The piping community is one indebted to the unmatched wisdom of history. While we celebrate newcomers who have just picked up their first Missouri Meerschaum, or those greenhorn shapers who are testing out their father’s lathe, or backyard blenders who enliven their favorite tobaccos with experimentation, pipe smoking is a pastime that rightly elevates the old guard for the kind of erudition that simply can’t be picked up on the fly. We’re talking earned knowledge, garnered by years of irreplaceable time-spent on every topic from technique to the flavor profiles of complex tobacco to the act of pipe making itself. For pipers new to the pastime and those well-seasoned, it’s worth your while to sit with the wisdom of our elder statesmen and stateswomen.
But it gets better. Gems of pipe smoking knowledge carry application to many other parts of life, enriching your smoking experience while growing character at the same time. Read on for 10 tips about pipes and tobacco that we’ve collected from just a few of the most esteemed pipe makers, master blenders, and famed pipe shops in the industry.
We all know the stirring in our hearts at the sight of some exquisite relic. Whether it’s a 1965 Shelby Cobra, or a signed first edition of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or a delicately balanced Montblanc pen, there’s something electric about connecting your desire with its corresponding object in the world.
On the topic of connection, Racine and Laramie speak to its importance for pipes. Racine and Laramie is a family-owned brick and mortar tobacco shop founded in San Diego in 1868. Originally a store that tracked in men’s furnishings, knives, and tobacco products, these gentlemen have a historical knack for how to appreciate the finest things in life. And on the topic of owning your first pipe, the store advocates for the importance of considering “the emotional appeal of a pipe.”
We couldn’t agree more. When purchasing your first pipe, and every pipe after that, the single most important consideration is whether it makes your heart sing. Everything else is significant too—construction, price, and how a new pipe situates in your collection—but even certain masterpieces will not resonate with a given piper. Racine and Laramie got this one right; how a pipe appeals to you is the fundamental, necessary connection not to be overlooked.
A Few New Ser Jacopo Pipes to consider
On Breaking in Your Pipe
So, you’ve picked up that perfect pipe, the one that you first eyed and then couldn’t forget; the one inbound from the post you can’t stop refreshing the tracking information for. Now comes the all-important moment of unboxing. You’ve likely given some thought to what tobacco you’ll christen the pipe with. But before you kickstart the journey and go 0-60 mph in 1.1 seconds like the new Tesla Roadster, you need to prime your pipe for the long haul.
Storied French pipe company, Chacom, offers valuable advice for seasoning your new pipe so it preserves a worthy taste and lasts a lifetime: “in order to be efficient, the protective layer (or cake) must be even from the bottom to the top. Therefore, you must not fill in the chamber entirely from the beginning. We suggest you fill one half of the bowl for the three first pipes. Then, gradually increase the quantity of tobacco until you are filling the pipe completely. Never smoke a new pipe more than twice a day and never use alcohol or other liquids to break it in: it damages the briarwood.”
Chacom’s emphasis on careful patience is excellent advice both for pipe care and technique. Taking care to moderate your pack and cadence helps tend to your pipe (and your tongue) and maximizes the pleasure of pipe smoking with intentionality.
On Packing like a Pro
Consistently packing your pipe correctly is a principal technique that often goes overlooked or is sped through once we’re finally sitting down for the anticipated pleasure of a desired tin. For sound advice on technique, we turn to none other than the venerable G.L. Pease. A contemporary titan of exquisite tobacco blends, and a fine photographer to boot, Pease outlines some of the basics for making sure your bowl is perfectly packed and burning smoothly: “the bowl should be packed gently in stages. The ideal fill is even and consistently dense from top to bottom. That's the idea behind the old saw, ‘Tamp the first pinch with the hand of a child, the second with the hand of a woman, and the final pinch with a manly touch.’ When done properly, a consistent fill is assured.” While Pease’s strategy isn’t the only pipe packing game in town, it’s certainly a reliable and successful one.
