Tending the Fire

Søren Kierkegaard’s observation that “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards” is as true about pipe smoking as it is about most other aspects of life. When examined in the rear-view mirror there are lessons that only experience can teach.

These elusive insights are often counter-intuitive, striking me as things that could not possibly be true. Because I couldn’t imagine how they could have been true, I summarly ruled them out as explanations for things I couldn’t understand. Looking back, I wonder how much or how often I have ruled out the truth because I couldn’t understand what was going on. A particular example concerns the relationship between tamping tobacco in the bowl and keeping a pipe lit and flavorful throughout the bowl.

Like many younger pipe smokers I struggled for years to learn how to keep my pipe from going out. When I would hear about slow-smoking contests wherein some pipe smokers kept their pipe bowls smoldering for hours at a time, I marveled at the feat. “How?” I wondered, “were they able to nurse that smoldering cherry slowly downwards from crest to dottle?”

Jack Howell Rhodesian with Larry Roush Silver TamperI suspected that their seemingly magical acts were wrought from some superior intuitive sense; these pipe smokers could sense just how frequently and strong the pace of puffing must be to perfectly bank their little briar furnace. I assumed that they knew something about loading their pipes that I had never discovered. Perhaps they lit differently from me–making longer lights to ensure that the tobacco load would remain lit. I didn’t know, but I suspected that some or all of these aspects of smoking technique were what combined to separate the expert pipe smoker from the struggler, namely me.

One thing I failed to consider was the importance of tamping during smoking. I had assumed that tamping a burning bowl was more likely to extinguish fire than promote it. My intuition told me that the same dynamics I’d witnessed as a boy while tending campfires or cooking stove fires  were also true about little fires in pipe bowls, namely that fussing with a good fire would curb its enthusiasm for continued burning. Why I thought that, I have no idea. I had certainly witnessed my Dad, my Grandfather, and my Uncles handily wielding a poker to keep a fire burning, but I couldn’t accomplish the same ends.

When they tended a fire, it was encouragement. When I tried, it was interference. Like most people, I was more than capable of learning the wrong thing from my experience. I was like the cat that after sitting down on a hot stove never sat on one again, but won’t sit on a cold one, either. As Mark Twain advised, “We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it and stop there…”

Dull-witted as I can be, I eventually learned that tamping during smoking is important if I want to avoid repeatedly relighting the tobacco, not that having to relight is necessarily evidence of poor smoking technique. If it’s necessary, I relight, but I would prefer to avoid relighting if possible.

Repeated applications of butane-powered flame (sometimes I run out of matches) can damage a pipe bowl’s chamber walls, especially as one nears the bottom of a bowl. That very hot butane flame can also make tobacco taste acrid or create tongue-biting steam.

Stone Tamper by Martin RomijnProper tamping is not just compressing tobacco, it is managing the burn. Because a cherry tends to burn down through the bowl, I advise moving unburned tobacco from the bowl edges toward the cherry, creating a small mound. To accomplish this, a tamper with an angled head is useful. It is also helpful to have a fairly small diameter to be able to easily negotiate the chamber as the tobacco burns down toward the bottom.

One of my favorite tampers for managing burn is the depicted Martin Romijn tamper depicted here. Its diagonal surface is beautifully rendered to easily manage the tobacco. And the fact that it sits on its stand makes it handy when I’m sitting and reading. I can always find it, and it always does the job. Plus, the fossil and crystal figurations in the stone provide the eye great joy.

Silver Tamper by Larry RoushLarry Roush also created a tamper design that works well for me. Like most well-designed tools, its design is deceptively simple. The narrow shaft (4mm or .15 inch) is terminated on one end by an angled, flat tamping surface. The other end terminates in a not-too-sharp pick that can be used to ventilate tobacco that is packed too tight or to remove dottle from the chamber at the end of a smoke. At 3 inches in length, it is long enough to reach the bottom of most pipe bowls, but not so long that it is difficult to carry around. The tamper comes in a handly little leather pouch with a spring-loaded snap closure within which one can carry the tamper. The only downside of the design is that it is elegant and useful enough to conjure larceny in the heart of my pipe-smoking friends who predictably attempt to “forget” to return it after briefly borrowing it. I have had to become more vigilant since buying this tamper. Roush makes these tampers in both silver and copper. I don’t have a copper one, but I intend to acquire one at some future date.

Icon Tamper by Gunnar Weber PradaOne angle-headed copper tamper I do have is Gunnar Weber-Prada’s exquisite Icon tamper rendered in copper. The angled head surface works wonderfully for managing burn. These tampers are available in a variety of metals.

The  secret to keeping one’s pipe lit throughout a bowl of tobacco is to burn all, not some, of the tobacco in the chamber. Effective tamping is little more than skillfully tending the fire so that most or all of the tobacco is consumed without constant relights. Of course, with some moister tobaccos occasional relights are necessary, but with properly dried tobacco, one can enjoy savoring the tobacco throughout the bowl.

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Reader Comments (4)

Interesting topic. Everybody talks about tamping but few do it on detail. There is a good article about this on the Spanish page Pipaforo by slow smoker champion Toni Pascual. It is in spanish but a translator may be used.
August 8, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterrafael
Known smokers in the past would only use their forefinger to tamp tobacco. Have a crafted tamper out of several 30 caliber shells given to me by an old Marine Corps buddy who later in life earned the Federal Duck Stamp, I use it many times daily.
August 8, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbill brooks
Tamping is one of the most important aspects of pipesmoking. I smoke pipes that have 2.5" - 3"+ chambers with inner tobacco chamber diameters up to 1.25". It is very hard to get the pipe lit without using the tamper properly to move the flame along the top of tobacco chamber. When you are smoking, using the tamper to tend to the fire - keeping it going - adding air to the firs and so on is critical. I have 3 to 4 tampers I use almost every smoke - some have fat bottoms for the top - some for the middle of the smoke and then longer ones for the bottom of the bowl.
August 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRichard Esserman
really enjoying the blog and my smoking experience has improved as a result of going through your entries. . Any idea where to pick up an angled head tamper that might be more reasonably priced that Mr Rousch's model . Can't seem to find any on the usual net retailers .

thanks again
September 4, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermediumdun

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