pipe smoking tips & tricks

I am a pipe smoker, and I know that it can take years to get to the point where the habit becomes like a second nature and a pipe becomes an extension of one's self - and at whatever stage you are, you'll learn something new every smoke.

So if you partake of the pipe (which I recommend you do), whether you're a first-timer just getting to grips with your first pipe or an old salt with a cellar full of tobacco, the tips below may be of use to you.

lighters are fine

Whilst you really don't want to use a normal lighter for a cigar as it can leave a funky flavour, pipes are different. The taste of gas will genreally not linger, especially if you light your pipe the correct way.

The most important thing is that you light the lighter away from your pipe. Make sure there is a flame before you take the lighter to your pipe; this way, no unignited gas will get into your tobacco. Likewise, if your lighter should blow out during lighting, stop the gas flow or remove the lighter immediately. Venting a lot of unburnt butane gas into your tobacco can bring the flavour down, and this minimises the chance of that happening.

lighters are not great

Still, if you can, use matches. There is no chance of any gas getting into your tobacco; especially when you're still learning you'll be relighting your pipe a few times during a single smoke, and with butane lighters, you'll begin to notice the flavour changing. With matches, you can relight a bunch of times and it'll still taste fine.

The very best way to light a pipe, I suppose, would be the way you light a cigar: with cedar chips. This way you won't even get a theoretical whiff of the sulphur in the match head, and all you'll smoke will be smoke. But matches are great.

the three pinch method!

Stuffing one's pipe is precise business. I don't always get it right, and when it's not right, you notice immediately. The pipe doesn't draw well, gets hot, won't stay lit... it's a nightmare.

The three pinch method is as follows. I describe it as it has been described to me.

The first pinch of loose tobacco is stuffed into the bowl of your pipe gently as one would handle a baby. The second pinch is stuffed in a bit more firmly, like one would handle a woman. And the final pinch is stuffed with decent, manly force.

All archaic and sexist lore aside, this method works. Begin soft, and then tamp the soft stuff down with some force, and finally finish with some decent compression. The product is a well-packed, well-smoking pipe...

the three pinch method?

...except when it isn't. No two pipes are the same, and you'll have to learn to get used to your different pipes. The three pinch method works, but it will sometimes need subtle adjustments - and some pipes are easy, responding just fine to having tobacco stuffed in wantonly. Use the method as a starting point, and experiment a bit.

fixing a bad smoke

It will happen: you have stuffed your pipe poorly. It doesn't draw right, it keeps going out, it gets hot, it tastes bad.

You can try to fix it. Get the nail part of your pipe tamper out and loosen up your tobacco, trying to get an even distribution throughout. Shift it around so that the air doesn't go past your tobacco but through it.

Maybe you're in luck, and it works, and you're ready to have a nice relaxing smoke... but probably not.

A poorly packed pipe is often unfixable - no matter how you poke and scramble, it just doesn't smoke right. What to do?

abandoning a bad smoke

When your pipe's poorly packed and you can't easily fix it, don't settle for a bad pipe. Don't smoke it just because you've packed it so you might as well get it over with.

The point of pipe smoking is not to smoke a pipe; it is to enjoy oneself, to experience pleasure, and to relax. If a pipe does not evoke those things, it is not worth smoking.

So if you packed your pipe wrong and can't fix it, just empty it out. If you figure out quickly that you screwed up you can reuse the unburnt tobacco, so it won't all be lost. Believe you me, this is the best way to go about it.

not too dry, not too wet

Some prefer their tobacco bone dry, but most people like a slow, cool smoke; the moister your tobacco, the slower and cooler. Of course, too moist means so slow and cool that it won't light; feel the tobacco as it is when you open a tin, as that's pretty much the optimal moisture level.

But your tobacco will dry out. It's difficult to prevent this.

Luckily, remoisturising is easy: just place a little vessel of water (a small bowl or cup) in your tobacco container with your tobacco, careful to not tip it over, seal your tobacco container, and leave it overnight. The water evaporates and reinvigorates your tobacco, and you're ready to rock that good stuff.

