Table of Contents
|What is Pipe Cake and Why is it Important|
|The Argument Against Building Cake in Your Pipe|
When Should I Ream My Pipe?
|How Much Should I Ream My Pipe?|
|Tools for Reaming a Pipe|
|Reaming Your Pipe|
|A Few Suggestions Moving Forward|
Reaming a tobacco pipe is an uncomplicated, important part of a smoking instrument’s routine maintenance. But the horror stories of over-reamed pipes and the potential risk involved can make the procedure seem more daunting than it should. If you’re taking a patient approach and coming to the task with some prior knowledge, and maybe some practice, you’ve nothing to worry about.
By “routine maintenance,” I’m referring to the maintaining of a thin cake in your pipe’s chamber by occasionally trimming the excess. Having an estate pipe caked with copious carbon buildup is another story. If the latter is the case, and you value the pipe as more than a means to practice reaming (i.e., you would be sorry to damage it), get some experience with that routine maintenance first. If it’s really a special piece—perhaps inherited, rare, or just a pipe you truly would like in your smoking rotation—consider having it restored by a professional. There are plenty of opportunities to learn, and assiduously cleaning out a long abandoned or abused pipe is a different beast than ordinary maintenance.
Let’s start by getting an understanding of what exactly this “cake”—or carbon buildup —is and why we do (or possibly don’t) want it.
What is Pipe Cake and Why is it Important
The combustion of the tobacco in your pipe releases carbon which sticks to the chamber wall of the pipe. This accumulation around the sides of the bowl is what we call cake .
While most smokers want at least a thin layer of cake in their briar pipes, some pipe smokers are exceptions to this norm. Additionally, cake buildup has different implications depending on what the given pipe is made from, so let’s understand the conventional (and often challenged) wisdom on cake building as it applies to the most common smoking pipe materials.
Building Cake in a Briar Pipe
Briar is the ideal wood for tobacco pipes given its high heat tolerance, but an extra layer of insulation is always good. The carbon, which absorbs moisture and heat very well, helps protect the briar from getting too hot. This is both good for the wood itself and helps to keep the temperature of your smoke down, mitigating the potential for and severity of tongue bite.
Building Cake in a Meerschaum Pipe
When it comes to meerschaum pipes, there’s really no need for a cake at all. Although briar is quite fire resistant compared with other woods, it’s still wood, and the cake makes for a great insulator. This insulation isn’t necessary for meerschaum, and a thick cake could damage the pipe. Additionally, many attest that cake impedes the coloring of the meerschaum.
To prevent cake from building, it’s recommended that you wipe out the chamber of your meerschaum pipe after each (or at least every few) smokes. If you do need to remove cake, try using sandpaper wrapped around a marker or something similar. Given the fragility of the material, you're better off avoiding a reaming tool.
Mind you, a little carbon isn’t going to be bad for the pipe. Plenty of meerschaum smokers do want a little cake, often saying they prefer the taste, and many do claim it keeps the smoke cooler. As is usually the case in this hobby, the “general knowledge” is far from absolute consensus. So, if you find that having a thin cake in your meerschaum is your preference, or you do have some carbon buildup and don’t feel confident reaming all the way to the chamber walls, maintaining a thin carbon layer is A-OK.
Building Cake in a Corn Cob Pipe
As I smoked [corn cobs] more regularly over the years, I learned a few things that helped me enjoy them even more. I found that not allowing a cake to build up made for a more enjoyable experience … for me. Many people prefer to build some cake in their cobs, but I enjoy them better without it.
Thoughts on cake buildup in corn cob pipes are quite similar to those toward meerschaum. It’s not necessary, but folks have their preferences, thus some build a cake, and some do not. However, corn cob pipes don’t have the same potential for being damaged by a thick cake like meerschaums (allegedly) do. So, I would just say, try and work out your own preference.
Although I will give this piece of advice if you’re new to reaming a tobacco pipe—
And it’s been my experience that cake builds a bit faster in a cob. I’m unsure if that’s others’ impression as well, but it probably won't take long to build some up if you’re smoking it regularly.
The Argument Against Building Cake in Your Pipe
Cake buildup often facilitates ghosting, or the remnant flavors of a blend haunting a pipe and thus possessing future smokes. This is especially so with heavy Latakia blends or generously topped Aromatics.
However, many pipe smokers opt to have their cake and…also avoid ghosting (Marie Antoinette jokes will be swatted down like the low hanging fruit they are). Pipe Smokers will often navigate ghosting by having certain pipes dedicated to certain tobacco blend genres. The remnant presence of Latakia is irrelevant in a pipe used only for Latakia blends.
Additionally, the cake’s absorbent quality makes for a drier smoke, but this also means a rest period is conducive to getting the best smoke out of your pipe as the cake dries. This isn’t as necessary in a cake-less pipe.
As far as I can tell, a preference for no cake at all in a briar is rare. It seems to usually come down to a question of how much cake. Many pipe smokers certainly want cake as thin as can be without reaming down to the briar. That’s generally my preference, but there are no right or wrong answers.
When Should I Ream My Pipe?
