Asher’s Pipe Smoking Guide

A picture of my calabash pipe.
How to “Put THAT in your Pipe and Smoke It”

(without any unfortunate mishap)

There are many excellent articles on why one should prefer a pipe to other forms of tobacco use, and even on why one should favor tobacco use at all. Tobacco and the Soul is a great article, and one can refer to for any number of helpful articles.

Legal issues being what they are these days, I’d prefer to tell how rather than why. Having been accosted by many individuals who obviously saw me enjoying myself, who perhaps saw me a bit healthier than a cigarette smoker or snuff dipper, and who noted the possible relationship between my pipe and the deep thoughts I was having, or the inestimable benefit to the concentration I was affording a book, and having been asked about how exactly to get started in this fine art, I decided to write this article.

Disclaimer: the author is not a health professional, and this is not healthy advice. If you do the things described here, your head may explode and you may die. You might go insane. You might become a danger to yourself and others. I recommend that you don’t do any of the things here, and this piece is provided for literary purposes only.

Selecting and Keeping Pipe Tobacco

Consider beginning with a Black Cavendish rather than lighter blends, as it tends to burn cooly – so is less likely to ruin the pipe in the wrong hands, smokes without “bite” – the after-smoking sensation of a burnt tongue or roof of the mouth, and be more aromatic. It is also easy to pack and doesn’t require “rubbing” of the tobacco before loading the pipe.

Steer away at first from Burley blends and exotic blends with Latakia or Perique which are acquired tastes and have more bite.

Steer away from grocery store flavoured blends (Cherry Cavendish, Vanilla Cavendish, etc.) as these are usually made with poor quality tobacco, burn hotter, bite, don’t taste and smell as advertised, and are an unsatisfying smoke. Besides this, the heavy aromatic component produced by soaking the tobacco in some kind of confectionary flavoring is not only not particularly good for briar, but is a poor substitute for the smoker finding a quality blend that he truly enjoys. Cheap aromatics are to quality blends what pop wines with screw caps are to a fine wine.

If one is on a budget, there is no finer discount tobacco than MacKeensy’s Black Cavendish, but it’s impossible to find now, and you can pick up a big bag of black or toasted black cavendish at Walgreens or Duane Reede. The old standard, however, is the original Captain Black in the white pounch, which isn’t necessarily cheaper everywhere one goes, but is often sold in small quantities.

Eventually, as one becomes experienced with all the aspects of pipe-smoking, one should experiment with different kinds of tobacco, both for the various cuts (which pack, light, and smoke differently, and in some cases must be prepared by rubbing before they are used) and for the many interesting various varieties of the tobacco. One may eventually find that one likes a blend containing the spicy Latakia or the pungent Perique. Dunhill 967 is a nice blend containing Latakia and can sometimes be purchased by the ounce from the tobacconist’s jars. One may also find that alternation between favorite blends is satisfying, or that one prefers a different blend for a morning pipe than for a nightcap. Certain styles and sizes of pipes are also more suited to certain types of tobacco than to others.

Store tobacco in a humidor. That is a sealed cannister. One can purchase these especially for tobacco, but one can also use a resealable cannister. Walmart stocks some very fine yet inexpensive cannisters in acrylic or brushed stainless steel which are excellent for this purpose. Throw a slice of apple into the cannister to maintain proper moisture. Do not use other kinds of fruit. For portability, a vinyl-lined leather or vinyl tobacco pouch can be had cheaply from a drug store that stocks pipe supplies. Quality and price very greatly. This writer has managed to obtain large leather pouches from $3.50 to five dollars, and has seen tiny vinyl ones for twice that price. A marachino cherry or small apple slice can be used to preserve moisture in these. Of course Captain Black (of which the white pouch is this writer’s preference) comes in a plastic disposable pouch which is adequate for small quantities.

