Hobbies / Pipes

Pipe Smoking 101

Bl. Pier Giorgio Frasatti sporting a pipe

Bl. Pier Giorgio Frasatti sporting a pipe

There’s nothing quite as enjoyable as a good pipe—the sweet scent, the smoke rising in gentle clouds, the feel of finely crafted briar in your hand. Then add a good conversation with another man, or even just gazing into space while sitting on your front porch, and you get a wonderful, time-honored, and manly hobby.

Since starting this blog, I have gotten a number of comments and questions about pipe smoking. It’s understandable, as smoking has a long and venerable tradition among men, and especially among Catholics. G.K. Chesterton, Pope St. Pius X, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, Evelyn Waugh, J.R.R. Tolkien, Hilaire Belloc, and St. Damian of Molokai are just some of the famous Catholic smokers. If you take up smoking, you’re in good company.

Because I’ve gotten so many inquiries on this hobby, I’ve decided to share a few basics on how to get started.


Smoking has gotten a serious black eye due to cigarettes. But pipes and cigarettes are quantitatively different. You don’t inhale pipe smoke, it isn’t addictive (I can easily drop it for weeks at a time), and most importantly, pipe tobacco isn’t loaded with thousands of cancer causing chemicals like cigarettes are. It’s also a whole lot cheaper.

For those who say that we shouldn’t smoke because it isn’t healthy, I will simply answer that neither is eating processed foods laden with preservatives, drinking soda (or anything with high fructose corn syrup), consuming alcohol in large quantities, or eating processed sugars. But we all do those things anyway—in moderation, of course.

As virtuous Catholic men, we practice the virtue of temperance. Moderation in all things is the best rule, and that applies to smoking as well as eating Twinkies.

Different Kinds of Pipes


Tolkien, the quintessential Catholic pipe smoker

There are three main types of pipes that you will find on the market. They all have their advantages and disadvantages. There’s a lot to consider, but for beginners, what you are primarily looking for is a pipe that will smoke cool, that will bring out the natural flavor of your tobacco, and that will feel good in the hand.

1. Briar – Briar pipes are the most common, and they are what most people think of when they imagine a pipe smoker. As the name implies, these pipes are made from the dense roots of the Briar plant. Being the most popular kind of pipe, there are countless varieties of finishes, textures, shapes, and levels of quality available. You can literally spend anywhere from $10 on a low end briar (not recommended) all the way up to $10,000 for a hand-crafted briar (also not recommended).

2.  Meerschaum – Meerschaum pipes are made from a soft, white mineral. While I’ve never smoked one, I hear that they are consistently enjoyable and they do not require a break in period like briar pipes. Because they are made from a soft stone, meerschaum pipes are usually carved into intricate designs. You can buy a pipe carved like a pirate if you want. While these can be highly unique and eye catching pipes, keep in mind that you do have to hold it, and something that is intricately carved may not feel so great in the hand. Prices are generally on the low end, usually around $40-$60

3. Corncob – Obviously, these pipes are made from aged corncobs, and they are by far the cheapest type of pipe. You can get them for as low as $3. But despite their low cost, corncobs provide a great smoke—on par with many more expensive briars. Because of this, many choose to smoke them exclusively. While I own some briars, I find myself gravitating to my corncobs frequently.

Types of Tobacco

Msgr. Ronald Knox

Msgr. Ronald Knox

There are many different types of tobacco, but I’ll just cover the three main types.

English – This type of tobacco has no additive and is generally stronger smelling and tasting. This isn’t the sweet smelling tobaccos your grandpa smoked. On the other hand, it is probably what C.S. Lewis or Tolkien smoked. I do not recommend this type of tobacco for beginners, but if you go for the strong stuff, give it a try.

Cavendish – This type of tobacco is kind of like candy. It comes in all kinds of flavors—anything from chocolate to cherry—and is mild, sweet, and smells great. I recommend you start with a Cavendish tobacco or a blend that contains it.

