New Smoker's Pipe & Tobacco Guide
Relax! Smoke a Pipe...
Selecting Your First Pipe
There are several options available for those wishing to take up the tobacco pipe, each with their own benefits and drawbacks. What leads any individual to settle on any particular pipe depend on primarily three preferences: Purpose, Aesthetics, and Price. If you haven't considered these preferences for yourself, here are a few thoughts on each point:
Every pipe smoker enjoys the ritual of pipe smoking in the context of his or her own daily routine and how they want a pipe to be a part of their life. Some desire a pipe they can take everywhere and do everything with – for this kind of pipe smoker, the preferable pipe is often of sturdy construction, relatively lightweight (or comfortable to clench), easy to maintain, and resistant to wear. Others may only want a pipe for relaxing at the end of the long day without combining the pipe with much other activities. For them, it may be more important to consider how large the bowl is (for longer smoking sessions), how comfortable it is to hold (if they don't like clenching), how cool it smokes, and how the pipe is styled.
When pipe smoking was more common in Western society, the pipe was considered to be one of the few acceptable forms of male jewelry. How a pipe looked was an important consideration for each pipe smoker's personal style and wardrobe. What you may find to be a pipe you like for its own sake may later disappoint you when it comes to wearing it. Although many pipe smokers today may not have a preference, it always helps to check in a mirror to see how a pipe may suit you. Most aesthetic preferences do not have a major impact on the way a pipe may smoke, but it is also important to consider how your aesthetic preference may conflict with your intended purpose (e.g., you want to go on long walks with your pipe for which a smaller pipe is generally more suitable or comfortable, but you prefer the look of a large pipe).
Compared to other forms of tobacco, pipe smoking is the most economical in the long run, but the initial investment can be intimidating. Fortunately for the new pipe smoker, there are many affordable options to choose from. Tobacco pipes are also a commodity which has the highest return in quality in the lower echelons of price, so purchasing and collecting high quality specimens is relatively affordable. No matter your budget, there are fine smoking pipes available. Here are the most common entry-level options:
The Corn Cob Pipe (~$6)
A corn cob pipe is a simple pipe carved out of a dried and aged corn cob. The corn cob itself has wonderful smoking qualities, but it does not have much longevity and the overall construction of corn cob pipes is fairly crude. In the attentive care of corn cob enthusiasts, a pipe can last many years, but typically they last between 50 and 100 bowls before they are broken, burnt out, or simply undesirable to smoke and care for. Their relatively low cost leads many of their devotees to simply replace them at this point rather than repair them and they are often referred to as “disposable” pipes.
The Clay Pipe (~$10-$20)
Clay pipes were once the most popular form of tobacco pipe before the proliferation of the briar pipe in the middle of the 19 th century. The benefits of a clay pipe are its cool smoking qualities, simple maintenance, and low price. Their main drawbacks are their fragility and frequently small bowl size.
The Factory Second (~$25)
A factory second pipe, also known as a basket pipe, is a pipe that a retailer receives from a pipe factory to sell at discounted prices due to aesthetic imperfections in the briar. Briar – the wood burl out of which most pipes are made – is often marred by sand pits and fissures which do not become apparent until it the block is being shaped. If a block has too many imperfections to meet company standards, but it is still salvageable for smoking, it is finished as a factory second. These pipes often have putty fills or generously carved finishes, but are otherwise smoking-sound.
The Estate Pipe (~$50+)
An estate pipe is a previously owned pipe. Here at Smokers' Haven, we expertly refurbish these pipes to a very high standard and are ready-to-smoke after purchase (other sources of estate pipes may rely on you to clean and/or refurbish the pipe without a performance guarantee). The two main reasons estate pipes remain popular is firstly the possibility to purchase an otherwise high-value pipe at a much lower cost and secondly the possibility to own a historic smoker from a company or artisan no longer in production. Many of the old English manufacturers are extremely collectable and many pipes may retain or increase their value over time.