Selecting a Pipe

Beginners should not start with the cheapest available pipes simply to minimize economic risk. A cheap pipe yields a cheap experience. On the other hand, there is no need at all to invest in the elite brands. There are outstanding pipes made by reputable manufacturers from excellent materials that cost between twenty and thirty-five dollars new. Beginning with a corncob pipe or the cheapest “basket pipe” from a tobacconist is a bad idea if one is serious about giving it the college try. On the other hand, General Douglas MacArthur smoked a specially-designed corn cob, so this writer could be wrong. Aesthetics, too, is a very important consideration.

Most manufacturers of high-grade pipes produce “seconds” – pipes that contain a minor flaw, often related simply to the finish or the grain, and so are given a different name than their finest works of craftsmanship. These can be had very cheaply – often for the same price as a mass-produced drugstore pipe like Grabow, Medico, or Kaywoodie. Peterson’s, for instance, produces “Irish Seconds”, “Shamrock”, and other delightful pipes that yield the kind of smoke only available from quality materials and workmanship.

Even Dr. Grabow makes decent smoking pipes for ten to twenty dollars that, once properly broken in, can yield a reasonably satisfying smoke. Look for an exceptional pipe from the ordinary lots available at various drugstores and discount stores (such as Walmart). Grabow’s “Grand Duke” model, “Bucko”, and “Freehand” can be quite good smoking pipes. Kaywoodie also sometimes produces some very nice pipes, some of which are beautifully crafted. This writer personally prefers to stay away from Medico and Yellow-bowl, never having found a satisfying example of any of their various models. Perhaps there are some superior pipes among them, however.

Stay away from novelty pipes and specialized models. These are either the mark of a confirmed pipe smoker with specialized knowledge and tastes or of a diletante who has wasted his money. Painted models are generally a bad idea, since briar is porous and is meant to breathe. Metal, lidded, leather-wrapped, and cherrywood models tend to have heat, breathing, and/or moisture problems. Clay “meershum” pipes have to be handled, smoked, and maintenanced in a special way to avoid discoloration and damage. Gourd “calabash” pipes and long-stemmed “churchwarden” pipes are easily broken, so they’re considered ‘stay-at-home’ pipes. In general, outlandish pipes should be avoided until one’s knowledge of pipes and experience in smoking is sufficiently large. Start with good briar. A slight drop is recommended on the stem, until the smoker discovers whether salivation interferes with smoking, which can be a factor with straight pipes and ninety-degree drops. Personally, I prefer a military bit as well, since it seems less easy to damage.

Don’t avoid “used” estate pipes in good serviceable condition. Properly broken-in pipes make excellent heirlooms and can last several lifetimes. The briar cures and improves with age, and so does the smoking experience. Never destroy the “cake” inside a pipe. If it is too thick, have it professionally reamed at the local tobacconist, and perhaps re-waxed with canuba wax and buffed. The cake in an estate pipe is one of it’s fine advantages. Grabow pipes have pre-carbonized “pre-smoked” or “machine-smoked” bowls for precisely this reason. Consider a well-maintained estate pipe – if it is of good make – over a new drugstore pipe.

Packing a Pipe

Pack the bowl in three layers: Fill the bowl lightly to the top, then pack with very light pressure to about the first third of the bowl. Fill the bowl again to the top, then pack with only moderate pressure to about the two thirds level. Fill the bowl again a little above the rim, and pack somewhat firmly to level with the bowl.

Packing the bowl incorrectly will result either in a fast burning, very hot bowl (which is very bad for the briar and hard on the fingers), in the case of too light a pack, or else a bowl that is difficult to keep lit, requires a lot of puffing and constant drawing, and does not smoke itself as a properly packed, lit, and smoked pipe should.

Lighting a Pipe

Wooden Strike-Anywhere Matches are the best thing for a pipe because they yield the most control. Never use a turbo-lighter which will destroy the briar. A disposable lighter or pipe lighter is also OK.

Begin lighting around the inside of the bowl, while puffing. After the sides are lit, light the center.

Keeping a pipe lit isn’t easy for beginners, however by being mindful of proper packing, lighting, and smoking technique, one can soon become an old hand.

