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pipe smoking tips & tricks

I am a pipe smoker, and I have learned that it can take many 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 shouldn't use a normal lighter for a cigar as it can leave a funky flavour, pipes are different. The taste of gas will generally not linger, especially if you light your pipe the correct way.

picture of a hand holding a lighter The most important thing is that you ignite 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 the 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

picture of a hand holding a lit match 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 good enough for the likes of you and me.


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.

I'll describe the method as it has been described to me.

picture of a hand holding a pinch of tobacco 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, you've guessed it, with brutish, manly force.

All archaic and sexist lore aside, this method works. Begin soft, and then tamp the soft stuff down with some force, and add the last pinch while really compressing the contents of your pipe. 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 the peculiarities of each of your pipes. The three pinch method will need subtle adjustments for some pipes, while other pipes are easy, responding just fine to having tobacco stuffed in wantonly. Use the three pinch 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 in my experience, you'll just be poking and prodding into your pipe for five minutes before finally giving up. So what do?


abandoning a bad smoke

When your pipe's poorly packed and you can't fix it, don't settle for a bad pipe. Don't smoke it just because you've packed and lit it.

After all, the point of pipe smoking 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 bite the bullet and empty it out. If you figure out quickly that you screwed up you can reuse the unburnt tobacco, so all will not be lost.


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 the smoke. 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.

picture of a bowl of water in a tin of tobacco Now, once you've opened the tin or pouch, your tobacco will dry out. It's a hard thing to prevent.

Luckily, remoisturisation is an easy process: just place a little vessel of water (a small bowl or cup) inside an airtight container with your tobacco, seal said container, and leave it overnight. The water will evaporate and reinvigorate your tobacco, and you're ready to rock that good stuff.


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 become prone to breaking.

I've heard 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; however, a cursory inspection of my own pipes gives the lie to this idea. 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.

Frankly, 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.

To my knowledge, 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 tobacco you smoke, the smoke tastes all 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 - although I suppose this method may also work for brand new pipes.

To cure a sour pipe, 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.

picture of a tobacco pipe bowl filled with salt

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 get hot when they are smoked, and the wood can dry out over time. I've bought a few estate pipes that looked a sickly yellow... but they are easily restored.

Vegetable oil is all there is to it - I prefer boiled linseed oil, but olive oil works too. Liberaly wet a rag or some kitchen paper with your oil of choice, rub it into the wood and let it soak into the wood over the course of a day. The wood will become darker and richer in tone; 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.

before and after shots of a yellowed, worn out pipe that was restored

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 back in the day, vulcanised rubber (known as vulcanite) is used. It feels nice on the teeth, but it has a downside: it oxidises.

Stems will turn brown, green and even yellow over the years, and they will spoil your smoke by tasting bad. Luckily, oxidation can be dealt with fairly easily.

There's a lot of to-do about soaking stems in hydrogen peroxide, which a friend of mine tried once, and it certainly cleared up the stem; however, it required a lot of post-treatment sanding and polishing - and oxidation returned doubly fast.

I've never tried it myself, as I prefer to use special mouthpiece polish. It comes in several brands (I currently use Denicare from a little flat tin), and I can only imagine that they all work. You gather some of the polish on a rag and rub it into the surface of the mouthpiece. 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 can leave a rather musty taste, which goes away after a couple of days. 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.