Video by Gianluigi Fiori for Kapp & Peterson / Used with Permission
Next Sunday is the 125th anniversary of the System pipe. Now’s your chance to enter the 2023 System Day Challenge and earn either your Certified Pete Geek certificate or a new merit badge for your CPG. Directions at end of post!
As we approach the 125th Anniversary of the System and System Day 2023 I thought I’d take the opportunity to offer my own take on the practice of smoking the System Pipe, more personal and detail-oriented than the one I wrote for the Peterson book. Do add your input, insight and criticism in the comments section, as I know Pete Geeks have often companioned their Systems for decades and have advice and tips of their own. Oh, and new jargon alert:—POBSAP = Problem Occurs Between Smoker and Pipe. Just so you know.
1. Brush your teeth before smoking. This is not to be taken like the advice your mother gave you before going to bed. It’s not about cavities. It’s about enjoying the pipe you’re getting ready to smoke. It’s a piece of wisdom given to me by Doctor of Pipes Steve Fallon, who you may know of as “Pipe Stud,” whose vocation is selling pipe tobacco and avocation is smoking it. I thought it was curious when I read it in one of his blog posts until the time when, a few months later, I tried it. A clean palette, even one with a bit of fresh minty tooth paste taste about it, can receive the flavor of tobacco in a way one that’s just been satiated with a meal containing hot onions, Hatch chiles and cabernet can’t. There’s good reason, Steve said, that wine tasters rinse their mouths between tastings. I wish I’d learned this forty years ago.
2. Use a genuine Pete Geek Tobacco Drying Paper. I know plenty of pipemen who don’t use any type of tobacco mat or plate. Many scoop their tobacco out of the tin or jar and simply stuff it into their pipes, allowing shreds and flakes to fall any which way. Others dump it into the lid of a tobacco tin and go from there. Still others use a leather mat or ceramic dish made expressly for the purpose. But the Thinking Man deposits his leaf onto a Pete Geek drying paper because he’s getting ready for the best part of his day—time with his Peterson and one of his favorite tobaccos. When he sees the Peterson art on his tobacco mat, he’s already entering the state of mindfulness known among Pete Geeks as “Peteopia” (P-Topia). And, being a Thinking Man, he knows that a paper tobacco mat can be lifted and curled into a funnel to slide the remaining tobacco back into the jar or tin while the unthinking, wasteful and lazy types are left to finger bits of flake and ribbon off their rigid mats or simply toss them into the ashtray.
The PDF provided above (right click to download) offers four genuine PPN mats in one convenient file. If you have a home printer, simply select the one you want and print. If you don’t (and many pipemen don’t), you can take the PDF to your local Office Depot, Office Max, FedEx or UPS and they’ll happily print out whichever ones you want.
3. Use A Pre-Pack Pipe Cleaner. This is a POBSAP thing for Pete Geeks like myself who don’t bat 1000 when it comes to packing their pipes. For those who find the tobacco packed too tightly and either have to do it all over again or, mid-way through the smoke punch the pick of their 3-in-1 Gratis Tool through bricked tobacco to create enough air to get it lit. The operation takes 5 seconds and guarantees you’ll always have an easy draw. The idea is to simply insert a pipe cleaner into the airway until it pokes out a bit into the chamber floor. Pack as usual (see #4 below), then remove the cleaner. That’s it. No more passing out from trying to pull air through a a plug of tobacco. This strategy also has the effect of keeping the smoke cooler as it keeps the burn rate cooler.
4. Use the Charles Peterson System Packing Method. This method was provided by Charles Peterson himself way back in the first catalogs. Leave it to Master of Pipes Shane Ireland to actually read the catalogs closely enough to discover this gem and pass it along to everyone else! The method yields a cooler smoke and also reduces the heat strain on the back wall of the chamber around the air hole, that place most susceptible to scorching in a bent pipe. So it’s a win-win. The idea above gives directions & I’ve had a number of PGs tell me that it works. It certainly works for me.
Two of the three priests are smoking Peterson Systems—that’s why they look so enlightened.
The guy in the middle? He’s wondering how if the Nassau Street Peterson shop is open tonight.
5. Offer a prayer. Strictly optional, but I have it from a friend’s Irish priest that this a pretty good idea. This is one of my favorites:
May my prayers
like the smoke from my pipe
rise like incense before you,
Lord God King of the universe.
6. Char light and Tamping with the Tamp + Finger Method. Of course the Pete Geek will want to use an authorized Peterson Old Boy-style or Pete Geek Zippo and a Pete Geek Tamper if at all possible in the char light. But after the pipe is lit and going, keep the pipe cool and the pack from becoming clogged by using your finger. I gently push down the ash, which of course is cool so there’s no danger of burning the finger. Of course, some of my books do show the signs of this process, but if it yields a cooler and more trouble-free smoke, it’s worth it.
