Packing and Lighting a Pipe
The art and science of smoking a pipe is just that: art & science. Unlike other forms of 'lighting up', pipe smoking is unique in that it is the only form of tobacco enjoyment which requires you to build your smoke and then maintain it. Your tobacco leaf doesn't arrive in a pre-made, one shot, ready to use discrete unit, and the pipe-man wouldn't have it any other way. While one doesn't have to possess an advanced degree in engineering to create the 'perfect smoke', it does take a bit of time, patience and mindfulness until the mechanics become sufficiently ingrained that they simply become habit.
There are many methods of packing a pipe, but one, three-stage method works well for most folks, as well as many different cuts of tobacco:
1. The first step is simply getting your pipe ready; if your pipe has been previously smoked run a pipe cleaner through the bit and out the draft hole, tap any dottle out and gently blow through the stem. This will make sure that you can start your pack without any fear of a latent obstruction lying in wait.
2. Remove a small amount of tobacco, from whatever receptacle it happens to be in, and lay it out on a flat surface (a sheet of clean paper is never a bad idea. After a pack, inevitably some tobacco will be left over, and folding the sheet to create a trough in order to drop leftover tobacco back in to your stash, beats the heck out of hand-sweeping to achieve the same). If you are smoking a flake or coin tobacco, take a small amount at a time, and roll it in your palm to the desired size to loosen the tobacco. Whether flake, coin or any other cut, once at the desired size, gently pick apart any remaining clumps. If your tobacco seems a bit too moist, you will want to wait a few minutes to allow it to dry a tad.
Holding your pipe, trickle strands of tobacco into the bowl of the pipe until it is filled to the top, taking care to not pinch the loose tobacco, thus recreating the clumps that you just took time to eliminate. Now take your pipe tamper/nail, and, with even pressure, gently compress the tobacco. As a general rule of thumb, the compressed tobacco will now roughly fill half the bowl. The tobacco should still display a somewhat soft, 'springy' feel to it. Take a test draw. If you meet with any resistance, then dump the tobacco out and run another cleaner through the pipe to make sure the airway free of any loose tobacco bits. True, it's annoying, but not nearly as frustrating as having to attempt a de-clogging after you have fired up. Repeat, again to the top, maybe even a bit over, tamp. Here you should be about three-quarters filled, there will be less (but still some) springiness, and a small amount of resistance on the draw is to be expected. If more than a small amount? You guessed it; dump the bowl and try again. Okay, repeat a final time. Just before the final compression, there will be a few strands hanging over the bowl, just tamp the stragglers in. One more test draw. If the resistance doesn't indicate a blockage, then return any unused tobacco to its container, and you're ready for the next step.
It is in the initial light that we find some commonality with our cigar smoking cousins. Just as knowledgeable cigar man will take the time and steps necessary to ensure an even light, and lower the risk of less-than-optimal burning patterns by running a flame over the initial surface before the 'actual' smoking commences, so do we. In our case, the charring/toasting/'false' light expels most extra moisture, and prepares a splendid surface for the 'real' fire-up. Take your flame (most any will do, but avoid the briar-hating 'torch' lighter which will quickly scorch your pipe) and apply it to the tobacco, moving it in a circular motion around the entire surface of the leaf. While doing so, take a series of shallow puffs on the pipe. Usually the tobacco swells up in a spot or two and seems to unravel. That's ok, since the purpose of the charring light is to balance out the tobacco moisture and density, its just doing its job. Let the pre-ignition go out and tamp the tobacco back down to parallel with the top of the bowl. Be gentle with the tamper, many a great potential smoke has run afoul of over-zealous tamping.
The Main Event
Relight, and (again) apply flame to the leaf, moving it in a circular motion around the entire surface of the tobacco. While doing this, take a series of shallow puffs on the pipe. This time the tobacco should not unravel and puff up as it did before. Kick back and begin to enjoy your smoke. Keep in mind, as you progress through your smoke, you will continue to hit mini-layers of uneven moisture and, because heat rises, there will be a natural tendency for the embers of your smoke to move upward, away from its 'fuel'. Again, that's okay, that's what your tamper is for; simply gently tamp down and lightly puff. It's not uncommon to have to relight a bowl several times, especially for the unseasoned pipe smokers; be patient, smoking a pipe is a very nuanced hobby that takes a lot of practice to...
