Pack it up, Pack it in: How to Begin Smoking a Pipe

Hands On

Pipe smoking is a worthy pursuit for those wanting to ponder life, drink dark cocktails, look simultaneously distinguished and adventurous and perhaps pen the great American novel. Or those who even just want to smoke a pipe. An eager beginner could go down to the local beatnik hangout on poetry night to spy the techniques of the turtle-necked pipe smokers in attendance. Or just sit back, perhaps by a fire, and read on to find out what you need, how to use it all and tips for proper maintenance.

Once you have all of the math, science and facts behind pipes and tobacco, it’s time to put it all together and understand “how to.”

What you’ll need:

Pipe. Some beginners might be more comfortable starting with the less expensive corncob pipe. Or not. We love a good briar pipe.

Only you will know the right pipe for you. Your pipe should speak to you and you should speak to your pipe. Not out loud, which would suggest something else entirely, but the two of you will know when you find each other.

Pipe tamper. This helpful tool is for tamping, packing and emptying the pipe and will be as important to pipe smokers as their right hand. Kind of.

Pipe cleaners. Keep your pipe fresh and so clean after a smoke. Pipe cleaners are also great for making fantastic stick figures.

Wooden matches or a pipe lighter. 
This one’s a no-brainer.

Tobacco. Make friends with your tobacconist. Pipe smoking is also about community and building friendships, which, in addition to awesome gifts for men, is what we’re all about. Talk to pals new and old and learn from their wisdom. They are like tobacco oracles. Be a great friend in return and invite them over for a smoke and an excellent companion drink, no fireplace required.

Smoking a pipe is all about taking the time to enjoy a puff in peace. So when you’re getting ready to start, it’s important to stop—a relaxed pipe-smoking technique is really the only pipe-smoking technique. Grab a drink, grab your pipe, plant yourself and begin.

1. Fill the bowl of your pipe. This is the Goldilocks move of pipe smoking—too tight will end up with a bad smoke and too loose will end up the same way. It’s got to be just right. Fill the bowl loosely with your choice of tobacco and press lightly down with your tamper, making sure the bowl is filled about halfway up. Take some more tobacco and fill the bowl again to the top and press more to pack it firmly. Your bowl should be about ¾ full. Then top it off with more tobacco and again press down. There should be a slight space between the top of the bowl and the tobacco. Like pipe smoking, pipe filling is a bit of an art and the more you do it, the better you’ll get.

2. Draw through the mouthpiece as you’re filling up to check the airflow. If it is difficult to draw, empty your bowl and start again or you’ll need to keep relighting your pipe. If your test draw goes well, you’re ready to light ‘er up.

3. Grab a wooden match or pipe lighter (these are specifically made for pipes and don’t alter the flavor) and make a flame. If using a match, let it burn a bit before lighting to get rid of the sulphur. Take gentle draws on the pipe and move the match over the surface of the tobacco until the it is evenly lit. Don’t get too excited at this point, as this is the “false light” stage (sad trombone). You’ll need to put it out and relight the same way until it’s again evenly lit. Now you’re ready to smoke. P.S. Be presidential and don’t inhale. Pipe tobacco is a bit stronger than other tobaccos and smoking it is more about flavor.

4. Ease your way into it. In the immortal words of the Eagles, welcome to the Hotel California. Wait, that’s not right. Take it easy, that’s the one. Slow and steady wins the pipe race and if you go too fast, you’ll get a burning sensation on your tongue known as “tongue bite.” You don’t want tongue bite. Just sit back and relax and enjoy. Go with sips, not billows or sucks. And don’t try to keep it lit by puffing. Just relight it if it goes out. It’s not a competition or a race or anything but kicking back and smokin’.

English quadruple-threat novelist/poet/playwright/politician Edward Bulwer-Lytton said, “A pipe is the fountain of contemplation, the source of pleasure, the companion of the wise; and the man who smokes, thinks like a philosopher and acts like a Samaritan.” And while we all may receive this same enlightenment and elevation when smoking a pipe, each smoking experience will be distinct. Different pipe and tobacco combo options allow for lots of experimentation and discovery. Variety ain’t just the premier source of entertainment news, friends. It is the spice of life.