7. Keep it cool. This is something that took me decades to learn, one that would’ve saved a number of pipes from scorching around the air hole, chamber fissures, a few burnouts and a thousand nights of tongue burn. “Keep it cool” means keeping the walls of the System bowl from ever becoming hot to the touch. There are two parts to this practice:
a. Don’t pack to the rim. I learned this from Shane Ireland and it works. Never pack the bowl more than about 75-80% full. While many pipemen do this to keep rim grime and lava from building up, an equally important reason is that the bowl won’t get as hot. Someone with a degree in physics or engineering can explain this to us in the comments, but for whatever sound scientific reason, a bowl that isn’t fully packed doesn’t burn as hotly upon lighting.
b. After getting the pipe going, there will come a time toward the beginning of the smoke when the walls begin to get pretty warm. That’s the time to exercise some discipline and set the pipe in a Peterson leather loop holder, the one sitting next to your chair. Let the pipe remain there for 3-5 minutes or until it has cooled down. It doesn’t have to be stone cold, just cooler. As Shane teaches, relights are not a problem. Hot pipe bowls and burned tongues are.
8. Learn to let go. Know when to stop. This is a really a hard one for me, as I want to smoke to the very last particle of tobacco is burned in the bottom of the bowl. Stopping when the flavor begins to go south or it begins to smoke hot or your palate feels satiated can mean the difference between a great smoke and one that ends on a down note or worse.
9. Cleaning. You’ve heard somewhere that “cleanliness is next to godliness,” and if that goes for yourself and the ones who share close proximity with you, it goes doubly for your pipe. To properly taste your tobacco and enjoy everything the Peterson System has to offer you need to keep it clean. This is easy for old soldiers but harder for guys who never learned the joy of “automatic cleaning.” It is best done soon after your smoke when the moisture in the reservoir is still warm and in a purely liquid state. There are six stages to the process, none of them requiring much time or thought:
a. Swabbing the Reservoir. After smoking a System, swab the reservoir of its condensate before the liquid turns to gel or disappears. I do this by twisting a tissue then screwing it in and letting it set for a few seconds. Removing it, you should be able to see an empty reservoir. Sometimes you may not be able to connect with the bottom of the chamber. At such times a doubled fluffy pipe cleaner will usually swab out the rest.
(Remember you can swab out a System when the bowl is hot. I have sometimes waited overnight, but usually I get to the cleaning before retiring for the day. I have to confess this is a task I enjoy, as I like the aroma (!), enjoying polishing up the bowl and stem with a microfiber rag and usually take a look into the chamber to make sure I don’t see any white flecks on the walls that indicate a possible heat spot.)
b. Clean the tenon end of the stem. Systems sometimes get a sour taste because the smoker doesn’t realize the graduated bore’s smoke channel is dirty. Running a pipe cleaner through the channel will only clean the upper 2/3rds, as the bottom third is too wide for the cleaner to hit all the surface. For that you need to double a pipe cleaner and run it up the tenon end of a Standard System. For a Premier or Deluxe, remove the aluminum or bone extension. Leaving it in means leaving condensate to harden and dry in the graduated end where it will reheat and promote a sour smoke as time goes on.
c. Clean the other smoke channels. After cleaning the tenon end of the stem, I run an end of the doubled cleaner just used on the tenon through the removed aluminum tenon (if the pipe is a Premier or Deluxe) and around its threads. Then use fresh cleaners for the bowl’s smoke channel and the mortise end of the stem.
I know there are people who budget their pipe cleaners, thinking to economize by never spending more than 2 cleaners when cleaning a pipe. I’d rather have a clean and tasty pipe myself, and sometimes it takes four or five to satisfy me.
d. Periodically do a deep cleaning. Once in a while—more often than you might think—it’s a good idea to use alcohol, a tube brush, bristle cleaners and fluffy cleaners to get a really deep cleaning to the smoke channels. You will be surprised, if you’ve never done this before, at just how dirty your pipe can be on the inside.
e. Hand-buff with a microfiber towel. What did we do before microfiber towels? I don’t know. I keep one hanging at the side of my rotation shelf ready for when I clean a pipe. I like to run the towel over the stem and bowl after cleaning the insides.
f. Air the separated bowl and stem. Part of the genius of the System (like any army mount) is that it allows you to air out the internals of the pipe. A traditional “navy mount” tenon-mortise must, of course, be immediately reassembled or you may find yourself with a loose tenon the next time you pick up the pipe. This is not the case with a System or an army mount. Much more than the army mount, however, the System needs some time to recover as it has an enlarged mortise that needs to dry out. I rest the bowl in an upright posture overnight, allowing whatever residue there is to evaporate or settle to the bottom. I also try to set the stem upright as well, not that it matters all that much.
