G. L. Pease
When I was a kid, I remember reading about a car with two reverse gears. Why anyone would want to go fast backwards was puzzling, then, as it is now, but there it was. There are, of course, some heavy vehicles with two speeds backwards, and some tanks are so equipped, but it seems superfluous folly in a sport car which isn’t likely to move large amounts of earth, or require a quick retreat in the face of enemy shelling. Usually. Unless, I suppose, the driver is smoking a pipe whilst motoring through the hostile territory of militant antis performing the face waving dance of the hands, coughing overly dramatically and lobbing nasty epithets in his general direction.
After last month’s column, I’ve found myself wanting to back up in a spirited, second-reverse gear way, and take a left at the fork in the road to wind up at another view on the care and feeding of our treasured pipes. It’s not that I want to take back anything from last month; that was solid, and the "smoke the hell out of it" technique has breathed some new life into more than a few of my briars over the years. Recently, in fact, I’ve been through a few weeks of "persistence" with some persnickety pieces that had offered less than admirable performance, and am happy to report a pretty high rate of "conversion" resulting from the administration of a little protracted pipe torture.
But, there’s that other side of things, the side that is riddled with, if anything, even more controversy. What about the pipes that smoke great, that don’t require the pipe smoker’s version of the Spanish Inquisition (at least a Monty Pythonesque rendering of it, right up to and including our fanatical devotion to the Lady Nicotine, and the perils of the comfy chair), and are always at the ready to bring us smoking pleasure at a moment’s notice? What about them?
The question of the importance of "resting" a pipe comes up often in conversations with other pipesters, and especially on internet forums. Inevitably, the discussion will polarize, with one side insisting that it’s important to let your pipe sit in a proper rack for no less than a thousand-and-one nights, or it will somehow self-destruct, and the other side banging on their collective pulpit that pipes don’t need rest, that wood was wet for years before it was turned into a pipe, that they’ve been smoking the same pipe every day since Lincoln was shot, and nothing bad has come of it, and it’s the way their grandpappy did it.
Fact is, both sides have a point, so let’s have a look, and see if we can make some sense out of the whole thing. Before we do, it’s important to mention that in last month’s column, I was not advocating constant and continued impertinence towards your cherished briars. The whole idea, really, was to help get a troublesome pipe over a hump so it can coast down the other side with some grace. Once the hell-smoking phase has been accomplished, it’s a good idea to let it breathe a bit. But, what about those pipes that seem to smoke just fine? Do they really need rack-time to keep them tasting their best?
Those who smoke their pipes seemingly non-stop without giving them much of a break present a valid argument. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. They’ve been doing it like this for years, in many cases, and cannot see any reason to tamper with success. They’re content with what their pipes deliver, and, therefore, generally consider any additional complications in the process to be little more than a fussy nuisance. They ain’t having any, and think those who do are silly for it. Are they missing something? I’d generally be inclined to crawl out onto the thin end of the limb and say yes, but not without some evidence, which is precisely what I intended to gather some years ago when I embarked upon a little investigation. I grabbed a fistful of pipes, all well seasoned and flavourful smokers, and began to methodically treat them with what I thought of as measured abuse; all is fair in love and science. Over the period of a few months, I collected experiential evidence, smoking the same pipes several times a day for several days, then smoking others once a day for several weeks, never giving any pipe more than a day’s rest. During this time, I periodically rotated in other pipes in my normal way, to serve as a sort of baseline, to make sure my perceptions were not being skewed.
Some pipes fared better than others, showing less degradation from smoke to smoke, but in no instance was a given pipes last smoke as good, subjectively, as its first. Seemingly, this alone should be enough to support the idea that resting a pipe is a Good Thing.
In the first phase, I smoked the same pipe several times a day, cleaning carefully between bowls, and results came quite quickly. After the first bowl, subsequent bowls became increasingly harsh, sharp, acrid, less sweet, or hot, and subtle nuances of the tobaccos were lost, or severely attenuated. Considering the possibility that the result could be an artifact of palate fatigue, I’d periodically "reset" my sensory apparatus by smoking a pipe outside of the selection of torture testers, and in most cases, a wonderful smoke was delivered, so even given that it is probable that palate fatigue did enter the equation to some degree, it, alone, was not sufficient to fully explain the degradation of the smoke from these test pipes.
In the second phase, over a period of several weeks, I smoked a few pipes once or twice daily, again cleaning after each smoke, and allowing each a full day of rest between smokes. As expected, these pipes didn’t suffer nearly as much, though by the end of the first week, the effects of over-use was starting to be obvious in all of them, and in some, symptoms presented after just a few days. Again, there was a loss of sweetness, a degrading of the more subtle flavours, and an increasing harshness, sharpness, or acridity.
