I can trace my love of tobacco back to when I was 3 years old, just starting to grow up in a quiet corner of eastern Michigan. Down the street from our house lived a kindly, older gentleman who routinely smoked a pipe in a lawn chair out on his driveway. I remember my dad would take me and my three siblings on walks past this man’s house, and whenever we saw him we would stop and say our hellos. The smell of his sweet, chocolaty tobacco was so pronounced that you could detect it from across the road. He was always good and considerate toward us kids, and pervading every encounter we had with him was that memorably sweet smell of tobacco.
My recollection of the man’s name has, like his clouds of smoke, long since dissipated into the mists of time. But a powerful memory of his fragrant pipe tobacco was forged in my young mind, and it has remained with me to this day. Now well into my 20s, whenever I reminisce about that man’s pipe smoking, I find myself immersed in waves of nostalgia for my childhood. Scientists have written about the sense of smell and its power to arouse memories. I find this to be especially true for me.
It would of course be many years before I got my first actual taste of tobacco, for I was a good and studious teen who never bent the rules. (I can already hear my mother laughing.) When I finally turned 18, I went with a few friends to a local tobacco shop—I’m pretty sure it was Smoker’s Palace in Saginaw, Michigan—to buy some pipes because we thought it was the cool thing to do. The memory of it is still fresh, the feeling produced just by walking into a tobacco shop for the first time, thinking I had entered a strange and scary world.
The men inside were grizzled and gruff, the surroundings smelled of a hundred intermingling varieties of tobacco, and everything looked weird and new. Lots of pipes lined the walls, and instantly I felt out of place, having no idea what I was going to do there or even what questions I should ask. Fortunately, the man working that day turned out to be friendly and was more than happy to introduce us green teens to the world of pipes and tobaccos.
Most of the pipes were way more expensive than I had expected them to be, so I ended up choosing a long-stemmed pipe on the sale rack, priced around $35. One reason I chose that pipe was because I am a big fan of Lord of the Rings, and it looked like the pipe that Gandalf smokes, which I now know is not a proper criterion for choosing a pipe. But at last, with pipe and tobacco in hand, I thought I was ready to blow some smoke rings. Soon enough I would find out differently.
My Gandalf pipe
Sad to say, this adventure proved the beginning of the end of my early pipe smoking days. I remember being constantly frustrated in trying to keep the tobacco lit, and when I eventually did achieve a light, I somehow managed to burn through the tobacco in about five minutes. Surely this wasn’t the way it was supposed to be! I always thought pipe smoking was a relaxing and enjoyable activity. What I experienced in those first tries was anything but. My friends and I kept at it sporadically for the next few weeks, trying to learn how to smoke properly, but like typical teenagers, we soon gave up and moved on to other activities whose rewards proved to be more immediate. The experience left me with such off-putting memories that I never touched a pipe again—until last month.
Cigars were easy. They became my go-to smoke. Keeping a cigar lit took little thought or attention. Smoking cigars was low-maintenance in every respect. In fact, I came to love cigars so passionately that I willed myself into a cigar-related career: I am today the associate editor of this magazine’s sister publication, Cigars & Leisure. But as I say, pipe smoking re-entered my life a few weeks ago when Pipes & tobaccos’ new editor-in-chief, Cliff Nelson, asked whether I might be interested in writing a column describing the adventures of a young man who is trying to learn the art of pipe smoking. I was flattered and said yes, but those memories came back to me—memories of how difficult pipe smoking can seem to be. Thankfully, Cliff reassured me that this was exactly what my column should focus on—me messing up and writing about it.
To get things started, Cliff gave me a corncob pipe and plenty of tobacco—several Dunhill tins, including Early Morning Pipe and 965, and a tin of Fribourg & Treyer Cut Virginia Plug. (Cliff describes the latter as an especially fine Virginia flake, not that I know yet what that really signifies.) He also gave me a couple of aromatic selections: a pouch of Captain Black Regular and a tin of Samuel Gawith Fire Dance Flake. I believe he purposely left me to my own devices at first just so I would do some things wrong. I got so excited about the prospect of writing about pipe smoking that I went home that very day, headed out to my patio, packed the corncob pipe with too much tobacco and tried to light up.
My overstuffed corncob pipe
As before, and as I had feared, the result was embarrassing failure. I went with the Fire Dance Flake first because it smelled so delicious, but something I did not know then—but do know now—is that Fire Dance Flake does not come in the most novice-friendly format. So, I stuffed those long, moist flakes of sweet-smelling leaf into the bowl, and as you can guess, the stuff did not take to the flame as easily as I’d hoped. Cliff later recommended that I set a few flakes out to air-dry for a few hours and that I perhaps try shredding the flakes into a more manageable form. (He says this is called rubbing the tobacco out.)
