It’s a pretty cool trick, when you think about it; containing combustion within a combustible material. More than one non-pipe-smoker has expressed surprise upon learning that briar pipes are made of a type of wood. “Isn’t the tobacco on fire?” they may ask. “And doesn’t wood burn?”
It can be difficult explaining to someone who is likely already sorry he asked that the answer to both questions is somewhere between “sort of” and “not really,” depending on a number of factors. Like cutting a softer steel with a harder steel, it’s all relative. To the first question, the tobacco is, ideally, NOT burning, it’s smoldering. We’ve been hearing “where there’s smoke there’s fire” all our lives, but smoke is a product of poor or incomplete combustion, and the whole idea in pipe smoking is to keep the combustion as poor and therefore smoky as possible without stopping. Which keeps the temperature much lower than if there were a flame. A pipe packed full of, say, dry pine shavings would show quickly that briar is indeed flammable, and would produce little smoke (except from the smoker’s tongue)..
To the second question, not all woods are equally easy to ignite. Black locust is excellent firewood — second only to white oak in BTUs per cubic foot and much more resistant to decay — but a rather poor kindling. Top grade plateaux briar is poor firewood mainly because of its cost — I’m going to say $75,000 a cord and let someone else do the math and prove me wrong — but I can report that when you throw it on an established fire in the wood stove it burns just fine. I seem to remember reading about briar cutters burning briar scraps to heat the vats for boiling briar. It’s not a normal sort of wood, though, it’s a kind of a ball-shaped water storage organ and it doesn’t have the usual arrangement of capillaries and annular rings you’d see in stem wood. The same reasons that make briar take a high polish with nothing more than carnauba wax make it relatively difficult to actually catch on fire. Relatively.
Somewhere between briar’s poor performance as kindling and its willingness to burn when sufficiently provoked, there sometimes occurs the pipe phenomenon known as “burnout.”. At a spot where extra heat accumulates or the briar is somehow weaker, the briar actually burns. Allowed to continue, the spot burns all the way through. There was a guy who used to frequent the Saturday morning pipe hangout at the Allegheny Smoke Shop who burned out every pipe he owned. Once somebody gave him a Dunhill; he gave it to somebody else, saying it was too nice for him to burn out. That’s one end of the spectrum. Many pipe smokers have never had a burnout.
The pipe’s first line of defense against being consumed by fire, other than its inherent material properties (which only go so far), is the break-in, the transition from naked wood in the interior of the bowl to wood protected by a layer of “cake,” a black substance which results from smoking — part ash particles, part tar residue, after that you’re on your own but it’s a pretty good insulator. You want it to be hard and relatively thin. “The thickness of a dime” is the common phrase, thicker than that and you need to ream it back, which is another topic. If you have a group of pipe smokers together and want to start a row, ask about the best way to break in a pipe. Some moisten the bowl with water before smoking, some coat it with honey, some start with partial bowls, some declare the whole burnout/break-in thing a hoax, just load it and smoke it.
Let’s back up a paragraph. Some pipe smokers never burn out a pipe. Most suffer burnouts rarely. A few burn them out regularly. A pipe smoker of some decades experience will have figured out who he is and adjusted his break-in ritual accordingly. Or will have resigned himself to burnouts and cheap pipes. I don’t generally venture an opinion, but recently I made a pipe for a friend which, to my surprise, turned out to be his first pipe and he asked for advice breaking it in.
I looked online for a guide to breaking in a pipe which agreed with my prejudice and found some that came close but required caveats. This might be the first time in 15 years that anyone has asked me how to break in one of my pipes, so I don’t expect this to be my most popular topic. Not having anything better to write about, though, I came up with this post so the next time — you know, in 15 years — somebody asks I can make him or her wade through it. So, for better or worse, here is my advice on break-in.
Start with partial bowls. There, I said it. One FAQ that I otherwise agreed with said that partial bowls to build cake in the heel were useless because nobody smokes that far down anyway. Umm, excuse me, I do. And when a burnout happens, where does it happen? Up near the rim, where the tars from the rising smoke are adhering to the wood and binding particles of ash? Not usually, although with briar anything is possible. It more often happens at the heel or just above the draft hole, where the smoker is puffing hard and relighting frequently trying to get that last bit of tobacco to burn. It can happen mid-bowl, too, but the pictures you see if you google “pipe burnout” look like the result of pretty serious neglect. While, yes, there can be flaws that cause burnouts even with careful use, remember the guy who was a walking burnout factory?
This advice doesn’t apply to everyone. If you’ve been smoking a pipe since 1968 and your last burnout was in 1981, you know what you’re doing. But if you’re unsure, start with a third of a bowl. Don’t feel the need to smoke it to nothing; once it becomes hard to light, dump and start over. It doesn’t hurt to stir the ashes around so that particles of ash can cling to the wood low in the bowl. A few third-bowls, add a bit, add a bit, before you know it you’re all the way to the top.
And if you are scoffing at my partial-bowl advice, hang on a minute. Let’s talk about how we advise beginners. It’s pretty common for those who have become expert at something to forget at least some of the intermediate steps. Which is why sometimes — not always — the most virtuosic musicians (or welders or golfers or mathematicians) do not make the best teachers. They’ve forgotten how hard it is. For this reason, I view advice to “just pack and smoke normally” advice from experieced pipe smokers to be misguided. What if you’ve never packed a pipe? What if you haven’t figured out just how easy a pipe can be to keep lit, and how you don’t have to (and shouldn’t) puff as hard as necessary? The experienced probably don’t remember, but sometimes it takes a number of iterations to get a pipe packed well, and a number more before it becomes repeatable, and instinctively adaptable to varying cuts and humidity levels of tobacco. Starting with partial bowls, in addition to building cake lower in the bowl, is a good way to learn to pack properly, and it increases the number of iterations per tin.
There are countries (ahem) where motorcyclists can pass a basic training course and buy a 200-mph street-legal motorcycle that would have won gran prix races 20 years ago. Then there are countries where motorcycle licenses are graduated; if you don’t kill yourself on a 250cc motorcycle after a certain period of time, you can buy a 400cc motorcycle. And if you go a certain period of time without killing yourself, you can buy a 600cc motorcycle, and so on. Guess which countries have fewer motorcycle fatalities?
What’s the worst thing that can happen if you start with partial bowls? The one FAQ warns that building cake at the heel can clog the draft hole. I haven’t noticed that problem but ok, give me a pipe with a clogged draft hole and a pipe with a burnout at the heel. One of them is easily fixed.
So, again, for most of you, well, most of you probably haven’t gotten this far.. But if you (like my friend) want my advice on breaking in a pipe, here it is:
1. Start with partial bowls, stir the ashes, increase to full bowls gradually.
2. Use a tobacco that burns easily. Not too moist. If a flake tobacco, rub it out well.
3. When the tobacco gets hard to keep lit, stop trying.
I have found no benefit in bowl treatments like water or honey, and my pipes have no bowl coating unless the buyer asks for it. But such treatments at least do no harm.
Which is pretty much the whole idea.