Bear in mind that routine maintenance doesn’t mean you need to ream often, but before the cake is excessive. Cake builds slowly, especially if you’re regularly wiping down your pipe’s chamber. How often you need to ream depends on how much you smoke a given pipe, so we can’t really apply a generic timeframe. If it doesn’t seem like your chamber is significantly narrower, you probably don’t need to ream (though preferences may dictate otherwise).
Remember, cake is generally a good thing for your smoking pipe, and it builds slowly. It’s easy for newcomers to the hobby to think “oh, I haven’t reamed yet, I’m probably overdue for it” and then go to work grinding down their perfectly thin cake. I know the feeling of being excited to explore new facets of the hobby, but you don’t want to jump the gun on this one. In the words of The Beastie Boys, “it takes time to build, you got to chill.”
How Much Should I Ream My Pipe?
Common advice you’ll often hear is to bring the cake down to about 1/8 th of an inch, or between the width of a dime and a nickel. Again, there’s no right answer until you know what you like. With that in mind, I think what’s most important is not going any further than you feel confident going. It’s sometimes difficult for those with little experience to gauge where cake ends and briar begins, especially if there’s charring that blends the rim down into the chamber.
Here’s how I initially approached reaming; I think it’s a pretty solid technique to ease one’s way in, getting experience without taking risk—
After having smoked for some time, a few of my more frequented pipes were clearly taking less tobacco to pack. This was made further evident from the space my finger had in the chamber while packing. At this time, I wasn’t thinking about cake’s role in absorbing moisture and heat or any of that—it was just that thing taking up space and I wanted to open my chamber back up. So, I got a reamer and trimmed it back a tad—no intention of thinning any more than necessary to make things a little less tight.
At first, I maintained a chamber that could at least fit my index finger without any force (usually going a little further for wider bowls). This got me comfortable with my tools and I started developing a sense of how much I was taking off. From there, I started reaming the cake thinner—not testing my confidence, but in step with it. I can’t say I have much of a rule or measurement that I stick to. From taking off a bit of cake at a time, a sense of where I wanted to stop just sort of formed.
So, ream to your preferences, but to find them, I advise taking off just a little bit at a time. You may even end up finding that your preferences vary pipe to pipe.
Tools for Reaming a Pipe
There are a few reaming tools that can get the job done. Let’s dig into what they are and where their strengths and weaknesses lie.
The pipe knife is perfect for concise touch-ups and getting down into the heel of the pipe (the bottom of the chamber). The heel is especially important to be cautious of when reaming, as any damage to the draft hole will alter the physics of the pipe. Luckily this area isn’t as prone to building cake as the chamber walls. Pipe knives allow for more tactile maneuvering and the rounded point makes these instruments especially appropriate for the delicacy of reaming. With a regular pocket knife, the pointed end makes it a lot easier to make an unfortunate nick.
You can use a pipe knife for reaming the chamber wall as well, but I think the tools we will see next are less risky, more user friendly, and more conducive to getting an even cake. Nonetheless, that’s just my preference, and plenty of pipe smokers prefer the pipe knife for the whole job.
The T-Handle style reamer generally comes with four attachments in different sizes, as shown with the Castleford above. The multiple reamers are convenient for starting narrow and gradually widening your reaming circumference, but some pipe smokers aren’t as keen on the fixed sizes, preferring the option for more incremental widening.
However, it’s a very straightforward, easy to use tool. T-Handle reamers lend themselves quite well to getting the cake at the heal of pipes with a U-shaped chamber. They also can handle heavier reaming jobs that less sturdy reaming tools may not be ideal for. T-Handles are a solid choice no matter the extent of the carbon cake buildup.
Senior Pipe Reamer
Like the T-Handle, The Senior Pipe Reamer offers a robust instrument that is well suited for reaming a smoking pipe with thicker buildup but also has the benefit of more precise, incremental size adjustment.
It also has this very convenient drill bit that unscrews from the head of the contraption. This is meant to run through the shank to break up heavy cake. The grooves make it perfect for getting through those really set cakes of old, long unsmoked estate pipes. It’s certainly a nifty bonus, though, probably not applicable unless you’re restoring an old pipe that has closed up.
British Butner Style Tool
British Butner is actually the name of the brand that originally designed this style of tobacco pipe reamer, but they’re now made by several pipe accessory manufacturers such as Brigham and Cobblestone.
The Butner is light, compact, and easy to use. Best of all, it self-adjusts as you ream. The further down the T-bar is, the wider the blades spread. You insert the reamer with the T-bar all the way up (so the blades are at their narrowest). The T-bar is then pushed down, only dropping as far as the chamber walls will allow the blades to spread. A light pressure on the T-bar as you turn the reamer allows the blades to conform to the walls, slowly widening with the thinning of the cake.
But when I say light pressure, I mean very light. With the other two reamer styles, you set a width, then ream. Since the blades on the Butner naturally conform by pressing down on the T-bar, it’s important to not apply extra pressure, the blades should be doing nothing more than gently scraping the chamber walls. If it feels like you’re only getting a little bit of cake at a time and it’s taking a while, good, you’re doing it right.
