For the Beginner- Part 1, Packing, Lighting and Smoking

What you need to get started

What you need to get started

I’m willing to bet that there are more ex-pipe smokers than pipe smokers. The main reason that so many people try smoking a pipe and give it up is because they get the wrong kind of pipe and/or tobacco, and they don’t know how to pack, light and smoke to get the most enjoyment and minimal discomfort. A lot of people have just grabbed a poorly-made pipe that looked nice and some tobacco that smelled good, loaded up and went to town. But they couldn’t understand how to keep the pipe lit, how to avoid getting the pipe hot and how to keep it from tasting bad. Part of the reason is that the majority of newbies just walked into a drugstore or department store and jumped in blindfolded. If these same people had gone to a dedicated tobacco shop, a lot more of them would have stuck with it because the staff would steer them in the right direction. Unfortunately, those shops are hard to find, but we’re here to help, so let’s address the nuts and bolts.

I generally recommend starting with a briar or corn cob pipe with fairly thick walls. Why not other materials? Briar and corn cobs are very good at absorbing heat and moisture while being easy to handle. Don’t look at a corn cob as a novelty. They’ve been used by pipe smokers for more than 140 years (almost as long as briar has), and many long time pipe enthusiasts have a number of cobs that they smoke regularly. The best part of a corn cob is the reasonable price, which leads into another thought. If you plan on smoking more than one bowl a day, you should have multiple pipes, My rule of thumb is- however many bowls you smoke in a given pipe on a given day, you should allow the pipe to rest that many days. With corn cobs, you can easily grab four or five pipes to rotate for about the same price as one decent briar.

Since the pipe is brand new, the first thing to address is breaking it in. There have been a lot of theories about this for a long time, but there’s no reason to over-complicate things. Rather than going through elaborate steps, just keep two things in mind while breaking in a new pipe- smoke especially slow for the first dozen or so bowls and don’t relight the pipe when you’re near the bottom of the bowl. Smoking fast and relighting the wet tobacco in the heel of the chamber are two of the surest ways to burn out a pipe. The purpose of break in is to protect the pipe from burning through, and to do that, you have to build up a layer of carbon (called a “cake”). For a cake to accumulate, the temperature has to be as low as you can get it while staying lit (more on this later). If you try to smoke that last little bit of tobacco by relighting, you’re exposing wet wood to direct heat, so just clear out the tobacco and ash on the bottom and dump it out.

The rules for breaking in apply to a briar pipe. Here’s how you break in a corn cob- smoke it. You should always smoke slowly and keep the tobacco as cool as possible, but you don’t have to be quite as fussy with a cob because there’s no need to break them in (another reason why they’re a good choice for beginners). You still shouldn’t relight the last bit of tobacco, but for a different reason. Corn cobs use a pretty big opening at the bottom, so if you relight at the very end, you could draw hot ash into your mouth.

There are dozens of methods for packing a pipe, but one is easier to explain and execute, so that’s the one I’ll suggest to you. It’s called the Three-Layer Method, and it’s fairly simple. Start by sprinkling tobacco into the chamber until it’s over-full. Then press the tobacco down until the bowl is half full. Add more tobacco until it’s over the top again, and press it down to the three-quarter point. Now do it again and press the tobacco down until it’s about 1/8″ below the rim. What this does is to pack the tobacco loosely in the bottom (to allow air to flow freely), tighter in the next section (so it doesn’t draw too easily) and tightly on the top (so the tobacco will stay lit).

Light the pipe by circulating a soft flame (like a match or a lighter with a yellow flame) just above the tobacco, while drawing lightly and slowly, rather than hard, fast puffs. This keeps the tobacco from becoming too hot. Draw often enough to keep the pipe lit. Don’t expect big clouds of smoke like a cigar. The tobacco will puff up when you first light it. Tamp it down with a pipe nail or tamper and relight. It should stay lit fairly easily. When you burn through that tightly packed top layer, the draw will become loose. That’s a sign that you need to tamp the tobacco again until the draw is a little tighter. There’s a simple guideline to how the draw should feel- If it feels like you’re sucking a thick shake through a straw, it’s too tight. If it feels like you’re sucking air through a straw, it’s too loose. But if it feels like you’re drinking soda through a straw, you’ve got it right. If the pipe gurgles while you’re smoking, just run a pipe cleaner down the stem and shank and let it sit for a few seconds to absorb the moisture.

When the bowl is finished, run a pipe cleaner through, reverse it and run it through again. If the pipe cleaner won’t go all the way through from the stem to the chamber, you may have to take the pipe apart to clean the shank. An important thing to remember- don’t take the stem off when the pipe is still warm, or the stem will become loose. Just let the pipe sit where the air can get at it until the next time you’re ready to smoke it.

Next time, I’ll talk about different kinds of tobaccos, and which ones are best for beginning pipe smokers.


About Russ

Russ Ouellette is the blender/creator of the Hearth & Home series of tobaccos for 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 or by calling 1-800-494-9144.