Filling the Bowl

27th December, 2003: Posted by glpease in Technique

When I first began to smoke a pipe, or rather, when I became serious about our delightful pastime, I seemed to find myself nearly obsessed with the techniques of pipe smoking. I read books, talked to inveterate pipe smokers, conducted experiments, all in the interest of increasing my enjoyment of my new hobby. At every turn, though, I found contradictions. It sometimes seemed that if one were to poll 100 experienced pipesters, one would return with at least 101 answers to each question. Still, after over 20 years of puffing, I sometimes have the idea that I know no more today than I did when I touched my first match to a bowlful of tobacco.

Recently, a friend asked me how I fill my pipe, convinced that I had access to some arcane wisdom passed down through the ages to those of us who are “in the business.” I had to admit that my methods were particularly sloppy in this regard, and that I tended, more or less, to just stuff tobacco into the bowl, press it down in a somewhat educated way with my thumb, and set the weeds alight. “Oh, good,” was his response. “I’m so glad I’m not the only one.” I’m quite certain my friend and I are not alone, and that more people employ our sloppy technique than a more practiced and deliberate one. Naturally, though, his question got me thinking about the whole process, and how important it really is. After all, I’ve been enjoying my pipe smoking for more than two decades, and haven’t suffered in any way from my sometimes dismal packing technque. To some, though, proper packing is a critically essential part of their routine. I’ve observed smokers who posess an amazing capacity for minutia, seeming to place every strand individually into the bowl. I wondered if their smoking experience is objectively any better than mine, if this behaviour is just a manifestation of some form of compulsion disorder, or just a habit or a fulfilling ritual, so I set about to experiment. (Bet you didn’t see that coming…)

I will admit to something of a selfish objective when starting out on this path of inquiry. I wanted to graduate to the next level, to learn to fill my pipe, light it, and smoke it to the bottom without striking another match, to be recognized by my peers as a master pipeman. Of course, the delightful experience of the one-light-smoke has happened, even to a business-casual filler like myself, but I can take no credit for those happy events. The fates have smiled upon me, perhaps three times (that’s the charm), and my charge of tobacco has burned completely to ash after the first light. So wonderful were these experiences, that I remember them still, even though the last time it happened was at least ten years ago. I know pipesters who routinely finish a bowl with a single light, or at least claim to, and I wanted to be able to join their illustrious ranks, to have some chance at winning a pipe smoking contest, or at least, just to survive more than a few minutes. I figured some scientific methodolgy would provide the key, or at least be the best place to start.

Taking all the tidbits of technique I’d learned from my reading, from talking to the pros, and combining this with a little practical understanding of what’s going on in the little furnace, it became clear that what was essential was a consistent, even pack, with just the right amount of air space between the strands, just the right moisture content of the tobacco, and good smoking technique. It all starts with the fill, so that’s where I would put the majority of my attention.

I tried it all - the “Three Pinch” method, the “Gravity Fill” technique, and the “Chop and Drop” variation. I sliced, I diced, I cut julienne strips and chiffonades. I did everything but order a vegematic. I was turning into the Ron Popiel of pipe smoking. I tried dry tobacco, damp tobacco, and tobacco in between. I experimented with different pressures, using different cuts for the bottom of the bowl than for the top. I tried rubbing flake to near-shag consistency, and I tried rolling it into litle cigars. I even tried aligning ribbons to make the bowl like a fat, briar encased cigarette. With each new technique, something changed, adjustments were made, and new things were tried. Drier tobaccos seem to work best, deliver the sweetest smoke with a looser pack, while moister tobaccos prefer a slightly firmer touch. Too, each tobacco seems to have it’s own ideal method. Three Nuns, left as small disks, stacked carefully in the bowl with a little “teasing” of the top layers delivers a wonderful flavor, and a long, cool smoke. Flakes taste vastly different when rubbed out than when smoked like a little “sausage.” Tamping delicately is a must, irrespective of the tobacco or the filling method. The weight of the tamper is generally more than sufficient to flatten the ash without causing excess compression of the tobacco in the bottom of the bowl. If the perimeter of the surface gets just a little more attention than the center of the ember, especially at the front of the bowl, farthest away from the draught hole, so much the better. The worst possible thing is to tamp the center MORE than the outside areas. So many variables! So much experimentation! So much FUN! I would yet become an expert!

If you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, here it comes. Despite all my efforts, I still haven’t made it to expert status, though, of course, I’ve learned a few things, and the journey has certainly been an entertaining one, so I’ll keep plodding along. Some things have worked, while others have failed dramatically. (Playing with firm packing of overly damp tobacco was really a bad idea. The resulting soggydottle was possibly well suited to patching bicycle tires, but it had no business being in the bowl of a pipe.) I still can’t say that I can smoke a bowl with one light, but I do seem to have a little more understanding of the entire process. I also have come to realize why there are 101 answers from 100 pipe smokers for every pipe-smoking related question. Somewhere along the way, we all find the methods that work for us, and those are, of course, the “right” ways to do things. I’ve since returned, mostly, to my haphazard packing practice, though informed by some of the results of my “research,” and, therefore, enhanced by some incremental refinements. The refinements are a good thing. After all, the little rituals are part of the overall pleasure, and even the filling should not be done hurridly. While not yet an expert, I’ve learned an important thing or two from all this experimentation after all.