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For Those Beginning in Pipe Smoking

The following information was taken from ASP (Alt Smokers Pipes; an old, online usenet pipe site). I've included it here in an easier to read format. Not all of it can pertain to those of us in Canada. For instance, there are not many tobacconists here in Canada that can help you select a tobacco and show you how to smoke your pipe properly - that's why this article is here! I hope that this article can get you started, but if you have any questions - you can contact me directly and I'll do my best to get your question answered.

Beginners Guide to Pipe Smoking

Q: How Should I Select My First Pipe?

A: The short answer: "Pick one you like." If you need more guidance than that, keep reading.

MATERIAL. For your first pipe, you'll probably want one made of briar. "Briar" is wood from the burl (that portion between the root and the trunk) of the white heath (Erica arborea), a small tree or bush that grows in the Mediterranean region. Briar is durable, heat-resistant, and pleasing in appearance. There are other materials-- such as clay, meerschaum, and porcelain--that are also used to make pipes, but these materials are fragile and lack the smoking characteristics and ease of use of briar. Corncob pipes are the least expensive option for a first pipe, and they are a viable alternative to briar; however, they often have very small bowls (the bowl is the part of the pipe that holds the tobacco) and brittle plastic stems (the part that you place in your mouth) that are quite easy to bite through. Most briar pipes have stems made of vulcanite (rubber) or lucite (acrylic); either material works fine, and stem material is purely a matter of personal choice. Vulcanite is softer, which many find more comfortable, but lucite is more durable and resists oxidation.

PRICE. Pipes range in price from a couple of dollars to several thousand; it is recommended that you stay closer to the lower end of this range for your first pipe. By purchasing a moderately-priced pipe, you will not be out a large sum if you determine that pipe smoking isn't for you. A reasonably good quality "basket pipe" (so called because most tobacconists keep their lower-priced, "no-name" pipes in an open basket near the sales counter) can be had for as little as $15, and many "name brand" manufacturers produce pipes in the $35-60 range. You'll probably want to avoid very small pipes, as they tend to smoke hot, and very large ones, as they are often harder for a novice to keep lit and may hold too much tobacco for to comfortably finish initially. Try not to purchase one of those pipes you may find in plastic bubble packaging at your local discount store if you can void it; instead, seek out a good tobacconist and ask for his or her recommendation. Not only will this give you a broader selection from which to choose, but the tobacconist is likely to have some good advice on how to get started. Don't be afraid to tell the shop owner that you're a novice. He or she will figure this out pretty quickly on their own anyway, and it is in their own best interest to help you select a pipe and tobacco that they think you'll enjoy. If you don't know where to find a reputable tobacconist, check out or ask inside one of the various pipe smoking forums available for a recommendation. While you're buying the pipe, pick up a package of pipe cleaners the soft, cotton ones are best for most purposes), and a cheap "pipe tool" or "tamper"; you'll need them.

FILTERS. You should not be inhaling smoke, so a filter is, in the opinion of many, superfluous. One major drawback to most filtering systems is that they tend to affect the taste of the tobacco--for the worse--if not kept meticulously clean. With that said, in some parts of the world, particularly central Europe, pipe filters are quite common. Many of the pipes sold there have a cavity in the shank (that part of the pipe that connects the bowl to the stem) designed to accommodate 9mm filters. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using a filter in your pipe. If you prefer filters, then by all means use them. Nevertheless, you don't need them.

SHAPE. This is purely a matter of personal taste. Many pipe smokers prefer pipes that are bent, as they "hang" easier, putting less strain on the teeth and jaw. Personally, I prefer straight- stemmed pipes, predominately for aesthetic reasons, but also because it is easier to insert a pipe cleaner to absorb the condensate that occasionally collects in the shank while smoking. For a detailed study of pipe shapes and pipe anatomy, see this guide at:

SECONDS. A true "second" is a pipe that has some kind of flaw (which is almost always cosmetic in nature) and is therefore not deemed worthy to carry the manufacturer's usual brand name. Typically, such pipes are simply stamped "Imported Briar," or something similar; however, some manufacturers have distinctive stampings for their cosmetically-challenged pipes (such as Peterson's "Irish Seconds"). You can find some very good pipes at a reduced price because they have surface flaws--pits, putty "fills" in the briar, imperfect carving, etc.--that do not affect the way they smoke at all. Many of the inexpensive pipes that you will find at your tobacconist (to include "basket pipes" and most "house brands") are "seconds" of one sort or another.

