How I Got Started as a Pipe Smoker

… From one of those college-age pipe smokers you’ve been hearing about …

Ethan Brandt

My music teacher always smelled of pipe smoke. I started taking piano lessons from Charlie Rose (no association to the Channel 9 talk-show host) when I was only five years old, so I did not really know what the smell constantly lingering on him was, but I knew that it was there. I knew that it smelled great. It was as much a part of him as his cracked leather jacket and perfectly maintained trumpet.

I never had the grandfather that smoked a pipe—at least, not while I was alive—nor did I have the uncle or father. I had Charlie.

Eventually, I learned what it was that I smelled on him, though I’m not sure how I learned it. I do remember, however, the day that he stopped smoking his pipes.

Without exaggeration, I was truly upset. He wasn’t the same person; something was wrong. I missed my old companion of his Borkum Riff aroma and I felt a distinct absence now that it was gone.

I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that my experience with that aroma for so many Wednesday afternoons made me more receptive to picking up my first pipe when I was in college.

Musician Charlie Rose


It was a slow evening at The Scottish Arms, a pub where I worked as a host. Through the blue and grey smoke diffusing through the pub, I smelled something familiar.

They say that scent is the sense most closely tied to stimulating memory response, and it certainly did for me when I caught a whiff of the smoke rising from one of the pub’s high-tops. I thought of the man who I had spent so much time with when I was younger, the man who put up with my trying to avoid practicing and smiled jovially the entire time, the man who treated me like a friend and a son.

Four men sat at the table and one of them was holding a long, clay pipe. Like some sort of ceremony, they passed it around the table, taking a puff, savoring the flavor, and passing it to the next.

Within a week, I found myself at a small, old tobacconist [John Dengler Tobacconist]. It took me a long time just to work up the nerve to park in front of the establishment, let alone go inside. Some part of me was resisting, but an even bigger part of me insisted that I follow my desire.

Walking into the tobacconist, I was in foreign territory. Large glass jars were filled with different types of tobacco (though they all looked extremely similar), while dozens of pipes were on display in the cabinet beneath.

The gentleman working at the time was helping other customers select cigars from the modest selection, and I did my best to avoid being noticed. When I was eventually detected, I meekly stated that I was just browsing and continued to drift.

I am sure that I lingered too long, but I eventually asked to purchase the same pipe that the guys at the pub had been smoking. I work at a Renaissance Faire and I justified the purchase to myself by thinking that, if I didn’t take to the pipe, I could at least use the clay one as a prop.

"All right," the man said, "and you get a free ounce of tobacco with your new pipe."

I do like free things, but that didn’t make me any more knowledgeable about which tobacco to choose. I had done no research and put no thought into the purchase before arriving at the store.

"What would you suggest for starting off?"

I was given a bag of one of their bulk-burley-blends called Cameron’s. It smelled like oats and my first thought was of the sweet-feed that we used to feed our horses.

Equipped with my excessively long pipe, tobacco, and a box of matches, I returned to my college dorm, determined to try my first bowl that night.

Overall, it was not the best of experiences. I did enjoy the little smoke that I was able to get out of my pipe, but all of the factors added together to make one of the most difficult experiences imaginable: I was attempting to light a poorly packed, fourteen inch pipe with cheap matches, while sitting outside in a cold and windy night, shivering against the chill. Poor decision making on my part, I will admit.

Eventually, I improved my form and my choice of smoking locations. I continued to frequent the same tobacconist and buy burley and black Cavendish based aromatics from their bulk supply, which I do recall enjoying a good deal.

I eventually got my brother into the fold of pipe smoking and he introduced me to a revolutionary aspect of pipe smoking: the Internet. He showed me my first pipe related website, which, without hyperbole, changed everything.

I ordered my first briar pipe, a Neerup bent apple, and my first tinned tobacco, Two Friends’ "Celtic Mist". I started looking at those websites constantly—a habit that I maintain to this day—and doing a lot more research, learning how to pack and light and appreciate pipe tobacco to a degree that I hadn’t yet understood.

In these short three years, only half of which I have been seriously collecting, my tastes have changed radically. Well, it might not be appropriate to say that they changed, but rather that they bloomed. I no longer smoke those burley and Cavendish aromatics that I bought so frequently from the tobacconist, though I do still find them in jacket pockets every now and then.

Instead, I find myself gravitating towards the "artisan" tobacco blenders, such as G.L. Pease, McClellend, and Rattray’s. I have found that I have an extremely diverse palate, with my tastes changing depending on the weather and my mood.

My taste in pipes has changed, as well. While I do still own my clay pipe and enjoy it immensely, it is not my area of focus. I adore my meerschaum pipes, but often find even more artistry in the grain and curve of a briar pipe. It is the little things that truly do make a big difference.

I have learned a lot in these few years, far too much to mention here and give any justice to a single one of them, but I would like to try to give a little advice to those in the same situation in which I found myself a couple years ago, though hopefully with enough foresight to do a little research first:

Plan ahead. Think about what type of pipe you want and what type of tobacco. This means doing some digging, often online. There are a great deal of fantastic online resources (you’re on one!).

Slow…..down….. You will enjoy everything about pipes (and life) a lot more if you slow down and relax.

Don’t worry if you screw up at first. We all did and the vast majority of us still do screw up every now and then. I am still learning something new every single day and that is something that I love about our hobby.

