Learning to Fly

G. L. Pease
I’ve been smoking a pipe for about 30 years, now,
and I’m starting to get the idea that I just don’t know how to do it. Seriously. It’s not that I can’t stuff tobacco into a bowl, get it smouldering, and even keep it going more or less until I get to the bottom, but I know there’s more to it than that, despite the choir’s sustained insistence that “it’s easy,” or that I’m “over-thinking it.” Let me ‘splain.

A few times in my early smoking life, I had some extraordinary and memorable smokes. The stars aligned, the planets converged into some harmonic resonance, my pipe and tobacco were on their honeymoon, and enlightenment was attained. Here’s an example:
Once, when I was relatively new to the pipe, a friend, another pipe smoker, but one with many more years of experience than I had at the time, filled a bowl for me with a tobacco he wanted me to try, an ancient English virginia flake that had been out of production since the time when George VI was on the throne, and was quite precious (though he had dozens of tins squirreled away). “I want you to have the right experience, so I’ll fill your pipe for you.” Like I didn’t know how to fill a pipe?
But, that bowl produced a remarkable interlude of smoky bliss for well over an hour. It lit easily, stayed lit without attention, and, most importantly, delivered an explosion of flavour with each engaging puff. I smoked it to the bottom of the bowl on a single light, or maybe two, and craved another bowl. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced with a pipe. It was that good.

I seem to remember that, at the time, I consoled myself with the comfortable delusion that it had nothing to do with me, or my friend’s packing, and that it was simply the tobacco, and that magical harmony that plays out when a pipe and tobacco combination is found to sing perfectly together. It would have been nice had it been so simply explained, but it was not to be. He gave me the rest of the tobacco, which I smoked several times in the following weeks in that pipe and others, and never again had such a satisfying experience. Apparently, he was right. I didn’t know how to fill a pipe.
The bigger problem came a few weeks later when I asked him to teach me, only to discover that he’d been smoking for so long that he’d forgotten how he actually did it. When I enquired about his technique, how I could learn to achieve that smoking nirvana with some reliability, he could not explain it to me. He could do it without thinking, and I could watch him do it, but he could not express in words the steps he took, how much tobacco to use, how much pressure to apply. It’s perfectly understandable.; after we’ve been doing something for so long, we easily forget what it was like to not be able to do it, and challenges of learning the steps taken as we developed the skill. Try to explain to someone how to walk; it’s much more than just putting one foot in front of the other and repeating the steps on the other side. Most of us do it effortlessly, thoughtlessly every day, but watch a baby move from crawling to toddling to walking, and we can glimpse something of how difficult the process of this experiential learning is. Pipe smoking may not be quite as complicated as learning to walk, but it’s certainly not as easy as it appears in those old black and white films where we see men casually dipping their pipes into jars or pouches, stuffing them haphazardly with tobacco, and lighting up with a flourish of match-flame and a staccato of assertive puffing, accompanied by the inevitable vast clouds of impenetrable smoke.
Then one day, a tobacconist friend, a pipe smoker for much longer than I’d been, and someone I considered something of an expert, rang me to ask me how I packed my pipes. I felt a little silly telling him that my technique was no technique. “I don’t pay any attention to it. I just stuff tobacco in the chamber, press it down a little with my thumb. Just like in the movies. Why?” Apparently, he had a customer who was asking him how to do it, and he wasn’t sure how to explain it. Put one foot in front of the other, repeating the steps on the other side. (I do remember the old advice about filling with three pinches, the first pressed with the hand of a child, the second with that of a woman, and the third and final pinch with that of a man. Perhaps its metaphorically clever, but it’s pretty meaningless in any real sense, and I wasn’t about to quote that overwrought cliché to someone I actually liked.) That call should have been a ringing alarm, but I apparently hit the snooze button without waking.

