Ask Hank 14: The Perfect Smoke is Attainable with This One Weird Trick

A. Miller
We had a video-based team meeting recently and I had packed my pipe with something latakia-based because this is latakia weather. As I sat outside in the cold, with my down jacket and thick hat on, my coworker made a comment that I appeared to be truly “dedicated to the pipe.” He’s not wrong.

But he is wrong to be surprised by it.

The beauty of a distributed team is no one can complain about my smoke. Someday our video chat technology will allow smoke to travel across the internet, and we’ll be able to enjoy the aroma of a friend’s pipe without physical nearness. But until then….

You might, like my co-worker, ask, “Is a full jacket and hat overkill?” I submit that it is not.

On to this month’s questions.

Dear Hank,

The other day I was in a pinch sitting on my porch and I realized I didn’t have my tamper on me. I had left it on a shelf in my basement where I keep my pipes. I could have stood up and walked down a flight of steps to retrieve it, but that seemed unnecessarily far for something so simple as tamping. I, therefore, figured I’d just tamp with my finger. I’ve seen it done before, and I’ve read about folks doing so.

But I burned my finger. Like really really really burned it badly.

Is it all a great big lie? Can it even be done?

Kentucky fried finger in …. wait for it …. Kentucky

Dear Kentucky fried finger in Kentucky,

Over the last few years I worked largely outside and I frequently left my house with nothing but a two-pipe bag and occasionally noticed that I had forgotten my tamper. For several years I made do breaking short-but-fat branches off of tress and then scraping them across the cement to flatten one end for optimal tamping. This is best done in a squatting position on a busy street, and it’s of utmost importance that you find someone with whom you can make eye contact—and then lock-on. Scrape that branch in to a tamper, without ever looking away.

It has the most amazing effect on people.

The point being, bare-bones tamping is not just a regular part of the pipe-smoking experience. You probably haven’t been smoking a
pipe for very long unless you’ve tried something out of the ordinary, or even gone all the way—and given your pipe “the finger”.

My experience was less than stellar with finger-tamping. For my first twenty (or so) attempts, my finger worked just fine. If I was quick enough, there was little to no issue. On that twenty-first time I burned the tip of my pinky so badly I was able to light my next three pipes with it.

I have yet to find a long time finger tamper—but I believe they exist. Just like I believe corn cob pipes crow with a plastic stem. It might not be a lie, but that doesn’t mean finger-tampers are real either.

Are they?

Dear Hank,

I am in search of the “perfect smoke”. The Valhalla of tobacco experience. But I just can’t seem to find it. For me each bowl is different, even with the same blend from the same pipe smoked in the same place.

I continually anticipate that moment when I can just acquiesce to the pure joy of tobacco pleasure. Proper draw, delicious taste, sublime aroma and a sweet dance to the bottom of the bowl with few relights and nothing but a fine grey ash smiling back at me.

Am I right to pursue that pinnacle of experience? Or is the actual attainment of that very goal the antithesis of the endeavor? It is a quandary for me. I want the ecstasy of the experience but I do not want to lose the joy of anticipation. So the ultimate question is “should I continue my quest for the perfect smoke, or surrender to the idea that its achievement would only destroy the real object of my desire?”

Dazed and Confused

Dear Dazed and Confused,

I’m happy to tell you that the pinnacle of experience, the actual attainment of that very goal, was achieved just last night in a vintage meerschaum-lined Kaywoodie filled with Dunhill Nightcap by yours truly. Actually, the experience was also obtained about a week ago with a Virginia of some sort (unfortunately I cannot recall if it was a MacBaren or a McClelland) in a Missouri Meerschaum Morgan.

And a few days before that the very same Morgan also delivered the perfect smoke with a burley—I believe it was Haunted Bookshop by Cornell and Diehl. Come to think of it, a significant number of my perfect smokes have come to me by way of one of my several MM Morgans.

No, you are not wrong to pursue that perfect smoke. Yes, you should absolutely continue to pursue it. No, the achievement of it will not be a disappointment, or ruin future smokes. The perfect smoke is not just attainable, it is repeatable if you follow this one weird trick…

You need something in your life that overwhelms you. That thing which nearly takes the joy of smoking completely out of life (hard to imagine, I know). This something can be an overwhelmingly stressful job, or a soul-crushing commute in the morning. That something can be a herd of children (or cats). It can be a pile of used-microwaves making a small hill in your
backyard (just as an example, not as a thing I actually have on the far south side of my lawn).

That something can be just about anything you can imagine—but my suspicion is you don’t need to work very hard at imagining something. We almost all have a pressure in life we wish was gone, our mortgage, car payment, or that nose that lights up every time there is a blizzard on Christmas eve.

Find that soul-sucking thing. And then—this will profoundly change your life…… remove it.

Get rid of it. Even if it’s just for a few hours.

Quit that terrible job, return those shoes you hate, build that thing you’ve been putting off, send your kids off to school, stare at a wall you haven’t stared at in some time. Sell all those microwaves on Ebay as “Estate Microwaves.” Remove that stress, even if just for just a few hours.

You’ll realize quickly, it was never about that pipe. It was never about that tobacco. The perfect tobacco is the tobacco you happen to be smoking in that sublime state of relaxation. The perfect draw comes from the absolute awareness of freedom from that job you finally quit. Sure, how the pipe was drilled matters, but only on normal days. This isn’t a normal day; this is a sublime day of rejoicing.

