Reflecting on the illusive “magic” smoke and what makes it happen


Blog by Steve Laug

Avatar3In between traveling and working I had a day free in Budapest, Hungary. I had finished the work I had gone there to do and had some free time. I needed time alone after several weeks filled with people and meetings so I could recharge and regroup. So, I slept, wandered, ate and took time to write. I wrote a reflection on pipe smoking in Budapest that I posted earlier. I also wrote this reflection on what makes a magic smoke. I sat in a nice sidewalk café near my hotel with a pen and paper and wrote the outline for what later because this piece. I am sure that over the days ahead I will add to the thoughts I am expressing here and certainly invite you who read it to add to it as well using the comments box at the end of the blog.

Much has been written about how drilling and airflow dynamics affect the way a pipe smokes. And while that certainly is true there are other things that also affect a smoke. The reality is that the basic mechanics of a pipe are quite unremarkable. There is a furnace chamber for burning the tobacco and an airway on the bottom side of the bowl with a tube that runs out to a mouthpiece. The tobacco is lit; the air is pulled through the tobacco from the top of the furnace and is drawn through airway into the mouth. Diagramming it is quite simple. Think of a larger U or V with a line running from just above the bottom of the letter (U—–) and you have a pretty good picture of what the general furnace looks like. There are modifications of course such as bent pipes, partially bent pipes, system pipes etc. but even then the basic diagram is accurate.

I have been refurbishing pipes for over 15 years now – slowly, steadily learning more and more about the craft. One thing I have learned is that the basic mechanics of a pipe do not change. The externals may vary from pipe to pipe and maker to maker. The diameter and shape of the bowl differs. The diameter of the airway differs. The configuration of the airway in relation to the bottom of the bowl differs. The fit of the tenon into the mortise will either be tight or loose with arguments for both. However, the basic mechanics remain constant. The changes in bowl size and airway size affect burn and draw rates certainly. The larger the bore of the airway the easier it is to draw the air through the tobacco to the mouth. However the route is the same. I liken it to adjusting the flue on a woodstove. The more open the flue the more quickly and easily the wood burns. The more closed the flue the longer the burn. To some degree this is true of pipes as well. Kirsten pipes for example have a flue system to adjust the airflow in their bowl with a mere turn of the end cap. This controls the burn and openness of the airway.

I would say that while certainly the rate of burn, the flow of air and the ease of draw all contribute to a good smoke they are not alone in defining what makes a great smoke. They merely adjust the rate of burn of the tobacco and the duration of the smoke. Some of you might say that the bellows (the smoker) on the end of the mouth piece end also sets the cadence for the burn and the flow of air through the tobacco and draws the fire down into the bowl. But even this is still part of the mechanics. Think in terms of a bellows that draws air to the fire in a forge and intensifies the burn and the heat of the fire. It is part of the mechanics of the burn.

So if it is not just mechanics that make a good smoke then what is it that makes it happen? Is it the tobacco? Is it the cut and dryness of the leaf and the way the pipe man packs the bowl that makes a great smoke? Certainly these contribute. Add this to the mechanics of the pipe and you have another part of the answer to the question at hand. By itself, it also does not guarantee a good smoke. I am sure that many of us have experienced that accidental great smoke when we paid no attention to the pack of the bowl or to tamping correctly or applying the flame to the leaf. Most of us have experienced that magical smoke even in a poorly drilled and mechanically inferior pipe. So what is the deal? I know that one of my most magical smokes was in an old Medico Brylon billiard sans paper filter which made the draw wide open. I was packing it at a stop light and smoking it while I drove my car and the smoke was like a revelation of why I smoked a pipe. Nothing about the set up or the pipe precluded that I would have a magic smoke. In fact most of us would cynically have bet against it being a good smoke. So what is it that makes the magic? It is not mechanics alone. It is not your method of loading and tending the bowl alone. It is not the quality of the pipe alone. Though all of these contribute to the magic smoke to some degree but none of them, either alone or together, explains it.

I have read some who would say that the magic may reside in the briar or the meerschaum or the qualities of a particular piece of briar or meerschaum that is well seasoned. I am not convinced that this is altogether true. I have had both aged briar and new briar pipes that smoked both poorly and very well with no particular rhyme or reason. I have had the surprise of having Brylon and pressed meer pipes that have smoked really well and certainly a large proportion of them that smoked poorly. I have picked up cheap basket pipes or corn cobs when I was traveling on a short trip and left my pipe at home and found that some of them delivered amazingly great smokes. All of the curing, shaping, drilling did not guarantee a great smoke. I know that an aged piece of briar should deliver a better smoke but I have had older Algerian briar pipes that were well broken in and still burned both hot and sour. At the same time I have picked a newly carved pipe, loaded a bowl and was carried off by the magic. Certainly, quality briar and quality meerschaum that are well carved and well drilled increase the odds of a good smoke but they are not a guarantee.

