Tuesday, August 07, 2007


Note: The reason for this post is that a friend wishes to smoke a pipe. Unlike fags, which you simply light one after the other, or cheroots, which are also fairly intuitive, pipe-smoking requires a bit of thought.
[Most recent update as of 08/08/07]

[Ten commandments]

1. It is better to pack too loose than too firm.
The tobacco can be pressed down firmer if it is too loose, but it cannot really be loosened during smoking without negatively affecting the smoke.

2. Do not overfill.
Put in only what you can smoke, and keep in mind that it lights better if room is left at the top of the bowl to channel the flame.

3. Smoke gently.
Do not puff furiously to keep it lit, do not take huge drags. It's okay to re-light.

4. Do not let the pipe overheat.
Letting it go out is better than possibly souring the tobacco with heat or risking a burn-out.

5. If it isn’t pleasant, stop.
Continuing an unpleasant smoke is no achievement, and contradicts the whole purpose of the exercise. Let it go out, remove the unburned tobacco, and clean and rest the pipe.

6. Smoke without struggling.
One is supposed to smoke the pipe all the way down, but it is okay to leave a few scraps of tobacco unsmoked. Sometimes a fine white-ash cannot be achieved without constant relighting and tongue-burn. Don't worry about it.

7. When finished smoking, stir up the ashes.
This promotes formation of a carbon layer and helps dry out the pipe. Use the spoon on the three piece tool to pull ash over the inside wall of the pipe, or put your hand over the bowl and shake it up a bit. If miniscule cracks in the carbon layer inside the pipe (the 'cake') have occurred, such a distribution of ashes will fill them.

8. Do not bang the pipe or treat it casually.
Take good care of the pipe. Over time it will be dinged, nicked, and scratched anyhow - there is no need to speed that up. Nor should a pipe be put in a warm or wet place, like bright sunlight or near a steam vent.

9. Let the pipe rest.
This lets some of the moisture that has been generated during smoking dissipate, and allows chemical changes in the carbon layer (the 'cake'). Your pipe will smoke better and sweeter, and last much longer, if it is rested instead of being constantly used.

10. Clean the pipe thoroughly.
Use pipe cleaners to swab tar and moisture from the shank, and use the spoon on the three piece tool to remove ashes and unsmoked tobacco. A gentle tap against the palm will knock out remaining ash. Wipe the outside with a dry cloth now and then, and once in a while dip a pipe-cleaner in a drop of whiskey to swab the inside of the shank and remove tarry build-up.

When breaking in a pipe, load it only part-way full the first few times, even if it is a reconditioned pipe. You are trying to do two related things - create a protective and reactive layer of carbon on the inside of the bowl, which will make it smoke sweeter and guard against overheating and burnout, and you are conditioning the pipe to your tobacco and your smoking habits. It takes about a dozen smokes to reasonably prepare the pipe for normal use, about thirty smokes to break it in thoroughly.
[Additionally, until it smokes the way you want it to, it may be too harsh or strong to warrant a full bowl]

Pack the tobacco firmer on top than on the bottom. The top surface needs some density in order to light well. The layers of tobacco underneath the burning surface will be compressed as the smoke progresses. But if the entire bowl is tightly packed, it will prove vexing to smoke.
If, while acclimatizing yourself to the pipe, you have packed too tightly, do not get frustrated. Simply stop smoking and remove the tobacco. If you wait awhile and then try again it will be more satisfying than if you use the prong on the three piece tool to loosen up the tobacco and continue smoking. It is far better to waste a little bit of tobacco than to stubbornly smoke every last shred.

Use two or three matches to light the entire surface of the tobacco. If the tobacco is too moist to do so, it is probably too moist to smoke and should be dried out a bit. Note that flaked Virginias can be smoked wetter than English - Oriental - Balkan blends.
[Tobacco which is too moist can be spread out on a sheet of clean paper to dry out a bit, if you are in a hurry. Or simply leave the tin open for a few hours. It should not be so dry that it crumbles.]

Tamp the tobacco down with the three piece tool once lit. This concentrates the fire layer, and makes it easier to keep the tobacco burning. You will find that occasional tamping as the bowl progresses keeps it alight. When you get to the bottom, do not retamp too firmly, as that may make it difficult to smoke the last bit, and may cause a burn-out in the bottom of the pipe if an ember superheats.