The experience with that virginia was quite a while ago, and I’d like to think that I’ve learned a few things since then, but I’m not sure that’s the case. I do remember, after that time, becoming somewhat more considered in my approach, even ritualistic about the preparations, and took almost as much enjoyment in the selection and filling of a pipe, and in the cleaning of it afterwards, as in the smoking itself, but over time, I became increasingly careless, hurrying the process, missing out on the preflight pleasures, and the post-smoke care-taking. I treated my pipes simply as reliable, compliant objects, and didn’t always lavish upon them the care they deserved. At some point, the more finicky of them began to become demanding, exhibiting contempt for my increasingly casual familiarity, and I’d either trade them away, or put them in the rack, ignoring them in favor of the more easy-going ones. Soon, I found myself blaming the pipes, or the tobacco, or the weather for the difficulties in my relationships to these briars, for their harsh or sour smokes, and blindly carried on, enjoying the occasional great smoke, and grumbling to my local barman about the bad ones. It could not, after all, be me. It went on for years; I’d hit the snooze button again.
Recently, however, I’ve found myself again becoming more serious about the pipe’s care and feeding, taking more care, focusing more on the entire process, and learning, once again, how to get the most out of the experience. Every tobacco and every pipe is different, and needs to be explored in order for them to deliver their best. Some pipes, what my friend Fred Hanna calls the “Magic Pipes,” seem to taste and smoke great no matter what they’re filled with, but I’m still convinced that if they’re not taken care of, their magic will soon fade.
Packing the pipe isn’t just about keeping it lit or burning the tobacco to pure ash. A properly filled bowl delivers a smoother, sweeter smoke than one casually stuffed. It turns out this old dog might still learn a few new tricks. I’ve been paying more attention, putting a little extra time and effort into the whole of the experience, preparing my tobacco more carefully, filling the bowl evenly, gently at first, then more firmly towards the top, taking care to ensure there are no clumps or tight spots, lighting gently, and tamping very softly, and only when absolutely necessary for relighting. So far, the results seem promising, and I’m getting even more pleasure from my pipes. One foot in front of the other, repeating the steps on the other side. Maybe in time, with a little more practice, I’ll get the hang of this thing after all.
Your turn.

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.
See our interview with G. L. Pease here.

Photos by Steven Kovich

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22 Responses

  • Whilst I certainly understand, and subscribe to, Fred’s “Magic Pipe” thesis and do appreciate the “little skills” in learning to fly (in particular, for me, cleaning, I still believe those “Road to Damascus” smokes depend as much on the mood, the time, the place and the company. Like remembering old pop records, it’s easy to recall instances of sublime smokes from many years past by place rather than pipe or tobacco choice.

  • Interesting read. I find myself in the same situation it all feels hit and miss. Sometimes everything falls into place and other times it’s like i have never packed a pipe before. They all do light well and burn even but it is like the flavor escapes me. My only savior seems to be flakes and the cube cut method as i hit the spot every time with it. It leaves me wondering if i should cast everything else aside and smoke only flakes.

  • One of the things we try to do to educate new smokers is to discuss with them techniques for loading, lighting, and tamping your pipe. As we tell people cigars & cigarettes are intuitive but pipes are not.

  • I enjoyed your article immensely and know the feeling you just described, I find myself many a day without thinking about it walking out to the bar and grabbing my favorite pipe and tobacco and without thinking pack a bowl, light it and walk off into the garage or wherever. Just the other day my future son in law was over (he just recently picked up a pipe) and watched me load a bowl, light and walk away, so he asked how do I do that, I first asked what? then realized he was asking how to properly pack a pipe and I stood there and stared at him for a while trying to think of how I truly load a pipe and I could not answer him, all I could say it’s lots of practice….I actually felt dumb for saying that but that’s all I could say and then gave him the three step instruction.
    Thanks for the read.

  • Interesting view point and a great article. I think the jist of it is if we take out time and go back to basics, we will be rewarded with more consistent visits to Nirvana.
    Great picture of that pipe bag by the way. That is an awesome Winslow D in clear focus, great grain.

  • cigrmaster – Yes, and it’s your pipe from when we shot your beautiful daughter Gabrielle!

    Greg – I loved this. It was entertaining, and something I think a lot of people can relate to. I know I can.

  • I’d be tickled pink if EVERY tobacco in every pipe reacted the same to packing techniques. Unfortunately, differences in cut, moisture, and pipe anatomy make for greater variations in packing technique than I can wrap my feeble mind around. Maybe the old timers were right, just smoke one tobacco in one pipe for your entire life and hope you get it right the majority of the time.

  • Indeed, learning to smoke a pipe has turned out to be quite an evolutionary process; even after 30+ years, I’ve still got things to learn about the whole affair. Personally, I think that’s one of its great joys!
    Thanks for the kind comments, gents.

  • Thanks for sharing your experience. 🙂 We are all trying how to get those great moments in a regular basis, maybe it is just the moment itself what is difficult to capture.

  • Greg
    Great article but am not sure whether to laugh or cry. After over 30 years of devoted pipe smoking I read the whole bitter sweet and amusing article hoping for instruction on how to do it like yesterday’s beginner. When i think of what I have mastered in that time, let alone what truly accomplished individuals have, I feel like weeping. Either I got off on the wrong foot or any decent level of pipe smoking is jolly difficult but I would’nt be without for all the riches of the IMF. However, Ido wish my smoking technique showed occasional signs of evolution.
    May your pipe smoke cool and sweet tomorrow.