Smoking a Pipe

Smoking a pipe is not like smoking cigarettes. One does not draw constantly on a pipe, much less suck on it, and certainly one does not draw with great suction and repel the smoke in a forced manner. The bit has a lip that is gripped behind the teeth, and purses the lips to create a minimal suction on the stem. The pipe smokes itself. Smoke fills the mouth, is not inhaled, and circulates in the mouth to be absorbed by the various surfaces of the mouth’s interior. As this occurs, the lips are occasionally parted ever so slightly to allow excess smoke to escape. Occasionally one takes a long but gentle draw from the pipe, which is not only satisfying but helps keep the tobacco burning. Pure tobacco, incidentally, does not burn by itself, which is why cigarettes that do so contain accelerants, and that is also one reason that pipe tobacco, which should not contain any such thing, must be smoked differently. Unlike cigarettes, the pipe should remain in the closed mouth, and be removed only occasionally during smoking. This is both because of the nature of delivery of the tar and nicotene through absorption into the bloodstream by continual contact with the surfaces of the mouth, as opposed to inhalation or contact with the nasal septum, and also because of the means of keeping the pipe lit through minimal suction as opposed to the hot-burning method of repeatedly powerful instances of suction.

Smoking a pipe is not a hurried or frantic art yielding instant but mediocre gratification. It is a slow, gentle art requiring a sense of delayed but superior gratification. Cigarettes are to pipes what fast food is to a seven course gourmet meal with pauses for reflection and conversation in between the various courses. Pipe tobacco is savoured rather than devoured. It takes time and patience to become accustomed to pipe smoking.

A properly maintenanced, packed, lit, and smoked pipe of good quality with an appropriate tobacco will yield a satisfying smoke, neither too dry nor too moist, neither foul nor tasteless, down to a small residue of powdery white ash remaining in the bottom of the bowl. Anything less reflect either simple inexperience or else improper use.

One must learn over time to control salivation in pipe smoking, since the taste buds are stimulated to such a superior degree. Too much salivation will allow too much moisture to descend through the stem into the shank and the bowl, and this will produce gurgling, clogs with “dottle” (the mixture of moisture and tobacco remainder), and unpleasant taste. It is also not very good for the pipe since moisture is the enemy of briar.

Outdoor smoking: Never smoke in the wind, as this flows through the porous briar and causes the pipe to smoke too hotly, which can ruin the briar, for instance by creating “hot spots” which can blow out or crack.

Breaking in a new pipe: During the first month or so, when breaking in a new pipe, smoke it only occasionally, not heavily, alternating with another pipe, and not at all outdoors or in any kind of breeze since building a good cake is vital and one must during this time avoid creating hotspots or burning the briar itself. Pack it only 2/3 full until the cake is well started. To accelerate the caking process on a new pipe, one may smear the inside of the bowl once only with a very light coating of pure honey; The initial smoke will be a little too moist, but will be well on its way. A pipe will not yield the fullness of its possible taste or satisfaction until the briar is properly protected with a porous layer of carbon. Even pre-carbonized bowls on drugstore pipes need a genuine cake built up over time. Do not knock the pipe on any surface, except a soft cork knocker designed for that purpose, or dig out the caking tobacco residue. To remove the ash, invert the bowl and tap it firmly with the palm of the hand. To remove the dottle and moisture, follow proper maintenance techniques described on this site. Begin with two or three pipes of decent, good, or excellent quality, so as to be able to alternate and let the briar rest, which is all important during the breaking-in period. Don’t underestimate the need for properly breaking-in a new pipe, as this will make the difference between a pipe that lasts a lifetime and smokes well, and one that lasts a few weeks and ends up tasting sour or foul. For the same reasons, be sure to store and maintenance the pipe properly as described elsewhere on this site.

