Assuming you now have your pipe, some tobacco, a lighter or matches and a tamper, you're ready to go!!
In few simple steps and we'll have you enjoying one of life's great pleasures ...
If you have a new, unsmoked briar pipe, you'll need to break it in. If you have a meerschaum or a corn cob you can skip this step. Breaking in means smoking the pipe gently for the first 10 or so smokes until a cake forms which will condition and protect the bowl. The main thing in the early days is that you don't want to let it overheat. If you find the bowl getting too hot to hold comfortably hold against your cheek for a few seconds it's too hot. If this happens don't panic, just stop smoking for a couple of minutes and it'll cool down.
The traditional advice for breaking in a pipe is to start with a 1/4 fill, then move to a half fill after a few bowls, and then on to a full fill. That's it. You'll perhaps find some advice about lining it with honey or some other tactics, but in truth there's no real need for this so long as you start gently. We should note, many skip the 1/4 method and have no issues starting a new pipe with full fills. Providing that you smoke your new pipe gently and avoid overheating you should be fine. Our Pipe Club of India member and friend Simon Lewis discusses breaking in pipes in this video.
So, on to packing and lighting up? Not quite yet! One more thing to prepare ... your tobacco. If you've bought flake, plug or other solid form of tobacco you need to get it ready for use. In the case of flake or coins, the easiest way to prepare it s to rub it between your fingers to get in into a loose, fluffy texture. Plug and other solid forms will need cut and then rubbed out, or simply cut into small even cubes. If you have ready rubbed (and we'd really recommend this as a starting point) you're more or less all set. Just check the moisture content. If the tobacco feels very moist, for example if pieces are binding together rather than being loose, you should let it dry for a while. Assuming it is at a reasonable moisture level you're good to go. Bear in mind it should have some moisture - a completely dry tobacco will burn very hot and have a bitter taste.
Correctly filling your pipe will take a little practice and is a key step in the whole smoking experience. Don't rush it. Start with a couple of pinches of tobacco, feeding them into the pipe, filling to a little over 1/4 of the bowl then very gently compress it with your tamper or finger. Take a draw of air through the pipe to check that it draws easily, almost as if it were empty. If it's too tight just remove the tobacco with the spike of your pipe tool and start over. Assuming the draw is good, pack again, this time to around 3/4 full and again tamp it down, this time a little more firmly. Check the draw again. If good you can now finish filling the pipe to just above full. Tamp it again, slightly more firmly and again check the draw. The consensus is that the draw should feel like sucking a drink through a straw. It shouldn't offer a lot of resistance, forcing you to suck hard, just enough that you know there's something in there.
The charring light / false light
This is a first light to prepare the surface of your tobacco for the real light. Hold the flame of your match or lighter a little above the surface of the tobacco, moving it in a circular motion. Draw through the pipe with shallow regular puffs. You'll most likely see the tobacco swell and open up a little - this is good. Now tamp down the tobacco gently to create an even surface. If the whole surface isn't evenly charred, repeat the charring light. Once you have a nice evenly charred surface you are ready for the real light.
Now you're smokin'
With your charring light complete you can now properly light the pipe. Take your lighter or match to the pipe again, this time taking long slow draws until you have a good steady volume of smoke. Remember, the aim with smoking a tobacco pipe is to draw the smoke into your mouth and then expel it with your breath. You do not inhale to your lungs as with a cigarette, Some die-hard pipe smokers do inhale but this is not recommended and will most likely result in some heavy coughing and a fairly unpleasant experience. You don't need to inhale to your lungs. The whole point is to enjoy and savour the flavours unfolding from your chosen tobacco. You'll also still get a decent hit of Vitamin N (nicotine) without inhaling - it'll enter your system through the lining of your month and through the secondary smoke that you'll inevitably inhale as you sit with your pipe.
Keep her lit!
Now that you're smoking you need to find a nice relaxed pace. Don't rush things. More than likely your pipe will go out a few times and this is preferable to smoking it like a train, creating a smouldering hot pipe and hot smoke entering your mouth. The objective is to keep the pipe only as lit as it needs to be to deliver smoke with each draw. As the tobacco burns you'll need to occasionally tamp it to keep it reasonably packed within the bowl. Not too hard - you should always have a smooth easy draw throughout the smoke. If you find the pipe getting too hot (check it against your cheek), stop for a minute or two and let it cool before relighting.
