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Learning the fine art of the tobacco pipe can be a tremendously rewarding experience, just so long as you don’t look like a complete tool-bag while doing it. For nearly as long as our species has been roasting food over a fire, we’ve been altering the tobacco leaf and dancing with it’s introspective ghosts. I’ve no intention to detail the personality types that generally gravitate toward the tobacco pipe, (your grandfather and young skeletal men with stupid clothing) nor am I going to delve into the raging debate over the tobacco leaf – i.e. – can it be enjoyed responsibly, or is it some deviant tool designed to enslave the weak among us and give your babies terrible and instant cancer. Cigars are another arena entirely – another flavor of human and another profile that I’m not delving into here. This article is going to teach you how to find a pipe, select your tobacco, pack the thing and enjoy the smoke – and it’s going to do a half assed job of it. Handling a tobacco pipe properly is like mastering a fine Japanese tea ceremony, but with fewer kimonos and eyeliner.
Before you decide to learn of the tobacco pipe, allow me to briefly detail it’s intended use. The idea is to find a pipe – usually a carefully hand carved selection of aged briar with a plastic-like stem (often made of vulcanite) – and find one that speaks to you personally. You can generally find them at a cigar shop, but don’t go browsing around at the cigarette stores. The ones in there are cheap garbage because they expect you to smoke weed from it in your older brother’s new apartment. If you need a pipe to smoke weed in get thyself to a proper head shop and buy one of those glass dildo things – they work better and look cooler under a black-light. When at the tobacconist, or as we now know them in popular culture, satanists, don’t be afraid to ask the mustachioed gentleman behind the counter to get his lazy ass up and open the glass cases so you can take a closer look at the pipes for sale. Be careful when handling a pipe, if you drop it you’re buying it – and for the love of god don’t put it in your mouth. I don’t want to go pipe shopping and pick up hepatitis because you wanted to see how well it went with your fedora.
The more you learn about the various shapes, cuts, finishes and materials that make a proper tobacco pipe, the better equipped you’ll be to select one that suits your personality and tastes. Don’t think too hard on this step as a newbie, and I strongly recommend you don’t buy a five dollar corn cob pipe (though they can make for a uniquely good smoke). I also strongly recommend that you don’t buy a “basket pipe” just yet. A “basket pipe” is just that – a cheaper pipe you can generally find in a big wicker basket somewhere in the shop. They might look pre-smoked – and that’s because they are, and pre-smoked pipes (usually called “estate pipes”) can also become a great new friend as they’ve already been “broken in,” which I’ll get to later. For now, just get something made of actual briar and not carved by a local artist who makes wall clocks out of walnut and wanted to try something artsy at his nudist camp. Set your budget around fifty bucks or so, and if something looks like it was colored by being dipped in a bucket of stain – skip it. While I’m not personally a fan of Peterson pipes, they’re a good place to start – as well as Stanwell or Savinelli. I want you to have a good fresh pipe to learn on, but nothing terribly pricey because you’re going to fuck it up anyway.
Let’s do a quick reader check. If any two of the following statements are true, stop reading this article and go find some Three Dog Night vinyl to pretend you’re into.
1.) Do you regularly ride a fixed gear bicycle to your internship?
2.) Do you drink Pabst Blue Ribbon while not living on a farm?
3.) Do you want a pipe because cigarettes are just, like, too mainstream?
4.) Have you purposefully not eaten today?
5.) Has it been less than six months since you watched Donnie Darko?
Still with me? Good. Before you can sit down with your favorite book and talk to the universe, you’ll need to pick out a tobacco. You’ll want to pack the pipe properly too, but stop rushing me. A good shop has a moderate-to-wide selection of tinned tobacco, and generally carries the bulk stuff in jars that’s sold by the ounce. When starting out you might be tempted to sniff each jar and grab a few ounces of the fruitiest smelling one you can find – but I suggest you avoid those tobaccos. When a tobacco smells fruity, sugary, or generally not like actual tobacco, it’s probably cased. Casing is a process in where the tobacco is blended then sprayed with aromatic material – sometimes a form of chocolate, licorice, cherries, or morning breath.
The tobaccos smell good in the jar and you’ll make even more friends as they smell divine in the air – but the actual taste ranges somewhere between gym socks and fire. You’ll also burn the shit out of your tongue even when smoking the pipe correctly, so just take a pass here. Those tobaccos are produced largely for the old guys who walk into the shop and buy three pounds at a time because it’s something their wives don’t mind the smell of around the house. They aren’t in it for an experience, they do it likely to feed an addiction and they don’t so much as have a tongue in their mouth as they do an old flap of charred leather. They don’t smoke because it tastes good or helps them relax, they smoke because FDR died.