1. Gurgle. The most common concern I hear from System smokers concerns the issue of gurgle from the aluminum tenon extension (aka condenser / “chimney”). As this removable element vitally effects flavor and performance, it’s not something to throw away or remove, but understand the cause of gurgle and its remedy.
The first and most important thing to understand is that gurgle has no effect on the flavor and smoking properties of the System. It’s just an audible annoyance like a dripping faucet.
Simply put, gurgle occurs when a new System pipe is being broken in because the briar reservoir has not yet been hydrated and coated with tobacco oils. This causes an undue amount of moisture to condense around the spigot of the tenon and make a burbling sound that is amplified by the echo chamber of the reservoir. The gurgle will disappear if the pipe is smoked on a regular basis, either every day or every few days, until six to eight bowls of tobacco have been passed through the chamber. It doesn’t affect the qualilty of the smoke, just annoys the smoker.
“But my pipe is an estate.” I’m willing to bet that your pipe hasn’t been smoked for at least a year, maybe years and years, or is new/old stock. The same rule applies: it needs to be smoked and broken in to hydrate the reservoir.
“But my pipe IS broken in and it STILL gurgles.” In a case like this, ask if you’ve been packing the pipe in an indoor environment then taking it outside to smoke. The difference in temperature and/or relative humidity may be the cause for gurgle here.
“I’m sorry, but it still gurgles.” Sometimes an unusually large tobacco chamber, like that found in the House Pipe and Pub Pipe, will not work well with aromatic tobaccos. The cavendish and humectants in aromatics cause far more moisture than in naturally high-sugar tobaccos like Virginias, which means the System has to work harder. The smoker has two options here: 1) remove the stem, wipe off the tenon and blow out the condensate, or 2) switch to an English or burley tobacco for the next bowl. These types of tobaccos work well with wide, deep chambers.
“But it STILL gurgles.” When this happens, there’s only one remedy: send me the pipe and I’ll nurse it back to health. I’ll even pay the postage. But be forewarned: it may take me a lifetime to get your pipe in working condition. 😊
Remember Stevie Ray Vaughn’s legendary rhythm & blues cadence and keep yourself smoking “cool.”
BTW—Vaughn smoked a 312 System, as seen in this photo.
2. Hot Bowl. This is one of those POBSAP issues, sometimes known in the Tough Love crowd as the ID10T (“Idiot”) or one delta ten tango (because the System is a Special Forces army mount).
If a pipe has thin walls it will heat up quickly, requiring the user to adopt an especially relaxed cadence. As some of us (including myself at one point in my smoking life) can’t make this adjustment, it’s better to pass the pipe along to another user and find a thicker-walled System. Fortunately, Systems rare have thin walls. They can be overheated, however, by over-zealous puffing.
Cadence is at the root of the hot bowl problem. I suggest keeping an official Peterson leather pipe loop, like the one seen above, on the table next to your smoking chair. When the bowl becomes hot, set the pipe in the loop and give it five minutes to cool down. Repeat as necessary. While this is a discipline that must be acquired, the reward is unexpected: not only will the pipe remain cooler, but the flavor of the tobacco will be enhanced by short intervals of abstaining.
3. Foul-tasting smoke. This is another POBSAP issue. The most frequent cause is that the pipe has been such a fantastic smoker for a long time and the smoker has forgotten it needs to be routinely cleaned and regularly receive a deep cleaning.
The regular cleaning consists of (1) emptying the condensate out of the reservoir with a twisted tissue “sponge” before it gels or simply is absorbed into the briar, and (2) doubling a pipe cleaner and inserting it up the tenon end of the stem after every smoke. Because the graduated bore is about 5mm at the tenon end, a regular pipe cleaner won’t hit the walls of the air channel at this end.
The deep cleaning consists of scrubbing the air channel of the mouthpiece and bowl with a tube brush dipped in isopropyl or Everclear, wiping the bristles on a cotton cloth and repeating until the bristles come out clean.
If the pipe is an estate and new to you, you can maximize your smoking experience with it by doing a deep cleaning before you ever smoke it. This is also the time to place layers of cotton pad or ball into the chamber, adding isopropyl or Everclear after every layer until the cotton is saturated. I will usually scrub out the reservoir before doing this and even pour kosher salt into the reservoir, adding isopropyl with an eye dropper until saturated. Leave the bowl for day or two until the alcohol has evaporated. If you used salt, wipe out the reservoir with an doubled pipe cleaner dipped in alcohol to remove any residual salt flavor.