Along with all of the things another contributing feature that comes to mind from my experience is the setting where I am smoking my pipe. It definitely contributes to the quality of the smoke for me. I know that when I find a good spot where I can relax and either disappear into a reflective state or sit and watch passersby both work well for me and they contribute in different ways to the nature of the smoke. I just came back from Berlin and Budapest where sidewalk cafes are everywhere and the amazing thing about these cafés and terraces is that they are smoker friendly spots. I spent quite a few late afternoons and evenings availing myself of the pleasure of the café. I was able to find the sweet spot on a few of those days and enjoy a magical smoke. In those cases I think I was able to disconnect from my busy day and slowly puff and slide into that space where pipe men go when they are alone with a good pipe. The quality of the smoke was definitely affected by the spot. But I have also enjoyed good smokes slowly walking through a park or down the street by my house as I head to an appointment or a meeting. So it seems that the setting contributes but it is not solely responsible for the moment.

That leads me to the last consideration of elements of the good smoke in this reflection – that of the internal state mind of the pipe smoker. What does it contribute? In my experience, my most magical smokes have oddly occurred during some of the hardest and most troublesome days of my life. The pipe allowed me to disconnect from the heat or weight of the moment and stand apart for a moment. It was that magical disconnect that allowed me to get lost in the smoke. It gave me a moment to move outside of the moment and just get lost in the smoke. In that quiet spot created by the pipe I was able to gain clarity and move forward with decisions and choices that had been weighed and considered with care. I know that some would argue that a calm spirit and quiet heart makes for a better smoke, but in my experience it is the ability of the pipe to take me to that place of calm and quiet that adds to the magic. For me the state of mind seems to come after the smoke has been entered into and not as a per-requisite for making the magic happen. I am sure for others this may well be the case but it alludes me when I seek for it and comes to me when I surrender to the quiet of the pipe.

I am sure there are other contributing features that can be added and certainly would love to have you add your own thoughts to these reflections in the comments section below. All I know is that for me it is that ever illusive but amazing magical smoke that keeps me coming back again and again to my pipe. Regardless of the circumstance I have learned that the mechanics, the tobacco, the setting and the reframed state of mind all contribute their part to the great smoke!

8 thoughts on “Reflecting on the illusive “magic” smoke and what makes it happen

  1. ckaffer85

    I enjoy the pipe for the exact reason most of you have mentioned. The added reflection that the pipe gives keeps me coming back. In this day in age of the constant business and the urge for instant gratification, it’s things like sitting back having a great smoke that help to center me.

    Thanks for the post Steve!

    Reply
  2. Anthony

    Thanks for this wonderful and reflective post, Steve. You have been waxing quite poetic lately. I think the air overseas has been good for you.

    Reply
  3. Al

    I think that the state of your tongue and mouth at the moment you smoke that magic bowl also contribute. It may be chemistry of what you had recently eaten or had to drink that affects the quality of the smoke. I tend to think it is a combination of so many things that all come together that gives us that magical smoke. And, I think most of us remember exactly when and where they happened. Mine was sitting outside on a summer morning last year with a bowl of Dunhill Early Morning Pipe. Utterly fantastic. I just can’t remember which pipe I had smoked it in. Lol.

    Reply
  4. Mark Irwin

    If there is one area of our hobby that few people talk about these days, it’s the contemplative, which is odd when considered in the history of the pipe literature. We have moved much closer to the pleasure-seeking consumer & collector culture depicted Huxley’s BRAVE NEW OLD and retreated from the pipe’s historical kinship with the spiritual journey which was nearly always portrayed in a quiet, whimsical ways in books like MY LADY NICOTINE. In my own spiritual tradition, I’ve always considered it a “sacramental,” as such roots are easy to trace back through Christianity to its dialogue with Native American pipe-smoking theologies.

    Leave it to Steve to look hard at this difficult subject–the “magic smoke”–and tell us why, in the end, neither physics nor biology will do–which was much the same conclusion Huxley reached, in a much different way, on his much larger canvas. Thanks, Steve.

    Reply
    1. rebornpipes Post author

      Thanks Mark… funny what runs through my noggin when I have disappeared into the moment of the smoke. You pretty summarized where I was going with the piece – not physics or biology….

      Reply

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