How to Clean and Care for Your Pipe
Briar is absorbent, and that's a good thing. In the short term, this ability to soak helps to keep excess moisture out of your smoke; in longer terms, this attribute will draw the oils from the tobaccos you enjoy into the wood, lending both a rich patina and making your smokes progressively sweeter with the passing of time. The downside of absorbency is that moisture accumulates and, after a point, will begin to saturate the interior of your briar, resulting in the excess moisture from your smoke not only being allowed to pass through, but carrying some remarkably foul taste with it. Without regular cleaning, your new briar buddy will no longer provide you with the smoking pleasure you desire. To head this unpleasant eventuality off at the pass, you need to perform a regimen of regular cleaning and maintenance for your pipes.
A Word About Rotation
Because pipes need some rest, if they are to continue to function optimally, having a 'rotation' is the first, and definitely foremost, aspect to maintaining a briar tobacco pipe. As the word implies, take the number of pipes that you own and use them in an order that allows for the maximum rest and time to dry. If you have a small collection, you can considerably extend your briar's rest time by owning a meerschaum, or a gourd calabash; both can be smoked for days on end, with only running a pipe cleaner through them between smokes.
Before each smoke, run a pipe cleaner through the stem to dislodge any leftover ash and dottle, and gently tap your pipe on a cork knocker or the palm of your hand to dispose of the refuse.
During your smoke:
Caring for your pipe starts with prevention. Keep your flame over the tobacco, so that it does not char the rim of your pipe. If the rim of your pipe begin to develop a bit of a dark tint to them, it can usually be removed by moistening a pipe cleaner with saliva and gently rubbing the rim of the pipe with it. Done regularly, this will eliminate the cause of the charred, blackened rims which are a signature of an unloved pipe. Should you encounter the 'dreaded gurgle', run a standard pipe cleaner into the bit, down into the shank and back out. If, while smoking, you should notice the presence of a salty, sour, or just-plain-yucky flavor, it's probably time for a good, thorough cleaning. (See Periodic)
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of after-care: Do not remove the stem of a pipe while it is still warm. This can cause the stem to loosen, or worse--crack the shank or break the tenon of your pipe. At the end of a bowl, your pipe should be given a cleaning. Allow the pipe to cool, and then stir up any ash and dottle left in the bottom of the bowl. Dump out the remaining ash and dottle, and run a bristle pipe cleaner through the stem until it is just barely visible in the bottom of the bowl. Remove it, and either turn it around or use another pipe cleaner, repeating this process until the pipe cleaners come out clean. Blow gently through the stem of the pipe to dislodge any leftover ash and wipe your pipe down with a soft cloth. If you want something close to a 'like new shine', spray your cloth with a compound such as Briar Pipe Wipe. Place the pipe back on its rack/stand, always 'bowl down', and allow it to rest, preferably for at least two to four days before it is smoked again.
