I used to call myself “the Human Torch,” not because I aspired to Marvel Comics superhero status (if you recall Johnny Storm, one of the Fantastic Four), but because I seemed to have burned out more pipes than anyone I’ve ever met. Truly. My first burnout occurred not long after taking up the pipe—couldn’t have been more than eighteen. It was a basket pipe and I was so scared of the proprietress at my local tobacconist (my mentor Beth Kanaly of Ted’s Pipe Shoppe in Tulsa, Oklahoma) that I asked my dad to go with me. And it was a good thing, because she was mad. Like many retailers I’ve known in more than forty years since, she was pretty much convinced that the fault was all mine. Well, yes and no.
I remember her asking me if I’d been smoking my pipe while riding a motorcycle. “No,” I demurred, “my Mom won’t let me have a motorcycle.” “Well what, then? Skydiving? Skiing in gale winds on Grand Lake?” Even my Dad was somewhat taken aback. All I remember after that is that money exchanged hands at some point and I walked out with a new pipe.
My pipe-smoking mentor, the red-head Irish fireball Beth Kanaly,
five years before I walked into her shop.
Fast forward many decades and I come to the “Inflammatory Stage” of my pipe-smoking career. In the space of two years or so, I witnessed the burn-out of 3 Julius Vesz “Bilbo” pipes (that’s three in a row), a Peterson POY and a Peterson special-order high grade. I’m sure there were more, but trauma of this magnitude sometimes does funny things to one’s memory.
Recently, my friend Ralle Perrera had a beloved Pete burn out on him, and from his detailed account, I could not only commiserate with him but knew from my own bitter experiences that it wasn’t his fault. In our emails, he agreed to let me share his story in relating the typical causes of burnout and pass along some of my own cautions and remedies.
The first thing no one will tell you is that experienced pipemen (and women) have all gone through burnouts. They just don’t talk about them. But any good 12-stepper knows that the only way forward is simply to admit it: “My smoking life is unmanageable and I know I have to give it over to a Higher Power.” Or words to similar effect.
To borrow a battlefield analogy, a burnout is similar to a Purple Heart, that badge of honor given to wounded soldiers. But if you know any vets, you know these guys don’t talk about it, at least not at first.
Just like those vets, there sometimes wasn’t anything you could do to avert the maelstrom. And that brings me to the second thing: briar is an organic substance. Because the white heath tree (the briar) grows in sandy soil and it is the root ball that is used to make tobacco pipes, bits of soil, sand and other organic material are often trapped in it as it grows. When the briar is harvested, cut and cured, the worst of these offenders become obvious and the wood discarded.
When the pipe is turned, whether on a frazing machine or by an artisan, pits (or “sand pits”) often appear on the outer or exposed surfaces. Even artisans must then have recourse to making a sandblasted or rusticated pipe from one that was originally going to be smooth. Pits underneath the surface cannot be seen and these can occur not only near the surface of the inner wall of the chamber, but anywhere on the pipe. Burnouts typically occur in four places, which I list in order of descending frequency:
- from the bottom or side of the chamber;
- around or just above the air hole at the chamber base;
- from the outside of the bowl, appearing as a gradually enlarging scorch mark;
- on the outer rim of the bowl.
When Willy Kelly at Peterson grades Peterson bowls, he circles each visible pit with a pencil. He looks inside the chamber as well, and if there are any pits in the bottom half of the bowl (where it will be hottest when smoked), the bowls are discarded Otherwise, the pits are filled and the bowls go on to become finished pipes. (Root marks, those tiny black dots sometimes seen through higher-grade stains, are not sand pits, and Peterson, transparent here as throughout their business philosophy, thinks they shouldn’t be hidden.) But there’s only so much that can be done at the factory, or by an artisan for that matter, because sometimes burnouts happen.
Ralle’s case is one of the two most frequently occurring. He writes:
The one thing I have been afraid of finally happened—a burn out. Last evening I was sitting and smoking some fine Peterson tobacco (Irish Flake bought at James Fox in London) and was almost finished, when l was surprised by a suddenly heavy amount of smoke that shouldn’t be there at this stage of the bowl.