Virginia – Virginias age well and are good for storage over long periods. You have to smoke them slowly your you will get “tongue bite,” which basically means your tongue will begin to sting if you smoke too fast. This type of tobacco is generally included in blends with other types of tobaccos.

Where to Start

Now that we’ve covered the basics, you may wonder what type of pipe and tobacco you should buy first. Here are some suggestions.

Pipes – Personally, I would start with a corncob. The only place you should buy them is Missouri Meerschaum—the oldest corncob maker in the world, and supplier of pipes for such legendary men as General MacArthur. Do not buy them from Chinese knockoff manufacturers. They will literally disintegrate in your hand. As I mentioned above, corncobs are highly affordable and the provide a great smoke.

Hilaire Belloc

Hilaire Belloc

If you really want a briar, I would suggest starting with something from Savinelli. They are affordable as briars go, and they will last a lifetime.

I generally would avoid eBay. While there are some great deals, you have to know what you are doing and what to look for. I once bought a pipe that looked great in the photos, but when I received it, it was more like a toy than a useable pipe. It was junk. I would be careful.

Tobacco – Tobacco, like alcohol, is a matter of taste. That said, I would highly recommend starting with Captain Black tobacco. It is sweet and cool to smoke, it smells great, and you can find it anywhere. Your nearest Walmart, gas station, or Walgreens should have it.


Pipe smoking, like any hobby worth having, is a learning experience that requires patience. I am learning new tricks of the trade all the time, and I am building my pipe collection slowly. You can dabble and still enjoy it, or you can become a connoisseur and spend a lot of time and money learning the ins and outs of different pipes and tobaccos. The most important thing is have fun, and enjoy the good gifts of God’s creation.

Any questions? Did I miss anything? If you’re a pipe smoker, what tips do you have to share?


40 thoughts on “Pipe Smoking 101

  1. Tess, mouth cancer is primarily a risk when you are a heavy smoker, smoking several pipes a day. The principle is similar to downing several Big Macs or milk shakes each day, which would put you at high risk for heart disease and diabetes (both of which, I might add, are plaguing Americans).

    Again, moderation is the key to a good smoking experience. Too much of anything can cause health problems (even exercise). For the occasional smoker, however, the risk is minimal.

    Regarding Dr. Marshall’s herbal suggestion, yes, it is a great option for someone who might not feel comfortable with tobacco. But because these herbal blends can be used in Native American religious rituals, Dr. Marshall suggests making the sign of the cross over them before smoking them.

    The blends he smokes can be found here: http://www.grandfathersspirit.com/100-Herbal-Smoking-Blends/

  2. When confronted by those who would make tobacco an evil I think of this quote: “Idolatry is committed, not merely by setting up false gods, but also by setting up false devils; by making men afraid of war or alcohol, or economic law, when they should be afraid of spiritual corruption and cowardice.” – G.K. Chesterton

    I must agree with The Catholic Gentleman that we face risks everyday from many different things and instead of avoiding them completely we should practice temperance and enjoy them in moderation. The same goes for the pipe.

  3. I also would recommend either getting at least 2 pipes (I have a meerschaum and a Peterson briar) or making sure that if you only have one that space your smokes out and not do it back-to-back days, otherwise you run the risk of burning out your bowl. Happy Smoking!

  4. Thank you for this article. I’ve always been a cigar smoker, but never really considered pipe smoking. I think I will explore this hobby now, with this guidance. Great blog by the way!

  5. Tess, if you are smoking a pipe several times a day, every day, then yes, worry about mouth cancer. But smoking in moderation, once in a while is always recommended. I smoke maybe once every weekend during the winter and a few times a month during the hotter times. Oh, and I always smoke out on my patio and not in my home, as I have children and I also do not wish to smoke fill my home. Or, I smoke at a local pub that has a nice outdoor beer garden. So no worries about 2nd hand smoke. These are just my recommendations. http://pintpipeandcrossclub.wordpress.com/

  6. Excellent suggestions. I’ve been smoking a pipe for about seven years, getting “serious” about it in the past two.

    Jordan (above) makes a fantastic suggestion: you don’t want to burn out/sour your pipe, since briar requires rest. Most things I’ve read suggest a 24-hour period for the briar to absorb the juices left in the bowl. For many, this might not even be an issue, given that most of us (myself included) go longer than 24 hours between pipes anyway.

