“In proving foresight may be vain: The best laid schemes of mice and men, Go often askew, And leave us nothing but grief and pain, For promised joy!” – Robert Burns “To a Mouse”
The date was February 9th, 2012.
I thought I had it all figured out. I had heard all of the stories about how it can be difficult to try pipe smoking, so I prepared myself. I didn’t want to make the same mistakes so many newbies did. I read articles and watched youtube videos on what to do, how to pack your pipe with the three step method, how to correctly light your pipe, everything. If these blogs were a movie, this would be the training montage, 80’s training music in the background. “This is the final countdown” “You’re the best, around!” and all of that goodness.
I took my Peterson pipe, placed it on a sheet of paper, and began filling the pipe with Boswell’s Best. I filled it to the rim, tamped it down, filled to the rim again, tamped some more, and filled to the rim one final time. Sure, some videos advised filling the bowl halfway to break in your pipe properly, but having waited so long for this moment, I disregarded this advice. In the end, I don’t think I made a bad decision, even though now I properly break in new pipes, as I was just excited for this moment.
February isn’t the warmest of months, so I layered up in preparation for the bitter cold. Due to my massive imagination, I already had the whole event figured out in my mind. I fixed myself a mug of iced coffee, grabbed a copy of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, grabbed my new pipe and a book of matches, and headed out to the garage. I envisioned myself sitting out there, my pipe steadily going as I read from my favorite author. This was going to be an experience I didn’t want to forget.
You know in A Christmas Story how everyone kept telling Ralphie “you’ll shoot your eye out” after telling them he wanted his Red Rider BB gun? In some way, the sheer amount of articles explaining the intricacies of filling and lighting a pipe should’ve been a red flag for me. It’s as if all of these authors were watching me as I walked to my garage with a smug smirk on their faces saying, “Your pipe will go out” over and over again. But that wasn’t possible, I did my bookwork, and in school studying pays off. I’d show these imaginary specters who knew best.
Sitting down in my chair, I spread out my pipe and the items I brought with me, and went to work. I pulled my first match out of the small book of matches and struck it. No luck. So I struck again until the match decided to light. Success! I brought the match to the bowl of my pipe and just before I could start my initial puffs it went out.
“What?” I said to myself, confused. That wasn’t supposed to happen.
I struck the next match, and it burst in glorious flame before going out seconds later. I stared at the match, frustration slowly building before dumping it into the ashtray and struck another one. This one finally stayed lit, and bringing it to the bowl I slowly drew in the flame to start the charring process. A few flakes of tobacco burned as I brought the flame slowly around the bowl. Moments later the match went out, with only the smallest bit of tobacco burning at the top.
I tamped the tobacco down and began the process again, only for match after match to go out again. By the time I finally got my pipe lit for the charring light, I had wasted three-fourths of the matches in the box. The striking part of the matchbox was smooth by this point, making it a challenge to even light the darn things anymore.
Unsure at how to proceed, I marched back into the house, grabbed the grill lighter from a kitchen drawer, and headed back to my chair. I felt embarrassed using the grill lighter, but considering how the matches went, this was my best option at the moment. Careful not to scorch the bowl, I pulled the trigger on the grill lighter and began to draw in the flame, exhaling puff after puff of smoke. After a drawn out battle, I succeeded in lighting my pipe for the first time.
I sat back in my chair, content that I was finally smoking a pipe. The weeks of waiting had all lead to this moment. I could reflect on the moment and take the experience in for all it was worth. Yet not a few moments later, I watched in horror as the glowing ember in my bowl began to fade and go out.
Over the next hour, I battled with keeping my pipe lit. I alternated lighting between matches and the grill lighter, getting a few minutes to enjoy my pipe before it inevitably would go out again and the process would begin anew. My book sat next to me gathering dust, not once did I open it to read. My entire focus that hour was keeping my pipe lit and going, and everything else was just a distraction. All the while the imaginary chorus in my head continued their singsong mocking, “Your pipe will go out! Your pipe will go out!”
I eventually reached the bottom of the bowl, and I dumped the ashes out. I had expected the dottle to be an ashy grey, as I had read online, but it was mostly black, charred wasted tobacco at the bottom. My first pipe experience hadn’t gone according to plan at all.
While part of me was disappointed that my initial foray into pipe smoking was a bit of a failure, I came away from the experience surprisingly happy. Sure, there were many moments of frustration, but the moments I did have when my pipe stayed lit were exhilarating. After all this time wondering if I would like pipe smoking, I came away enjoying the experience. I figured that once I understood the intricacies of maintaining my pipe as it was lit, it was something I would stick with.
I read more on pipe lighting and tamping, trying to figure out my mistakes. I went out the next day and tried again, this time with two boxes of matches. I still struggled, but found more success with this attempt. On the third attempt during the weekend, I managed to get my pipe lit almost immediately, and had my first truly enjoyable experience smoking my pipe. I was no longer the foolish newbie striking countless matches just to get his pipe lit; I was a genuine pipe smoker.