ESTATE PIPES. In the pipe smoking community, "estate" is a euphemism for "used." By buying an estate pipe, it is possible to get a high quality pipe for much less than it would cost new. (It is also possible to buy a piece of junk at a greatly inflated price, so caveat emptor applies.) While these pipes are usually thoroughly cleaned before they are sold, some people are appalled at the idea of smoking a pipe that was smoked by someone else; I wonder if these people bring their own silverware to restaurants. It should be noted that the previous owner's smoking habits will have at least a minor affect on the taste the pipe will impart to tobacco.

Q: How Should I Select My First Tobacco?

A: This question lends itself to the short answer given in section 2.1 above. If you have had experience with only cigarettes and cigars, you're in for a real treat. The variety of pipe tobaccos is positively staggering, and the flavour of a blend is influenced not only by its component tobaccos, but also by myriad other factors such as the style of cut and the pipe used to smoke it. The only way to determine which sort of tobacco is right for you is to try a number of very different blends to decide which general type you like, and then proceed from there. Some of us are constantly searching for the perfect blend, affectionately known as "The Holy Grail."

"DRUGSTORE" TOBACCOS. Generally, you will be better off purchasing your tobacco from a tobacconist. Many of the commonly available blends found in discount stores or supermakets are made from lower quality tobacco, and the additives with which they are laced for preservation and "taste enhancement" alter the way a tobacco smokes, usually for the worse. Of course, there is no harm at all in sampling these tobaccos; you may discover that one such blend is just your cup of tea. Most "drugstore blends" have been around for decades, so they must have something going for them.

AROMATICS VS. NON-AROMATICS. These are the two broadest subdivisions of pipe tobaccos. As a general rule, most beginning smokers tend to go for an "aromatic" tobacco, which has been "cased" or "topped" with flavourings such as vanilla, cherry, etc., while those converting from cigars or cigarettes often prefer an "non-aromatic" or "natural" tobacco.

AROMATICS. A good aromatic tobacco is lightly topped with a natural flavouring. Aromatics tend to be more moist than non-aromatics, which can lead to problems smoking them. These problems can be avoided if care is taken in the preparation of the tobacco and in the pack of the pipe.

NON-AROMATICS. These are tobaccos that contain no flavoured additives; in fact, a good non-aromatic blend will contain no additives whatsoever, other than perhaps a bit of water. [SIDE NOTE: You may see the word "English" used as a descriptor for non-aromatic or natural blends. To some purists, an English blend contains only Virginias and latakia (described below), and the term is used in a broad sense by some to refer to almost any unfavored tobacco (at one time, British law prohibited adulterants in tobacco). Typically, however, the term is used to describe a non-aromatic blend that contains latakia.]


BURLEY. A low-sugar, high nicotine, slow-burning tobacco with a very subtle flavour, burley is often used as a base for aromatics or to modify the burning characteristics of a blend.

CAVENDISH. A term with a variety of meanings. Generally, a cavendish is "sweetened" in some way, either by a processing technique or by additives, or both.

LATAKIA. A "spice" tobacco that is cured over the smoke of particular types of wood. (You may read that it is cured over fires fueled by dried camel dung, but this is not the case.) Latakia has a distinctive "smoky" taste and a pungent aroma that some find very pleasant and others find just the opposite. Latakia adds body and

depth to the flavour of many natural blends.

ORIENTALS. By definition, "Orientals" are those tobaccos indigenous to the eastern Mediterranean region, including the various "Turkish" tobaccos and latakia. An "Oriental blend" contains at least one and often several of these tobaccos.

PERIQUE. Another "spice" tobacco grown only in St. James Parish, Louisiana. Perique is subjected to extreme pressure and is allowed to ferment as it is cured, which results in a very distinctive tobacco. TURKISH. Any of a number of tobaccos grown in numerous locales throughout the eastern Mediterranean region. Common

"Turkish" varieties include Basma, Smyrna, Xanthi, Samsun, Izmir, Drama, and Yenidje. Generally, these names are derived from the region in which they are grown. Turkish tobaccos have a somewhat sweet, spicy flavour that gives "body" to many blends.