CATEGORICAL SYSTEM MISTAKES
(Serious POBSAP Misconceptions)
1. “The airhole in my System’s chamber doesn’t meet with the bottom. Peterson doesn’t know how to make a good pipe.”
In 45 years of System smoking, my own experience is that at least 95% of the time, the airhole in the chamber does not need to hit the bottom of the chamber for the pipe to function correctly. Why this is so, I could not tell you. I suspect it has to do with the reservoir and the airflow created by it.
The myth is a carry-over from non-System pipes, where it is often true. With non-Systems—even bent Peterson Classic Range F/Ts, you may get a wet heel. But not—in my experience—with a System.
2. “My System’s draw is too tight and should be opened up in the smoke channel of the bowl.”
Seriously untrue. The draw of a System is harder than a non-System pipe, but the smoke’s temperature does not suffer. The draw of a System requires more effort because of the vortex created by the graduated bore and the reservoir. If you don’t believe me, try opening one up for yourself (follow the 1D10T directions in the Peterson book–I can’t believe I put that in the book!). You’ll think you left the back door open and all the windows up on your pipe and a s*it storm is coming up the smoke channel.
3. “A System doesn’t need a P-Lip stem to be a System pipe.”
Epic fail! This one, I’m sorry to say, is still being propagated by K&P in making these pipes available, despite fantastic Army mounts (like the Short Army). Such pipes are “neither fish nor fowl” but just plain foul. They don’t function as army mounts because of the reservoir and they don’t function as Systems because they lack Charles Peterson’s important graduated bore / P-Lip stem. Don’t believe me? I triple dog-dare you to try it.
4. “The System doesn’t pass the “pipe cleaner” test, so it obviously isn’t drilled correctly.”
This one makes me laugh when I read it on the forums. As does the guy who insists an army mount needs to pass a pipe cleaner test. Obviously the experts who make these claims have never seen a Peterson demonstrator (like the one in the banner photo) or understood anything at all about its engineering. As for pipes like the Peterson Short Army and the 2023 POY, when they do pass a pipe cleaner (as mine do) that’s just gravy. When they don’t, just remember there’s Dunhills that don’t, either.
The pipe cleaner test is a way to verify air turbulence in F/T “navy” or traditional tenon-mortise pipes. When the cleaner won’t go through, there will be more turbulence than if the air could pass easily from the tenon through the mortise’s smoke channel into the chamber.
The problem using this test with K&P pipes is that they’re so very different from the rest of the pipe world. A bent P-Lip Donegal Rocky, for example, might not pass the pipe cleaner but the graduated bore and chamfering of the mouthpiece overcome the turbulence issues.
PETE GEEK LEAF POCKET JAR RESCUE
I learned my lesson ordering a second batch of PG gear—some folks (obviously not Pete Geeks) who placed orders reneged on their commitments, leaving me holding the credit card bill. If you’d like one or more of them, please please click on the Google Form below to purchase what is available. You may want to include an alternate or two, since whoever pays first gets their first choice.
Al Jones, CPG: I was at my local, very large Cars & Coffee this am, repping with a Peterson and my CPG tobacco jar! Oddly, almost no British owners smoke pipes these days.
Al regularly contributes refurb posts to Steve Laug’s Rebornpipes. Al is a long-time Pete Geek and won the “Pete Geek Dove of Peace” Merit Badge recently for his years of service in the front lines of a forum as Peterson moderator. The kind of stuff that goes on there is why I left Earth for another planet a long time ago. He also drives an uber-cool MGB.
Next Sunday marks the 125th anniversary of the third and final patent of the System pipe. This year’s System Day challenge takes it cue from a passage in my pipe-smoking novel The X-Pipe (which is in the editing and book design process):
“The Smoker is incomplete without his pipe;
the pipe is incomplete without the soul of its tobacco;
the tobacco is incomplete without the censing smoke and its transformative power.
The four are united yet distinct; in community, yet one.”
To receive your CPG certificate or the new merit badge, address the four elements in a sentence or two accompanied by an illustrative photo and email them to email@example.com:
- The Smoker—your name and global location as you want it to appear in the post;
- The Pipe—your chosen System pipe;
- The Tobacco—the tobacco you will most likely smoke on System Day 2023;
- The Transformative Power—your most probable hour and locale for celebrating System Day.
Your entry must be received by Saturday, September 2nd, 5pm CDT, to be included in the System Day 2023 blog post for Sunday, September 3rd.