  • Kevin
    The laughter was for the article any tears are for the slow learning years. Perhaps, as the song suggests, it is just a question of smoke getting in my eyes so I will try the next bowl in a churchwarden – and try to smoke a bit slower!

  • Thanks for another well written article, this time addressing the Art of pipe smoking. As for failing to “nail it” with every bowlful, consider that even Van Gogh must have scrapped many a painting.

  • Well said! Its all about the packing. My “ah-ha” moment came at Boswell Pipes a few years ago. While everyone there was packing and lighting their pipes, I noticed Les Young taking his time to carefully fill and pack his pipe. He took considerably longer to do this than most of the others in the room. Les only needed one light while the rest of us were furiously relighting and puffing. He was an economy of motion. Later, I also learned that he also keeps his tobacco blends “crispy”. All these conspired to give him an effortless smoke. It took me several months of practice, but I evevtually was able to duplicate Les’ system and have been rewarded with consistently pleasant smoking experiences.

  • If my 25 yr old son were to take up our craft and ask my ways of doing it I too would be at a loss for a bit. I’d really have to stop and pay attention for a while. Then after discovering the internet as a source my head went gaga with so much in print. My wife watches me play with my ‘toys’ and says it looks like a pain in the ass. It’s just how I play with my pipes and tobaccos; cleaning, plugs, flakes and the many different ways to enjoy them. I can imagine today’s newcomers to the craft, OMG! Well I’m here to guide if asked anyhow.

  • Great article. I didn’t even know that there was a process of packing the pipe lighter at the bottom and heavier as you move higher up. I have been doing that for some time without even realizing it. People have asked me in the past on how to pack it and I never knew how to answer. Thanks for that because now I think I know how to.

  • I don’t know. I’ve had it both ways and it doesn’t seem to follow any reason. Depending on how much I need a relaxing smoke, my hands know how to fill the pipe. Whether its a flake (gosh ….I love that Dunhill Flake) or a simple Cornell & Diehl blend ( those can be beautiful as well) my hand know how to handle to pipe whether it’s a Kaywoodie ( I got a nice one) or a Dunhill. It don’t matter…m hand have the experience.

  • CMOTU……another masterful, universal, certifiable interesting article. Pipe smokin sure is great. A never ending evolutionary pastime. Thanx.

  • “Familiarity breeds contempt”, my father used to say for reasons I don’t remember. Could it be when we pedestrian veteran pipesters, or truly alchemist master pipe tobacco blenders, and/or virtuoso pipe creators reach a point of static equilibrium with our pipely treasures that our subsequent fizz-less lack of awareness moves the magic-moment-sweet-spot further beyond our reach? And then in response we overthink it to get the magic back and end up moving it even further away than at the first rumblings of our discontent? Please don’t think me too weird, but I spent time in a zen monastery of sorts… two principles imprinted themselves on my mind there in huge ways that have a bearing here: “zen mind, (equals/is/becomes) beginner’s mind”, and “present moment, wonderful moment”. I wonder if all we need to do is stop fussing, stop overthinking, stop even attempting to verbalize, and then just enjoy living totally in the present moment of the experience and seeing it as with mind’s-eyes seeing it for the first time, every time. It’s so hard. But it’s so easy. Truly. The bottom line is not technique or doing it “right” or “wrong” for their own sakes… it’s just being totally 100% present with it and in it. No mistake is a loss. No practice-session is ever a waste. All other concerns may then melt away… and even become gifts if we learn something each time. Before I retire to my hermitage, let me just thank and pay homage to Grand-Master Pease for providing me with many transcendent epiphanies of beatific bliss that issued from a single small tin of his Lagonda… there IS Nirvana, gentlepersons. But it didn’t and never stops there. Tonight I popped a tin of his blend, Sextant, inspired by the review elsewhere in this great publication. And there I was, sitting in my porch-rocker, moved into our garage out of Hurricane Sandy’s way with much of the other soaking wet detritus of our mundane lives… and on the smokey angelic wings of that divine blend, I effortlessly navigated to higher previously unknown Elysian regions beyond Nirvana… perhaps a blissful ecstatic parallel universe open only to brothers and sisters of the pipe. I swear it was only tobacco in that pipe! But SUCH tobacco! Praise and thanks be!

  • I was going to say a bunch of crap about smoking pipes but I decided not to do that. If you have a nice warm pipe in your hand filled with good tobacco that you enjoy that’s all you need. Kick back.

  • been in the same place as you, greg, for a while now. nice to hear i have company. pipesmoking/collecting is a great hobby and there`s always something to learn.