I learned some valuable lessons those first few days. No amount of research will prepare you for attempting to smoke a pipe for the first time. It would be like if I watched a YouTube video on how to read musical notes, mastering them, and then going out and buying a set of bagpipes thinking I’m going to play “Scotland the Brave” on my first go. Even if I got it to play, chances are my attempt would sound more like “Scotland the Dumpster Fire” than anything close to the real song.
Pipe smoking takes practice and there are many aspects to having a successful experience. If, like me, you didn’t have a mentor to teach you, there’s going to be a tough learning curve. Packing a pipe in and of itself is a big challenge, and looking back, this was most likely my issue. Even today, I sometimes get a bit overzealous and pack too much tobacco into my bowl. There’s an easy solution to this, take a draw from your filled pipe before attempting to light it. If you get a lot of airflow from your draw, then you’ve packed your pipe too light. If you draw in, and there’s little to no draw, then you’ve packed it too tight, so dump some of the tobacco out and redistribute the tobacco. The best way I’ve heard described for a correctly packed pipe is that it’s like drinking a milk shake. If there’s enough resistance that resembles drinking a shake, then you’ve packed it just right.
Once a pipe has been filled properly, lighting the pipe becomes so much easier, though not a piece of cake. I still run into trouble if the tobacco is uneven at the top of the bowl. I tamp the top down beforehand if I have tobacco flakes that stick up further than the others, as they tend to prevent an even burn for the charring light. The pipe smoker wants an even burn throughout the top layer, pulling short draws to light the very top layer of the bowl. Once that’s accomplished, tamp the top layer lightly to spread some of the ashes further down the bowl and let the pipe go out. Once the pipe has gone out, light the pipe again pulling deeper puffs to draw the flame deeper into the tobacco. Once you have a nice, even ember burning in the bowl, tamp lightly again, sit back, and enjoy your pipe. During this, be careful not to scorch the rim of your pipe, though that tends to happen, even to me.
On the subject of lighting, many pipers have different opinions on what is their preferred tool. Some use matches, while others will swear by their lighters. There’s a whole topic on this, as some believe the lighter fluid imparts a different flavor to the tobacco than matches, but I’ll let the experts duke it out on that subject. I use both, as I keep a large box of matches by me at all times, as well as use a pipe lighter. For my second light, I prefer using my Zippo pipe lighter, as I don’t have to worry about the flame going out. I’ll use matches for when I need to relight, as it’s easier to reach the tobacco the further I am down into the bowl.
As a side note on matches, I find that Large Kitchen Matches are easier to keep lit when striking them compared to other match sizes. I keep a large, unscented candle burning by me when reading or writing, so I can use the flame for easy lighting, and relighting the match should it go out. As with my experience above, nothing is more frustrating than having an ashtray filled with matches that burn and go out before using them. The frugal part of me despises a wasted match; they are anathema to me.
Now that you have your pipe nice and going, here comes the most technical part of pipe smoking. See, there’s a rhythm and flow to pipe smoking that once must learn as they puff away on their pipe. The pipe is like a musical instrument, and the smoke is your song. You puff slowly, drawing the smoke out of the pipe and keep the ember burning. Every few minutes, tamp down the ashes that build, so that the tobacco stays even for burning. Don’t tamp down with too much force, or the tobacco becomes too compressed for drawing the smoke. Likewise, don’t puff too frequently. You’re not a steam train speeding through the countryside. Take it slowly, and let the pipe’s song soothe your soul. Pipe smoking takes about a half hour to an hour to reach the bottom of the bowl. If you can’t commit that much time to your pipe, it’s best to put your pipe aside until you can devote the necessary time for it.
Should your pipe go out, don’t fret. There’s no shame in it, and its just part of smoking a pipe. It’s a rare occasion when I can smoke my pipe from initial light to the bottom of the bowl. Just tamp and relight and don’t give it too much thought. The tobacco might be packed too tightly, and if that’s the case just use your pipe tool to free up your airflow and try again. Running a pipe cleaner through the stem is also a good idea, and the end of the cleaner will free up a pocket of airflow to get you going again.
Going back to that first day with my pipe, after cleaning my pipe and putting it away I started on dinner before my wife came home. As I cooked at the stove, my wife came in from work. I greeted her with a hug, and she put her head on my chest and gave a sniff of the lingering aroma of Boswell’s Best on my clothes. She looked up at me and smiled with approval.
“You smell nice,” she said.
Nowadays, she tells me after I’ve had my pipes that I stink, but for that brief moment, I took those words as a victory.
Happy puffing friends.
Me shortly after starting my pipe journey, pre-muttonchops.