On Dedicating Pipes to Certain Tobaccos
Another gem here from G.L. Pease. It’s a topic of some debate in the piping community on whether it’s worthwhile to dedicate a single pipe to a single tobacco. The thinking here makes sense. Because smoking produces residue that builds into the pipe in the form of the cake, the flavor of a new blend will intermingle with some of that legacy tobacco. The question, however, is how much we’re talking about; how sophisticated does a palate need to be to discern such subtleties? Pease agrees it’s significant enough that it will take “anywhere from a few bowls to dozens to begin to get the true flavors and aromas of the new tobacco.” However, Pease also offers an excellent middle ground that is both sensible and economically viable for those that aren’t in possession of a sizeable pipe collection. Instead of preserving a pipe for each and every tobacco, dedicate a pipe to each of your blend families; one for your English, one for your Aromatics, one for your Dark Fired, and one for any other grouping that emphasizes particular tobaccos. At the very least, your blend-family dedicated pipes are working with overlapping elements that will help preserve intended flavor, and it won’t break your bank in isolating pipes for each individual blend.
Hero to many pipers, Ralph Waldo Emerson, once said, “to be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” Wise words from one of the greats of American letters. When so much of the planet is increasingly homogenized and algorithms serve you a curated presentation of what you ought to buy, assembling your fully fleshed authentic self becomes all the more vital. Rather than living a determined life, invest in artifacts that bring joy and stand with singularity; dine outside the box, read beyond your genre of choice, travel to locations untouched by Instagram influencers. It’s all about expansive gestures that keep you growing as a person.
In the world of pipe making, few fulfill this charge so thoroughly as the Danish pipe maker, Tom Eltang. Eltang’s pipes are true wonderments of pipe craft, with exquisite lines, premium materials, deluxe finishes, and gorgeous details that make his offerings sing. Eltang has been making pipes for decades and extols the virtues of the pre-internet age in helping pipe makers to create an individual aesthetic: “for twenty-five or thirty years we’d been sitting all alone, basically nuts, knowing and not seeing what the other guys are doing . . . and then you develop your own style . . . the new pipe makers today can go on the internet and they can see everything that’s being made.” Valuable takeaways here. For any maker, too much inspiration can stifle instead of enhancing your creativity by putting up artificial parameters of another’s style. And for the individual, even if you’re not shaping briar, taking in inspiration can be meaningful; however, take an active role in that experience; seek out new wonders instead of solely letting yourself be served.
On Creativity and Expansion
Riffing on Eltang’s wisdom above, creativity’s role in pipe craft is clear; however, what’s equally as exciting as beholding a piece of art is understanding the journey of the maker. Every once in a while, creativity isn’t only responsible for an object of beauty; it’s the cause of a revolution. Einstein’s work toppling Newtonian mechanics; when Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival; Picasso’s turn to proto-Cubist aesthetics. More than the development of aesthetic commitments, these were artists smashing their respective paradigms apart. As Richard Koshalek writes in Smithsonian Magazine, “artists are, at heart, opportunity-seekers who transform the world around us.”
An analog in the pipe maker world comes by way of John Keller of JWK2366 Custom Cobs. For John, whose work with corn cobs has helped recast the cob as a worthy pipe, his creativity expanded beyond that material; John found himself drawn to briar. A conflict arose, as John was well-known for his cobs, until he realized he could, “do this [make custom cobs], and bend it to the outer limits, and continue my briar journey at the same time. It’s like a double helping of cake.” John is on to something here. Expansive creativity can encompass the elements of the old that are working while keeping an eye on the new vistas calling your name. The takeaway: follow your own muse wherever it leads; make your mark.