All the pipes were then given a little holiday, and allowed a couple week’s R&R before being smoked again. The good news here as that they didn’t seem the worse for wear. All the pipes came back to life in their full glory, and delivered the qualities I’d expected of them prior to this trial by fire. The conclusion that I have to draw from these results is that, yes, pipes need rest if they are to smoke at their best which is good news for those of us who need a good dose of rationalization to justify our periodic outbreaks of out of control PAD. I’m certainly not saying that it’s not possible to enjoy a pipe smoked several times each day, but it seems clear that a pipe treated this way will simply will not deliver its best.
This makes perfect sense, really, when we stop to think about the variety of tasks our pipes are asked to do. There’s the obvious aspect of their service as crucibles of smouldering weeds, keeping the embers in, and letting the smoke out in measured and controlled puffs, but, there’s something equally important going on between bowl and bit as the wood clings tenaciously to some of the byproducts of combustion. Moisture is absorbed into the porous structure of the briar, and heavier distillates and tars are deposited on the walls of the airway. (Every time we shove a pipe cleaner through the shank and pull out a dark, moist, tar-fouled mess, we should thank our pipe for this aspect of the job it performs so faithfully!) There are limits to how much it can take before those byproducts are no longer captured in the pipe, and are delivered in increasing quantities to the smoker’s delicate tongue. Additionally, some of those byproducts remain in the cake, and in the wood, and over time, through mysterious chemical changes, like oxidation, transform into more pleasant flavour producing molecules. This is part of the reason a well broken-in pipe tastes richer, fuller, sweeter than a virgin bowl.
Just how significant is the difference wrought by time, and is it enough to warrant obsessing over rest-cycles and rotations? This depends on a few variables like the smoker’s expectations, tobacco choices, and, to some extent, the pipe. The first part is obvious. Different pipemen expect different things from their pipes, and there’s certainly sufficient anecdotal evidence to suggest that to some, the idea of pipes needing rest is fiddly nonsense. As for tobacco choices, stronger tobaccos deliver more flavour, and are likely less prone to the deleterious effects of a pipe that’s been over-smoked. More subtle tobaccos, on the other hand, can easily go south under the influence of an acrid pipe, enough so that the smoker not used to more delicate leaf might blame the blend for a less than stellar experience, when it might just be the result of the poor disposition of a tragically overworked pipe. The pipe itself, on the other hand, is probably the least variable part of the picture. In my little experiment, some pipes did perform better than others under the stress test, but all of them, eventually, succumbed to the briar equivalent of PTSD.
Palate fatigue is another factor. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of that "Bowl of No Return," after which, we can’t seem to taste much of anything. Sometimes, this is accompanied by the dreaded tongue-bite, but in other cases, it’s just a sort of general sensory numbness. Sometimes pipe smokers need a rest, too, which is why I often advocate the occasional day off. But, back to the subject.
To those who have always taken the "pipes need rest" chestnut to heart, none of this will likely be particularly illuminating, but conducting a little experiment for yourself, experiencing just what happens when you put the briar under this sort of pressure might prove interesting. For those who haven’t considered any benefit in the almost ubiquitous advice, I offer a challenge. Take one of your favourite, frequently smoked briars, smoke a bowl, take some notes, and then set it aside for a couple weeks. Then, smoke the pipe again, and compare and report your experience. We all benefit from the sharing of first-hand stories. Repeat the experiment a few times, and see if, just perhaps, some new doors open in your smoking enjoyment. And, for those of you who just want a little justification for adding a pipe or two to your collection, now you have it. It’s for the good of your existing pipes, in which you have a not-small investment after all. (For some reason, I don’t think significant others will put much stock in that one, but it’s worth adding to your arsenal of excuses, just in case.)
I submit that there’s a good case to be made for resting our pipes, and anything that brings us more pleasure in our puffing is worth a little extra effort. And, don’t we all need a couple more pipes, anyway?
Since 1999, Gregory L. Pease has been the principal alchemist behind the blends of G.L. Pease Artisanal Tobaccos. He’s been a passionate pipeman since his university days, having cut his pipe teeth at the now extinct Drucquer & Sons Tobacconist in Berkeley, California. Greg is also author of The Briar & Leaf Chronicles, a photographer, recovering computer scientist, sometimes chef, and creator of The Epicure’s Asylum.