VIRGINIA. Despite the name, Virginias are grown in numerous locales. There are several varieties of Virginias, but all are characterized a relatively high sugar content. Virginias are often used as the base tobacco in blends, but they are smoked "straight" as well. Straight Virginias undergo changes in flavour as they age, similar to

fine wines. Lighter in body than Oriental blends, they have a subtle complexity of flavour that makes them a favourite of many experienced smokers.

Q: How Should I Store My Tobacco?

A: The moisture content of a tobacco affects the way it smokes and tastes; a tobacco that is too moist or too dry will not offer a pleasing smoke. One way to determine if your tobacco has the proper level of moisture is the "pinch test." Take a pinch of your tobacco and squeeze it tightly for a couple of seconds, then release it. If it immediately starts to "unravel," your tobacco is in good shape. If it stays in a tight clump, it is too wet. If it crumbles, it is too dry.

Tobacco purchased in tins should retain its moisture for several weeks after opening. Blends purchased in "bulk," or tinned tobaccos that are to be stored for many weeks or months after opening should be stored in some type of container. Standard "ziplock" sandwich bags are not airtight, and your tobacco will dry out over time if they are used for storage. Similar bags designed for use in the freezer are better, but still aren't completely satisfactory for anything other than relatively short term storage. Some people advocate the use of multiple bags in a Tupperware container, "Mason" jars, or heat-sealed, vacuum-pack bags.

All of these methods are satisfactory; however, I prefer to use bail-top jars with rubber gaskets. If your tobacco is too moist, you can leave the container open slightly, while monitoring it closely. If your tobacco has dried out, it is usually possible to revive it. (There is a point beyond which no amount of re-moistening is going to restore the flavour of a tobacco, but that time span is generally measured in months or years.)

Some advocate placing a slice of apple or potato in the tobacco container. This will work, but if left too long, you run the risk of introducing mold with this technique. Unlike cheese, the flavour of tobacco is not improved by mold, and once your container has been so contaminated, it is almost impossible to completely rid it of the mold spores that will attempt to infest any tobacco placed in that container in the future. A much safer method is to spray a tiny amount of water into the container and reseal it for a day or two, or purchase a ceramic humidifying disk from your tobacconist and place it in the storage container.

Q: How Do I "Break In" A Pipe?

A: The process of "breaking in" a pipe serves two functions. First, any saps, resins, acids, stains, demons, or other nasty things that have remained in the briar are driven out. Second, and most importantly, a "cake"--the layer of charred residue that builds up inside the bowl as tobacco is smoked in it--is developed. This cake protects the bowl of the pipe from the heat of burning tobacco and prevents it from "burning out." It should be noted that most of the information in this section applies to briar pipes only. Most other pipes require no break in period, or at most a very brief one. Additionally, one should not allow a cake to build up in a meerschaum or clay, as this could cause the bowl to crack.

It is important to smoke a new pipe slowly, to avoid damaging the naked briar. Some recommend that a new pipe be filled only one-third to one-half full for the first several smokes, after which the bowl can be filled a little more with each smoke. To be honest, this procedure is not necessary, but I always recommend it--and usually practice it--because it is all too easy to damage a new pipe through carelessness. Don't try to rush the break-in period, and don't be overly concerned if a new pipe has a bitter taste. Some pipes break in easier than others, and it is not uncommon for a pipe that is very difficult to break in to mature into a great smoker.

Some pipes are sold with a bowl coating designed to protect the briar until a cake is built up (sometimes such bowls are called "pre-carbonized"). Many pipes, however, are not so treated. While a"naked" bowl is not likely to be damaged so long as the pipe is smoked slowly, many people advocate preparing the bowl interior of a new pipe. Some recommend that the inside of the bowl be dampened with water to protect the briar, while others recommend honey, or a mixture of honey and water. Honey may help a cake form more quickly, but after trying all of these techniques I find that these days I tend to use nothing at all.

Finally, try not to smoke a new pipe outdoors if you can possibly avoid it. Even a gentle breeze will cause the pipe to burn much hotter than it would indoors, which can irreparably damage a briar that is not protected by a cake. I've never had a problem smoking my pipes outdoors (after they've been broken in, of course), but if you're concerned about possible damage, you can purchase wind caps from your tobacconist which will shield the burning tobacco from the effects of wind.

Q: How Should I "Pack" My Pipe?