The majority of pipe tobaccos burn to a fine ash and usually it is enough to just tamp the tobacco pipe a few times during the smoke to keeps things reasonably compact (not too tight). If you do find a soft layer of ash building up you can tip this out as you go, but then give a gentle tamp to the remaining tobacco below.
The magic thumb
A neat trick to help keep your pipe alive as it reaches the bottom of the bowl is to cover the opening of the bowl with your thumb as you draw through the pipe. This changes the burning dynamics and can help reignite a dwindling ember to let you proceed without relighting. The aim is to smoke the pipe to the bottom of the bowl, until there is just a fine ash remaining. If you find you're always left with unburnt dottle at the bottom of your bowl, the chances are that you packed the base too tightly, or the draught hole in your pipe has been drilled a little too high.
Practice, practice, practice
As you smoke you'll improve your technique and you won't consciously think about the steps above, it will all just become natural habit. You'll find that each tobacco behaves differently. Some need more relights, some need more tamping as you smoke - it's all part of the never ending journey. If you can spend time with some seasoned pipe smokers you'll pick up the skills more quickly and there's always something to learn. You'll find that most of us, even the loners, are happy to help new initiates and to encourage you in your efforts.
The Italian pipemaker Paronelli have some straighforward guidance on getting started which might also help. You can find it here.
At the end of your smoke you should empty out the remaining ash. Do not tap the bowl, especially the rim, of your pipe against an ashtray or you may damage it. If there are some traces of tobacco or dottle remaining either carefully loosen and remove these with a blunt blade or spike of your pipe tool, or tap the pipe gently on the heel of your hand. If you are finished smoking the pipe, run a pipe cleaner through the mouthpiece until it emerges from the draft hole (inside the bowl). Be careful that you don't push the cleaner so far that it reaches the far wall of the pipe as the wire inside the cleaner could scratch a little hole in the bowl if you do this repeatedly (be especially careful on this point with meerschaum pipes. Twist the cleaner as you pull it a little in and out. Repeat this with new pipe cleaners until the cleaner comes out virtually clean. Once finished with the pipes cleaners, give a couple of sharp blows through the pipe to clear out any fibres left behind by the cleaners.
If your pipe cleaner won't pass all the way through to the bowl ('pipe cleaner test') you should wait until the pipe is cool (~15 minutes after your smoke) before taking it apart and cleaning it.
It's also a good idea to clean the inside of the bowl lightly using a twist of kitchen paper. This will remove excess moisture from the walls but won't inhibit the development of cake unless you scrub hard. Now leave your pipe to rest for at least 24 hours, ideally orientated with the mouthpiece higher than the bowl. This is to allow moisture and oils within the briar to dissipate.
Please do not remove the stem/mouthpiece of your pipe during smoking or soon after. You may do this for a few seconds during a smoke if essential, for example if there is a blockage that you can't otherwise clean, but generally it is strongly recommended to never remove the mouthpiece while the pipe is warm. There are a couple of reasons for remembering this rule. As you smoke briar, the wood expands and contracts according to heat and humidity, and this can affect the fit of the mouthpiece - usually it will be held more tightly while the pipe is hot. Removing it while hot risks damage if you need to use excessive force, and there is also the risk that doing this repeatedly may result in a loose fitting mouthpiece. The exceptions to this rule are spigot designs as these have tapered friction fit stems. In all cases it is not advised to remove the stem from your pipe when it is warm any more than is absolutely necessary.
If your pipe has a filter you should replace it after every 3-4 bowls, or sooner if it is particularly 'funky'. If you are resting the pipe, it is best to remove the filter to let the pipe fully breathe.
Artwork by our Pipe Club of India member Artur Lopes
For any further advice, or to share your experiences with like minded enthusiasts, come and join our Pipe Club of India Facebook group. We'd love to see your pipe pics and hear about what you're smoking today!