That perfect taste comes from perfect calm. That amazing aroma surrounds you like a blanket because you have nothing else to do but focus on how great you feel right. this. second.

I first discovered this mountain-top experience when I was 18 and with a close friend on a dark but completely windless night. We packed our pipes and set out on a stroll through the park behind his house. We had recently finished the last few weeks of High School and the summer air in Colorado was even more comfortable than you’re imagining. So we lit our tobacco (something with cigar leaf in it if I recall correctly) and we walked slowly. The snail’s-pace was punctuated by clear skies speckled with stars and nothing but silence. We didn’t talk, we simply walked and puffed.

After what felt like forever, we circled back around to the far side of the neighborhood and stepped on to a well-lit street. It was then we took note that the smoke we were blowing created a perfect cloud which hung suspended in mid-air right before our faces. We then walked through the cloud, puffed, exhaled, and rinsed and repeated the process. For hours, the perfect smoke persisted. And we wanted it to never end. That perfect cloud of smoke was made possible by the windless night, but really it was made possible by the total absence of High School. Ms. Buttfacehead (or whatever that Psychology teacher’s name was) would never be a part of my life again.

Thankfully, the same experience—with differing details—has returned to me on several occasions. And recently I’ve been able to string them together.

All that to say. If you think you will someday buy the right pipe and pair it with the right tobacco and drink, you’re fooling yourself. These things are important, but the perfect smoke comes from external reasons.

Is that bark-crazy neighborhood dog finally gone? Enjoy a perfect smoke.

Are Seinfeld or M.A.S.H. (depending on your age here) reruns finally returning to your local TV station? Perfect smoke.

Did the boss that’s driven you nuts for years finally get fired? Perfect smoke.

Did that lady in the post office tell you your beard looked great? Perfect smoke.

Did Starbucks finally write your name correctly on cup? Perfect smo… err wait. What? Really? Where?

Almost done with this column, so literally floating with stress-free ecstasy right now,

Dear Hank,

I just found a pipe I left in the bottom of the refrigerator a few years ago, and it is all green and fuzzy. Is that a mold problem? Should I wash it off in hot water, or just bury the thing in the back yard? And won’t water destroy the pipe?

A man on the PipesMagazine forum told me it would, but doesn’t briar—and meerschaum for that matter—depend on water for its growth? Too many opinions have me very confused, so I will go straighten up the home office so I can find a pipe that isn’t green. Please set me on the path to enlightenment!

Yours for a neat and organized home,
John McWilliams

Dear John McWilliams,

The path to enlightenment is littered with discarded Dunhills, so choose your way carefully. But you’ve come to the right place to find enlightenment (I don’t want to lie and tell you otherwise).

I have to say I have some questions about the integrity of your story. You state that you just found the pipe, but then you go on to say this took place a few years ago. Did you “just” find the pipe as in, last week? And you’re wondering what to do with it? Or did you find a mold-covered pipe a few years ago which you’ve since removed and allowed to continue growing mold somewhere on a counter-top close to your breakfast cereal?

I suppose it really doesn’t matter. You were right in your suggestions as for how to deal with such a pipe. Burying is a surprisingly effective method of pipe-regeneration. Why, just last month I was smoking one of my favorite pipes (an old Thermofilter billiard) and I may or may not have picked up my chair to move a few inches forward and accidentally sat back down with a chair-leg on the bowl thus cracking my pride and joy.

Now I could have had one of two responses:

1) Stand up and stomp my feet in anger, screaming like a child who recently really wanted a mint ice cream cone but was instead given pistachio (not that I’m bitter about it).

2) Stand up, and like a mature man, find a shovel, and bury the pipe in my grassy middle-class-American back yard with a small wooden cross to commemorate my family’s loss.

Naturally I proceeded with number 2.

And a month later I decided it was time to dig it up, and what would you know but the briar had mended itself?

If a crack can be mended with just a little time set aside for the root-based briar pipe to return to its home, I find it difficult to believe a little mold can’t be solved in the same way.

All my flaws are probably also going to one day be solved by way of burial,

Until next month.

4 Responses

  • Finger tamping is a gentle art. I observed it first in my dad, who was a Granger smoker for many years. He mostly didn’t use a tamper other than his finger or thumb, though he had pipe tools. The essence of the art is to tamp gingerly. Usually, if you really need to tamp, there should be a layer of ash protecting your finger. You don’t tamp when you have a good ember in aglow. However, you can misjudge and hit some live fire under the ash, and you must be alert to yank the finger away instantly. I have only had to do this once or twice over the years, and I never saw my dad do it at all. Otherwise a golf tee or a house key can be used in a pinch if you haven’t mastered the finger tamping technique.

  • Quite agree, it’s an art, with a touch of science! The science being: Fire = Hot! Therefor, I finger tamp only when pipe has gone out for a few minutes. Every now and then I forget this gem of wisdom, and tamp down a live ember. Ouch! I vow to never do that again. Then, six months later…..

  • I could not agree more on when we are truly relaxed, the smoke automatically becomes fabulous. I can see now why pipe smoking will make us feel relaxed, because we have to be relaxed to truly enjoy it! Thank you for a great article.