I thought either I have got the hang of folding and stuffing flake, or there is something very wrong. The bottom of the pipe was on fire. I quickly turned it out and realized that this pipe is no more. It is gone. Dead.
Why did it happen? Was it my fault? The pipe’s? The pipe in question is actually my first Peterson, which l bought when I started to smoke pipe about three years ago.
I have taken good care of it and it has built up a fine and nice cake. I don’t use a lighter when I light the pipe. I use matches. After a smoke I take a paper towel and wipe it out and gently scrape the inside with a pipe tool. Not too much—I want to build up a cake.
I clean the pipe with paper towels and pipe cleaners after almost every smoke almost. Once in a while (every third month) l clean it thoroughly with a pipe cleaning fluid and polish it up with some paraffin oil, which works really well and gives a good look both to steam and pipe.
Before smoking it, I gently took a pipe tool and went through it, sort of checking it—nothing wrong. Then l folded a bit of flake that had been dried up a bit and packed the bowl.
I do not smoke hard. I am a old cigarette smoker and I really have been forced to learn to smoke again in the right way.
The pipe did not get hot at all during the smoke, just a little in the beginning which is common when l smoke but nothing serious or extraordinary. I stick to the rule, that if you can’t hold the bowl against your cheek then it is too hot and it didn’t get that hot.
This pipe has been the one I have tried new tobaccos in, the one that I first learned to packed a bowl in, how to smoke gently and how to care of.
Although Ralle had smoked this pipe for a long time, as he continued to smoke it, as the sand pit between the bottom of the chamber and the outer bottom of the bowl continued to expand and contract, and because there were a few oxygen and non-briar organic molecules trapped that composed it, it overheated the surrounding wood, causing the wood to ignite and burn through.
A second kind of burnout, probably just as frequent, occurs at the air hole in the bottom of the chamber, often expanding to the area above it or to one side. This happened to me with what I still think of as the most beautiful Peterson I ever companioned, an XL21 Special that John Dromgoole at the old Grafton Street shop had made up for me back in the days when this kind of thing was a possibility.
At the time, I didn’t know what to do about such problems and thought that if I just smoked it a few times, the burnout would stop. You can see the damage. If I’d known then what I know now—that familiar refrain—I could have saved the pipe. But I didn’t.
A third type of burnout, much less frequent and therefore unseen by many pipemen (and women), is when a dark scorch mark appears on the outside of the bowl. I don’t have an illustration to show you, but these give one the impression that the burn should go all the way through, from the inside, when in fact it’s occurring from the outside. This happened to me with one of the Kaffir Antique Reproduction pipes the second or third time I smoked it. There was no visible evidence inside the chamber, just a large black splotch on the outside front of the bowl.
The fourth type is not technically a burnout since it doesn’t usually destroy the pipe, but a type of scorch around the outer rim that’s caused by a sand bit under the surface. You can see it on this Gregson Natural. It simply appeared one day, out of the blue. It’s not a burn from a lighter or match, but caused by heat dispersion in the sand pit under the surface shortly after lighting. It has gotten a little larger over the years but don’t seem to be seriously endangering the pipe.
Every pipeman (or woman) will have their own set of cautions. For me over the years, I’ve taken to leaving a strong pocket flashlight next to my pipe racks and ashtrays, and whenever I dump out the ashes—especially on a pipe I’m breaking in—I take a look inside the bowl. Usually a possible burnout will appear as a small divot, sometimes a whitish color, sometimes not.
The break-in period is, of course, the most important (and stressful) time in any new pipe’s life, which is why Peterson’s old pipe box inserts always gave the pipe a 90-day guarantee. If the wood was going to crack, split or develop a burnout of its own accord (not induced by the pipeman), given regular smoking it would happen in that three-month period.*
If you haven’t heard it before, virginia and virginia-based tobaccos burn the hottest because they’ve got the highest amount of sugar (that’s why so many of us like them, I’m sure). So if you only smoke virginias, you need to proceed with more caution during the break-in period than English, burley-blend and aromatic users. I love Mac Baren’s burley-based Mixture Flake, so I routinely use it to break in a pipe before switching it over to virginia. [I guess you heard Mac Baren has discontinued this stellar tobacco?]