Each pipe’s got its own thing going on and can smoke and taste differently than another. Is it wood or gourd? How was it cured? How thick is the stem? How deep is your love? Equally diverse is the variety of tobacco—as you now know, there are plenty of things to stuff your pipe with. All of this can affect the way things taste. Still, you may find yourself asking (and if you’re not, we’re doing it for you), “Are different pipes better for different tobaccos?” Let us investigate.

Many pipe romances began with an interest in a certain shape. Sometimes a pipe is chosen because it’s thought to smoke a tobacco a certain way. Both starting points can influence a smoker’s future tastes and choices. Some say, for example, that small-bowled, tapered-chamber pipes are best for flakes. Or that a large pipe is best for mixtures. Others argue that flakes taste richer in a wider bowl. But what works for one may not for another. What’s good for the goose is NOT always good for the gander. Here’s the thing—and you may have already come to this conclusion—pipe smoking is seriously complex. The feel, the smell, the pack—are all influential. And switching things up, trying different shapes, flavors and sizes can be fun. Keep your cakes thinner, try shag instead of flake, switch from Bulldog to Cavalier. Make pipe magic! Finding new combos can be one of the best parts of pipe smoking. Investigation complete.

Once you’ve gotten through choosing your pipe, experimenting with tobaccos and filling your pipe-smoking brain with lots of knowledge, you’ve got one last lesson to learn: Keeping your pipe in good smoking order. The better care you take with your pipe, the better your pipe will take care of you. Cleaning (and drying) properly is key to keeping things sweeter longer. Some general guidelines:

  • Clean your pipes (keep a few pipes in use and alternate) frequently. After each smoke, run a pipe cleaner through the mouthpiece, down the air channel and through to the base of the bowl. This will ensure a longer pipe-life.
  • Scrape clear any excess cake that develops as it can cause wood to split from expansion when cooling. Don’t scrape off cake that builds up on the inside of the pipe’s bowl—it prevents burning.

A traditional Czech pipe tool.

  • Empty your pipe after smoking, but DO NOT hit or knock the top of the bowl against a hard surface. You wouldn’t want your pipe to knock you on your head, would you? Return the favor as this can help avoid a cracked or split pipe.
  • Let your pipe dry. The briar or meerschaum can absorb some moisture produced during smoking. Rest your pipe a day or two after a few smokes to allow the moisture to evaporate (this is why you need more than one pipe in your rotation).
  • Every now and again, disassemble and thoroughly clean your pipe. Make sure to wait until the pipe has cooled and remember to remove the stem from the bowl by twisting, not pulling. For a more thorough cleaning, use rum, brandy or other alcohol-based liquid, which you should also enjoy. Leave the pipe unassembled to dry thoroughly.

Here’s a little video to help with your cleaning endeavors. Frangelico not required.


  • Babies can gurgle. Pipes should not. If your pipe gurgles, it’s got too much moisture in the pipe stem. If this happens, put a pipe cleaner in the end for a bit to remove the moisture.
  • Don’t play hot potato with your pipe. If it pipe gets too hot on your hand, let it go out and then relight. A too-hot burn can alter taste.
  • Always let your pipe cool down before cleaning.
  • A full bowl of tobacco can mean up to an hour of smoking. Choose your amount wisely and set yourself up for a nice, relaxing time. Don’t forget to have a drink at the ready and keep a notebook nearby should your smoking elicit deep thoughts. Or invite a friend or three over for a smokin’ and thinkin’ session.
  • Pipe smoking is an activity that just gets better with time.Drop hints to your family that you’re itching to make your own pipe and, thereafter, one for a friend. You can also cut your own tobacco or begin a pipe collection. The world is your pipe oyster. Or something. Have fun with it.

We’ve got even more helpful info in the pipeline…

Get the scoop on tobacco
Now the you have the “how” down, make sure you know the “what.” We’ve got a quick guide to tobacco types right here.

How to find the right pipe
From corn cob to clay to burl wood, there are several kinds of pipe materials. Find out what to puff ‘n’ stuff.