Starting your pipe smoking journey is incredibly exciting. Those first few steps into totally unknown territory are fraught with uncertainty and anticipation. As such it is very easy to dive in with little consideration as to whether or not you are going about things the right way, as is the case with many new smokers. This is not the most condemnable of offences: pipe smoking appears deceivingly simple. However, smoking a pipe can just as quickly appease the senses as it can insult them; such an approach may result in poor smoking experiences which can put people off of smoking entirely.

So, for those of you who are about to start smoking and decided on some preemptive research, kudos. Hopefully these tips make your first few bowls as satisfying as you are imagining them to be. For those who have had a bad experience or two, well done for seeking out some guidance as opposed to giving up. The rewards will be many. 

Below are some of the most commonly malpracticed and misinformed elements of pipe smoking, especially for beginners. I hope that they provide adequate guidance and help you back on the path to enjoying your smoke.  

Choosing the wrong pipe 

As a beginner you are going to make mistakes – a lot of mistakes. Pipe smoking is an art which one never really stops trying to perfect, and for the beginner smoker, this journey entails traversing a steep learning curve during the early days. As such, despite how hypnotising the beautifully polished, elegant briars in your tobacconist’s displays may be, I always recommend beginning with something that is durable enough to withstand the punishment of the inevitable trial-and-error process that is learning to smoke a pipe, as well as one which does not need to be broken in: there is enough for a new smoker to wrap their head around as it is. Last but not least, you do not want to hurt your hip pocket in buying an accessory for a hobby at which you are a total novice. With that in mind, do not turn your nose up at the humble corn cob. They are very well priced, durable enough to withstand substantial punishment, can allow you to smoke as frequently as you would like, and are resistant to an overly hot bowl (more on that below). Falcons are popular, but they employ briar bowls, which can cause some issues for beginners. 

Incorrect Lighting Technique 

As exciting as it may be to dive into your first few bowls of tobacco, patience when lighting your pipe is imperative. A poor lighting technique will only lead to an unevenly lit pipe and doom you to repeat the process seemingly countless times whilst trying to puff your way through your bowl. Whilst relights are an inevitability when it comes to pipe smoking, ensuring that your lighting technique is correct will enhance your smoking experience tenfold. Here is the three step technique which I would recommend: 

  1. The first step is called the charring light, or the false light. As the name suggests, this step is not a proper light; much like toasting the foot of a cigar prior to lighting, it may be looked at as a preparatory step in achieving a perfect light. In the context of pipe smoking, the false light serves to expel any extra moisture from the tobacco, and in doing so, to prepare a nice even surface for what will follow. To achieve a false light, simply strike your match or light your lighter, and take slow, shallow puffs on the pipe whilst moving the flame in a circular motion over the bowl. Almost immediately you will notice that the tobacco will swell and contort, sometimes peaking over the rim of the bowl. This is totally normal, and what the charring light seeks out. I tell people that their charring light is done when they are at leas halfway through their match. 
  2. Following this, we want to tamp down the tobacco very gently, and in doing so, extinguish any initial embers form the false light. I know this seems counterintuitive, but do not stress, it is all part of the process (nobody said that pipe smoking was for when you are in a rush). Do not tamp down with excessive force; the weight of the tamper is sufficient to completing a good tamp. Tamping serves to push those initial ashes and contorted ribbons of tobacco back onto the unlit tobacco below. Essentially, it will create a flat, even surface and return the tobacco to the level at which it was prior to the charring light. 
  3. The final step is to relight your pipe. The technique is identical to that employed during the charring light: slow circular motions over the bowl while taking shallow puffs on the pipe. Extinguish your match, lighter, or welding torch, and enjoy.

Incorrect Tamping Technique 

When tamping, a common mistake is to use a lot of force; I always tell people that the weight of the tamper itself should provide ample downward pressure, and the smoker’s task is simply to guide the utensil across the tobacco. Tamping throughout your smoke is critical to keeping your bowl lit, as it pushes the embers gently onto the unlit tobacco below thus ensuring successful combustion. However, it will also help you in the inevitable instance where a relight is necessary, in that the practice keeps the top layer of ash as thin as possible. As such, relighting through this layer of ash will be as painless as possible. 

Getting Over Zealous With Your Puffs 

Puffing on your pipe either too quickly, too aggressively, or both, will lead to it overheating, burning through your pipe bowl (luckily you got that durable corn cob hey…) and potentially to tongue bite – an experience which new smokers do not forget in a hurry. The latter occurs when the tobacco burns excessively in the bowl, causing the residual moisture (resultant of combustion) to evaporate. The resultant steam is drawn through the stem and burns the smoker’s tongue and cheeks. 

Avoiding this is as simple as employing a sound smoking technique. Take small sips on your pipe, the way you would on a gorgeous gin and tonic. The aim is to savour the flavour and aroma of the tobacco, not create billows of thick smoke which look cool to those around you and ultimately scorch your pipe and mouth. Less is more here. 

Sticking With Only One Tobacco Blend or Varietal

With the seemingly endless supply of tobacco styles available to the beginner, the only way in which you will understand your palate and preferences is to try a variety of tobaccos. Aromatics are a great starting point, as they tend to be milder in strength and very pleasant both in flavour and aroma. This having been said, do not be afraid to branch out into English, Virginia and Burley blends as well. Be mindful of the strength of the tobacco and go for it!

Given that our palates develop with time (our tastebuds quite literally regenerate), this ethos of experimentation should follow you throughout the entirety of your pipe smoking journey; what you loathed ten years ago may become a staple in your rotation tomorrow. 

I hope that these suggestions improve your next bowl, and reduce the steepness of the learning curve which every pipe smoker must traverse. The rewards, however, are very much worth it. 

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