Pipe Smoking—The Art of Smoking a Pipe

“I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.” — C.S. Lewis

Now that we’ve talked about different pipe shapes and the various types of tobacco, let’s put it all together. But let me say from the outset—as the title of this post states, smoking a pipe is an art and, like all art, it takes time to become proficient at it.

So you’ve got your new pipe, some tobacco, tamper, lighter, and some pipe cleaners. Okay! Let’s load up that pipe for your first smoke!

Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes lighting his pipe.

I’ve found the easiest way to load my pipe is in three stages:

  1. Prepare your tobacco. This may seem silly but, believe me, it will save you some grief later on. Take out the tobacco you intend to smoke and place some of it on a flat surface.1 While just about every tobacco I’ve ever tried has been ready to smoke right out of the tin or bag, sometimes it’s too wet. If the tobacco’s too wet,2 let it sit there for a bit to dry out. Go make some tea or something while you wait. When you get back, it should be ready to go.
  2. Filling the bowl. This process will take some practice, but that’s okay. Take a pinch of tobacco and just let it drop into the bowl. Don’t press it down, just let gravity fill the bowl (I tap the side of the bowl to help the tobacco into the bowl). Keep doing this until the tobacco is filled to the top of the bowl. At this point, take your tamper and lightly tamp down the tobacco until it’s about halfway down the bowl.3

    Take another pinch and repeat the process. This time, lightly tamp down the tobacco until it’s about halfway again from the top.4

    Finally, take another pinch and repeat the process. This time, when you lightly tamp the tobacco, it should be a little below the bowl (about a dime or nickel width from the top). This final fill below the rim is my own recommendation so as to not burn the rim of your bowl.

    Now draw on your pipe. It should feel like our sucking soda through a straw. If it feels like you’re trying to suck a milkshake through a straw, the tobacco is packed too tightly. Dump it out and start over.
  3. Lighting the tobacco. Lighting the tobacco actually happens in a couple of steps:
    1. The charring (or false) light: Once you have the pipe packed properly, take your lighter (or matches or whatever you’re using) and start applying the flame to the tobacco in your pipe by moving the flame in a circular motion around the tobacco chamber a few times. Be careful to keep the flame directly above the tobacco chamber, you don’t want to scorch the rim of your bowl. While you’re lighting the tobacco, lightly puff the pipe. This draws the flame into the tobacco chamber and ignites the tobacco. You may notice the tobacco rise when you do this. That’s normal and it means the heat is removing the moisture from the tobacco. Lightly tamp down the tobacco again.
    2. The “true” light: Once more, light your tobacco in a circular motion while you gently puff the pipe.

A couple of extra points.

  • Puffing: Think of “puffing” on your pipe like sipping a hot beverage. You just want to gently bring a little smoke into your mouth. Now, certainly, you can do a long draw on your pipe and fill your mouth with smoke but you’re not trying to smoke the whole bowl in one puff! Nor are you inhaling the smoke! Pipe tobacco is not cigarette tobacco and, as a general rule, should not be inhaled.5

  • Relights: A lot of people scoff at others who have to relight their pipes. Seriously. But who cares! Your pipe will most likely go out from time to time so just relight it. It’s not the end of the world (that comes when you run out of tobacco!).

Sherlock Holmes in deep thought.
Now that the tobacco’s lit, you want to keep a natural rhythm while puffing your pipe. What I mean by that is don’t puff the pipe with each breath. Instead, every third breath or so, gently draw the smoke into your mouth. If the bowl is too hot to touch (or almost), then you could be smoking it too quickly. Just set your pipe down and let it cool off. It might even go out. That’s a lot better than scalding your mouth our burning out your pipe. After the pipe has had time to cool, just relight it as before (if it needs to be relit) and slow down your cadence. One of the greatest things about smoking a pipe is you’ve got to slow down to really enjoy it. So sit back, relax, and let your mind wander into the great depths of being.

That’s it for this post. Next time we’ll look at how to clean your pipe.

In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC

1. I know of one guy who uses a sheet of paper on a table. That way, he can bend the paper and fill back up his tin or jar with the loose tobacco.

2. If a tobacco’s too wet it can be really difficult to light and stay lit. It can be too smokey and may burn really hot and scald your mouth. For me, I’d rather have tobacco too dry than too wet.
3. As a general rule, I let the weight of the tamper…tamp down the tobacco.

4. What I mean by this is that the halfway mark this time is about halfway between the existing tobacco and the top of the bowl. If you think of the tobacco that’s already in your bowl as the bottom of the tobacco chamber, then gravity fill the bowl and tamp down the tobacco until it’s about halfway again from the top. Does that make sense?

5. I’ve never met anyone who actually inhales pipe smoke. Oh, I’ve known a couple try to, but in every case they’ve been knocked on their butts because of the strength of the tobacco! That’s not to say that there aren’t people who do inhale pipe smoke, they may be, but I’ve never met them.


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