    Corncobs — while not a bad suggestion — also carry some risk for the newbie, because inevitably, you’re always smoking a little bit of the corn pipe in with your tobacco, and this might lead to less-than-desirable taste for some. My first pipe (a Christmas present from my father while in seminary) was a classic Peterson Sherlock Holmes, comparable in quality to the Savinelli brand you recommend above. I’d recommend that even the newbie make the $50 investment on a mid-range pipe.

    Great article!

  7. I’m a relatively new pipe smoker and I quite agree with much of your Pipe Smoking 101. However there are a few things I will comment on.

    Cavendish is more a method of preparing tobacco than a specific type of tobacco. That said they are usually an aromatic blend, which is what I would say is one type of tobacco. So my listing of types of tobacco would be:

    English Blends which contains Latakia tobacco either as a condiment (small amount) or as a larger percentage of the blend. It may also contain Oriental tobacco which could come from Turkey or any number of places. It is very strong and there are some (me included) who experience a soapy taste when smoking it.

    Aromatic Blends – Looked down upon by some smokers (not me) as not being authentic (or something) these are the flavored blends and may be made up of any number of types of tobacco. They are said to have a “casing” or a “topping” and they range the gamut of flavors from cherry, to vanilla, to whiskey, and even chocolate. They definitely can be fun to try out and usually have the best “room note” which is the aroma other people smell when you are smoking your pipe. Many of them are considered Cavendish cut.

    Virginia and Virginia Perique – There are blonde, red, and other types of Virginias and usually are straight Virginia though sometimes Virginia is used for blending. Perique is a special condiment tobacco grown in Louisiana and is said to add a peppery taste to the tobacco.

    Burley – This is your basic cigarette tobacco however it is found in some over the counter/drugstore blends like Half and Half and others. It is processed differently from cigarette burley so no worries there about the added chemicals and such. It is sometimes used as a base for blending and can also be a nice change up from some of the other more flavorful tobaccos.

    As far as eBay goes it can be a crap shoot however I have gotten a few good pipes from there. I would recommend getting out to a pipe show or tobacconist who knows their pipes and at least get your hands on some pipes so you can get a better idea of what you are looking at on eBay.

    The recommendation to start with a Missouri Meershaum corn cob pipe is the best advice any new pipe smoker can get. They smoke well and you don’t have to be gentle with them. I bang mine up against the curb or fence when emptying the ashes and it just gives them more character.

    I would recommend the Pipe Magazine Radio Show’s “Pipe Parts” segment to learn more about pipes. The host Bryan Levine also conducts interviews with pipe makers, etc. It is a good introduction to the hobby and I look forward to listening to it on the way to work every Friday morning.

    Hmm, I kind of got out of hand here but I am pretty excited about pipe smoking. Definitely give it a try. A MM corncob and a pouch of Half and Half or Captain Black won’t set you back but a few bucks and you may learn you were meant to be a pipe smoker.

  8. Most excellent. As a cigar smoker, I appreciate that you wrote this. And as far as the anti-smokers, you will never every ever convince them that it isn’t as bad as they think.

    Carry on, sir. Kudos.

  9. It isn’t just mouth cancer that would be a health concern; it is cardiovascular disease through Nicotine passing into the bloodstream via the mucous membranes in the mouth (the process of which will also bring enjoyment).

    I would be careful to equate any sort of smoking with being Catholic OR gentlemanly. Whereas things in moderation like drinking, eating, exercise etc are good, they have an intrinsically good purpose: nourishment, health, etc. Smoking, I daresay, has no other end than ‘enjoyment’.

    Now that we live in an age when we understand the inherent dangers of tobacco, it is increasingly tenuous to justify smoking by looking to Saints who did it. Were they suitably informed, they may well have not bothered, perhaps also because of the risk of harming others. Nowadays the only sub-sector of the population whose smoking habits have not decreased with time are tge lowest socio-economic classes; perhaps because of the punctuation of pleasure it provides to otherwise stressful and difficult lives.