The Factory Pipe (~$60-$150)
The standard brand-name briar factory pipe represents the greatest improvement in craftsmanship quality over options in lower price ranges. These pipes are built to last for life and have strict quality control. Starting at around $60, this level of quality scales for different aesthetic finishes to around $120. After this price range – representing the standard factory pipe – the quality return for price is very minimal and mostly in the realm of only the most exacting pipe collectors. This range of factory pipe will smoke nearly as well as a pipe many times its price.
The Artisan Pipe (~$200+)
The tradition of hand-made pipes is alive and well. Skilled craftsmen around the world make precious and unique pipes of the most exacting aesthetic and technical standards. The improvement in smoking qualities of these pipes compared to the standard factory pipe will be minimal and usually appreciated by only the most experienced pipe smokers and pipe collectors.
All of the above options are suitable for the new pipe smoker, however there are some features and styles which should be considered when looking at any particular pipe.
Characteristics to Consider Pipe Size
The overall size of the pipe is usually not so critical, though we would advise against either extreme for a new pipe smoker. A pipe that is too small will contain a small tobacco chamber which does not leave much room for error or experimentation for the new pipe smoker. A pipe that is too large may become unwieldy for the pipe smoker who still may be finding how a pipe fits into their routine. It would not be a good situation to have a new pipe that is too large for all the activities you discover you would like to do with your new pipe.
The size of the bowl is a more important consideration than the overall size of the pipe. A medium or large size bowl is recommended for new pipe smokers because there is more room for error and experimentation with packing and smoking. With a smaller bowl, you may be done smoking by the time you have gotten a good rhythm down. The two main factors determining bowl size – more precisely, the size of the tobacco chamber within the bowl – are depth and width. Depth will affect the overall smoking time while width will affect temperature and scope, that is, the more surface area available to burn, the more variety of leaf can be burned at once, at the cost of increased temperature. Generally, since Virginia blends burn hotter due to their naturally higher sugar content, smokers prefer a narrower bowl that will keep temperature down, and since Virginia blends do not have the variety of leaf that English blends usually do, width is not as an important factor. For English blends, a wider bowl is preferred since a wider variety of leaf – Latakia, other Orientals, in addition to Virginias – is present in the blend. The Oriental component of English blends is relatively low in sugar, so they do not burn as hot as Virginia blends, so the increased burning temperature is acceptable. It is for these reasons that it is generally preferred to smoke Virginia blends from a narrower bowl and English blends from a wider bowl. For a new pipe smoker, any chamber width of .75in and above is recommended and will be suitable for either type of blend (up to about .85in, past which it would be significantly preferable for English blends).
Pipes come in many different shapes. Aside from being bent or straight, these shapes are mostly aesthetic considerations. Keep in mind that some shapes, particularly the less traditional shapes, may be more difficult or less comfortable to smoke. Commonly, a pipe smoker will fancy an exotic shape such as a horn, but then be disappointed with the realized unwieldiness of the design. Generally, bent pipes will offer a better center of gravity and are more comfortable to clench than a straight pipe of similar weight. Straight pipes of more considerable weight or length are relegated to holding, whereas even large bent pipes can be clenched comfortably if of a properly balanced construction (famously, the large Oom Paul design is extremely comfortable to clench). The drawback to the bent design is that they are more likely to pool moisture at the base of the draft hole.
Some pipes may come with a filter, usually contained in the mortise and tenon. Not all filter systems are the same, but they generally work to decrease moisture and make for a cooler smoke. Some pipe smokers do not like filters because they perceive that filters may decrease the flavor of the tobacco. Fortunately for these pipe smokers, most filter systems are easily removable. Filters are generally preferred by pipe smokers who favor aromatic type blends, which often generate more moisture and heat than other types of blends.
A mostly aesthetic consideration would be the exterior finish of the pipe. The three main types of finishes for briar pipes are Smooth, Sandblasted, and Carved (Rusticated). A smooth finish shows the briar after much sanding, buffing, staining, and polishing and is generally the most expensive type of finish. Briar with a sandblasted finish has been blasted with sand at high speeds, showing a relief in the grain. Briar with a carved (rusticated) finish has been carved irrespective of the grain pattern and is generally the least expensive. For practical considerations, a sandblasted or rusticated finish will hold up better to regular wear than a smooth finish which will show scratches rather easily.