A: A pipe must be packed properly to ensure a good smoke; unfortunately, learning to do this takes time and practice. In fact, the art of packing a pipe is the most difficult task associated with pipe smoking, and this can be very frustrating for the beginner.

I suspect that most people who have given up on trying to learn to smoke a pipe did so primarily because they couldn't master packing a bowl quickly enough to suit them. The most common technique for packing a pipe is the "three layer" method. The objective is to end up with a bowl that is evenly packed from top to bottom; this is done by packing each layer progressively tighter. Trickle tobacco into the bowl until it is slightly overfull, then press very lightly with your finger until the bowl appears half full. Fill the pipe again and press down until the pipe is 2/3 to 3/4 full. Finally, overfill the pipe and press the top layer down fairly firmly. When finished the tobacco should feel"springy" to the touch. If it has no give at all, it's packed too tight. If a touch leaves an indentation, it is packed too loosely. Finally, test the "draw" by sucking air through the unlit pipe; the resistance should be about like that felt when sipping a soft drink through a straw. If the draw doesn't feel right, then empty the bowl and start over. A slightly different touch must be used depending on the size of the bowl and the cut and moisture level of the tobacco, but this will become second nature with experience. In fact, you will undoubtedly develop your own packing techniques with time, and you will find yourself loading your pipe without even thinking about it.

If you find yourself frustrated by the fact that you simply can't get the feel for packing your pipe, you might want to try a method suggested by Mike Butera. Mike recommends chopping the tobacco, reducing the ribbons into rectangles or squares about 1/4" long. The bowl is then packed as described above. Some people have found that this method can make the task of packing a bowl much easier.

Q: How Should I Light My Pipe?

A: Barring such bizarre contraptions as parabolic mirrors, lasers, and miniature blowtorches, there are three ways to light your pipe: with a match, with a butane lighter, or with a fluid lighter (e.g. a"Zippo").

The wooden match is the traditional pipe lighting device. Strike the match and hold it for a second or two while the sulfur burns off. Bring the match to the tobacco surface and, while puffing gently, move the match around the tobacco in a slow, even circle.

Butane lighters are more convenient than matches, and, unlike fluid lighters, there is less risk of imparting an unpleasant taste to your tobacco. If you wish to use a butane lighter, then purchase one that is designed for pipes. Such lighters have an angled gas outlet that makes it easier to direct the flame into the bowl while avoiding burned fingers.

Fluid lighters share the convenience feature of butane, and they provide the only truly reliable means of lighting a pipe in a stiff wind. Zippo makes a lighter designed for pipes that has a circular hole in the chimney which is placed over the bowl while the flame is"sucked" into the tobacco. Other types of fluid lighters may be used as well, but their broad flame makes it all too easy to char the rim of the pipe bowl. The primary disadvantage to fluid lighters is that they can impart a slight taste to the tobacco. Some swear that this can be prevented if one merely waits a few seconds after igniting the lighter before lighting the tobacco. I can still taste (smell?) the lighter fluid, however, and I prefer my tobacco sans naphtha.

Q: How Do I Keep My Pipe Lit?

A: Don't be overly concerned if you have difficulty keeping your pipe lit at first. It is not unusual for even experienced smokers to have to re-light several times, especially toward the bottom of the bowl. Try to relax and enjoy yourself--that is the whole point, after all. You'll find it much easier to keep your pipe lit with practice.

CHARRING LIGHT. The best way to keep your pipe lit is to light it correctly at the beginning. Most people light their pipe twice. Light the pipe as described above and puff a half dozen times or so. Then tamp the surface of the tobacco down with your pipe tool and re-light. The first lighting, often called the "charring light," will char the top of the tobacco and prepare this surface for the second lighting which will, with practice, take you through most of the bowl.

TAMPING. While smoking, ash residue will form at the top of the tobacco. This residue should be gently tamped down periodically during the course of a smoke and prior to re-lighting. This tamping serves to keep the tobacco--which expands as it burns--properly packed and promotes even burning. If the pipe has an especially tall bowl, the ash may sometimes become so thick that it is difficult to re-light the tobacco below it. If this occurs, loosen the ash gently with your pipe tool, dump the ash, tamp, and re-light.