Much as in the case of housework, where there is daily/weekly cleaning, and then there is a deeper or "Spring Cleaning", so it goes with your pipe. The majority of pipe smokers do this deeper clean fairly regularly, some (possibly 'over-zealous') folks go so far as to do so after all of their pipes have been smoked once. You will have to experiment a bit with how often you do this cleaning to find what works best for you. To begin, carefully remove the stem of the pipe from the bowl and lay the two pieces on a paper towel. Dip a regular pipe cleaner in alcohol and run it through the stem, from the tenon to the mouthpiece, pulling it through. The alcohol doing its job, it will most likely come out with a bit of black or brown gunk on it. Follow this pipe cleaner with a dry one, and repeat until the moist pipe cleaner comes out the same color it was when it went in. Push one final dry pipe cleaner through to remove any moisture and set the stem aside. Using bristle pipe cleaners, moistened with alcohol, vigorously swab out the draft hole of the pipe, alternating with dry, regular pipe cleaners. Don't be afraid to use a lot of pipe cleaners doing this. Pipe cleaners are cheap, new pipes aren't. If the draft of your pipe is large enough in diameter that there is little resistance when you do this, you may want to fold the cleaner in half in order to scrub the sides of the draft hole properly. Once your dry pipe cleaner comes out the same color it was when it went in, run one more dry cleaner through to absorb any residual moisture. Using a cotton swab or shank brush, clean out the tenon, the portion of the pipe where the stem attaches to the bowl (a doubled over regular pipe cleaner will do in a pinch). Carefully reinsert the stem into the bowl, and give the pipe a wipe with a soft cloth. Cleaning completed, allow your pipe to sit for a day or so before smoking it, to allow the alcohol to completely evaporate. If you have cleaned most or all of your briar pipes at once, now is a an especially good time to enjoy a meerschaum.
Tobacco Storage and Cellaring
Almost all straight-from-the-blender tobaccos with a reasonable amount of natural sugar, both tinned and bulk, will benefit from aging. Some blends, however, will age better than others, with the primary factor being the presence and percentage of Virginias (the most naturally sweet of tobaccos) in the mixture. A secondary, but still important, consideration is the attendance of Orientals. Though lower in sugar than Virginias, many Oriental varieties still contain enough sweetness to carry them through the fermentation process, plus bring an added bonus of higher complexity to the blend.
Once the right leafs are blended and placed in tin, the first of two initial aging mechanisms begin. 1. Tobaccos begin to interact/meld with each other ('marry' is a term that you will frequently run across), and the speed of the interaction is even greater with a flake, whose melding received a kick-start from a press. 2. The first fermentation stage, an aerobic process involving friendly microbes, begins. As the bacteria involved in "2" run out of air, your treasure-in-process moves into the second (and final), stage of fermentation; anaerobic, a state of slower aging that will continue until you open the tin.
The precise amount of time that it will take for your tinned, cellared leaf to enter anaerobic fermentation depends on a myriad of factors: composition of the blend, the amount of time between harvest and tin, the number of microbes in that initial 2/8oz tin, storage temperatures (both actual temp, as well as fluctuation), to name a few. Even then, there is precious little 'precision' in the guess. Depending on the time your mixture was tinned and when you purchased it, it's quite possible that your investment is already in the anaerobic state.
So, what happens during aging? While both stages contain processes that will work concurrently, as well as mechanisms which can only happen in sequence, the changes in the aerobic stage, and subsequent beginnings of the anaerobic leg, are the fastest. With an aging friendly blend, as the reactions and fermentation in the latter stage progress, a greater sweetness and complexity appears. In as little as 1-2 years, your smoke will likely show remarkable improvement over 'just tinned', and will positively shine at 5 years (sugar crystals!). After that (again, with the right tobacco) improvement will continue, but at a much slower pace. With an all Virginia blend, its pinnacle, much like a first growth Bordeaux of great vintage, could be decades. With a well-made English, the peak is likely be in the mid-to-late teens, with a gradual decline noticeable after a couple of decades.
Unlike cellaring wine, proper tobacco storage doesn't require a major investment in equipment, it simply needs a space to rest, preferably one where it won't be subjected to higher temperatures than you can comfortably handle, long term. No need for vintage charts, though there are some pretty dandy wine storage software programs out there, which have been modified by tobacco aficionados, for tracking tin count and age. Collecting is a snap; start by buying an extra tin or two along with your normal purchase. Given time, you can start smoking that older, delicious leaf, and rotating your new purchases to the back.
As a parting thought: one thing to keep in mind is that, unlike the above mentioned Bordeaux, popping a tin at two, five, or seven years isn't 'infanticide', you are still smoking something all the finer for your patience. Simply understand that once you pop that lid, you should either smoke it, or preserve it. Yes, one can 'reboot' a tobacco back into an aging state and it will continue to change, but you might not enjoy that change.