Pipe-lighting has met its match

I’ll admit to turning my nose up at a $68 Kiribi pipe lighter. Just listen to this banal piece of marketing copy, courtesy of SmokingPipes: 

“Your lighter, like your choice of cuff-links or writing pen, communicates much about your discerning tastes to others. Let your new Kiribi Kabuto Short do some of the talking, others will get the message.”

Fuck that! I don’t wear cuff-links. I do, however, work for a major manufacturer of pens that range from the humble Papermate to Parkers and Watermans available at prices that rival the endowment of a Divison III university. I assure you that pens at both ends of the spectrum will successfully put ink on paper, essentially doing the writing. If you get someone to read what you write out loud, then they’re doing the talking. Cheap or expensive pens be damned.

Some generic matches branded Boswell I got with a new pipe.

All sorts of tools will light a pipe, and though I won’t spend a pipe’s worth of money on a lighter, I dry heave like a Heather at the thought of lighting my pipe with the same $2 BIC I use on a lowly cigarette. Stated simply, they’ll indiscriminately throw a hot flame across the wood of the pipe and will scorch your bowl. Zippos provide a middle ground of sorts, but I don’t like them either. Therefore, I present to you a third way: Matches! These plebeian sticks of wood and chemicals are perfect for lighting a pipe, so long as you wait half a second for all the crap to burn off the end.

As fire-starting tools, matches have been around for nearly forever. Sulfur matches were described in 1366 as having been used in China for eight hundred years, but the first self-igniting match was created by a Frenchman named Jean Chancel in 1805. It used a head composed of potassium chlorate, sulfur, gum arabic, and sugar. You lit it by dipping it in an asbestos bottle filled with sulfuric acid. 

A box of Diamond Strike Anywhere penny matches.

I’d rather not do that today! Thankfully, Samuel Jones, a Londoner, patented what was called a Promethean match in 1828. It was a tiny glass capsule with sulfuric acid and indigo, coated with potassium chlorate, and all wrapped in paper. Instead of dipping it in an asbestos bottle full of acid, you lit it by crushing it with pliers.

I’d prefer to use some sticks and a hand drill over those early matches. Or a BIC lighter, as a matter of fact- even one plastered with the face of Dale Earnhardt.

Matches that used friction to ignite were invented by John Walker in 1826 before Sir Isaac Holden improved upon his process three years later. These early matches involved white phosphorus, which gave the people who frequently came into contact with them a disturbing affliction called phossy jaw that made them look like a Basil Wolverton caricature. The perils of white phosphorous led match manufactures to come up with what was called the safety match, which used red phosphorous -less harmful- on the tip. 

You probably have an identical box of these kitchen matches in your house somewhere as we speak.

In 1880, a guy named Ohio Columbus Barber (actually from Akron, Ohio- not Columbus) purchased a variety of New England match manufacturers and consolidated them under his Barber Match Company before changing the name to Diamond after its most popular brand, like if McDonald’s changed its name to “Fries, Incorporated.”

Eventually, Diamond became the country’s largest match manufacturer and its Strike Anywhere, Strike-On-Box, and Ohio Blue Tip matches became known worldwide. 

Diamond’s later history was one of mergers, acquisitions, and bankruptcies. Astonishingly, none impacted the operation of its 1920s-era factory in Cloquet, Minnesota until 2016, when it was shuttered for good. Today, Diamond matches are made in Chile. 

Regardless of brand, throw these out. They suck.

I haven’t noticed any sharp decrease in quality when it comes to Diamond matches made today versus those from seven or eight years ago. But whether you’re using matches from Diamond, Ohio Blue Tip, Penley, Ideal, D.D. Bean, or a guy off the street, the pipe-lighting process is the same. First, know what you’ve got: Matches come in three basic styles: book, penny, and kitchen. 

To start, take the little book of paper matches you were given at the liquor store and get rid of them. They’re fun to display, and Diamond even made a series of Presidential Matches that was great to collect until you inevitably wound up with 14 William McKinley’s and not a single Silent Cal. Pitch ‘em- you’ll thank yourself to use wooden penny or kitchen-sized matches, which are made of aspen and won’t go flying onto the reams of grain dust, tanks of gasoline, and nitrate film stock you forgot you were storing in the corner. 

Strike the match on the rough strip on your box and give it a second to burn the chemicals off. From there, position the match above your pipe and begin to move it around your tobacco, making sure to set all of it on fire. As you do, you’ll notice the tobacco contract in the bowl of your pipe. This is what’s supposed to happen- you’re releasing all of the moisture for what will ideally become a clean, dry, smoke. After you’ve gotten it all burning, let the pipe go out and give it a quick tamp with a 3-way Czech pipe tool, a roofing nail, or spare metatarsal. 

You’ve just completed what’s known as the charring, or false, light. 

Diamond Strike On Box kitchen matches.

Repeat the process once it’s out. This time, you’re lighting the pipe for real. Now- smoke away! It’s fine if it goes out while you smoke it. Just re-light and tamp again. 

I actually worked for Diamond for about five years, when it was under the ownership of a company called Jarden Corporation. By that point, the fire-starting side of Diamond consisted of wood matches and the presidential series of matchbooks, along with a variety of shitty handheld grill lighters that were manufactured in China, some of which actually opened up and contained a tiny BIC-style lighter inside to provide the real muscle, if memory serves. There was also something called Strike-A-Fire, which was like a thin, pressed firelog with a striker head.

In addition to moonlighting in consumer affairs for Diamond (“Sir, I’m afraid I can’t recommend that you teach your five-year-old to light our Strike Anywhere matches”), I was part of the brand management team that brought back Diamond’s dormant line of Ohio Blue Tip matches.

A burning match.

We wanted to reintroduce the brand as a top-tier statement SKU marketed towards, well, boomers- guys who would display each box on the table of their man-cave next to their Harley-Davidson bottle openers and metal Camaro wall art. To that end, we gave each box a solid strike strip, reduced the match count from 300 to 250 to suggest a thicker stick, commissioned three pieces of box art that were absolutely seeped in Americana, and charged the consumer a dollar more for the privilege of purchasing them.

The reintroduction was a success, and dammit if I didn’t find myself a twenty-six year old boomer! I took the bait hook, line, and sinker: Though I had easy access to all of the matches I could possibly want for free, I bought five cases from Meijer and, sadly, burned through the last one just last December- nine years later. Only now do I realize that I could have gotten three Japanese pipe lighters for the price of sixty boxes of Ohio Blue Tips. But you only live once, and with the benefit of hindsight I guess the Kiribi copy I quoted from SmokingPipes makes a little more sense when I remember how cool those damn Ohio Blue Tips turned out to be.

Some Ohio Blue Tips, out of the box and in a darker shade than prior to their dormancy.

I’m sure that exorbitant, artisan matches made from Sandalwood, Pink Ivory, or Red Leicester are out there somewhere. Nowadays, I’d rather spend my money on pipes instead of the means of firing them up. Matches are cheap, they’re utilitarian, and they’re available. What’s not to love? For me, red phosphorous and aspen prove to be a perfect match for lighting my pipe- Zippos, Bics, Kiribis, and whatever else be damned! 

One thought on “Pipe-lighting has met its match

  1. Although I am a huge fan of the classic Zippo, they were awful for a pipe because of the fuel vapor that you could taste during a light.

    I sound all expert until I confess that I never knew about the 2 step lighting process. I always viewed pipe lighting as akin to starting an old car on a cold morning, revving it up to keep it from stalling. So this is good to know.

    I remember a time when paper book matches were everywhere so that you never had to buy them. They lit better back then, too. The match history is interesting.


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