SMOKING PACE. The pace at which you smoke (i.e. the rhythm at which you puff your pipe) is very important. With practice and experimentation you will achieve the perfect pace for you. The idea is to puff frequently enough to keep the tobacco lit, but not so frequently as to cause the pipe to burn too hot, which contributes to tongue bite and may damage your pipe. If you can't hold the bowl of your pipe comfortably in your hand, or if you can't hold the side of the bowl against your face for more than a few seconds, then you're smoking too fast. If this happens, set the pipe down for a few minutes to cool, then re-light and start again. Someone once described the perfect smoking pace as one where the pipe is always on the verge of going out.

Q: How Should I Clean My Pipe?

A: Your pipe should be cleaned after each smoke. To do this, first let the pipe cool and then scoop or dump out any ash and "dottle" (unburned tobacco that sometimes remains in the bottom of the bowl). Do not bang the pipe against a hard surface, as this may result in a cracked shank or broken stem. If you must, hold the bowl of the pipe in one hand and strike the top of the bowl against the open palm of the opposite hand.

Once the bowl is empty, run a pipe cleaner through the stem until it just enters the bowl and remove it. Repeat with additional cleaners until they come out clean (many people, myself included, will use both ends of a pipe cleaner before switching to a new one).

Finally, take one of the used cleaners, bend it into a "U" shape, and wipe out the ash clinging to the sides of the bowl. [NOTE: Some people prefer to leave the ash in the bowl, believing that it promotes a good cake. If you like, try both ways and see what works best for you.]

Set the pipe aside to dry completely. *Ideally*, the pipe should be allowed to "rest" for around 48 hours before smoking it again, but you might have to forgo this luxury until you have enough pipes to do so. Periodically, you'll want to clean your pipe a bit more thoroughly.

In addition to the steps above, you'll also want to carefully remove the stem from the shank and wipe out the "gunk" that collects in the mortise; a cotton swab (e.g. a "Q-tip") works well for this task.

Some people also advocate periodic cleaning of the stem and shank with pipe cleaners soaked in alcohol (preferably some form of grain alcohol), particularly if the pipe begins to taste a bit musty or sour. Do not, however, get alcohol anywhere near the bowl of a meerschaum pipe. CAUTION! PAY ATTENTION HERE!! Never, ever, ever take the stem out of a pipe while it is still hot. Allow the pipe to cool for at least an hour before attempting to remove the stem. [I'm of the opinion that you should let the pipe dry completely before removing the stem, as well.] Repeatedly removing the stem from a hot pipe will result in a loose stem at best, and you may even end up with a broken tenon or a cracked shank.

With that said, there are pipes that are designed to have their stem removed while still hot. This sort of stem is called a "military bit" or an "army mount," since pipes such as these were originally designed for military men (I'm not being non-PC; there simply weren't any military women in those days), who might have need to stow their pipes on short notice. The stem's tenon on such a pipe is tapered to provide a friction fit, and the shank is almost always reinforced with a metal "cup" or band.

Q: Why Is My Tongue "Charred"?

A: "Tongue bite," an intense burning sensation of the tongue, is an unpleasant side effect often experienced by the new pipe smoker (it is also experienced by non-newbies who take up the pipe again after a period of abstinence). While irritating, it will usually go away after a week or so of smoking. If you experience this problem for an extended period, then you may be smoking a tobacco that's too moist, you may have failed to pack the bowl properly, or you're smoking too fast. Some tongue bite sufferers have also experienced relief by using an oral rinse sold under the name "Biotene." It works for some; you might want to try it.

Q: Why Is My Pipe "Gurgling"?

A: This is caused by moisture collecting in the bottom of the bowl and/or in the shank or stem. Possible causes of "gurgle" are:

Smoking too fast. Water vapour is a by-product of combustion, and rapid smoking will produce large amounts of it, which will then condense in the shank and stem.

Smoking a pipe that is not yet broken-in. I'm not certain if this occurs because the briar has not dried completely, because there is no cake, or "just because." Still, a new pipe will often smoke wet.

Smoking a tobacco that is too moist. This is self explanatory. In addition, some tobaccos, particularly aromatics, tend to leave more liquid residue than others.

Saliva in the pipe. Salivation is a normal response to smoking, and this saliva can collect in the stem. Keep your tongue away from the mouthpiece opening, and try to keep your mouth as dry as possible. If your pipe begins to gurgle while smoking, run a pipe cleaner down the stem to absorb the moisture. This can be a bit tricky with some bent pipes, but it's usually possible if you put a small bend in the end of the cleaner and rotate it "just right."

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