Did you know that the history of pipe smoking began fifteen hundred
years and more before Columbus sailed from Europe?
It was the American Indian who first refined pipe smoking by producing
a generally acceptable form of 'the kindly weed"" based on tabacum nicotiana.
Origins of the Briar
The name briar is a corruption of the French word ""bruyere"" or
heath tree - a low shrub found throughout Europe, though principally around the
Mediterranean. The true briar is only made of the very hard, dry root of the
mature shrub which may be anything up to 250 years old. Once selected, the roots
are cleaned, inspected for flaws and cracks, stored for a season covered by
earth, then cut into the ""ebauchon"" - a cube of root from which a pipe will
eventually be made. The first stage of the production process is a painstaking
one, and the loss rate is high. Yet this is only the beginning. After the
ebauchons are cut, they are examined again, boiled in water for twelve hours to
destroy any remaining life, then stored for up to six months in drying sheds.
Then, and only then, is the briar released to the manufacturer. Five stages are
involved in the manufacture of the briar bowls and seventy five different
operations in the complete pipe making process.
First the rough blocks are trimmed to a workable size; then
passed to the bowl turning machine; followed by the stem turning machine;after
which they are drilled; and finally, the finished bowls are graded. It is here
that the greatest mystery of the briar is resolved: the wide variation in cost
between two pipes which at first glance seem identical. it is not so much the
time needed for the maturing of the root; nor even the craftsmanship demanded of
the subsequent manufacturing process; more the high wastage rate even when the
initial production process is complete. Superficially, two pipes may look very
much alike. In practice, the vary widely; a high proportion being flawed, a
comparatively few being totally clean. Once the grading (into as many as six
different categories) is complete, the bowls are polished and the stems
machine-bored to take the vulcanite mouthpiece. The finish is left to harden
before the mouthpiece is inserted, then the whole is given a last buffing down -
and another briar is complete.
Selecting your Pipe
With a range of several hundred different models available,
there is only one simple rule to adopt when it comes to choosing a pipe: above
all else, it must be comfortable in the mouth. So much is easily said, more
difficult to achieve, for comfort is largely determined by shape and this, in
its turn, determines a pipes weight. Thus, the easier in the mouth, the less
likely it is to distill the full aroma of the tobacco: the more likely it is to
smoke hot. The balance between weight and comfort is crucial, an imbalance
between one and the other acting as a serious deterrent to the new pipe man. The
ideal, of course, is to select a design with sufficient wood in the bowl, yet of
reasonable weight, in a shape that the smoker can live with.
Many people prefer a smooth finish bowl; on the
other hand, a sandblasted bowl cannot be scratched. The softer wood is removed
in the sand-blasting thus reducing the
weight but not the strength of the bowl. It's followers say that the
increased surface area cools the pipe and it does not slip in the hand.
It has been estimated that a quarter of all pipes sold include
some form of specialist system, whether a cooling device, a filter or a wet
Although some purists object to interposing such systems between themselves and
the tobacco, many long-time smokers say that such a system provided them with
their first cool smoke. The majority of pipe smokers do not inhale.
Choice of Tobacco
Two centuries ago, tobacco manufacturers had a lot to learn
about quality, curing and blending. There were no brands. Each town had its own
Tobacconist, who prepared his own tobacco from bulk leaf, which arrived in
barrels. Gradually qualities were graded, blends were suited to tastes and the
art of pipe smoking was developed. Today, five types of leaf are in general use
for tobacco blending:
Virginia: a sweet tasting and light tobacco which forms a large
part of the content of pipe tobacco in the U.K.
Burley: an air cured tobacco, mild yet distinctive in flavour,
which provides the base for many mixtures.
Oriental: grown largely in the Balkans and Eastern
Mediterranean, and providing a distinctively aromatic smoke.
Latakia: again a product of the Eastern Mediterranean, and used
in certain mixtures to give a distinctive flavour.
Perique: grown largely around New Orleans, and subject to a
curing process known only to one family, perique is used as a seasoner for other
pipe tobaccos, providing a distinctive taste and aroma.
Ultimately, the pleasure of a good tobacco lies in the blending
process. Individual manufacturers jealously guard the secrets of their own
blends, which are as numerous and distinctive as individual pipe designs, from
the richness of a Latakia based mixture to the mellowness of certain of the
Virginia flakes. The beginner is faced with a variety of choice, and it is only
by trial and error that he will find the exact blend to meet his taste.