The two common materials used for pipe stems are ebonite (also known as vulcanite, the former trade name of the material, though it now refers to an unrelated mineral) and acrylic (also known by the trade name lucite). Ebonite is hardened (vulcanized) rubber. It is softer than acrylic, making it more comfortable, but it shows teeth marks more easily and will oxidize over time. A Cumberland (also known as Brindle) stem is a particular style of ebonite stem, made to resemble a brown wood or tortoise shell look. Acrylic is a plastic. It is harder than ebonite, making it more resistant to wear, but some pipe smokers find the hardness to be less comfortable.
Selecting Your Tobacco Leaf
There are three main varieties of tobacco leaf used in the production of pipe tobacco, each with unique smoking qualities:
Burley, also known as White Burley, is a typically air-cured tobacco leaf. Burley is light-bodied and has a slightly sweet and nutty flavor. Aromatic blends are predominantly Burley based as the leaf can absorb much more of the aromatic casings and flavorings than other types of leaf. Burley is low in sugar compared to Virginia tobacco, but higher in nicotine. In a non-aromatic blend, the addition of Burley tends to subdue the flavor a bit and makes for a more mellow and easy-burning smoke.
Virginia, also known as Bright or Flue-cured, has a much wider and deeper flavor profile than Burley. The leaf is naturally higher in sugar, and the more sophisticated flue-curing process can manipulate the flavor of the tobacco with greater sensitivity than simple air-curing can achieve. Virginia leaf is the dominant, often exclusive, leaf variety in a Virginia blend and a main component of most English blends. Among the major varieties of leaf, it is the most versatile and variable in flavor, ranging from brightly-flavored yellow and orange leaves to the richer and more savory red and black leaves. The high natural sugar content of Virginia tobacco makes it burn hotter than other varieties of leaf. It is relatively low in nicotine.
Oriental leaf, sometimes called Turkish, adds an interesting dimension of flavor to a tobacco blend. The leaves are naturally aromatic and have a diverse range of flavors, commonly adding a musty, spicy, woody, oily, or savory component to a blend. A distinctive type of Oriental leaf called Latakia is a defining component of English mixtures. Latakia is sun-cured and fire-cured, giving it a deeply smoky, spicy, and robust flavor. Oriental leaf is low in sugar and burns relatively cool compared to Virginia leaf. It is also low in nicotine.
Cavendish and Perique are both forms of processed tobacco that are common in different types of pipe tobacco blends:
Not a type of leaf, but rather, a method of processing tobacco leaf. Usually utilizing Burley, but sometimes Virginia, the process involves steaming the tobacco with an added flavoring. The term Cavendish is sometimes synonymously used in place of Aromatic. Cavendish burns hotter and usually with more moisture than any other type of tobacco leaf or preparation.
Perique is a strong tobacco made from Burley. The leaf is fermented under high pressure that gives the leaf a very intense, pungent flavor. It is usually used as a condiment in Virginia blends and is rarely smoked by itself.
The definitions of different tobacco blends have changed considerably over the last couple centuries and therefore there is not a clear consensus on them. For instance, the term “English” used to refer to any blend without considerable additives or flavorings (which would include straight Virginia blends), but now it is generally accepted as meaning a blend with Virginia, Latakia, and other Oriental or condiment leaf. Below are categorizations that are probably most universally recognized.
An aromatic blend is so-called because the tobacco – usually Burley – is cased and/or dressed with flavorings that give off a pleasant aroma (the aforementioned Cavendish). While the aroma may be full, the taste of an aromatic is usually mild and ranges from slightly resembling the aroma to an ambiguously sweet or sugary flavor. Aromatics burn hotter than any other type of tobacco blend due to the casing and also produce the most moisture as a byproduct of smoking. It is recommended that aromatics are smoked especially slow as to avoid burning the tongue, which is called tongue bite. The new pipe smoker interested in aromatics should start with one with a lighter casing as it will be more forgiving to smoke.