I've used a spray bottle in the past, kneading the water through the tobacco, but I usually ended up with wet tobacco that needs drying, and then it gets too dry so I have to remoisturise... the little bowl of water in my tobacco tin works great.

removing the mouthpiece

Common wisdom has it that the mouthpiece must always be removed with a clockwise twist. If you do it the other way around, or twist in both directions, the wood is said to be likely to break.

I know of two explanations for this curious bit of pipe lore. The first is that all pipes are cut with the grain running clockwise toward the shank; a cursory inspection of my own pipes belies this idea, however. The second explanation is that the direction does not matter so long as you always twist in the same direction, as the stress in different directions is what weakens the wood.

I don't believe either hypothesis. I don't think the wood is affected greatly by the direction in which you twist; if anything endangers your stem, it's the mouthpiece being wiggled. When removing your mouthpiece, keep it straight and don't bend it up and down, as this may in fact crack the wood.

No evidence has ever shown that the twisting direction matters, and I have always assumed that it's more about tradition than anything else, like drinking port with one's left hand. Twist whichever way you like, clock- or otherwise, and be merry.

a tainted pipe

Something you may encounter, especially when you buy estate pipes, is souring. No matter what you smoke, the pipe tastes wrong.

Note: in new pipes, this may mean that there are some dyes or other things in the wood of your pipe that will most likely fade over the course of smokes. We're talking older, used pipes that have been spoilt by many, many smokes.

A sour pipe can usually be fixed easily. Remove the mouthpiece and stuff a pipecleaner into the stem of the bowl. Next, fill the bowl with plain table salt (finer is better). Finally, use a pipette or syringe or some other precise dispenser to add alcohol to the salt. Some prefer food-grade alcohol, which makes sense; whisky or vodka are fine, though I just use 70% methylated spirit. It all evaporates in the end, so I don't worry too much.

Keep adding the alcohol until the salt is saturated with it. Watch out for overflow, as the alcohol may affect the finish of the wood.

And then leave it. You'll see the pipecleaner turn brown pretty quickly as the alcohol dissolves the oils in the wood, drawing them into the salt. After about a day or so (you can leave it two days to be sure) the alcohol will have evaporated, and usually the salt will have taken on a brown colour.

Break the salty crust and remove all salt from the pipe. Wash it under a tap and let dry.

Often, this will do. Even badly affected pipes have completely cleared up after a single treatment, although I've cleaned friends' pipes that took three treatments. Try it, smoke it, and if necessary, try it again.

restoring yellowed wood

Pipes can get hot when smoked, and the wood can get dry as time goes on. I've bought a few estate pipes that looked a sickly yellow... but they are easily fixed!

Olive oil is all there is to it. Wet a rag or some kitchen paper with olive oil, rub it into the wood (don't be stingy) and let it draw in over the course of a day. The wood will become darker and richer; you can repeat the process if you like, although usually, once does the trick. Try to avoid the inside of the bowl, but don't worry if you spill into it. Just clean it off with a rag, it may taste a bit funny on your first smoke but it'll clear out.

A cheap-as-dirt thrift shop pipe can easily be turned back into the elegant vessel it once was.

restoring a discoloured mouthpiece

These days, many mouthpieces are made of plastic, but in the old days (and in good pipes) vulcanised rubber (known as vulcanite) is used. It's lovely on the teeth, but it has a downside: it oxidises.

Stems will turn brown, green or even yellow over the years, and they will sour your smoke by tasting bad. Luckily, it's fairly easily fixed.

There's a lot of to-do about soaking stems in hydrogen peroxide, which a friend of mine did and it certainly cleared up the stem - however, oxidation returned doubly fast.

I've never tried it myself, as I use special mouthpiece polish. It comes in several brands (I currently use Denicare from a little flat tin), and I imagine they all work. The process is simple: gather some of the polish on a rag and polish it into the material. It usually takes a polishing session or two, but the results are striking. Dull green stems are returned to shiny black glory in minutes.

The foul taste also disappears, though the polish itself leaves a rather musty taste. It takes a few smokes to get rid of it, so don't worry. I recommend trowling the Internet or tobacco shops for mouthpiece polish; it's a fairly obscure product, but not crazy hard to find.

You can take a look at the image above to see the effect that two polishing sessions had on a very green stem.