How to Pack a Bowl: An Intro to Pipe Tobacco

(originally shared on writely considered)

Here we are.  It’s summer’s home stretch, everyone. August is here, and for us students, that means one thing: school. It’s coming. We’re all excited, of course, for a nice fresh start, but as you know, it can be pretty damn stressful, too. For me, August means starting a new job, entering a Master’s program, and moving to a new city – all in the same month. Bottom line: August. Is. Scary.

Personally, I’ve struggled quite a bit with anxiety, and times like these don’t exactly set me at ease. All the stress actually tends to put me behind; I’m less focused, less motivated, and I often feel inclined to rely upon unhealthy coping mechanisms. Even my writing suffers. Not fun, man. And I know that a lot of you have the same or similar problems. Luckily, there are quite a few ways we can refresh and get back on track!

One of my favorite ways to relax and focus is to smoke a tobacco pipe. It’s delicious, it’s mellowing, and the ritual of smoking is calming in and of itself. There’s nothing better than pairing a nice tobacco with a pot of tea, and maybe munching on a baked good or something while you sit back with some music and read, write, get some work done, or simply chill, if that’s what you need. I know, pipes make you think of old, mustached men in tweed (and yeah, when I go into smoke shops, that’s usually the demographic). But hey, pipes are great! I love them, and I’d love for more young people (especially women!) to take up the practice.

A chill afternoon smoking black raspberry tobacco with Irish Breakfast black tea and homemade blondies. (Credit: mine.)

But first, before we get into the specifics of things, if you’re new to pipes, I should probably clear some things up. This will take up the next few paragraphs, so feel free to skim or skip ahead if you’re ready to start smoking now.

These days, when most people hear the word “tobacco” they cringe, they recoil, they stick up their noses and squint. “Um, ew,” they say, “Smoking is so gross. It’s literally cancer.” I mean, yeah, if we’re talking about cigarettes. They taste bad, they smell bad, they’re packed full of thousands of addictive, poisonous chemicals. Even the wrapper is shit. I mean, yuck, right? But what these people don’t realize is that the world of tobacco doesn’t end with Camels and Marlboros. High quality cigars and pipe tobaccos are such a far cry from gas station cigs it’s a wonder those things can even be classified as tobacco at this point, after all the processing they’ve been through. In my opinion, the current anti-smoking fad has gotten a little ridiculous. It’s extreme enough now that it promotes ignorance about tobacco, instead of awareness. We’ve gone full circle. Well done, guys. Yikes.

That said, it’s absolutely true that yes, pipe tobacco contains nicotine. And yes, nicotine is addictive (but not as addictive as you think it is. Cigarettes are so much more addictive than pipe tobacco or cigars, both because of all the added chemicals, and because of the quantity of cigarettes smokers consume a day. When you smoke a pipe, you’re probably only having one or two bowls a day at most, which is maybe 1-3 grams of tobacco per bowl). And yes, if you inhale it, your lungs won’t be happy (but hey, pipe smokers don’t inhale!). In the same way, though, your heart isn’t going to thank you for too much caffeine, and any amount of alcohol makes your liver squirm. If you don’t consume products with alcohol, caffeine, or any other potentially harmful/addictive substance, you probably won’t like smoking. But if you do enjoy the occasional glass of wine or cup of coffee … why not smoke a little something every once in a while?

As with everything, smoking is all about moderation. I personally will smoke one to two bowls per day, but sometimes I’ll go a few days or a week without smoking anything at all. It just depends on my mood! The biggest difference, for me, between pipes and cigarettes, is that I smoke when I want to, not when I need to. I’m in control. Also pipes taste and smell so much better, haha.

Becker Pipes,, Federico Becker, Tobacco Pipes, Pipe Smoking, Italian Pipes, Paolo Becker, Fritz Becker,
A handsome collection of briar pipes. Source.


Alright, so! Let’s get into it. As this is merely an introduction to pipe tobacco, I can’t go over absolutely everything there is to know. But, these are the basics.

Clearly, before you pack a bowl, you’re going to need a pipe. Eventually you’ll probably want to collect them (they’re beautiful pieces of art), and if you’re an active smoker you’ll want to have a couple on hand to switch out, so you can let them rest a day or two between smokes. There are a few different models, but the primary materials used for making pipes are briar, corn cob, and meerschaum. Meerschaum is a material found near the Black Sea that’s light and easy to carve, so pipes made of it are often intricately designed. They’re also cool and lightweight, but they’re really expensive. Corn cob pipes are cheap and pretty easy to maintain (they’re literally made out of corn cobs), but I personally can’t get past the aesthetic. Briar pipes are probably where you’ll want to start. Briar is a breathable, heat-resistant wood that works really well for pipes, and it can also be carved into lovely designs, as well (though the wood itself is beautiful). Talk to the guys in your local smoke shop about different models, as well as filters, cleaners, tamps, etc. You’ll definitely need cleaners and a tamp, but you may or may not need a filter. It just depends. And some pipes come with built-in filters, so, just ask about it.

You’ll also need some tobacco. Peterson’s is my personal favorite brand, but I got started on Dunhill’s Elizabethan mixture, and it’s still a favorite of mine. It’s a Virginia blend, not too strong and not too mild, it smells like dried fruit, with a touch of spice, and it tastes great. Not too sweet, not too potent. A good one to start with. But really, which one you should get depends on your tastes. I will say, though, that if you’re new to tobacco in general, you might want to stay away from English tobacco, as it tends to be very potent. Smell it, if possible, before you buy. If you think you might like a little more flavoring, maybe stick to a light aromatic. Those are the flavored tobaccos. They tend to taste less like straight tobacco and are usually milder than natural blends, so you might want to work your way up from there? But it really depends on your tastes. Again, I recommend paying a visit to the local smoke shops in your area. They should be able to steer you in the right direction. Either way, have fun with it! Exploring is always a good time.