Some pipemen advocate a slow build-up of tobacco, beginning with an eighth-bowl. Some say to pack it to the brim and simply begin. Some say to never smoke a pipe to the bottom of the bowl (which could cause the airway to char as well as incite a burnout), some say you need a cake on the bottom as well. I can only give you my history, which is probably not as wise as other smokers. I pack the pipe almost to the rim and try to be very aware when I’m smoking it for the first six or eight bowls. When the bowl gets hot, I just let it rest for a few minutes until it feels warm or comfortable, then relight. I try to be especially cautious toward the end of the bowl, but at all times I’m trying to be aware if I can taste or smell wood. If you’re an indoor smoker, this is of course much easier to do and a tell-tale sign that a burnout is beginning.
For your System pipe, or indeed any of your P-Lips, one of the best ways to prevent airway char and possible burnout around the airway is to use Charles Peterson’s System packing method, which was rediscovered by Smokingpipe’s Shane Ireland and not only gives some insurance to your break-in but gives an even cooloer smoking experience with less relights.
Burnouts happen in artisan-grade, super-high grade, high grade, mid-grade and entry grade pipes. I’ve often suspected burnouts are more frequent in more expensive pipes, but that’s probably just a poor boy bias. I do think, again from my own experience, that ebauchon briar breaks in differently than plateau. My plateau briars seem to cake extraordinarily fast. I remember one artisan pipe I thought was burning out when in fact it had just developed a remarkable cake in short order.
Awareness—prevention—is of course the best remedy. If you can see a burnout inside the chamber as it begins, you can almost always rescue it. I’ve known restorationists on the internet use JB Weld to plug and fill burnouts, but having tried a few of these rescues, I honestly think it better to just bury the pipe or use it for kindling. Sealing the inside of the chamber with anything that’s not a carbon cake means your chamber has a smaller surface area and that your tobacco, as it lets off heat and steam, is going to push that heat and water on out the airway and up the stem. And of course, the flavor will, by necessity, also be somewhat diminished or changed.
The best remedy I’ve found is home made pipe mud. Recipes are found on almost every forum, but the idea is simply to take cigar ash, crush it in a mortar or some other way, then begin to add a few drops of water at a time until you get a thick dark gray mud. It can’t be too thin or too thick, but it doesn’t take much experimentation to figure it out. You can use the spoon on a czech tool to apply it to the inside of the chamber, but I prefer simply the pad of my finger, which can feel what my eyes can’t see as well as make a smooth wall over the smallest area necessary.
Once you’ve got a smooth surface, give the mud 3 days to dry and you’re ready to smoke. The first smoke will cause the patch to lighten up. If you did it right, the patch won’t peel away. If you did it wrong, no worries. Just chip it away and do it again. The patch will completely disappear in three or four smokes, and if you smoke the pipe regularly, you won’t be able to tell there was ever a problem before very months go by.
The only drawback to pipe mud is the flavor. At least, for those of us who don’t regularly smoke or appreciate cigars. The cigar taste is only a ghost and dissipates after two or three bowls. Virginia smokers will notice it more than English or aromatic users. I sometimes have applied a bit of activated charcoal powder to my pipe mud, or even applied a spot of the maple syrup / charcoal carbon cake on top of the dried pipe mud to good effect.
You might think a pipe is somehow ruined once it’s had a small burn in the chamber. If it looked like the one on my XL21, I’d have to agree. That was more of a holocaust. But if you catch the burn in time you can still enjoy a lifetime of smoking that pipe and will probably forget at some point that it ever had a problem.
I’m hoping that many of you with wiser heads and remedies of your own might be willing to share them with everyone in the comments section. If you don’t want to talk about your burnouts, I quite understand, but remember we’re all in this together.
* If you have a new Pete that burns out on you, a good retailer won’t hassle you but will promptly replace it. If they seem unwilling or unable, don’t hesitate to contact Peterson at www.peterson.ie, who will take very good care of you and send a replacement.
Pssst! Check out the new Peterson website. The official launch
isn’t for a few days, but you can go ahead.
No one’s stopping you.