Irrespective of the type of tobacco, I had no idea how to properly light a pipe, so I was hitting it with a torch lighter, which I later learned is a big no-no (more on this later). My fears were quickly realized that smoking a pipe might prove difficult, even now that I am ostensibly a grown-up. As happened before, I gave up for about a month until Cliff took pity on me and invited me to join him at one of his favorite tobacco shops, Pipes by George in Raleigh, North Carolina, for a crash course in pipe smoking. I took advantage of the P&T employee discount and purchased the magazine’s 2016 Pipe of the Year, made by Randy Wiley. It is a rusticated black pipe with a hand-finished production stem, modified from the factory originals, which helps keep the price lower. Cliff had cautioned me about taking too much advice from others in choosing a pipe, it being such a personal item. But I thought this Wiley was gorgeous from the moment I saw it. I knew it was my kind of pipe. So at last I had a pipe I had picked out from many options, a well-engineered pipe from a good maker, one I can feel good about from the get-go—one that is in every sense my pipe.
I sat down at the big table in the back of the shop with Cliff and part-time store manager Chris Bonaparte, and I immediately felt those waves of insecurity washing over me yet again. The thought that they would look upon me as a novice made me nervous, but that’s exactly what I was, so I have no idea why I should have felt these misgivings.
My Wiley pipe
Bonaparte recommended that I try a bulk blend from one of the store’s big jars, a tobacco called English Luxury, as it is generally regarded as perfect for beginners because of its mild strength and taste profile. So I bought two ounces on the spot. Bonaparte then instructed me that, when packing the bowl, I should pack it just enough that when I drew air through the stem it would produce about the same resistance as sucking soda through a straw. He had me pack the bowl in three layers: The bottom third got a fairly firm pack, the middle not quite as firm and the top a fairly light pack. Bonaparte told me that newbies usually press the top third too firmly. Cliff added that the tobacco should feel “springy” under the finger. Now that I had properly packed a bowl for the first time in my life, with a tobacco that was already in a friendly, rubbed-out format, I was ready to light up. Cliff reminded me always to light a pipe with a soft flame, never a torch, as too strong a flame can easily damage a pipe. Even just a wooden match can work very well.
They told me that the initial flame applied to tobacco is called the char light, or false light. This is because the light doesn’t usually take right away. Once the char light burns out, you gently tamp the gray ashes on top into a flat surface and then try again, this time hoping the light will take. For me, it did, and I couldn’t have been more excited. I was finally smoking a pipe the correct way.
My Wiley pipe
Sure enough, the fragrance of the smoldering tobacco immediately took me back to my childhood, as the smoke wrapped itself slowly around my head. It never ceases to amaze me how easily stress and worry fall off you when you find yourself with a quality smoke. It can be a euphoric experience—and I know the readers here know what I mean. However, that euphoria kept being interrupted for me because my pipe kept going out. I’m not exaggerating when I say I had to retouch it a couple dozen times over the course of an hour.
This could be the result of rookie mistakes such as not tending to the tobacco studiously and letting too much loose ash accumulate and smother the coal, or the fact that this was a brand-new pipe and not yet broken in. Whatever the cause, it didn’t matter because beginner pipe smoking is a trial-and-error experience, and what better way to learn than to mess up a hundred times?
Cliff advised that I use a pipe cleaner to swab out the pipe every 10 minutes or so, and that I turn the pipe upside down over an ashtray about every half-hour so that excess ash can fall out. He also suggested that I dip a pipe cleaner in vodka once every few weeks to give the pipe a more thorough cleaning. One important thing I learned is that at the end of your smoke, while the stem and bowl are still warm and moist, you should to use two or three pipe cleaners, running them all the way into the bowl but not so far as to hit the opposite wall of the chamber. (Jamming a pipe cleaner into the wall could interfere with the buildup of the carbon cake, which is so important to improving a pipe’s performance.)
Long strips of tobacco
That hour of smoking, despite all the relights, proved very enjoyable, informative and memorable. I relearned something I already knew: that there is no shame in asking for help because experienced pipe smokers take pleasure in passing along their wisdom. Pipe camaraderie is infectious. I remember that a businessman in his late 40s who was seated with us and enjoying a cigar began inquiring about pipes, and he finally asked Bonaparte if he would help him learn. It’s interesting how pipe smoking draws people in.
The very next day I took my new pipe out on my balcony again. I wanted to test out whether I had truly learned anything at Pipes by George. Turns out, I did. I used English Luxury again, and this time I only had to retouch the flame a dozen times. I was able to make the bowl last a little over an hour, which meant I had packed the tobacco well. After only three tries at smoking a pipe, I was already feeling more comfortable.
It is exciting to be on this journey, and I am very thankful to Cliff for helping to guide me down the path of pipes once again. It was always something I wanted to get back into, but with it came fear of the unknown and of failure. For the next few issues I hope to report back with updates on how I am faring with pipe smoking. I’ll talk about my pitfalls and relay the tips and tricks that work for me along the way.
If anyone reading is new to pipe smoking, I hope this column will help you realize that it’s easier than you think—it just takes practice, and maybe some advice from an experienced hand. For veteran pipe smokers who have been reading P&T for years, I hope this column will bring some humor but also nostalgia as you think back to when you, too, first started smoking a pipe. Finally, I hope it helps inspire empathy for those of us who are inexperienced, and maybe reminds you that taking a rookie pipe smoker under your wing is a worthwhile endeavor.
For now, I head back to my pipe for more practice, practice, practice. Until next time, as they say, smoke ’em if you got ’em.
Originally appeared in Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine.
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