I’m not going to walk you through the various ingredients that can constitute blending a good tobacco, as I want to get through this before I have another birthday. Look for something that says “English Blend,” or perhaps a “Balkan Blend.” Don’t be afraid to ask the guy behind the counter for something light – we’re smoking pipes but we are putting tobacco in there, not banana bread – remember it has actual nicotine in it. I’d rather have you enjoying a new hobby you strive to better yourself with, not throw the pipe away and spend your evening yawning into the toilet bowl. If you’re doing it right, you should never crave your pipe for a fix – starting and stopping the routine at will is another tenant here.
Blending a good tobacco with good ingredients can be a tedious thing, and an art in and of itself. If you see anything by a blender called G.L. Pease at your local shop, give the stuff a try but be sure to talk to the guy behind the counter before picking one at random – Pease is a talent to be reckoned with, but likes to blend some of his tobaccos in a way that suggests he dipped them in a bucket of nicotine before shipping. The stuff tastes amazing, but I’m trying to smoke my pipe, not spray breakfast all over my keyboard or watch the room spin. McClelland is another good domestic blender, too, when it’s not roasting the insides of my mouth with every other damnable tin. My personal go-to favorite is an overseas blend called Early Morning Pipe by the infamous Dunhill, but don’t buy it because it’s hard to find and I’m tired of giving plasma just to afford the stuff.
Don’t leave the store without pipe cleaners either – yeah, they’re for more than grade school art projects. Get a lighter too, (or matches) and a pipe tamper. You don’t have to use matches like some bearded remnant of Middle Earth, a cheap gas station lighter will do fine, but avoid using a Zippo as it’ll just wind up making your next coffee taste like lighter fluid. Oh yeah, get the tamper that costs a dollar – they have expensive ones but I’m just trying to teach you how to smoke a pipe, not get involved in the East African ivory trade. Once you’ve got the pipe, the tobacco, the lighter, the tamper and the cleaners – we’re ready smoke it up in this bitch.
Next, we need to find a suitable location. You can’t smoke your pipe in the general public very easily anymore. If you look too young, the police assume you’re knee deep in the dope game. If you smoke it too near to someone, you’ll give their clothes cancer and then they’ll transfer it to everyone they know. According to the totally-not-fabricated statistics on second-hand smoke, you’ll put everyone at risk and the human population will be wiped out in a matter of months because of your little pipe. We do want to try to be a little more careful than we were back in the 50’s, when people shotgunned Winstons right into toddler faces because they wouldn’t sit still in church. While the tobacco pipe smells infinitely better than a cigarette, you do want to be considerate. Not everyone wants a nostril or two full of whatever just came out of your mouth – so don’t go starting trouble with your pipe just to exert your limited smoking rights. The cadre of fifty-somethings that populate pipe smoking message boards like to lash out like this – so don’t follow their lead. Not every pipe-man carries a combative attitude, let’s be clear, but plenty seem to have forum avatars of an eagle or The Declaration of Independence, and they sign every post with a quotation about blood and trees and liberty or some shit. Listen to the friendly kinds of help on the boards and let the others go back to weaving fishing lures and hating our black president.
Note: Even if your local pub has a smoking section – don’t assume you can whip out the briar and get down to it. Ask those around if you if it’s okay, and if not – don’t light up. Sometimes the drunks just want to bathe in a cloud of Newports and stare angrily at failed lottery tickets – so they might find your pipe reminds them of when life used to not suck so hard. My favorite place is in my home office with a book or on the computer, outside on the deck, or in a comfortable chair at the cigar shop – many shops have areas for just such an occasion. If you decide to light up your tobacco pipe at a dance party, that means you failed my questionnaire earlier – get back on your Vespa and leave the pipe stuff to those of us who aren’t wearing a pastel headband.
Now – packing: There are a myriad of ways to pack your pipe, and over time you’re going to find the one that works just how you like it. It’s a personal affair, like your best pair of socks or which one of your balls is your secret favorite. The base method that most start with (again, don’t be afraid to ask someone at the shop for help) is the “three-step” method. Open your tobacco tin and dip your fingers in there, don’t be shy and don’t make this gross. If it feels too wet, let it air dry for a bit – the idea is to take a pinch of tobacco and when you let it go, it falls in pieces, not in a wet glob. Wet tobacco equals tongue-bite, and this is about as fun as sticking an ice cube up your own ass, unless you’re into that sort of thing then whatever.
