Tobacco Pipes

How to Break in a New Tobacco Pipe

A few things are as satisfying as buying a new pipe. You probably have visited your tobacconist a few times, always drooling when you see that beauty. Or, you’ve bookmarked the website added and removed a pipe from your basket. Numerous times… Finally, the day has come! You have put down your hard-earned cash and bought the pipe of your dreams.

And horror strikes… Your new pipe could be better. The draw needs to be fixed. Your new pipe smokes hot. The tobacco tastes terrible — although it is the same brand you’ve grown to love and trust. What could be wrong with your new pipe? Have you developed bad habits overnight? Did you buy a subpar pipe? Did you waste your money? None of these, my fellow pipe smokers.

You need to break your new pipe in. When you rush the process, you’ll end up with a pipe that isn’t going to do you (or itself) any favors. But fear not! We’ll take you through the process in our comprehensive guide on breaking in a new pipe (a how-to guide). We’ll discuss the importance of breaking in a new pipe, provide you with tips for building up a cake, protecting the chamber walls, and ultimately enjoy a cool, enjoyable smoke for years to come.

Importance of Breaking In a New Pipe

Before we start with the methods you can use to break in your new pipe, it is essential to understand the reason behind this process.

Regardless of the type of pipe you’ve bought, whether briar, Meerschaum, corn cob, or any other material, you must prepare it for smoking. The carbon cake — a thin, black layer must be built to ensure your pipe performs at its best. Let’s assume you’ve bought a new briar pipe for our purposes in this post.

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Why, you ask? If you don’t break in your pipe, you expose the briarwood to direct heat, which may lead to it splitting or burning through the bowl. Apart from those factors, you may also experience overheated smoke, leading to the dreaded tongue bite or an overwhelming amount of smoke that tastes awful. An overheated pipe is referred to as a pipe that smokes hot.

When you break in your pipe, you slowly build a protective layer inside the bowl with carbon residue. You don’t have to worry; you cannot die from carbon poisoning. The cake is a ‘coating’ that protects the bowl’s chamber from the tobacco’s direct heat. It also helps to regulate the smoking temperature. It enhances tobacco flavor, leading to a more enjoyable smoking experience.

In summary, here’s the top reasons why you need to break in your pipe:

  • To prevent tongue bite. A tongue bite is a burning sensation on the tongue and lips caused by smoking a new pipe too quickly or aggressively. The carbon cake helps to insulate the pipe bowl and prevent the tobacco from burning too hot.
  • To improve the flavor of the smoke. The carbon cake also helps to filter out some of the harsh chemicals in the smoke, resulting in a smoother and more flavorful smoke.
  • To extend the life of the pipe. The carbon cake protects the wood of the pipe from the heat and moisture of the burning tobacco, helping to prevent the pipe from cracking or warping.
  • You’ll get to know your pipe. A new pipe to a pipe smoker is like a blank canvas to an artist. You’ll learn how to pack the bowl, how hard you should draw, and what type of tobacco to use (and which to avoid).

Remember, briarwood comes from a living, breathing plant once full of sap, resin, minerals, and life. Even with the most outstanding care during curing, the briar can retain some impurities when it reaches the artisan’s workbench. Sometimes, the curing process is rushed, and more impurities remain in the wood, making it necessary to break the pipe in.

When you break in your pipe, you’re smoking through the resins (and impurities) that remained in the wood after your pipe was carved and drilled. Unfortunately, lower-end pipes can be full of impurities, and removing them will take a longer break-in period. I once bought a stunningly beautiful pipe, but it was too cheap for my liking. But I just had to have it! After about 30 (maybe 40) bowls, I finally broke through the resins and impurities. It was a somewhat frustrating journey and took a lot of patience, but it was worth it. My advice here is: never rush the breaking-in process. Ever. Breaking in a new pipe takes work and patience — stick with it — you will be rewarded with a stunning smoking piece and many years of happy smoking.

Before we continue breaking in a new tobacco pipe, a word of caution: a poorly drilled or off-center draught hole will give you endless frustration. Unfortunately, cheaper pipes do not undergo the stringent quality controls that major manufacturers like Dunhill or Peterson pride themselves on. Side note, check out our hyperlinked posts about these two brands! Sometimes, a lousy pipe is and will always be an awful pipe. Retire it from circulation and put it on a shelf as a reminder not to buy cheap pipes. But… sometimes you’re lucky, and your cheapie becomes your best friend like mine.

The day has come! You have your new pipe, set out your tobacco and tools, and are ready to light up. Stop. Think. Proceed with caution. Don’t fill the bowl up; tamp down and light up. Follow the instructions below to ensure your new pipe is excellent by breaking it in.

The Gradual Packing Method: Step by Step

With pipe and tobacco ready, let’s guide you through the process. The gradual packing method is used to attain a well-seasoned pipe and provide a cool smoke down the lane.

Inspect Your New Pipe

An essential step to purchasing a new pipe is thoroughly inspecting it for any cracks or faults in the wood. However, this may be more difficult if you order a pipe from a retail website — that’s why I always visit my tobacconist when I make new purchases.

A quick word on weight: if the pipe feels heavy when you hold it, there’s a chance that it may not have been cured properly, and you’ll take longer to break it in. Briar pipes usually feel light when you lift and hold them.

Select the Right Tobacco

Unhealthy Addiction Nicotine Tobacco Pipe Cigar Photo

Pipe purchased and in your hand? Check! Was tobacco selection made? Check! But did you choose the right tobacco for the task? Let’s see. Your choice of tobacco is critical to ensure you prepare your pipe for many years of smoking pleasure.

