The Disrespected Tobacco Chamber

Russ enjoys a smoke

Russ enjoys a smoke

As pipe smokers and/or collectors, we pay a lot of attention to grain for smooth pipes or ring grain for sandblasts or the type and execution of rustication. We all have certain preferences for stain colors and finishes. Some people have distinct likes and dislikes for stem types, colors and materials. And we’re not even including shapes, makers, country of origin and other more esoteric choices. I’ve been around for arguments about almost all of the above, but the conversation becomes much more muted when the subject is the tobacco chamber. The options? Coated or uncoated? Okay, thanks.

There’s a lot more to the chamber than it would appear, and that’s what I’m going to expound upon here. Let’s look at the first and most obvious thing- do you want a coating or not? And, if you do, what kind of coating? Here are the facts, as I see them. A coating can help protect the pipe during initial break-in, but it won’t help if the smoker uses a torch lighter, smokes too hot, or if there’s a flaw in the wood. Guess what? There’s only one other thing that a coating helps with, and that’s a somewhat faster build-up of cake, but the evidence of that is anecdotal, and not proof positive. It may give the finished pipe a more professional look, but I’m not convinced that coatings actually do much of anything. That said, I can’t realistically think of an advantage to an uncoated chamber, either. One possible way that it might help is if you subscribe to the idea that roughing up the chamber with some sandpaper may make the cake start building more quickly, but, again, I haven’t seen enough evidence of this to put my stamp of approval on the concept.

There are two types of coatings that I can think of: carbon and honey-type. The carbon is far and away the most common and prolific. Typically, the way these coatings are put in the chamber is by using something adhesive and non-toxic, like gelatin, to coat the inside and then very fine carbon powder (usually activated charcoal) is shaken in the chamber until the adhesive is fully covered and the excess is dumped out. When dry, the chamber is ready to use.

The other coating that’s used in the Yello-Bole pipes is yellow in color and it’s implied that it serves to build up cake faster. I’m assuming that there is some sugar content in the coating so that in the first bowl the sugars will caramelize and become sticky so some of the ash will adhere to it and start the formation of a cake. For some people, this works well and less so for others. I’ll address this a little later.

There are a few techniques that people use to accelerate carbon build-up. One age-old method is to wipe out the chamber with saliva before packing the first bowl. Another very popular approach is to do the same thing with honey (basically the same concept as the Yello-Bole lining), but, again, the sugars melt and caramelize, the ash sticks to it, so a layer of carbon begins to build up immediately. Since the development of a cake serves to protect the pipe and deliver a cooler smoke, it makes sense that speeding up the process would be a good thing, right? (Buzzer sounds) Sorry! Wrong answer! When any artificial method is used, the cake that results tends to be soft and crumbly. That’s fine for protecting the wood and cooling the smoke, but when the cake gets too thick it has to be reamed, and when a soft cake is reamed, it tends to come out in chunks and the bare spots can actually promote a burnout. The slow, steady accumulation of carbon yields a hard, smooth cake which shaves down cleanly when needed.

Chamber size and shape has an impact on the smoking experience as well. Since Virginia tobaccos tend to burn hot due to their higher sugar content, restricting airflow is an effective strategy for keeping the heat at bay. Smoking Virginias in a narrow chambered pipe, such as a cutty or chimney (also called a stack) can reduce the amount of oxygen getting into the embers which, in turn, cuts down the temperature.

Wide open pipes, like the venerable pot shape, are ideal for slow burning, flavorful Latakia blends. The open chamber with its better airflow works well to keep the pipe from going out frequently and helps to develop the flavors more fully.

There’s another chamber type that can have an effect on flavor and burning characteristics and that would be the conical chamber. Wide at the top and almost coming to a point at the bottom, these chambers burn freely at the start of a smoke but narrow down, so the bottom will burn more slowly. These chambers work very well for drier tobaccos, but are problematic with blends that are more moist as all the accumulating fluid will puddle at the bottom. I personally like this kind of chamber for light to medium Latakia blends, as the flavors seem to “pop”, but my experience may not be the same as yours.

Most pipe smokers pay little attention to the chamber of the pipe, so I thought that bringing this info to light might help you to understand the part the chamber plays in the mechanics of smoking. I hope it helped in some way.

Related posts:

About Russ

Russ Ouellette is the blender/creator of the Hearth & Home series of tobaccos for www.pipesandcigars.com in Bethlehem, PA. He has been a pipe smoker and blender for over 30 years, and enjoys feedback from the pipe smoking public. You can reach Russ at russo@pipesandcigars.com or by calling 1-800-494-9144.