    • I would also add to Tim Canny’s reply to Matthew Doyle and say that it is the tar which causes lung problems more so than the nicotine. For myself, I was a social cigarette smoker my last year of college (2011), but while I had loved the idea of pipes from reading Tolkien’s works, several of my friends (who, I might add, were wonderful young gentlemen) smoked the pipe, and indeed inspired me to purchase my own. I have been cigarette-free for over a year, but I continue to enjoy a pipe now and then, contesting the idea that pipes are for gentlemen only. I further agree that pipe tobacco is not addictive, but very aromatic and, I think, soothing.

      The preparation is ritualistic, as might an artist prepare their easel and palette, or the reader prepare their favorite tea and seat before sitting down with a good book. The ritual of preparing the pipe is, for me, what decided me to quit smoking. It was too easy to just light up wherever you happened to be. That there are more pieces to combine in order to enjoy the pipe makes one truly enjoy the satisfaction of having finally gotten the bowl lit properly, a feat I am still endeavoring to accomplish with remote competence. Still, even if you only get a few good puffs for your efforts, it gives one a great sense of accomplishment.

  10. To Matthew Doyle: I once knew an immunologist who smoked nearly three packs of cigarettes a day. When I asked how he, as an immunologist who knows far more than your average bear, could smoke three packs a day with such reckless abandon, he responded, “You know, when you study what I do, and you’ve been at it as long as I have, you realize everything’s going to kill you.”


    For many of us, the goods of pipe smoking extend beyond mere enjoyment. Many of my friends are pipe smokers, and so there is quite naturally a bond of fellowship (fraternity, among the ordained ones) in the act of “the boys” getting together to enjoy our pipes.

    However, even if the only end of smoking is indeed “enjoyment,” this alone is enough to make tobacco and its consumption a good; you seem to imply that because there is no higher good related to the act, that one ought to avoid it altogether, as if it were no good at all.

    It’s precisely as TCG states: though there are undoubtedly some health risks associated with regular/habitual use, pipes and cigars get a black eye due to their proximity to cigarettes, which is the McDonald’s of the tobacco world.

  11. Great article! I completely agree. However, as far as the surgeon general is concerned under 10 pipe bowls a day is within the safe zone – which is a hard number to get to in one day. I’d say 3 to 4 bowls throughout the day when spent with company is not over-the-top. Normally I’ll smoke 1-2 bowls an evening. Just be careful not to let the pipe sit on one side of your mouth the whole bowl. Alternate it from side to side as you enjoy it and try not to smoke it fast as it will burn hotter and bother your tongue or gums.

    Please do not get captain black or anything found in Walgreens or any such stores. Get yourself some Black Gold from Hilandscigars.com. It is by far the best black cavendish on the market alongside of Lane’s BC-A. It smokes sweet, burns great, smells amazing and is an overall perfect experience. Buying cheap tobacco from liquor stores, Walgreens, Walmart, etc. is on par with buying a Dr. Grabow pipe from the aforementioned places … it’s a terrible mistake that will only cause you to give up on pipe smoking.

    My Dad and I have a youtube channel if any of you would like to engage in good godly conversation with us whilst smoking a pipe. My dad’s channel is PipePastor and mine is BoldODonahue. God bless!

    • While I agree that finding a good tobacconist and therefore GOOD pipe tobacco seems akin to seeking out a dragon in this day and age, I take issue with your badmouthing of the Dr. Grabows, without exception, I have found them to be excellent pipes if you understand how to break them in and use a discriminating eye to pick the pipe which fits your needs;
      to wit, as a flatbed truck driver I require a light and small durable pipe with a good draw that keeps the bowl away from my moustache as I bounce down the road and secure my load.
      Now, whereas my church warden, deep ornate straight longstemmed cool-smoking and did I mention pricey? is suited to a 2-3 hr reading session in my easychair, it is woefully inadequate for my daily needs, which my grabows have fulfilled better than any other, despite their (relative) “cheapness” (30$) they are my favorite as far as a “working-man’s” pipe go

  12. I have attempted pipe smoking in the past, but always had a problem with the bowl staying lit. Any tips on proper tamping for a satisfying experience?

