How Does it Smoke?

7th January, 2004: Posted by glpease in Pipes

What are we really talking about when we discuss how a pipe smokes? A pipe is at least two things. Functionally, it is a vessel in which we burn tobacco, but it is also the vehicle through which the flavor of our tobacco is delivered. We tend to stuff these two aspects of a pipe’s smoking qualities into one box, treating them almost interchangably, though they really deserve separate investigation. Of course, to many, importantly, a pipe is not only an object of function, but also one of art, satisfying a desire for aesthetic beauty, but that is a different topic, perhaps for exploration at a later date.

It’s easiest to investigate the functional aspects of “How Does it Smoke”, so we’ll start there, turning our attention to the internal construction of the pipe. The shape of the tobacco chamber, the placement, and diameter of the draught hole, the taper of the airway from bowl to bit, the alignment of the stem’s airway with the draught in the shank, the depth of the mortise with respect to the tenon’s length, and so on all play a role in the therodynamic characteristics of the little furnace that is a smoldering pipe. When all is perfect, the pipe will smoke with effortless ease, cool, dry, and requiring minimal attention to keep it lit, allowing the moderately skillful smoker to burn every last shred of tobacco in the chamber without excessive relighting. When something is amiss, however, all hell can break loose; the pipe can smoke wet, gurgle, or resist being kept alight. If the draught is not drilled to the bottom of the bowl, smoking all the tobacco can be difficult or impossible, leading to a “wet heel,” and, ultimately, causing the pipe to sour, or to require excessive drying time between smokes.

Too, if the airway is poorly aligned, it can be difficult to get a pipe cleaner all the way through to the bowl without removing the stem, something we have all been taught is a no-no while the pipe is warm. If the pipe is a gurgler, this is certainly far from the ideal situation. Pipes like this are frustrating, to say the least. Further, a large gap between the end of the tenon and the mortise floor forms a plenum in which expansion cooling of the mainstream smoke occurs, resulting too often in condensation of moisture. Again, this can lead to a wet smoking pipe, with the only solution being to remove the stem to clean out the mortise. If not attended, moisture can drip back into the bowl, causing excess moisture in the tobacco, which will make it difficult to light as the smoke progresses.

A restrictive airway will impede the flow of air from bit to bowl while the pipe is not being puffed. Heat from the tobacco in the bowl sets up a convection flow that helps to keep it smoldering. Blocking off the air at the stem side will extinguish the pipe fairly quickly, as will, of course, blocking the top of the bowl. A better draught will encourage that wonderful, just-smoldering ember to continue its life gracefully, certainly a desirable characteristic.

With everything done right, we have a pipe that smokes well, at least in a functional sense. How does it taste? This is a different thing altogether, and depends on the mysteries of the briar itself.

The flavor of a pipe is a product of the synergy between the tobacco in the pipe, and whatever flavor the wood imparts to the smoke. Ideally, the briar that was used to produce our pipe was of good quality and properly handled - boiled sufficiently at the mill, dried completely, cured long enough, and in some cases, treated in a proprietary fashion by the pipe maker. If everything is right, we can enjoy a great smoke from the first bowl, knowing that it will continue to improve as the pipe is “broken-in.” If the handling or curing process was hurried, or the briar is otherwise of inferior quality, our pipe just won’t taste good. It may be harsh tasting, or bitter, or it can cause the mildest tobacco to “bite” the tongue. The break-in process will, in some cases, eradicate this bad taste, but in other cases, we just end up with a lousy pipe.

Why do I want to make this distinction between “good smoking” and “good tasting?” Because a great tasting pipe may smoke poorly, while a great smoking pipe might taste terrible. One of these flaws might be correctable after the fact by a careful craftsman, while the other may be something that is buried so deeply in the wood that it will remain there until the end of time.

Last year, I acquired a beautiful GBD Granitan in an unusual flat-bottomed, full-bent shape, like a cognac bowled oom paul poker. As soon as I got it, I cleaned it thoroughly, filled it with tobacco, and settled in for a delicious smoke. This pipe tasted fantastic, delivering all the flavor of my tobacco smoothly and sweetly. The downside? The thing gurgled and slurped like a cheap drunk. Getting to the bottom of the bowl required several pipe cleaners, each caerfully bent into the single strange topography that would allow it to pass through the stem and into the shank without necessitating removal of the stem. To make things worse, far too many relights were required, as the damn thing just didn’t want to keep lit. I wasn’t about to stand for this, so I prepared for a little surgery. I increased the diameter of the draught slightly, to just under 4mm, and carefully radiused the mortise end to align better with the stem’s airway, which I opened to a slightly larger diameter than the shank’s airway, about 4.5mm, tapering gently down to the original 2.5mm through the rest of the stem. Was it worth the time spent? Absolutely! Now, the pipe not only tastes great, but it smokes beautifully!

Not all stories have happy endings. Another pipe in my collection continues, despite numerous attempts to cure it of its nasty taste, to taste like some combination of burning creosote and tarmac no matter what tobacco I fill it with. The pipe is beautifully constructed, and smokes effortlessly to the bottom, but it tastes so bad, I’m slowly beginning to wonder why I should waste any more tobacco, or my own taste buds on the thing. (I can be a slow learner, sometimes.) “Give it a chance,” some of my friends have said. “Some pipes just take a while.” How much of a chance does it need? Twenty bowls? Fifty? After over a year of smoking the thing once a week, there is still no sign of progress. I’m thinking I just might be about ready to give up. It’s so pretty, though…

While some collectors seem preoccupied with beautiful grain and perfect construction, in the final analysis, it’s the flavor of a pipe that matters most of all, and while construction can play some minor role on taste, even the most perfectly crafted pipe will never deliver a superb smoke if the briar from which it is made is hopelessly flawed in some invisible way. So, while both the functional aspects of a pipe and its flavor are important, the taste quality of the wood must always come first. When I think about “How Does it Smoke,” I’m nearly always thinking about the taste, not the mechanics. And here, as in so many things, it is nature, not the hand of man, that ultimately prevails.

The GBD mentioned, by the way, also seems to have exquisite timing. I lit it upon beginning this article, and it has just now breathed its last puff of smoke. It seems a perfect time to call it a night.