How (And Why) To Smoke a Pipe

How (And Why) To Smoke a Pipe January 4, 2012

I hated tobacco. I could have almost lent my support to any institution that had for its object the putting of tobacco smokers to death…I now feel that smoking in moderation is a comfortable and laudable practice, and is productive of good. There is no more harm in a pipe than in a cup of tea. You may poison yourself by drinking too much green tea, and kill yourself by eating too many beefsteaks. For my part, I consider that tobacco, in moderation, is a sweetener and equalizer of the temper. – Thomas Henry Huxley

Why smoke a pipe? Allow me to explain. You can have this:

10 points if you can name everyone in the picture!

Or you can have this:

(That was a joke, folks.) Now, unlike cigarettes, pipes are a) sacramental b) delicious c) much less harmful d) not addicting and e) packed with class. Men need to recover the lost art of pipe-smoking to a) feel more manly b) relearn the experience of fellowship c) connect with their great, ancestral, pipe-smoking past d) learn to contemplate and e) (if they are cigarette smokers) to replace addiction with ritual. Onwards to Mordor then:

1. The things you’ll need.

A pipe. There is no singular answer as to which pipe is the pipe for you, but let this be absolutely clear: She is out there, and she is waiting for you, like a sleepless lover at her window. The pipe says a lot about the man — Mark Twain smoked a corncob, Sherlock Holmes a curved stem. Stephen Fry was caught smoking this madness…

…and so the point is this: Let it be an extension of your soul as much as of your lips. Now in pipe-smoking — as in religion — there is no instant gratification. It might take a man 20 years to find his match. If you have no idea what to begin with, most tobacconists will recommend a 30-40 dollar briarwood pipe:

Or perhaps a good corncob, which can cost as little as 8 dollars, though it will not last as long.

Note that a good briarwood pipe, with proper care, can last the owner his lifetime. In a world where most of our pleasures are designed so that we’ll have to buy them again, let us bow our heads and give thanks.

A pipe-tool. This ingenius device is for tamping, packing and emptying the pipe. What the trident is to Neptune, the pocket knife to the 10-year-old, or the toolbox to the mechanic, the pipe-tool is to the pipe smoker.

Tobacco. I suppose I am here expected to list the various types and blends of pipe tobacco, their relative victories and failures, their effects on the wallet, wife, palate etc., but for two reasons I will resist the temptation. The first is that I am regrettably ignorant on the subject. The second is wrapped up in this fact: The point of pipe-smoking is as much people as it is pleasure; it pays equal regards to Brotherhood as to billowing. Pipe-smoking gives you the rosy-golden opportunity to make friends with your local tobacconist, to learn from his accumulated wisdom on the subject. He is an indispensable but sadly ignored unit of society. He — with all the weight of an oracle — will be glad to find a tobacco suitable to your tastes, more than happy to explain the subtle differences between aromatic and cavendish blends, and — if you are lucky — he’ll complain about the weather and the economy while doing so. If you have no tobacconist, sue your county, and then find the same man within a Grandfather, a professor, or a friend. But begin with a mind to community, and the world will grow a sweeter place. (If you find all this impossible, but are still earnest to try, go here.)

Matches. Get them free with your purchase of tobacco. Their use is self-evident, and to it I would only add that the use of a standard lighter includes the intaking of butane into a man’s mouth, and — if posible — should be avoided for good taste and health.