A Virginia blend is defined by having a dominant (often exclusive) base of Virginia leaf. Virginia blends have very rich flavors that are most traditionally associated with tobacco, particularly with an American's perception of tobacco. The flavor profile tends to be universally sweet, but this manifests itself in different forms depending on the type of Virginia leaves used. Lighter Virginia blends tend to be more like sugarcane, wheat, oats, nuts, and sometimes floral notes. Deeper Virginia blends tend to have richer flavors such as molasses, wood, and subtle spices. Virginia blends may also have additions of Burley, Perique or Oriental leaf in discreet proportions. Virginia blends tend to get much better with age as the natural sugars crystallize and ferment, enhancing the flavor of the tobacco while also mellowing out the blend. Virginia blends tend to smoke hot (not as hot as aromatics) due to their sugar content and should be smoked with care.
The prototypical English blend has a base of Virginia leaf, a sizable portion of Latakia and usually some other Oriental leaves or Perique as tertiary components. The Latakia gives English blends their signature smoky, boot-leather, campfire sort of flavor and strength. The variety of leaf gives English mixtures the most exotic flavor possibilities and they are often the most exciting blends to smoke. English blends smoke the coolest and driest due to the relatively low Virginia content.
An English blend with a sizable component of Burley.
Oriental (or English-Oriental)
There are extraordinarily few blends that are exclusively made with Oriental leaf and most references to Oriental mixtures are simply English mixtures with a dominant Oriental base rather than a Virginia base. These blends tend to offer a sophisticated perfume of savory flavors. In recent times, the term Balkan has also been used to refer to Oriental-forward English mixtures, perhaps out of a reference to the famous Balkan Sobranie blend.
How to Smoke a Pipe
There is a lot of debate as to the most effective method to light a pipe, and as you develop your own routine, you will be able to see which techniques are most suitable for you. Below is a step-by-step guide for lighting and smoking a pipe.
Packing the Pipe with Tobacco
- Fill the tobacco chamber to the top with no additional pressure applied to the tobacco.
- This is the part that will require much practice: Push down the tobacco until it is tight but still springy. If it is too tight, it will be difficult to draw air through the pipe and the tobacco will not keep lit. If it is too loose, it will be difficult to keep lit and require many re-lights.
- Add more tobacco to the chamber until it is filled. Check again for optimal sprigy-ness.
Lighting the Pipe
- While drawing slowly from the stem, use a match or lighter to walk a flame around the tobacco at the top of the chamber. The objective is to get the top layer to an even black crisp – this is called the charring light. The tobacco will rise as it burns.
- After the tobacco is evenly charred, take a pipe tamper and flatten down the burnt tobacco. The tobacco will likely go out in this process.
- Now for the final light: repeat step one until you get a consistent draw and glowing/smoking response from the burning tobacco.
Smoking the Pipe
- The key to success with smoking a pipe is a slow and consistent draw. Tobacco tastes best when burning at cooler temperatures, so the objective is to keep the tobacco burning right above the point at where it would extinguish. If your draws are too quick, the tobacco will burn hot and the flavor will diminish. You also run the risk of burning your tongue (this is called “tongue bite”).
- The bowl will become warm as you smoke it, but if it becomes uncomfortably hot, set it aside until it cools down. This is usually an indication of smoking too quickly.
- Moisture will sometimes develop at the base of the draft hole at the bottom of the tobacco chamber. To remedy this, pass a pipe cleaner through the pipe and then resume smoking.
- The tobacco may sometimes require additional tamping and/or lighting in order to remain burning consistently.
- The effective use of a pipe tamper is one of the most important, yet most frequently neglected, aspects of smoking pipe. Periodically while smoking, the tamper should be used to condense the ember to keep it burning consistently so it does not flare out. The tamper can also be used to move the ember around the bowl in the event that the tobacco is not burning evenly.
- When you are done smoking, use the scoop or pick part of the tamper to get the leftover tobacco – the dottle – out from the bottom of the chamber. Use a pipe cleaner or two to clean out the draft hole.
- After each smoke, you will notice the development of a black buildup on the chamber walls. This is called cake and it is mostly carbon. Most pipe smokers prefer to maintain the cake at about a dime to a nickel thickness.
- It is good to keep a rotation of pipes so that each pipe is able to rest for a couple days after being used. Pipes that are smoked too often may begin to taste foul or smoke poorly and are more prone to stress-related damages.