    • There are several methods of packing, but the general principle is loose on the bottom and tight on the top. Do a search on youtube for pipe packing tutorials. There are dozens of videos. Also, a good light is essential. Light it evenly and thoroughly.

      Keep in mind, you won’t always get a perfect smoke without relighting, no matter how much experience you have. Sometimes you just have to relight. If it’s so frequent you can’t relax and enjoy it, though, that’s a problem.

      • My friend who taught me how to smoke said a good pipe uses three matches to get lit, and ought to be let to extinguish at least once, no more than twice. 🙂

    • I tried smoking a pipe several times over the years and found it to be a frustrating and horrible experience because i couldnt get it to stay lit. Trying to keep it lit, without proper knowledge, introduced other problems that i wasnt aware of, which contributed to a poor smoking experience and a very bad taste in my mouth. This time around i watched tons of youtube videos and articles about packing, lighting and smoking a pipe and discovered where i went wrong in the past. I would never have known to do or figure out these things on my own. It still took some time for me but by trial and error, i had periods of success and experienced bowls that were flat out enjoyable and satisfying. Watch and ask, everyone had the same issues and questions as you.

      • Dear Nick,

        A great post. Thanks so much for sharing your experience. It is so typical for so many beginners. I am so glad that you got the resources that you needed to succeed. That is why we have to continue to support great young men like you and Sam, who are interested in taking up the hobby. If we can help you; then you can in turn can pass the knowledge and enjoyment on to other young fellows in your circle of family and friends who might be interested….but not know where to start.

        Great of Sam to start a blog discussion like this where young guys like you can look and see other young men of faith and character who are learning to enjoy a pipe. Hopefully we will see more young men like you “chime” in about their new Christmas pipes or family pipe smoking stories over the Christmas Holidays.etc.

        E. Spear

  13. I have been smoking pipe for 28 years. I started when I was 15 and still smoke with great enjoyment. I stole one pipe of my father and beginned with it. Now I have more or less one hundred pipes.
    At the beginning I burned a whole forest of matches :o) Now it can happen that I smoke a bowl for more than 1,5 hour relighting just once.
    Smoking pipe or cigars is relaxing, all the cigarette smokers that I know smoke in a stressed way, wihtout a really pleausure. To be stressed and smoking pipe does not fit.
    I liked the answer of the immunologist. My grand father loved to say: It is a pity to die healthy :o)
    Frjosh, can I quote you?

  14. Enjoyed the post, and the comments. Just wanted to add a caution about “holding” a meerschaum pipe. A new meerscaum does go through a form of break-in; after the first few times it is smoked, it begins to take on color from the moisture released by the burning tobacco. The longer it is smoked, up to a point, the deeper this color will become; aged meershaums take on a very beautiful amber color. Holding it by the bowl during this “break in” period, as you would a briar pipe, will impact this coloration process and, in the worst case, leave fingerprints on the bowl, marring the finish. I know, it happened to me with my first meerschaum.

    Hope that helps.

  15. Found your blog, found this post. Great blog, great post. Been smoking a pipe on an off since my college days in the mid 80’s. G.K. Chesterton said, “In Catholicism, the pint, the pipe and the Cross can all fit together.” You can find a teeshirt with that phrase printed on it at the Monkrock website: http://monkrock.com/ in their store section.

    As for the “enjoyment” aspect… when I was a good Baptist puritan I would have put enjoyment down the list of values, knowing it was merely worldly at best and outright sinful at worst. Then I saw the light, saw enjoyment as an inherent good from God, and became Catholic (for other more important reasons as well). I also drive a car, ride a bike, eat fast food once in a while, and enjoy alcohol – all potentially “dangerous” activities. I worry less about the potentially negative affects of smoking these days and more about the negative affects of my lack of holiness.