2. Packing and lighting the pipe.

“A pipe is to the troubled soul what caresses of a mother are for her suffering child.” – Indian Proverb

This section in itself is a beautiful reason to smoke a pipe. We live in a culture in which ritual is constantly being replaced with instant gratification. Instead of sex lives, we have pills. Instead of cooking, we have ‘directions for assembling’ at fast- food restaurants. Instead of political thought we have political parties. And instead of the art of pipe-smoking, we have cigarettes. To reclaim one ritual then:

Like loading a gun and firing it into the air to celebrate your half-birthday, packing your pipe may seem self-explanatory, but much depends on how you do it. Realize that a full bowl of tobacco can mean up to an hour of smoking, and choose your desired amount accordingly. Having made your decision decisively, and having done so like a man, fill the pipe by adding ‘batches’ of tobacco at a time, then tamp the result to a consistency using the tamping end of your pipe-tool. (A a screw or nail will do in a pinch.) Pack it too tight and it will be difficult to draw in air. Pack it too loose and it won’t stay lit. While doing this, contemplate how so much in the spiritual life is avoiding both excess and absence, how a life of chastity is not merely the lack of sex but the perfect and proper view of the thing, and how both loose hedonism and tight-lipped puritanism are evils to be destroyed. Until you are best friends with your pipe, and know exactly what amount of packing is necessary for your preferred ‘draw’, take test puffs while tamping it.

To light, strike a match. Hold the match at an angle so you have a little less puniness, and a little more of an eye of Sauron. While doing so, contemplate how Jesus Christ is the light shining in the darkness, and how that darkness shall not overcome it.

Like dees.

Hold the lit match over the packed tobacco — not on it, mind you — and ‘sip’ inward, pulling the flame down onto the tobacco. Move the match around so the tobacco burns evenly. If the tobacco catches on fire, you’ve been ‘sipping’ too hard. If you’re merely singing the top of your tobacco, you’ve been sipping too softly. Practice makes perfect. Once it is lit, that is to say evenly glowing with a warm, sunset red, push that red down — gently, gently, and with multiple, small touches of your tamper — to make sure you draw into the tobacco and do not perform the ultimately futile exercise of keeping a coal lit on top of a pipe. While doing this, contemplate how the fire of the Holy Spirit cannot ever remain mere outward display, but must become an internal reality, keeping you zealous and joyful throughout your life. Give a moment for the pipe to cool, in the same way we allow our unhealthy passions time to diminish, contemplate how things worked for are things better received, and say the following prayer: Bless us oh Lord, and these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive, from Thy bounty, through Christ Our Lord. Amen. Now…


Sips, not sucks or billows, that’s the thing. You are a gentleman and a scholar, not a steam engine, and you would do best to remember the fact. If you puff too aggressively, the pipe will burn hot. This will ruin the taste of the tobacco, burn your tongue and — if done too often — destroy the pipe. The pipe may very well go out. Do not try and keep it lit by puffing; simply relight it. (The depth of application all of this has to the spiritual life is astounding! Should we try to keep the good feelings and emotions of our religion blazing, using them as the indicators of our relationship with God? Absolutely not, lest our religion be nothing more than an emotional opiate. Instead we should seek God, love him with all our hearts and minds. We should allow our relationship with Him to be a reality, not just a fiery emotion. And if we burn out in our efforts — which we all do — let us simply flee back to the source of all love, and be relit.) Sip the tobacco into your mouth, let yourself be delighted by the flavor and the relaxing effect, and then puff it out. Do not inhale. Do not expect perfection on your first pipe. When you’ve finished your pipe, sit back and thank the Lord of Heaven and Earth for His gifts. There are many.

Emptying and cleaning your pipe.

Use the scoop end of your pipe-tool to remove the ashes from your pipe. Contemplate our desperate need for the sacrament of Reconciliation. You may put your pipe away now. If you wish to fully clean your pipe, invest in pipe-cleaners (always shocking to hear of the things in their proper context) and pipe sweetener. Do not scrape off the cake that builds up on the inside of the pipe’s bowl. It prevents burning.

Well done. Like all things worth doing, smoking a pipe only gets better. Learn to blow smoke rings, to pack your pipe using the Frank method, to smoke it upside-down when it is raining, to cut your own tobacco, to whittle your own pipe, to begin a collection…the possibilities are endless. If it is not for you, it is not for you. But for all those for whom it is for, remember, let there be moderation in all things except love.

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