Ethan Hawke on Creativity
On Patience and An Evolving Palate
Tobacco is complex. The piper in the contemporary world has a genuine wealth of intricately orchestrated blends that belie a single first impression, not to mention the vast catalog of commentary from sophisticated smokers who have weighed in with their tasting notes. Familiarizing yourself with a few trusty reviewers is a worthy strategy, but of course, your own palate is what’s at stake here. Keep the old guard of tobacco in rotation, but don’t neglect all the visionary blends hitting the market from modern makers. And remember that a first impression isn’t the end all be all. As you continue through a tin, and even a second, of something that doesn’t hit quite right at first, you may be surprised as your palate begins to pick out subtleties that went unnoticed at first. G.L. Pease writes, “Don’t give up on a blend after a single smoke. Put it aside and come back to it on a different occasion. Expand your horizons!” We couldn’t agree more.
Grit. Resilience. Fortitude. Tenacity. We know it by many names, but the character of the virtue carries the same weight. It’s that stick-to-itiveness, which, along with the other two members of the Holy Trinity of Success—preparation and timing—finally break through and invent the wheel, the Zippo, Penicillin, and so many others. But today we focus on determination, that which can help us overcome the swerves in our day-to-day lives. To offer this nugget of wisdom, Master Blender Joe Lankford steps to the plate. The venerable blender of Seattle Pipe Club, whose fabulous tobacco is not to be missed, Lankford generously offers words of advice from one his mentors: “someday I will have the ‘aha’ moment where things click. That moment only comes with dedication. He told me that you’ll go through periods where there are lulls, but that as a maker, we can learn something every day. When you choose not to learn every day you need to hang up your apron.” Solid words to live by. Breakthroughs, whether in blending, business, or briar, may come at unforeseen moments, and in unexpected ways. As long as we’re showing up to do the work, we’re pushing through those lulls, and very likely in a valley of preparation to scale the mountain ahead.
by Joe Lankford and Seattle Pipe Club
On Building your Tobacco Stash
Back to the brass tacks of pipe craft. Collecting is an obvious boon of pipe smoking, but if you’re new to pipes, this is often considered in terms of pipes themselves and not tobacco. Veterans are well versed in storing up their stash as many have learned the hard way when a special blend goes the way of the buffalo. Mike McNeil, the mastermind behind McClelland tobacco, speaks to this when he writes, “look at all the famous blends that have disappeared or are now made by someone else. If a pipe smoker likes a blend, he should buy it now. If he loves the blend, he should buy more. I have seen incredible changes in 40 years—and, believe me, we will see more of them.” The good news is that pipe tobacco, if undertaken properly, ages very, very well. The process, called “cellaring,” involves humidification methods that optimize the surrounding air, whether in a jar, a humidor, or some other container. Don’t experience the profound regret of finding out your own Frog Morton has gone off market. Keep sampling like we’ve advocated for above but do so resting assured that your core favorites are safe and abundant along with the rest of your valuables.
On Pipes as a Necessary Accessory
Timepieces. Pens. Socks. Cufflinks. Lighters. A gentleman’s accessories speak much of the man; his tastes, where he has placed his attention and emphasis, and affirm what he values. Whether pipes should formally be considered an accessory may be debated by some, but it stands to reason that the serious piper, who always has one of his instruments on hand, has incorporated the pipe in a similar fashion as these other mainstays. Fausto Fincato, patriarch of the esteemed Italian pipe shop, Fincato, agrees: “a pipe is something to carry in the pocket, part of the equipment of the gentleman.” The wisdom here is to consider your pipe in this stylish Italian manner—as a part of your overall ethos—safely carrying a fine briar, or striking morta, wherever you fancy; the pipe is as essential as your rings, sunglasses, or wallet.
Refining your relationship to pipe craft is a limitless pursuit. While first-hand experience is one major tool in polishing your understanding, checking in with the insight and experience of the greats who have gone before you is the pleasurable shortcut to pipe mastery. While this brief list tours through just a handful of the many greats, take agency of your pipe education from YouTube tobacco reviews, to pipe shows, to your local smoking lounge. You’ll be puffing like an old hand in no time.