Tricks of the Trade

I assume that if you’ve made it this far you’ve already made the decision to smoke a pipe. Congratulations! Hopefully, this will be a life-long hobby -and habit- that will provide you with years of enjoyment until the nicotine and various toxins kill you. 

At the end of the day, something’s going to make us push the daisies up, whether it’s the sun, too much pepperoni, or your favorite cocktail. It could even be something you had no say in, like a genetic disease! I think we might as well enjoy our time -responsibly- while we’re here. Smoking a pipe is perfect for that. At least you’re not out there smoking crack or realizing a fallacy of relative privation.

Here’s all you need -plus a pipe- to get going.

Now, first things first: If you don’t have a pipe already, you’re going to need to get one. If you want to enjoy a great smoke out of the bag and don’t care about looking like a bumpkin, I wholeheartedly recommend some type of corn cob from Missouri Meerschaum. They’re iconic Americana, they won’t stain with the flavor of a super-aromatic tobacco, and they tend to smoke cool. You can find one anywhere for a range of prices from $5-40. If a cob doesn’t suit you, then I’d recommend a clay pipe. They’re tiny and it’ll feel hotter than a cob or a briar and you won’t be able to hold the bowl in your hand unless you’re a superhero , but it’ll work just fine and also give you the opportunity to enjoy a quick smoke. If you’re like me and smoke cigarettes, you’ll appreciate that.

This clay pipe has been smoked a couple of times. It won’t last long, but it -along with a cob- is a good place to start.

If you’d rather start with a briar, I’d urge you to not get a Dr. Grabow’s or equivalent from the Tobacco shop that also sells 44-ounce soft drinks and incense. I know those pipes are widely available -you can pick them up anywhere around the country- but part of the allure, at least to me, of smoking a pipe is bonding with a piece of functional art to enjoy a thoughtful respite from whatever drama swirls around you. I don’t want to bond with something that came from a blister pack! Especially if it won’t last long and will give you an unenjoyable smoke from day one into the future.

That’s not to say you have to spend beaucoup bucks on an art piece. I wouldn’t! But I also wouldn’t throw my money away on a Grabow- I’ve done it! I had two -both when I first started smoking a pipe and was desperate to get away from the smelly old estate pipes my dad gave me- but if you’re coming from vaping or cigarettes, those pipes won’t respond well to a lot of huffing and puffing. 

This Erik The Red straight billiard by Erik Nording cost $60 and is a good starter-pipe workhorse.

In a nutshell, the briar Dr. Grabow uses is of lower quality, which is how they hit that price point. The wood isn’t as dense as that of a reputable pipe, which leads to hot smokes and burnouts, and the briar they use tends to be full of holes and pits that they putty up. I don’t want to smoke putty, and neither, probably, do you. Furthermore, I’ve heard that Grabow briar isn’t aged long enough for all the natural resins of the wood to evaporate, and then that young briar is coated with a shitload of lacquer. With all that said, you’ve got a recipe for a hot, wet, and bitter smoke that only gets worse with sweetened, flavored tobacco that you’re likely to start with if your trajectory goes anything like mine did.

Even if it costs you fifty or sixty bucks, a new pipe of quality represents a substantial outlay compared to a pack of smokes or a Juul cartridge, and believe me, I’ve been beholden to both. Assuming you’ve got one, what else will you require to start smoking? What all’s optional, but unnecessary? We’re finally to the point of this post, so let me tell you.

Tobacco

I had this tin of Presbyterian Mixture on hand to take a photo of. It costs about $11 a tin but you can find good tobacco for much less.

It goes without saying that you’ll need some tobacco. There are tons of pipe tobaccos available for cheap, from $15 bulk sacks of Smokers’ Pride Vanilla Cavendish to $1.99 pouches of some old-school, grandpa blend like Carter Hall, Sir Walter Raleigh, or Half & Half. You can even splurge on mixtures that come in a tin, but I say get what you can first afford, and try to not get anything overly-flavored with toppings unless you’re smoking a cob. I can’t tell you how many pipes I’ve stained with Borkum Riff or Captain Black Cherry Cavendish only to work for months to get the taste out when I wanted to try a more nuanced blend. My recommendation, always, is that Carter Hall is a good place to start. It’s a simple blend of ribbon-cut Virginia and Burley tobacco that’s available everywhere and will smoke clean and cool down to the bottom of your pipe.

Smoking clean and cool is important because if you’re like me, you’ll gulp from a pipe the same way you do a vape or a cigarette. Pipes need to be smoked differently, without inhaling: If you smoke too fast and the tobacco gets too hot, you’ll get tongue bite and probably never smoke a pipe ever again. Avoid this by getting an old-school blend, frequently tamping, and sipping from the pipe instead of shotgunning it. If you’re looking for a bolder smoke, Presbyterian Mixture is fairly cheap. Just be sure to dry it out first by loading it in your pipe and waiting fifteen or twenty minutes before you light it up.

A Pipe Tool

A Czech Pipe Tool will be your perfect companion.

Don’t be a pipe tool, but definitely use one for tamping. What’s tamping? You’re going to need something to compress your tobacco down before and after it’s lit, and you might benefit from a miniature shovel to clear out the dottle (your tobacco leftovers) at the end of your smoke, along with a pick to drill a hole down through the tobacco you tamped down too tight in the pipe’s bowl. Thankfully the perfect thing exists, and it’s called a Czech Pipe Tool, or a 3-in-1 since it contains a pick, a tamper, and a scoop. If $2-3 is hard to come by, and I’ve been there, or if you don’t already have one of these handy, a #11 roofing nail long enough to fit into the bottom of the bowl will work just fine, though you’ll forgo the scoop. You can also find a pipe nail tool, with a tamper on one end and a little shovel on the other. That’ll work great! Unless I’ve got a cigar I need to poke a hole through, I almost never use the pick. 

