Airflow: The Key to Smoking Pleasure

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Airflow: The Key to Smoking Pleasure, by Ken Campbell

This article first appeared in The Pipe Collector, the official newsletter of The National Association of Pipe Collectors (NASPC), and is used here by permission. It's a great group, consider joining.

[I don’t know how controversial the following article might be, but I do know that Ken Campbell has worked long and hard on it, and I’m pleased to publish it. Of course, it would most interesting if our many pipe-maker members would respond with their thoughts on this issue. We encourage their responses, as well as those from experienced pipe smokers.--Ed]

Since high school days, I smoked a pipe off and on until 1986, when I took it up full time. I always enjoyed smoking a pipe despite a number of problems I encountered. The two most recurrent consisted in managing to smoke more matches than tobacco and occasional bouts with tongue-bite. Many were the remedies that other men offered me: filling the pipe more carefully, smoking slower, not allowing the pipe to get too hot, etc. These suggestions were all helpful but never solved the basic problems of how to keep a pipe lit and how to prevent varying degrees of discomfort from afflicting my tongue.

My first clue came from an article I read in Pipes & Tobacco in the Winter/1996/97 edition, early in 1997. The article was entitled “Nature’s Designs” by Dayton H. Matlick and was about Lars Ivarsson, his pipe making and some of his philosophy and knowledge about smoking. I quote Messrs. Matlick and Ivarsson from this article: “Unrestricted airflow through the entire channel is essential for an easy-smoking pipe....’Once you pick the shape and size of pipe you like, test the airflow,’ says Lars Ivarsson. ‘Draw in through the empty pipe at normal smoking force. There should be no sound or, at most, a deep, hollow sound. This means the airflow is not restricted, an essential element of a good-smoking pipe. If you have any whistling sounds,... meaning restricted airflow, you will probably have trouble keeping it lit and it will probably smoke wet. According to Lars, ‘You’re getting turbulence in the airstream when you exceed a certain speed. The sound of that turbulence indicates that the smoke will get separated. Smoke is actually microdrops of moisture containing hot air and aroma. When air passes quickly through a restricted passageway, turbulence moves the heavy particles, including the moisture, to the perimeter, like separating cream from milk. This can be caused by too small a diameter or sharp corners in the smoke passage [which is] an extremely important issue....[T]he physics of the boring of your pipe will definitely have an impact on the taste of the pipe and your smoking pleasure. For all of his pipes, Lars uses a four millimeter [Ed. about 5/32 nd of an inch] channel from one end of the pipe to the other. This may vary with the pipe maker, but the sound test will still hold true.”

The portion of the article I have just quoted caught my attention and interest, particularly with regard to keeping the pipe lit for longer periods of time, as well as to the taste of the tobacco and enjoyment of smoking. I noticed that certain of my pipes did tend to stay lit longer than others, particularly some of my Dunhill ODAs and LBs that were dated back in the early sixties. Unfortunately, those pipes comprised a very small segment of my collection. I did note that the air holes through the briar were somewhat larger in those pipes than most of my other ones; but I had no way of measuring the airflow through the stems. I also noticed that these Dunhills not only stayed lit longer but, when I smoked them back to back, produced substantially less tongue-bite. The taste of the tobacco seemed more pronounced, and I enjoyed it more.

I attributed these observations to the claims advanced by Dunhill for years to the effect that their pipes were made of the best briar that had been aged for many years and fitted with the best vulcanite mouthpieces. Thus I had not fully accepted the airflow theory.

Later in 1997, in its Fall edition, Pipes & Tobaccos printed an article by Rick Newcombe entitled “Easy Draw.” In that article, P&T stated: “The problem with most pipes today is that they are not drilled properly for the perfect smoking experience. Richard Newcombe’s theory of smoke hole geometry may help you modify your pipe from an average to a superb smoke.” I was all eyes and ears, and I devoured the article.

Rick Newcombe stated: “When you have a pipe drilled as I have described [opening the mouthpiece and smokehole to 5/32nds], you will be amazed at how easily it smokes and how easy it is to keep lit. There is no better feeling than being able to enjoy a pipe, put it down for a minute or two, and then pick it back up and puff gently as the tobacco is still smoldering.”