Now is the time of our discontent with aromatic blends. Avoid aromatic blends (and high-sugar ones) because they can cause the tobacco and pipe to burn excessively hot. Your best option during this crucial stage is neutral-tasting blends with a low sugar content because they burn at a lower temperature.

The First Smoke’s Importance

The whole point of the first few smoking sessions is to create the cake in the bottom half of the pipe’s bowl. The carbon cake is what’s going to protect your pipe and tobacco down the road.

Pack a generous pinch or two of tobacco into the bowl, careful not to tamp it too firmly. Remember to leave a small gap between the tobacco and the top of the bowl. Light up and let the tobacco and pipe harmonize with each other.

Sometimes, manufacturers will use a stain inside the bowl for aesthetic reasons. But beware: the stain will never taste good if you try and smoke through it. It may be a mixture of sodium silicone (known as ‘water glass’) and carbon. I suggest gently wiping it out a few times with a high-alcohol adult drink like whiskey, rum, or vodka. I’ve heard of pipe smokers who coat the inside of the bowl with honey and let the pipe rest for a few days. Other smokers prefer to sand it off and build their cake. Whichever method you choose, remember to take your time when you’re building up the cake and break in your new pipe.

If the cake-and-stain coating is thicker than a nickel, it is time to use a reamer and cut it back; otherwise, your pipe might get clogged.

Quick Light, S-l-o-o-o-w Smoking

Remember to adopt a slow and leisurely pace when you light up your new tobacco pipe. The point is to get an even bowl coating; puffing vigorously will only lead to your pipe smoking hot. Let it smolder rather than allowing the tobacco to ignite and burn aggressively. This will help to prevent overheating, and you’ll still be able to enjoy your new pipe.

Emptying the Bowl

Never, ever tap a hot pipe. Not an old one. It’s not a new tobacco pipe, either. Always let your pipe cool down entirely before you gently tap out the ash and rub pipe cleaner through your pipe. Refrain from scraping the bowl too hard because you’ll undo all the carbon build-up you’re trying to achieve.

Empty, Run Pipe Cleaner, Smoke. Repeat Process

By now, you’ve probably lit up your first batch of tobacco, tipped out the ash, and run a pipe cleaner through to get it all nice and clean for the next session. You’ll add more tobacco each time you light up to build up the cake. As the cake starts building up and thickening, you can add more tobacco and tamp it down more firmly. Although we’re saying ‘firmly,’ remember to handle your pipe and tamp gently and carefully. Never compress the tobacco into a solid mass in the bowl.

The First Full Bowl

After a few sessions of gradually building up the cake and the amount of tobacco in the bowl, you can consider smoking a full bowl. The key to breaking in a new pipe is to do it gradually. Keep on smoking slowly, and never rush a smoking session. This will ensure a consistent cake build-up to protect the wood.

Deep Clean Your Tobacco Pipe!

Once you’ve achieved a substantial cake, it is time for a thorough pipe cleaning session. The aim is to build up a cake thickness around a US dime (0.053 inches or 1.35 mm). Be careful when scraping the bowl’s inside with a pipe tool. You don’t want to undo all your hard work, nor do you want to damage the chamber’s walls.

Smoke Slowly and Be Patient

The break-in period may last a few weeks to a couple of months. The aim is to build a carbon cake that protects your pipe’s delicate wood. Smoking your pipe slowly and gradually, building up the amount of tobacco with each session, is the key to achieving a pipe that will last you for many years.

Pipe Smoking Tips

If you’re relatively new to pipe smoking, here are some extra tips to enhance your overall experience:

1. Invest in Quality: Start your pipe-smoking journey on the right foot from the start. Always buy the best quality from reputable pipe makers and tobacconists. Materials, craftsmanship, and quality will significantly affect your smoking satisfaction. Smoking average tobacco in a high-quality pipe will still give you an enjoyable experience. Still, average tobacco in a cheap, low-quality pipe is a recipe for disaster.

2. Experiment with Various Tobaccos: In the beginning, it is advisable to avoid high-sugar content tobaccos because they tend to burn hot. But, when your pipe is broken in, let the good times roll and experiment with different blends to find your personal favorite(s).

3. Learn Proper Packing: While breaking your pipe in, it is an excellent time to learn proper packing techniques and what method works best with your new pipe. Use the breaking-in period to get to know your pipe and experiment with different packing styles.

4. Keep it Slow: One of my biggest joys is to light up a pipe and let the world drift past me. During the breaking-in period, you’ll learn to savor each puff and join a community of like-minded individuals who prefer to take life slightly slower.

5. Maintain Your Pipe: Regular cleaning and maintenance are vital to keep your pipe in excellent condition and ensure a consistent and enjoyable smoking experience.

Conclusion

Breaking in a new pipe is a gratifying process that establishes the foundation for numerous enjoyable smoking sessions. Use the gradual packing method, smoke slowly, and maintain patience as you develop a proper carbon cake. Your dedication will be rewarded with a cooler, more flavorful smoke, transforming your pipe smoking experience into something truly satisfying.

Whether you’re a seasoned pipe smoker or a neophyte embarking on your pipe-smoking adventure, breaking in a new pipe is a shared tradition among enthusiasts. It’s a testament to the craftsmanship of pipe makers and the dedication of pipe smokers to attain the best possible smoking experience. So, take your time, relish the process, and cherish the moments spent with your new tobacco pipe. Ultimately, it’s not just about breaking in a pipe; it’s about building a connection between you, the pipe, and the rich tapestry of flavors that await you with each puff. Happy Smoking!

Andrew Olsen, a Musicology Ph.D., explores the intersections of art, literature, and music. Beyond academics, he's a cigar aficionado who revels in experimenting with pipe tobacco blends and collecting vintage and new pipes. Other pursuits include reading about cigars and tobacco pipes, blends, and (of course) writing about it.

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