I got this pipe nail from J.M. Boswell, and it satisfies 99% of my pipe-tooling needs. A #11 roofing nail would have the same utility.

Pipe Cleaners

Pipes are different from cigarettes in that you’re not going to throw it away or grind it to dust in an ashtray once you’re done smoking. They’re functional art, and they need maintained. To do that, you’re going to need some pipe cleaners. For the most part, you can get whatever type you want although I’d avoid the type made specifically for crafts as they’ll have more give and tend to slough off more of their cotton. Personally, I use Brigham pipe cleaners, which are probably made by some company in China before Brigham -a pipe maker from Canada- puts their name on the pouch. They’re firm and don’t put up a fuss when I stuff them down any of my pipes, bent or billiard. A pack of 75 costs $2.14 on SmokingPipes, but you can probably get a bundle for free if you tell the tobacconist that you’ve just purchased your first pipe. 

A bundle of pipe cleaners.

Matches

Now that you’ve got all the tools to pack and maintain your pipe, it’s time to light the damn thing! Unless you’ve already got a designated pipe lighter that throws a soft flame upside-down onto your tobacco, just get some matches. They’re everywhere, but be sure to let the sulphur burn off for half a second before you hit your bowl with it. I know this blog is for the everyman, but for the love of God don’t use a BiC that’s got the NASCAR logo plastered on it. That’s only going to char the rim and overheat the tobacco, neither of which are good for your long-term enjoyment.

I used to work in marketing for the old Diamond Match Company, so I’m an expert. Whatever matches you use, just use them, wherever they come from. Or a pipe-lighter, of course. I use matches. You can find them in the picnic aisle anywhere for a couple of dollars. This particular pack came with a Boswell pipe I’d just purchased. Matches are pretty straightforward, though- you get the picture.

It doesn’t really matter what type of matches you get.

That’s all she said. Now- in keeping with my contrarian bent against the various pipedoms that have sprung up around the internet, here’s what you don’t need:

A funny hat: Unless you sell newspapers on a street corner and find yourself yelling out “Extree” about the Titanic sinking, there’s no reason to own or wear this, particularly while you smoke. Don’t make the mistake that this baby did- a hat like this is certainly not necessary to enjoy a pipe. If you’ve already got one, flaunt it, but it’s not required.

Don’t make a mistake like this baby did and wear a hat like this when you smoke a pipe. It’s not required, unless you throw papers or normally sport one.

Ridiculous facial hair: Also unneccesary. I have a modest beard, but you don’t have to grow facial hair to enjoy smoking a pipe. Aren’t you quirky enough smoking a block of wood when even cigarettes are no longer socially acceptable? Long beards and funny Dali mustaches are popular amongst the pipe-smoking crowd, but you needn’t fall into that trap. You don’t need anything, outwardly, to enjoy a pipe. It’s a personal journey, so make it your own, and let thew hobby come to you naturally. That said, if you already have a fantastical beard or a generous mustache, please don’t let me get in your way.

You need zero facial hair to enjoy a pipe. The fewer Dali mustaches, the better!

A beach ball. Are you planning to swim in the ocean while you puff away? Leave it at home while you smoke your pipe.

You really don’t need this to smoke a pipe. If you choose to bring one, though, it will run you about $5.96 on Amazon.

A favorite tobacco make, marquee, or anything: Like I said, this journey is for you, not anyone else. You will develop your own preferences and your own favorites when it comes to tobacco and the instruments to smoke them through. Even though I’ll recommend an old-school over-the-counter blend like Half & Half or Carter Hall for a newbie until I’m blue in the face, my last piece of advice is to find out what works for you and roll with it. You will come into contact with people who decry the brand of pipe used in place of the type of tobacco smoked in it. The vessel doesn’t matter, they say- only the tobacco does.

I find that asinine. Given the investment, you need a long-lasting companion. For me, that’s much of the fun of smoking a pipe! After all- you wouldn’t put a full pour of a Cabernet Sauvignon into a beach ball and suck it out through the air hole, would you?

If you would, then you’re like me, but the point’s notwithstanding.

Coming up, we’ll talk about how to properly smoke a pipe from a new-to-us perspective. I even ordered a new pipe to demonstrate with, a Ropp Zulu with a horn stem that I bought my brother. We can all experience it together. Ropp pipes start at $45 on SmokingPipes and they are solid smokers, if a bit on the tiny side.

At any rate, I think that those who toss the quality of their pipe in the gutter in preference of their preferred tobacco are missing out. I’d happily smoke floor shavings from a soccer riot in Calcutta for the rest of my years if it meant coloring a Meerschaum or getting to know a Briar to the point of it becoming a longtime friend. After all, the tobacco burns up after a smoke. The pipe is there forever. If you’re willing to make an investment, your friend is waiting. 

The best part about friends is that friendships can occur in the most unlikely of circumstances. That $45 Ropp, a $50 Rossi, a $50 Nording Compass, or a $55 Brigham Voyageur won’t cost a lot, but it’ll be primed to give you many more years of pleasure than a less-expensive option. Of course, I can personally recommend the $60-70 Erik The Red series by Nording. Add less than seven bucks for all the accoutrements and you’ll be well-set towards your future enjoyment of the pipe-smoking hobby and habit. 

3 thoughts on “Tricks of the Trade

  1. Oh but I wish something like this had been available in 1978, when I started out doing almost everything wrong.
    Sadly, I shall observe from the sidelines. Unless I outlive the Mrs, in which case I may tentatively rejoin the game.

    Liked by 1 person

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