Rick went on to say that he questioned Jess Chonovitsch and Lars Ivarsson, two of the pipe makers he considers the best in the world, as to why they fail to open up the pipes they sell as he likes them and, as it turns out, as they do themselves. The explanation given was that hollowing out the vulcanite weakens it to the point that careless or inexperienced smokers may run the risk of biting through the bit and attributing this to inferior quality. Do they object to the buyer having his pipe opened by an experienced pipe man? Not in the least, since they do so for their own pipes themselves.

Further on in the article, Rick brings up Jim Benjamin, who has been his mentor on the subject of pipes and tobacco. Jim has been opening his own pipes for 50 years, having adopted the practice back in the late forties. He maintains that the open pipe produces a cooler smoke. The unrestricted airflow prevents tongue-bite, which he says is contracted from “tugging and tugging on a pipe with an inadequate draw, much like sucking molasses through a straw.”

At the time this article was written, Rick and Jim were employing both 5/32nds and 11/64th of an inch air-holes, depending on the size of the pipe. Since then, they have experimented with even wider holes and now seem to favor a diameter up to 3/16th of an inch, depending on the size and shape of the pipe. However, 5/32nd of an inch is still considered a minimum.

Intrigued, I contacted Jim Benjamin to discuss the matter of air-flow more thoroughly. Since then I have spoken at great length with both Rick and Jim, whom, despite my long experience, I consider my smoking mentors and special friends. The first pipes I sent Jim to open were the Dunhills I spoke about previously. But when I got them back and smoked them, the comparison was dramatic. I called Jim and asked him what he had done to improve even those pipes so markedly. He said he’d opened the bits as well as the shanks to keep the airflow perfectly even throughout the entire bore. That made a world of difference. Recall that I had recognized that the air hold in these fine pipes was wider than normal, but the air hole in the bit was still somewhat restricted. Most importantly, then what Jim had done was widen the air hole throughout the entire pipe, creating a completely unrestricted and even draw.

Since Jim has opened all my pipes, I have never enjoyed pipe smoking so much. My tongue-bite problem evaporated. My pipes remained lit for much longer periods of time, producing a cooler bowl, just warm to the touch, and thereby a cooler and more flavorful smoke.

Having your pipes properly opened, however, is not in itself a panacea for deriving the greatest smoking pleasure. Of course you must keep your pipes as clean as possible, not only from the standpoint of taste but, just as importantly, to keep the entire bore free from obstructions and narrowing due to tar deposits. Filling the pipe carefully to ensure a smooth and easy draw and smoking it slowly to keep it from becoming overheated are also requisites for an excellent smoke. Furthermore, lighting your pipe carefully and evenly and a judicious use of your tamper are also most important. But make no mistake about it: the perfectly even flow of sufficient oxygen through the entire bore is the foundation of a great-smoking pipe. With the easy draw throughout the opened air hole, the pipe can be smoked cooler with less effort, because it will stay lit without the necessity for heavy puffing.

As the old saying goes, “The proof of the pudding is in the taste.” If you don’t believe me, try it.

A surprising thing is the heated controversy that seems to swirl around the topic of airflow like smoke in a room with too many open windows. Hard to blow perfect smoke rings in an atmosphere like that and hard to fathom the real objections that are advanced against modifications to airflow.

Let’s look at the principal objectors’ arguments against the open air hole. At the end of Rick Newcombe’s article, Chuck Stanion, P&T’s editor, noted some of them. First, Ed Burac says the theory is too simple. In my experience, unequivocally, the theory works.

Now Chuck comes to a more serious objector, Jim Cooke. I have spoken to Jim myself. He maintains that the larger air hole causes the pipe to burn hotter--so hot in fact that it will burn out. I asked him for documentation on this point, and he said his own experience was all he had to go on. He gave me an example. Apparently a customer came to him with a number of old Barlings he had purchased that had been opened in the mortise but whose bits had not been worked on. He asked Jim what he could do to restore his pipes to their original condition, as they smoked very wet and very poorly. Jim said there was nothing that could be done. The hole in the bore could not be reduced.

