to tamp down the surface ash very, very lightly, without actually compacting the remaining tobacco. While tamping, take a few very smooth, continuous draws. This will revive the burn area to some extent, and should restore the fullness of the smoke. Don't tamp any more frequently than you need to.

    As you are smoking, and particularly after tamping, you may feel a tiny bit of resistance in beginning of the draw. This is usually due to a little moisture accumulated around the air hole, or maybe a damp fragment of tobacco slightly in the way. Just give a very short, gentle outward puff through the stem as you smoke, and it will probably free right up.

    I think this just about exhausts the subject thus far, so let's move on to the general care, cleaning and maintenance.

    Cleaning and Maintenance:

    Although I have plenty of pipes, and smoke more-or-less all day long, I usually select only two pipes for the day. When I have finished one bowl, I run a pipe cleaner in, work it in and out a few times, and leave it for the next smoke of that day.

    Caution: Before removing the stem for any reason, always be sure the pipe has cooled completely from any recent smoking. Removal of the stem while hot (even from sitting in a hot car) will deform the tenon and lead to an improper or loose fit and an unwarrantable condition.

    When I'm done with those pipes for the day, I'll give the airways one more scrub with a pipe cleaner – I use the bristle type. I"ll then take a kleenex tissue or small piece of paper towel, fold it over once or twice, and twist a little tip on it. With the stem removed (remember the "Caution" above), I use that tip to swab out the mortise where the stem's tenon enters the shank of the pipe. This gets rid of surface moisture and tars, and keeps the mortise from developing what can become a really nasty buildup over time, impairing the taste of the smoke. Then just reassemble the pipe and let it sit or place it on a stand where it can get some airflow and dry out until it's again called upon.

    I do not normally use any "pipe sweetener" in my own pipes; just the routine maintenance cleaning described above should suffice to keep the pipe in condition for enjoyable smoking. As a caveat, however, I might add that I do not smoke particularly wet, I don't smoke aromatics or heavily-cased tobaccos, I always smoke all of the tobacco in the bowl, I let those two daily pipes rest and dry for about a week, and I always follow my own advice on post-smoke cleaning. You may have to develop your own routine, but at least you'll know what works for this one other person.

    As for cleaning of the outside of the bowl, not much should be required. Just a very lightly dampened, soft cloth should be okay for getting rid of a sticky spot, but only very occasionally if really needed. Try dry-rubbing first, though, as there's no guarantee even that small amount of dampness won't blemish the finish.

    The stem can present a little more of a challenge for the average pipe smoker to keep clean and shiny. The rubber used for most stems will oxidize, and form an unattractive filmy surface on the stem, especially in the bite area. Even a little drizzle from the sky or water on your hands can leave whitish spots on the rubber. Many manufactured pipes have acrylic stems. Acrylic does not oxidize, but is typically harder and more brittle than rubber, and therefore not as comfortable on the teeth for most people. I do not use acrylic on my pipes unless specifically requested. There are formulations of plastic that more closely approximate the feel of rubber, but without an R&D budget, most pipe makers have little access to such material – I would assume it's a closely-guarded trade secret of some of the large factory makers, and each would be different.

    On the bright side, the rubber that I, and most other high-end artisan pipemakers use, is a high quality German-sourced ebonite that is far more resistant to oxidation. It is much more expensive than that used for most factory-made pipes, but well worth it. Over time, though, even this material will oxidize. Your best hedge is probably to dry-scrub the stem with a piece of microfiber cloth before retiring it for the day. I also find myself rubbing the bit off with my shirt tail periodically as I smoke, but that's just me.

    Occasionally, you may want your local pipe shop operator to give it a buffing to get rid of the surface oxidation and start fresh. That should be done sparingly, though, as a small amount of material is inevitably removed, the edges and button can be rounded over time, and ripples can be "burned" into the stem's surface, impairing the looks. Proper techniques in buffing can overcome a lot of that, but most pipe shops are not so equipped and do not have the time or knowledge to do it.

    Finally a word on reaming; eventually, after 20 or 30 smokes, you'll start getting a buildup of carbon that exceeds maybe 1/16" in thickness. This cake is desirable, of course in insulating the chamber and contributing to a cooler smoke. If allowed to get much thicker, however, the bowl can become harder to fill and the smoking duration will decrease somewhat. It is said that a very thick cake, by expanding at a greater rate than the bowl, can actually split the wood – not a good thing, as your pipe is then irreparable.

    Before you come near that point, however, you will need to ream that extra carbon back to about 1/16" without digging into the sides of the chamber. It is not always easy to see where the cake ends, and the (now-charred) surface of the wood begins. As long as you're careful, though, and shoot for leaving a little cake, it's not all that critical or risky. So what do you use to ream a bowl? Well, there are tools and kits available at the pipe shops; brick and mortar or online.

    If I were in the market, I think I would get a kit that has several T-shaped plastic-handled tools with a business end comprised of a round-ended plastic cylinder with four steel blades protruding at 90-degree angles echoing the shape of the cylinder. Each tool is made to fit a different diameter bowl.

    Me? I'm not going to admit it here, but I use a dendritic carbide burr, ½" in diameter, cylindrically shaped with a rounded end. The shank is a little short to reach the bottom of deeper pipes, so I extended it with a small coupling. I mount that in my cordless drill, and use it very carefully and slowly to avoid overdoing it. Don't try this at home – I'll catch hell for even bringing it up (actually, it's very little different in shape and effect from the kit described above, but you have to be patient and careful).

    Well, this concludes my inaugural blog entry. I sincerely hope it will help you maximize your enjoyment of the pipe sooner, while foreshortening the usual murky journey along the learning curve. I think if someone had told me all this (even if I had to suffer such excruciating detail), it would have allowed me to start deriving greater smoking pleasure and reward much sooner.

    Enjoy…..relax, pack loosely, tamp lightly, sip slowly, relight without apology, and…..Enjoy.