Use a pipe-cleaner once or twice while smoking, as it will keep moisture from accumulating and affecting the taste. Use a pipe-cleaner after every bowl to keep the shank clean and prevent blockages.
[When we were teenagers, we re-used pipe-cleaners frequently, because of the expense. But it is better to not do so, as it re-introduces precisely those substances to the pipe which one sought to remove in the first place.]

Do not smoke in a wind, and try to avoid smoking in drafts. The directional flow of air can encourage the burning of the tobacco, and may cause it to overheat on one side of the bowl, causing a burnout. Embers can also be blown out of the pipe by the wind, causing fires, or, more likely, scorch-holes in your shirt and ashes in your eyes.

You will hear a lot of nonsense about smoking only one type of tobacco in each pipe. Yes, a pipe will acquire characteristics according to the tobacco. But no, smoking several different tobaccos will not confuse the taste-buds or muddle the taste of the pipe. In fact, during the break-in period, it is good to switch tobaccos if you are fond of several different types. Virginias and flakes will speed up the building of the carbon layer, as they are higher in natural sugars and starch. Unsweetened Burleys build a hard and dense cake, but do so quite slowly. English - Oriental - Balkan blends are often smoked at a higher temperature than Virginias, and will in consequence condition the inner wall faster, but will not provide as much carbon - there will be some sootiness, though, which makes the cake softer.
If one alternates Virginias and English mixtures one builds a good cake in a reasonable amount of time.


[Added on 08/08/07]

Breaking in: The conditioning of a pipe which one has recently acquired. The first several smokes help start a layer of carbon on the inner wall, which will provide a cooler softer smoke. Until a pipe is broken in, greater care is required.

Burn-out: This is what happens when due to excessive heat the wood itself starts burning, usually leading to a gaping hole in the wall of the bowl. If one is careful, and does not smoke sugary aromatics, this will only happen if there is a flaw in the wood – a pit or crack which was not evident during manufacture. Most pipe manufacturers will replace the pipe one time for a burn-out. A second burn-out suggests intemperate smoking habits.

Three piece tool: Also called a Czech tool or a tamper. It consists of a spoon for loosening tobacco and ashes, a prong for removing obstructions, and a tamper.

Pipe-cleaners: Twisted wires covered in absorbent cotton fuzz.

English - Oriental - Balkan blends: Three different terms for very similar compounds.
An English mixture has a generous measure of Latakia balanced by Virginias and Turkish (Oriental) tobaccos. An Oriental mixture is a term for a Balkan mixture with generous Latakia. A Balkan mixture or blend stresses the Turkish element, and uses the Latakia and Virginias to round out the flavour. They are called thus because the most famous Oriental and English mixtures had names redolent of the Balkans - most particularly the legendary Balkan Sobranie, which has not been made since the nineties. What made many of the Balkan mixtures so special was varietal Oriental leaf, like Samsoun, Izmir, Yenidje, Djubec, Prilep, Shek El Bint, Macedonian, Katerini, Egyptian and others.

Flakes: Flue-cured tobaccos pressed to meld flavours. Often heat is used to accentuate the process, and the tobacco may be matured for a while before and afterwards, which helps break down the roughness and ferment the tobacco. In consequence, some flakes are very dark, and very mellow, though quite strong. The product is sliced and packaged when the pressing and aging is finished.
Flue cured tobaccos (also called Virginias) are best suited to this process because they have a high natural sugar content. The English perfected the process, and many of the best flakes come from England.
Dutch manufacturers often press Burley tobacco after saucing it with sugar compounds and stoving it to bake-in the added flavour. Burley, unsauced, has a low natural sugar level - but it absorbs flavours well. Dutch flakes (which may also be called Cavendish, though that name actually applies to a different processing method) are almost uniformly mediocre, some are appallingly bad.
Other terms used for flakes are cake, navy-cut, slices, spun-cut, plug, twist, etcetera.

For all pipe tobacco related posts: TOBACCO INDEX

NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:
All correspondence will be kept in confidence.

No comments:

Search This Blog


There are times when I wished I had spent more time trying to learn Shanghainese. Years ago I knew several people from Shanghai, and if I ha...