(If you want to know more about tobacco, The Pipe Smoker has compiled some details for you on different blends and cuts.)

Dunhill Elizabethan mixture. (source)


Now. The semantics–

Step by Step: How to Pack

  1. Alright! So you’ve got your pipe, your tamp, your tobacco – let’s get packing. Depending on how moist the tobacco is, you might want to take a couple good-sized pinches and let it air-out for a few minutes before you pack it. If it’s too wet, you risk letting condensation form when you light up, and that’ll turn the smoke into steam and could really turn the experience sour. This also happens when you smoke it too hot, as current/former cig smokers and potheads tend to do. I’ve burned my tongue many a time, let me tell you.
  2. Anyway, if you think it’s dry enough, take the tobacco and start sprinkling little pinches of it into the bowl until it’s filled to the top. Then take your finger and gently press down until the tobacco fills up the bowl about halfway to three-quarters full. At this point the tobacco in the bowl should still be fairly loose and springy – not dense.
  3. Sprinkle in a little more tobacco, again until it reaches the top of the bowl. Then press down again, this time with just a little bit more force. You still don’t want to pack it too hard, because the tobacco will clump together and make for an dense, uneven smoke. At this point the tobacco should be about three-quarters to two thirds full.
  4. Now sprinkle a little more tobacco in there until it’s nearly overflowing. Press down with your thumb now, with more pressure this time. The tobacco should still be springy. Take a couple test pulls during this process to see if you get any resistance in airflow. If the air doesn’t come smooth, you’ve packed it too tight, and need to start again. After the third sprinkle of tobacco, you might sprinkle a little extra on top, if you need it, but it depends.
  5. Enjoy! Remember to run a pipe cleaner through it when you’ve finished smoking and have cleaned out the leftover ashes (you might want to twist off the stem every once in a while, too, to get a deeper clean.) (Click here if you would like to learn a little more about cleaning your pipe.)

If you don’t grasp it right away, don’t worry – you’ll develop a good system eventually. And again I’ll advertise your local smoke shop! They’ll help you out if you’re having trouble.

Some Tips for Smoking
When you first light up, put your lip to the mouthpiece, ignite the flame in your lighter, and as you take a pull from the pipe, lower the flame to the leaves in the bowl and light them in a circular motion, so the entire surface gets caught. You have to suck in while you do this or it’s not going to catch. You’ll probably have to do this two or three times, and then you can start sipping. You might take a long pull, then a couple puffs, just to get it lit, and then sip and enjoy until the consistency of the pull starts feeling a little too loose, and the smoke you exhale is a little wispy. At that point you’re going to need to tamp it down lightly, just until you start feeling a little resistance. You’ll have to do this a few times throughout the smoke, and definitely soon after you first light up. Especially if you’re a new smoker, you’ll probably have to relight it a few times during the smoke, but it’s not just newbies who have to do this. The number of times you have to relight depends on a number of conditions, including the consistency of the tobacco, the weather, and how often you’re puffing on it. Remember: don’t smoke it too hot (too much too fast)! Sip it easy, or the smoke will turn to steam and will burn your tongue and taste terrible. And because of the puddle of moisture that forms at the bottom of the bowl, you’ll have to clean the pipe more often during and after the smoke every time you smoke it hot like that. Eventually, you’ll wear out the pipe, so remember to take it slow.

But the most important piece of advice I can give you is this: don’t inhale! Seriously! Maybe you’re used to cigarettes, hookah, or marijuana, or maybe you just assume that if you smoke something, it’s going into your lungs. Not so, friends! This stuff can be harsh. I know people who smoked cigarettes for 20+ years and inhaling too much pipe smoke still makes them sick as hell. Don’t inhale. Take it from someone whose stubborn ass has been laid out for hours at a time waiting for the nausea and headache to subside.

“So what’s the point then, if you don’t inhale?”

Hey, that’s valid. But listen – even if you don’t inhale, you still get a nice buzz, especially when you smoke some of the more potent tobaccos. Believe it or not, the lining of your mouth actually absorbs the nicotine and sends it straight into your bloodstream. It’ll take a few minutes for it to kick in, but trust me, you’ll be mellowed out in no time.

I needed an image to break up the wall of text here, so, uh, here’s my face? Hello. (credit: mine)

Remember: pipe smoking isn’t all about the buzz. If you’re looking for a quick hit, turn elsewhere. Pipes are meant to be smoked slow and steady. You don’t take a drag from a pipe; you just puff on it. You sip it, like fine wine. Don’t drain from it like you would a cigarette or joint. Unlike cigarettes, pipe tobacco is meant to be tasted. You’re in it for the whole experience, not just the buzz.

Before I started smoking pipes, I was far more used to taking hits than sips, and to this day I have to be careful not to inhale or smoke too hot – especially on humid days (if it’s too hot out, by the way, smoke inside or not at all. It’ll start smelling and tasting burnt, and it taints the pipe. Bleck). Just be mindful! Pipes are a learning curve for a lot of people, especially (oddly enough) those with previous smoking experience. Just have patience, and remember to relax and take it slow! Eventually it’ll be natural to you, and truly, it’s worth learning how to smoke. It smells and tastes great, goes well with tea, coffee, and other beverages, and overall it’s just a great way to relax. Try it!

Well, this was a bit long. If you made it this far, congratulations. Thanks for reading, and if you have any questions, hit me up!



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