I find these reamers to work especially well for minor reaming—when trimming cake back a bit. I prefer the Senior or T-Handle when working through a heavier carbon buildup but will often switch to the Butner when the bulk of it has been scraped away, especially if I’m removing all of the cake.
Additionally, the Butner is especially well shaped for conical or tapered chambers.
Reaming Your Pipe
You put the thing in and turn right? Wrong! No wait…yeah, that’s kind of it.
There’s not much to reaming a pipe in terms of steps. It’s a repetitive process but it’s how you go about it that’s important. Stock car racing might just be turning left, but those drivers are doing a lot more than that. Well, there’s some things for you to keep in mind as you turn and turn.
Of course, there will be discrepancies in how to ream a tobacco pipe depending on what tool you’re using—I’ll try to account for these when applicable.
All you really need is the reamer, but I would also recommend:
- Flashlight – it’s important to check your progress as you go along, and it can be difficult to get a good look inside a pipe bowl.
- Ashtray – or really any place to dump the cake dust as it accumulates.
- Newspaper – or anything to cover where you’re working to avoid mess.
- Pipe cleaner – to keep the shank clean.
1. Feed a pipe cleaner through the shank.
This will prevent the dust from the cake that is scraped away from falling through the draft hole as you ream. Not a big necessity, but it keeps things neat, and you won’t have to clean all the carbon dust out of the shank later.
2. With your reamer at its smallest size, insert it into the chamber, keeping it straight and centered.
- T-Handle – start with the smallest attachment. If
there is obvious clearance between the smallest size and the wall, check the
next size. But start with the smallest size you can, don’t force a larger attachment.
- Senior – have the reamer totally closed, the
blades as narrow as they go. Then once you have the Senior centered, widen the
blades to where they are just touching the chamber walls. I’ll even reach the
walls and then go the smallest increment narrower and give it a few turns for
- Butner – with the tool centered in the chamber, put the lightest pressure downward on the T-bar so that the blades are against the chamber wall.
3. Slowly begin turning the tool in the chamber. Very slowly and gently.
A little slower.
You’ve got no place to be. Take your time.
4. Frequently check your progress.
The carbon should be coming off in a fine dust, though you may get some cake crumbling off in small chunks. This usually happens at least a little bit, especially for older cake that’s dried out. But make sure you’re really taking your time and not being too aggressive. It’s easy to think, “well I’ll get the bulk of it off and then smooth it out at the end.” No no, just be patient, keeping the cake as even as you can with the gradual filing away of each layer.
5. When you are no longer trimming the cake, size up.
- T-Handle - move to the next attachment.
- Senior - should be widened the slightest bit. This is where the unfixed sizes are a plus, so don’t get impatient and go any wider than needed to get the next thin layer.
- Butner – the blades should be adjusting to the widening chamber as you go. Keep grazing with minimal pressure.
Repeat this step until the cake is at the desired thickness.
6. If you get resistance or pulling, don’t force it. Return to a smaller size and give it a little more time before sizing back up.
Sometimes I’ll wrap a little sandpaper around a marker and smooth the cake so that it’s even and less prone to snags.
7. Once finished, clean out the bowl and shank with pipe cleaners.
Even after dumping the loose dust from the bowl, there’s likely to be some that needs to be excavated, and you don’t want to do that with your mouth next time you draw. Hopefully the pipe cleaner in the shank kept it relatively clean, but to be thorough, give the airway a good run through as well.
A few suggestions moving forward:
- If you do want to practice before reaming one of
your beloved briars, as I mentioned before, letting cake build in an
inexpensive corn cob pipe is a good way to learn. You could also purchase some
beat up estate pipes. You can usually find some that could use a good reaming
on eBay or at antique stores.
Pictured above is an old Billiard I picked up from my local antique mall. If you can take care of cake like this, you’ll have no reservations about a little trim now and then.
- After each smoke, loop a pipe cleaner in a sort
of ribbon shape and twist it inside the chamber. This will slow down cake build
up. If it’s a new pipe, you may want to wait until it’s broken in and has some
- Knowing your pipe well can go a long way with
reaming—both in knowing how much cake is built up and getting a sense of how
much cake you prefer. By “knowing your pipe” I just mean having that sort of
familiarity that comes with time and attentiveness.
When I have a new pipe, I’ll test the bowl size with my index finger. I can’t say there’s some specific measurement I’m looking for, but I have a sense of the spaciousness—width and depth—of others in my collection and their smoking characteristics. I’ll insert my index finger now and again after smoking up some miles on it. Again, it’s not a science, just a feel for the instrument that you develop. You’ll notice the narrowing clearance and start to get an idea of how you prefer things.
It does take some practice to get proficient, but once you’re comfortable with it, reaming becomes another one of those many rituals that comes with pipe smoking; another task like packing, tamping, or cleaning that probably seems cumbersome to the outsider. But from the inside, we know these things to be part of the charm of our chosen smoking method. That the smoking instrument doesn't disintegrate as it is smoked but is an object of craftsmanship to be cared for, is what sets pipes apart.