I mentioned that one of the keys to the success of the process was filing the inside of the bit to the right size, so that every inch from bowl to the lip contains the same volume, preventing airflow distortion. Jim admitted that this was correct. But then he threw back that the pipe smokes too hot and will burn out.

Jim was making a pipe for me at the time, and I asked him to drill the air hole 5/32nds. He refused, saying he would not put his name on a pipe drilled that wide. I countered with the fact that he normally employs an air hole only 1/64th narrower. He said that was a big difference.

My answer is that Jim Benjamin has been opening his own pipes for 50 years, and, to date, none have burned out! I have been at this for five years, too short a time to really tell, but so far I have not had a burnout. Presently, I have a 3/16th air hole in the pipe Jim Cooke made for me. He would not recognize the pipe, as I made a number of modifications to its appearance and capacity. But if he smoked it blind, I would guaranty he would acclaim it as one of the best smoking pipes he had ever tried.

I also spoke to Bill Taylor about airflow. He was not particularly partisan either way. He says he uses 5/32nd as a standard for his Ashton pipes.

One other chap, Richard Esserman, has voiced objections to the open-bore practice. What he has said is indeed most didactic. He avers that if anyone thinks he might modify a pipe he is about to purchase, he should not purchase it. This might be the stance of a collector of fine objets d’art. Naturally, one would never attempt to change or “improve” a feature of one of Rembrandt’s subjects. I can even see the possibility of that principle being invoked if one owned a famous museum piece of intricately carved meerschaum. But carrying it to an oversized smoking pipe??? Well, to each his own.

I should like to pint out that the amount of work involved in “opening” a briar pipe is substantial. Opening the shank on a straight pipe is no problem and might take but a minute or two. But far more time consuming is the work to be done on the vulcanite mouthpiece to insure a consistent air hole throughout. In my opinion, that is the most critically important part of the process. Generally it takes me the better part of two hours. However, I would not advise anyone with little or no wood-crafting experience to attempt the job himself. Many a slip between bowl and lip, and a bad slip could ruin a fine pipe irreparably. For this reason, I would strongly recommend sending the pipe you want opened to Jim Benjamin at 12199 Avenida Consentido San Diego, CA. 92128-3248; 858-674-4900.

Jim not only has great expertise in opening pipes, but the pipes he returns look and smoke brand new, and for just $15 plus shipping?. They will bring back memories of how the pipe tasted after you broke it in and how it looked when you picked it out. He also has developed a secret process for restoring the original clean shiny appearance of the vulcanite mouthpiece. Yellowed or otherwise stained bits produce a bitter, unclean taste, and Jim’s restored bits have none of that. Even more remarkable is that the mouthpiece stays in its pristine condition over time. Pipes I have sent to Jim several years ago have completely resisted the normal oxidation process.

In a recent article in the Pipe Smoker’s Ephemeris, Dr. Mark Beale mentions that he is in the process of changing the original vulcanite bit of an S. Bang pipe for an acrylic bit! Rick Newcombe tells me that S. Bang uses the best-quality vulcanite in the world, very soft to the touch, that produces a wonderful feeling when smoking it. I would heartily recommend that Dr. Beale send the pipe and original mouthpiece to Jim Benjamin before he radically changes the smoking quality of his pipe. Certainly he can’t lose anything by trying and if the bit oxidizes, he can always go the Lucite route. But I know that it won’t oxidize and that he will be far happier with the bit once Jim has processed it.

In conclusion, master pipe maker Lar Ivarsson uses a 4 mm (5/32nd) channel from one end of the pipe to the other. The airflow must be consistent throughout the entire channel.

Once you have had one of your pipes correctly opened, filled it properly, and completed lighting it, you will realize that all your pains were an inconsequential price to pay for one of the greatest smokes you have ever had. Try this with one of your worst-smoking pipes. The result will make a believer out of you!

I think Rick Newcombe sums it up in a remarkable statement he made to me recently: “ I’d rather smoke a no-name pipe that has been opened than an S. Bang that has not been opened. But of course, my first choice would be an S. Bang pipe opened the way that I like.”