Initially however, a couple of points are well worth bearing in mind; the
lighter and more fine cut the tobacco, the hotter and quicker it is to burn.
The more moist, heavy and coarse the mix, the slower it is to
burn and the more it relies on expertise to keep it alight. Between these two
extremes there is a wide range of choice and it is possibly better for the new
pipe man to select one of the blander varieties before experimenting with any of
the more exotic brands. The golden rule is to keep trying and experiment with
other brands. Sometimes the beginner may give up to soon just because he has got
hold of the wrong tobacco for his palate
Wet or Dry Tobacco?
Whatever the choice of tobacco, one point remains paramount: The
to maintain it in good condition to be smoked. As with everything else in pipe
smoking, this will depend upon personal preference - some pipe men keeping their
tobacco on the dry side;
others preferring it moist. In either case, the extremes should be avoided for
it not only destroys the smoking quality of the tobacco itself, but an over dry
fill tends to burn like straw whilst an over moist one is virtually impossible
to light. You can spray very dry tobacco with a little water ( a plant spray
does well) but be warned - too much moisture applied this way may
Filling for a good smoke
However good the tobacco or the briar, a good smoke will be
spoilt unless a pipe is properly filled. To achieve a constant and steady burn,
the tobacco must be evenly packed throughout the bowl; neither too tightly nor
too loosely. What is the best way to achieve such a fill? It is best to fill the
pipe in pinches - the first pinch being laid at the bottom of the bowl, and the
tobacco then being built up in layers until the head of the bowl is reached.
When the bowl is full, the head of the tobacco should be pressed down gently
with the thumb and then, before lighting, it is wise to draw on the filled pipe
a couple of times to check how much resistance the tobacco in the bowl offers.
If it is relatively hard to draw, it is probably best to empty out the tobacco
and begin the operation again.
Lighting Your Pipe
If the fill does provide a clean draw, then the pipe is ready to
be lit. The object is to ensure that all the tobacco at the head of the bowl is
burning evenly. It is generally better to use two matches, or two lights if
using a lighter. After the first match, smooth out the burning tobacco with a
flat surfaced pipe tool, then apply the second match, moving it from side to
side across the bowl to make sure that the whole head is evenly lit. A pipe
lighter incidentally is a useful investment; it has a horizontal flame for ease
of lighting. Smoking the pipe should become a natural extension of the breathing
rhythm - unhurried and gentle. If you need to relight halfway through a pipe,
first remove all ash, tease the remaining tobacco and tamp it down gently, then
relight. Do not top up with new tobacco until you have smoked or emptied out the
A new briar should only be half filled on the first dozen
occasions; and should never be fiercely smoked - firstly to allow the charring
process to begin gradually and secondly to allow the virgin pipe to finally
harden in the intense heat of combustion. A good pipe man should have at least
three briars, to be smoked in rotation, thus allowing each a time for recovery.
it is extremely unwise to use one pipe continuously and intensely. Even the best
briars will suffer from such coarse treatment - however well they are
maintained. A pipe should be given time to cool down completely before being
refilled and relit. The cleaning process is a relatively simple matter - merely
a case of tipping the fine ash from the bottom of the bowl, running a pipe
cleaner through the stem a couple of times to remove any moisture that has
It is important to allow the pipe to cool completely before removing the
stem. Never knock the pipe against a shoe, wall etc., as this is certain to
damage the pipe. Always hold the pipe by the bowl when you are emptying it. A
neglected pipe soon takes on a bitter flavour, destroying the fragrance of the
tobacco, and causing an anti-social smell, even when it is not being smoked. A
quick clean after every pipefull eliminates both these dangers
The only other point demanding attention is the occasional need to clear the
bowl of char. From its first smoke, a pipe begins to form a coat of carbon
within the bowl which will thicken, almost imperceptibly, with each subsequent
fill. the best method to clean this is to use a pipe reamer or smokers knife.
Most pipe smokers need just half a dozen accessories to
complete their smoking pleasure - a decent pipe rack; a tobacco pouch; a
generous supply of pipe cleaners; filters (if required); a smokers tool or
knife; plenty of matches or a reliable pipe lighter. Pipes which are not in use,
stay fresher when a pipe cleaner is left inside to absorb moisture. A good pouch
should be hard wearing and as airtight as possible. A good tobacco jar should
store the tobacco as nearly airtight as possible. Most off all, the pipe should
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