There was a time when the pipe was considered the intellectual’s smoke. In fact, one pipe company, Peterson of Ireland, even coined a slogan to that effect, calling itself “The Thinking Man’s Pipe.” Pipe smoking reached its zenith during the 19th century and enjoyed another boom from the 1930s to the ʼ50s, when it came to symbolize manliness, trustworthiness, and fortitude. Indeed, the pipe was a go-to prop for Hollywood directors who wanted to give actors these characteristics. A professor, scientist, or father without a pipe? Unthinkable. In fact, that’s part of the reason why pipe smoking reclaimed the spotlight in the 1980s; it was due to a wave of nostalgia.
Today, an interesting phenomenon is taking place—the Gen Xers and Millennials are rediscovering pipes, but nostalgia has little to do with it. There is something about the erudite pipe that, like a cigar, sets it apart from common cigarettes. Premium pipes are handmade, carved from a pristine block of aged briar; and as with cigars, pipe tobacco has no additives to keep it burning. Also like cigar smoking, pipe smoking does not require the smoker to inhale. It’s likely because of these close links to cigars that many tobacco enthusiasts are now turning to pipes, which offer a more contemplative smoking experience.
Pipes come in different shapes and sizes; there are straight-stemmed pipes and curved (bent-stemmed) pipes. In addition, there are “freehand” pipes, which don't follow traditional shapes and are more like sculptures. A pipe’s shape is largely a matter of personal choice, although if you have a long, angular face, for example, a long thin pipe may better complement your features. In other words, selecting a pipe is not unlike selecting an article of clothing. It must not only look good, it must make you look good.
A pipe’s size is also a factor to consider, as it will affect the length of time you can smoke it. Back in the early 20th century, Alfred Dunhill succinctly categorized pipes by breaking them down into numbered groups, which are still used today. Group one, for example, refers to the smallest pipes, which are good for about 15 to 20 minutes of smoking time. Conversely, group six contains pipes that are good for up to an hour and a half. Medium-sized pipes fall into groups four and five, which are among the most popular, as they can provide about 45 minutes to an hour of smoking time, depending on how fast you puff.
Always buy the best pipe you can afford; you’ll be paying for the quality of the briar and the work of the pipe itself, both necessary characteristics. As for brands, you can never go wrong with Savinelli or Mastro de Paja from Italy. Peterson in Ireland and the White Spot (formerly Dunhill) in England also craft exceptional pipes, as does Nørding in Denmark. Of course, there are many other pipe manufacturers worthy of your attention. Also, it’s imperative that you find a reputable tobacconist and make sure the clerk is someone who also smokes pipes. From there, you’ll need to choose a tobacco. While there are many to choose from, at the most basic level all types can be broken down into two categories—all-natural “English” and naturally flavored “aromatics.” Think of them as single malts and blends, respectively.
Once you’ve selected the tobacco, you need to know how to pack and light your pipe. Start by blowing through the stem to make sure it is free of obstructions. Then, using your fingers, trickle in enough tobacco to fill the bowl. Compress the tobacco with your fingers or a metal or wooden tamper (basically a dowel-type instrument sold by tobacconists). Then trickle in some more tobacco until it’s just below the top of the bowl, and tamp again. Repeat this process until the bowl is full of compressed tobacco that is just firm enough to feel springy. Now using a wooden match or butane lighter—not a torch, as this will char the bowl—“walk” the flame around the surface of the tobacco as you gently puff. This is called the charring light and is similar to how you would toast the foot of a cigar before lighting it. Tamp the tobacco down one more time and relight your pipe, slowly puffing with more conviction. Make sure the entire surface of the tobacco is lit, then sit back and enjoy.