166. Charles Peterson’s System Pipe-Packing Method

Here’s something old for Peterson lovers that for many of us—me, at any rate—is quite new: a System-pipe packing method that seems to have come down from Charles Peterson himself. It’s found in the two earliest catalogs, the 1896 and the 1906, where there obviously remains unmined wealth waiting to be dug out. I say this having looked at and pored over these catalogs for several years now.

That this method is from Peterson himself would seem to be indicated by a few first-person pronouns found scattered through the educational pieces in these catalogs, pronouns I stumbled on when preparing my West Coast Pipe Show presentation. The packing method discovery, however, belongs to Smokingpipes’s Shane Ireland. He reviews his appropriation of the technique in an informative episode of “All Pipes Considered” that appeared back in September 2019. Here’s an edited transcript of what he said:

“My first experience with the Peterson’s System design was many years ago. When I started to revisit the System, I had perfectly fine results packing it the way that I normally do, with a gravity-fill for about half of the bowl, adding another pinch with a little more pressure and then a final pinch (depending on the size of the bowl) with a little more pressure than that.

“And then in Andy’s blog he had a image which told you how to clean your system pipe and it had a little thing about packing it. So I read that and I thought, “that’s really interesting because what they suggest is that when you pack your pipe, pack it more tightly and use the tip of your finger to push down on the tobacco towards the stem.

“So I thought about that and I said, ‘Okay, you know the way that a System pipe is engineered is true of bent pipes in general. Sometimes the draft whole can be a little bit higher than on a straight pipe and that’s just by design. And then, System pipes because of the way they’re drilled to allow for the well means that drilling angle can be a little steeper sometimes.’

“The image was actually saying that you shouldn’t pack your System pipe in the normal way because you run the risk of burning it. I think that’s because back then people were a lot harder on their pipes than they are now. The result I got out of packing my System this way was an improved flavor and a slower rate of burn.

“What I do is take my normal pinch of tobacco that’s going to fill about half of the chamber. I gravity fill the chamber and level it off, and then instead of going right to my second pinch, I take my finger and I press down on the front of the tobacco, that is, the tobacco that’s touching the front of the bowl.* Instead of leveling the tobacco parallel with the top of the bowl, what I’m actually doing is putting pressure in a cant back toward the airway. What this does is provide insulation around the airway and gives you a pocket of tobacco that has less surface area and that’s a little more tightly packed which will slow down the burn by the time you hit the bottom of the bowl.

“After that, I take a second pinch like normal, put it in and level it out parallel with the top of the bowl.

“I take my final pinch and do the same thing, leveling it out parallel with the top of the bowl.

“So as the pipe burns, instead of burning straight down to the bottom (as in my normal gravity-fill pack) it’s actually burning straight down until it gets to about the half-way point, when it starts to burn back toward the airway on that canted direction.

“What this does, as I said before, is slow the burn rate down. In my experience this not only makes for an improved flavor, but it also allows me to smoke the pipe much more closely to the bottom of the bowl that I am able to when I pack it my normal way.

Now if you’ve been smoking for a few years, you doubtless recall other packing methods guaranteed to bring marvelous results. Remember the (Achim) Frank Pipe-Packing Method (c. 2004) and the (Fred) Hanna Air-Pocket Method (2007)? I tried and pretty much failed with both. This is not a reflection on their inventors, but on my own stodgy life-long “pack-and-stuff” method.

But a method designed specifically for the System pipe—and probably by Charles Peterson himself—is something else again. Especially as it comes vetted by Mr. Ireland, one of the shining lights of the hobby. So I thought I’d give it a good, long sustained effort, which I have since last September, and report on the results.

First, you should know I rarely smoke ribbons or cakes, English or orientals, so my experience has been entirely with flakes and broken flakes like Cabbies, Marlin Flake, FVF, 2015 and the like. I have ventured as far afield as Mac Baren’s Mixture Flake and Burley London Blend, with the same results:

  • an improved draw, along with
  • a cooler smoke, resulting in
  • fewer relights and
  • a noticeably fuller flavor profile.

The first and immediate sensation I experienced was a difference in the draw. It just seemed to have a much better flow, bowl after bowl after bowl. I won’t say the flavor profile change was hugely dramatic, but it was discernible. As a virginia and VaPer smoker, the sense of a cooler smoke was also quite welcome. But there was a big difference in the number of relights, which has been fabulous. As I say, this is my impression from all the bowls I’ve smoked in System pipes from late System until now (and Systems comprise about 75-80% of my smoking time).

I would also like to say something about the admonition in the K&P catalog “to prevent from burning,” which seemed opaque to me at first, as in, “what the f—?” But reading over Shane’s comments and coupling them with my own experience of a slower combustion rate, I’m of the opinion that K&P may be talking about burn around the airhole, a place of great sensitivity in the chamber.

I say this because there are a number of pipe smokers who caution against ever smoking down to the bottom of the bowl. This has never deterred me from such a nefarious practice, but I have had a few burnouts down near the airway, and I do have pipes with enlarged holes at the airway. Guilty as charged, right?

For me, then, the System packing method seems to be a win-win: increased flavor, better draw, fewer relights and the ability to smoke to the bottom of the bowl without fear of burning the airway hole. Unlike the Frank or Hanna methods, it’s also really easy to master.

And I can’t help adding that method may be part of the reason that Peterson, throughout its long history and until late 2018, held fast to a bend that allowed for clenching and dropped the cant of the bowl forward. They knew through long experience (now forgotten) that properly packed, there was little danger of burning the System’s airway.

By way of conclusion, I have a challenge for you, if you’re a P-Lip System user.  Conduct your own study using this method—let’s say about 6-8 weeks—and then send me your comments. If I get a half-dozen or more responses, I’ll post your comments along with a photo of you or you & your System pipe in a follow-up post. Just let me know you’re interested in participating in the comments section below and I’ll send you a follow-up email around the middle of March to get your feedback and photo.

Peterson System Packing Method Drying Paper

Oh, and to get you started, here’s a new tobacco drying paper PDF with the System packing method directions. If you haven’t used a drying paper before, it’s far more versatile and visually interesting than an expensive tobacco plate. Just open the PDF on your computer and print on your paper of choice. Put some flake on it to dry, or if your tobacco is ready to go, then simply pack your pipe over the paper. When you’re done, curl the paper and slide the mess of remaining tobacco back into your jar or humidor.


*The first “Chat with the Smoker,” which appeared in the 1906 catalog, amplifies this first pack remark: “fill your Pipe as tightly with Tobacco as possible more so towards the stem side of the Bowl.”


With gratitude to Shane Ireland for uncovering
this important System technique.


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