Pipe Maintenance

Pipe cleaners and solutions and other supplies: Straight pipe cleaners, usually those made by Dill, can be purchased at drugstores or Walmart. However, tobacconists stock tapered pipe cleaners which do a far more thorough and efficient job of cleaning the stem and provide more surface for cleaning the bowl. One should avoid ordinary hobby “pipe cleaners” which have too much wire, are too bristly, and are sometimes made from synthetic substances rather than cotton. These are likely to damage the cake and scratch or damage the briar and the stem. The best pipe cleaners are pure cotton with a little bit of invisible wire. Brandy or vodka are used both to clean and sweeten the pipe and are far superior to cheap drugstore “pipe sweetener” solutions, which may or may not sweeten the pipe at all. For portability, this writer carries small makeup bottles, available cheaply at Walmart – one containing brandy or vodka, the other containing olive oil. Olive oil is used to polish the stem, since it very easily removes oxidization which quickly becomes visible on black stems. Other vegetable oils seem to have no such effect. A pipe case is OK so long as pipes are not stored in it for long periods – pipes need to be stored according to the method described elsewhere on this site.

Cleaning the stem: First, never remove a stem from the shank while the pipe is the least bit warm, since this will soon cause the stem not to fit properly. After a smoke, allow the pipe to cool for about an hour and a half at least. Then, grasping the part closest to the shank so as not to break it off in the shank, carefully but firmly twist out the stem. Some stems are threaded and must be unscrewed, others pull out by twisting. Dip a pipe cleaner in the brandy or vodka, insert the narrow end of it into the stem at the bit (the part that goes into one’s mouth), and little-by-little, holding the pipe cleaner at the bit, run it all the way through the stem. When enough of it appear through the shank end of the stem, pull it through from that end. The pipe cleaner is meant to go through the stem in one direction. Do not back up with it since the idea is for it to bring out any dottle, ash, moisture, or tobacco in the stem. If the stem has not been maintenanced consistently, it may be necessary to repeat this action with a new pipe cleaner until it comes out white. Finally, run a clean dry pipe cleaner through the stem, which should come out white and can be saved for use on another pipe or again on the same pipe. To remove the brownish or tan oxidization that builds up around the bit, smear a clean cloth or napkin with pure olive oil (other vegetable oils will not work), and polish the outside of the stem. The oxidization will come off easily. Then dry it with a dry edge of the cloth.

Cleaning the shank: Run one or other end of a pipe cleaner (one may use the clean end of the same pipe cleaner that was first used on the stem) through the shank into the bowl. Clean any dottle, ash, moisture, or tobacco out of the shank. One may use a little of the brandy or vodka if one is careful not to get any on the outside of the pipe (that will remove the protective canuba wax and eventually damage the finish).

Cleaning the bowl: Use the fat end of a pipe cleaner, or one may bend in half the same pipe cleaner one used on the stem and shank. Gently rub the inside of the bowl with the pipe cleaner to remove any dottle, ash, moisture, or tobacco from the bowl. Too vigorous an action may damage the cake or prevent one from building a cake on a new pipe. Vodka or brandy may be used here too, so long as it does not get on the outside of the bowl where it may do damage. This writer uses either Napoleon brandy or else a mixture of vodka with a very small amount of honey added to help in building the cake.

Reaming the bowl is a very occasional procedure used when the cake has become too thick. Reaming the bowl requires a certain amount of care so as not to completely remove, chip, or otherwise damage the cake. The local tobacconist can usually do it at a nominal cost, or it is customarily free if one purchased the pipe from his store. Reamers of various quality and safety (to the pipe) can be purchased from a tobacconist or a drug store that carries pipe accessories.

Waxing and buffing the briar is typically done when the bowl is reamed. Canuba wax is what is used for briar pipes.

Storing and Resting a Pipe

Briar is porous and can become clogged. Let pipes rest by alternating between pipes. Beginners should have two or three, later several, even if some are less expensive brands such as Kaywoodie or Dr. Grabow. Don’t simply refill and smoke a warm pipe or smoke the same pipe again and again in one sitting.

Properly maintenance and then properly store pipes after use. Store in an upright position – bowl down and stem up – in a rack. Don’t leave them in the sunlight or an enclosed case. Pipes need to be stored so that moisture from smoking will evaporate, and so the briar will be protected from souring.


That should clarify the basics. The rest is art and enjoyment. Perhaps a later article will be forthcoming on pipe culture, on enjoying the pipe, and so on. In the meanwhile, I leave the reader with one last piece of advice: Walk softly and carry a big pipe.

The Ashernet

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