Maintain a healthy desire to learn. Whether you investigate more about tobaccos, pipes, accessories, or techniques for lighting and packing your pipe, knowledge truly is power. The more you learn about your pipe, the more you will enjoy it.

Finally, enjoy the experience. Pipe smoking is about enjoyment. Never forget that.

My journey into the world of pipe smoking and collecting has just really started. I hope to see a lot more of you joining me soon!

[Editor’s note: Tell us how you got started with pipe smoking by commenting below.]


Ethan Brandt is a senior at Washington University in St. Louis, majoring in Religious Studies and English with a Pre-Law focus. He picked up his first pipe his Freshman year in college and never looked back. Recently, he has start up a pipe-focused blog called Pipe School.


10 Responses

  • Thanks for sharing your early pipe smoking experiences in this superbly written, well organized, and nicely illustrated narrative. I find that it evokes a few fond memories of my own experiences starting out, and recounts impressions and reactions to which I can easily relate.

  • I said elsewhere Ethan – you’ve become a true evangelist for our shared passion.

  • I can remember when WGN CHAN 9 was a local Chicago channel I can remember watching some show with a old guy smoking a pipe talking about old novels that they made in to movies for the show like Moby Dick. If memory serves me right it was Masterpiece theater.

  • Wonderful article, Ethan I enjoyed it very much! I am encouraged that our hobby still appeals to the younger folk. I have two wonderful college aged sons, one a senior and one a freshman, that have both become pipe smokers after a childhood of anti-tobacco indoctrination. It pleased me to no end the day that my oldest returned home for a holiday break and told me that he wanted to take up the pipe. I was beside myself and thought he was joking! He wasn’t and I was was amazed that after all those years of telling me that I should stop, he now wanted to join the ranks of the fellowship we all share over the enjoyment of briar and leaf. Of course, I took to him immediately to my favorite tobacconist in NYC and let him pick out his very first pipe and selection of different tobaccos. I wanted him to have that old world, brick and mortar tobacconist experience that is slowly evaporating unfortunately. For a father, it was a very proud moment and quite poignant considering it was my own father’s pipe smoking that spurred my own interest in the pipe, so a real sense of heritage has transpired for my boys and I. Since then my younger son, a freshman now has also joined our ranks as well as my two nephews of the same age. So, when they are all together, home from a college break, I have myself a mini pipe club! What a wonderful site!
    Keep writing and never loose your passion. ‘Tis a noble and storied hobby we share.
    Happy Smokes,
    Lou Carbone NYC
    Pres., NY Pipe Club

  • Fun read! Thanks for sharing. I walked into a machine shop one day and found everyone in there busy working at various duties. What struck me strange was they all had a pipe in thier mouth. The shop had such a sweet smell to it, nothing like the dirt and oil and greese normally found in a working shop. A thought of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs came to mind. I was hooked at that time. I didnt smoke or dip or use any for of tobbaco. I told my wife of the urge I had to get a pipe. She took me to a smoke shop and helped me pick out my first of many.

  • It is interesting in hearing about how and when one started smoking a pipe. I use to watch my Uncle “immerse” himself when I was 16 (38yrs ago). I saw a pipe laying on his desk that caught my eye, he glanced over, smiled and packed a bowl and handed it to me. I was hooked ever since. In fact, I still have that pipe (Peterson), he gave it to me. Ever since, I immerse myself whenever I can.
    I am amazed at how some people refer smoking a pipe as a “Hobby”. To me it is a relaxation/pleasure/interest in which I can enjoy, and if I can, I will introduce my pleasure with as many as I can, be it male or female. In fact, my son had an interest in a pipe at the Cigar store,it was a Churchwarden that resembled one from “Lord Of The Rings” trilogy. I bought two of them, and we both sit and “immerse” ourselves with a pinch and a mug together. I would like to say our relationship is just a bit closer than we already enjoy.
    Well, I think I will immerse myself with some English and my Uncles pipe.
    Thank you Uncle Gary

  • EXCELLENT article. My grandfather was a pipe smoker and I remember one night at the supper table when he was just beginning to light his pipe, I asked him if I could try (I was 8). He got his “Sir Walter Raleigh” blend lit and let me puff a few times on it (MUCH to the horror of my parents). I absolutely LOVED it and bought my own first pipe at 16, lying to the clerk saying that the pipe and tobacco were for my grandfather. Whenever I light up, he is always a person upon whom I think.

  • I have to say first what great reads these memories are. But I’m a bit envious, as I’m a lone briar embiber. No one in my family ever smoked a pipe. Ciggs and Cigars yes, but no pipe smokers. Cary Grant and Fred Astaire were my mentors. I started late in life with a pipe, early forties. Now fifteen years later, with a mediocre collection of estate pipes, and an Erik Nording freehand, which my wife bought me for Xmas one year, I have never regretted my change from ciggarettes. To me it’s almost an art-form. The packing, tamping, first and sometimes second re-lights. Learning to puff gently, so as not to need bandaids for the tongue. I surely do envy you guys that were lucky enough to have a real live mentor…

  • It was fantastic to read an article on here in which I recognized every place mentioned (being a native St. Louisan), and to then scroll to the bottom of the page to realize that I recognize the author from the Great St. Louis Renaissance Faire every year. Excellent article sir, cheers!