What you need to smoke a pipe

Here is a (hopefully gentle) introduction to the things you’ll need to smoke a pipe. Several objectives went into the advice given below.

  1. The products must be economical. If you find you don’t like pipe smoking, there is no reason to spend big money to find out.
  2. The products must be widely available. Not everyone lives near a tobacconist and must start by buying things at local stores.
  3. The products must be durable or cheap. When one begins at anything, one tends to break things.
  4. The products must be easy to use. Pipe smoking takes some practice to get right even under the best circumstances; there is no reason to complicate things.

Pipe

One thing to keep in mind no matter which type you pick: choose you like the look and feel of. This adds to the enjoyment a great deal.

Corncob

A long-time favorite first pipe is the corncob. It fits the parameters mentioned above as it is readily available, inexpensive (less than $5.00), durable as you can afford to buy more if one breaks, and easy to care for. They are available in most drug stores and probably a better buy and a better smoke than a cheap briar pipe.

Briar

This is where most people end up, but it might not be the best place to start. There are more things to worry about with this type of pipe (for example, read about the cautions when cleaning, below), and many more types. Briar takes more care than the two kinds above as you have to worry about keeping the pipe clean and breaking it in properly. Briar pipes also should be rotated, so you’ll need more than one if you plan on smoking more often than once every couple of days. Some generic recommendations:

  • I would recommend a ‘second’ pipe (one that doesn’t make the cut to be best from a manufacturer) as there are some good deals to be found in this type.
  • There are two types of pipe surfaces: smooth and rough. The smooth is just as it sounds; the rough can either be sandblasted or carved. Pipes are usually roughened to hide imperfections in the wood that could be very noticeable in a smooth pipe. This is not necessarily bad: inexpensive smooth pipes can have putty fills to try and cover up these flaws. It is said the rough pipes also dissipate heat better.
  • There are two types of finishes on most pipes: varnish and wax. Most people recommend that you buy a waxed pipe instead of a varnished one as this allows the pipe to ‘breathe’ better. However, I have smoked varnished pipes that are quite nice.
  • I would suggest that you purchase a ‘bent’ pipe instead of a ‘straight’ one as this will reduce the possibility of ingesting any juices that might accumulate in the bowl.
  • Pipes with thick walls smoke better than pipes with thin walls, so look for this if you can.
  • It is generally recognized that paper filters don’t do anything but get in the way, so look for a pipe that doesn’t have them. You can always removed them if you buy a pipe that is built for them.
  • To make it easier to break in a briar pipe, I recommend get a ‘pre-carbonized’ one for starters. This greatly reduces the number of bowlfulls you must smoke in order to have a good tasting pipe. Another possibility is get a meerschaum-lined briar pipe as these require no break-in.
  • I recommend getting a Lexan stem instead of vulcanite one. They require less care and aren’t damaged as easily. Vulcanite is always a dark black; Lexan comes in many different colors, usually with a swirl pattern.

Lighter

Now that you have your pipe, you’ll need some way to light it. Here are three methods:

  1. Wooden matches. These are the least expensive and probably the easiest to use. Don’t use paper matches as they taste terrible. Allow the chemicals to burn off the end of the match before bringing it to your pipe.
  2. Zippo pipe lighter (above right). These are nice and simple and work well outside. It’s recommended that you allow the flame to burn for a second or two to remove the chemical taste. Zippos and matches are both kind to the rim of briar pipes as they burn cooler than butane lighters
  3. Butane lighters. The best are the IMCOs as they have an angled flame, a window to view the fuel level, and are around $10 (above left). These are available from Carey’s Smokeshop at 1-800-99BRIAR if you can’t find them locally.

Pipe Tool

You’ll need one of these to lightly tamp the burning tobacco from time to time and to loosen the left-over ash at the end. This one from Czechoslovakia is a good choice for about $2.00. There are also pipe ‘nails’ that look pretty much like a nail. For that matter, a nail with a large head works well too.

Pipe Cleaners

I recommend you get the bristle kind as these are better at cleaning the stem. Get a little brandy to dip your cleaner in. After each smoke, run a brandy-soaked cleaner down the stem. Don’t remove the stem from a briar pipe until after the wood is completely cool or you will loosen the stem. Don’t get the alcohol on a waxed briar pipe or you will damage the finish. The alcohol can also remove the shine on a vulcanite stem.

Tobacco

This is the first-order effect when it comes to taste; the type of pipe and everything else play a minor role in comparison. I would suggest you buy what smells good to you; this proves to be a good first-order approximation to the taste. I suggest Captain Black Royal (in the royal blue pouch) or Amphora Blue as good first tobaccos. Both are widely available and have mild flavors. There are so many kinds of tobacco available that it takes a lifetime to try them all (part of the appeal of pipe smoking!)

Lighting and Smoking

Read the excellent how-to guide on how to pack and light. It takes some practice to keep a bowl going for any length of time; relax and have patience… Most often, if the pipe goes out quickly, you’ve packed the bowl too tightly. Beginners tend to smoke too fast, creating a hot bowl and an unpleasant smoke; a point of pipe smoking is to relax and enjoy the experience, so slow down if this happens to you.

Summary

For the low-end, first-timer go with:

  1. a corncob pipe,
  2. wooden matches,
  3. some cleaners,
  4. a pipe tool or nail, and
  5. Captain Black Royal,

and walk away for under $15. If you think you’re going to like it, move up to:

  1. an inexpensive briar pipe,
  2. an IMCO pipe lighter,
  3. some cleaners,
  4. a pipe tool, and
  5. Captain Black Royal.

Swap the briar for a meerschaum-lined briar, and a Zippo for the IMCO if these are more your style. You’ll be $40 range for these.

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