For the three-step method, dribble tobacco gently into the pipe and don’t worry that it’s going everywhere, this is going to be messy. Fill it to the top, then very, very lightly tamp it down with your pinky or pipe tamper – compress it to about half the depth of the pipe bowl. Now, dribble again and this time tamp it down with just slightly more pressure to about two-thirds of the bowl height. Finally, dribble, then tamp it down with a bit more pressure even to the bowl height, or just below it. Test the draw by dry-puffing on the pipe. You should feel resistance similar to drinking soda with a straw. If it feels more like a milkshake, you need to dump the tobacco out and start over so you don’t accidentally swallow the pipe when trying to smoke it. You might feel like a screw up on this step – and it’s because you are – but don’t give up.
Time to apply fire. If you don’t have an actual pipe lighter – tip the pipe ever so slightly when lighting it so you avoid charring the rim. It’ll happen a lot, the rim-char stuff, but depending on the quality, finish, and wax over the briar your pipe is prepared for this – just don’t make it a habit. My good friend Harold is well known across our nation as an expert pipe aficionado, and whenever he sees my “regular day” pipe with a little rim char he starts crying and threatens to slit his wrists in his basement. He’s also a college professor and has dozens of books about things too difficult to understand, buddhism or tantric sex I think, so he’s a little squirrelly about pipe maintenance, God love him. Harold has imbued me with a lot of pipe knowledge over the years – he’s a genius and a historian in the field, but he’s a little weird about associating his academic life with his pipe smoking one so I’ll just end the sentence here.
Is your pipe lit? Probably not, I got distracted and we still need to talk about the false light. The false light is just what it sounds like – the goal is to puff gently while lighting your pipe in order to get a top layer of ash to act as insulation, as this is what keeps your pipe from going out every few seconds. If you’ve heard somewhere that it’s a social no-no to keep lighting your pipe when it goes out – don’t believe this nonsense. The one-light one-smoke thing isn’t impossible, but most who claim the feat are telling porky pies. Puff gently and slowly with as much force as it takes to draw a breath. Don’t inhale either, that’s not how you taste, it’s not how it was designed to smoke, and you will become a nicotine addict or make yourself sick. If you’re taking to the pipe because you think it’s a good way to quit, or is an alternative to cigarettes, throw yourself out of a window. Take it slow when you draw, we’re smoking a tobacco pipe not prepping a Hawaiian boar roast.
That’s how you do it – now you’re smoking a tobacco pipe and hopefully you don’t look like Morrissey while doing so. He’s a cool cat, sure, but we’re smoking tobacco pipes here, not stalking an ex-girlfriend. Smoke as much or as little as you feel comfortable with. The goal, generally, is to smoke the bowl in it’s entirety for the complete experience as flavors can change throughout the smoke. Also when smoking you’ll start to “break in” the pipe – the bowl will darken and start to collect a thick carbon resin that actually aids in producing a cooler smoke and helps to impart the natural flavors of the briar along with the tobacco. Use those pipe cleaners in the stem and tenon of the pipe, and not just when you are done smoking – use them during the smoke as well. It’ll help keep your nasty-ass spittle from backing up in the pipe and going back into your mouth, something I can assure you is entirely unpleasant, but you’ll get better at this. It might suck the first few times you do it – don’t feel bad if you give up on that particular bowl and try again in a few hours. Let the pipe rest and breath though, don’t overheat it or the bowl might crack. A cracked pipe pretty much renders the thing useless and leaves your afternoon wide open in case you wanted to go shop for vintage rollerskates.
You will burn your tongue, you will find out which tobaccos agree with your personal chemistry, and you will learn to keep the pipe from going out all the time. It’s an art, and should be respected as such – for once you get that great rhythm down, there’s nothing like it. Sweet and salt, gentle ribbons of smoke waft through your mouth and nose and into the room becoming delicious aroma. It’s an activity that relaxes, forces you to sit and think – pay attention to the pipe and meditate on the art. Mark Twain was a connoisseur of the pipe, as was Albert Einstein. In fact I’m just now reminded of that famous Einstein refrain on the subject:
“I believe that pipe smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgement in all human affairs, unless you’re wearing an ironic t-shirt and playing badminton – then you just look like a pussy.”