    Anyway, if God calls me to stop smoking a pipe I will. Until then, “thank you God” for this simple pleasure.

  16. My husband and I went to see a head and neck surgeon because he had a lesion on his tongue, he is a pipe smoker. After he told us it wasn’t cancer, I asked him about helping my husband quit. He said, you don’t see cancer in pipe smokers. This surgeon has been removing oral cancer for 30 years and is well respected in the large metropolitan area where we live. Since then I don’t worry, I’ve always loved how he looks smoking his Dunhill in his tweed jacket (in his studio, the house remains smoke free).

  17. Dear Sam,

    Thanks so much for this wonderful portion of this wonderful website.

    There are many different paths that men take to the pipe and many different reasons that they are attracted to this manly and historical pastime. But for whatever their reasons; men have been enjoying, savoring, carving and sharing their knowledge of pipes, pipe making and tobacco for hundreds of years. It has led us to: thought, relaxation, conversation, discussion, camaraderie, prayer and perhaps virtue. They have become works of art and tools of contemplation.

    It is wonderful to see young men of faith and virtue; like you, enjoy and value the hobby and want to pass it on to future generations.

    There are thousands of suggestions from experienced and knowledgeable fellows, that could be offered to “new guys”. But here are some of my “favorite” thoughts for those who might be new to the pipe or considering taking up a pipe.

    Favorite Ever “How to Smoke a Pipe” instructional video

    The best part is the last 30 seconds.

    Favorite place to buy your first pipe. J. M. Boswell of Chambersburg PA

    A Boswell pipe is the best pipe the beginner can buy. Quality briar, wonderful carving, and the best bowl “treatment”.These guys are craftsmen and the nicest people you will ever meet. They can’t carve enough to keep up with demand! A good pipe will make a world of difference in your first experience and every bowl afterwards. I always recommend a “bent” for the beginner. 🙂

    Best Tobacco to start with: Again, I have to go with the J.M. Boswell aromatics. Dutch Treat, Spice and Nice, Sweet and Mild along with Berry Cobbler. You sure can expand from there. But it is a solid and enjoyable place for most guys to start.


    there is the article “Tobacco and the Soul” by Professor Michael P. Foley PhD. of Baylor University where he is a professor of “Patristics”


    I hope this brief post is of help to new guys and stirs the conversation on this website.

    E. Spear

  18. Hi, Catholic Gentlemen. I once read in a blog a step-by-step guide to manufacture your own corncob pipe 🙂 I think I will go for it. Better than buying, doing your own stuff makes them more special.

  19. Dear Catholic Gentlemen,

    I really enjoyed this article, and you have convinced me that pipe smoking is worth a try…well…more than a try, that it is a worthwhile hobby.

    One thing is missing, though. I am about a month and a half from being 19, and I wonder what you recommend as the proper age for pipe smoking. I know that it is taken for granted that the readers of this blog are old enough to drink and marry, but when I read this blog, I am facing the disadvantage of being ready for neither. What about pipe smoking, then?

    In my state (Alaska), it is legal for me to smoke, just not legal for me to buy tobacco until I turn 19.

    I would appreciate input. Thanks!

    • Dear Daniel,

      You are at the right time and the right place 🙂 You are less than 45 days away from your first wonderful bowl. 🙂

      Many of your fellow “Brothers of the Briar” learned to smoke a pipe at your age in college. The advantage that you have now is a great community of Catholic Gentlemen, available on-line; to support and guide you.

      What I would do first is pick out a good pipe. It will start you off on the best foot and serve you for years. I think that the Boswells make the best starter pipes for the $$.
      Go on to the JM Boswell classic gallery

      Look for something simple and bent that appeals to you. Contact the Boswells by email, send them the photo of the pipe that you like and see what they have in stock that is similar. This will take a week or so. Then ask them to save that one for you until the day of your 19th Birthday. Then you can call them up, give them your Visa card and it will be on the way to your home 🙂 I would ask for some Spice and Nice as well as Dutch Treat as your samples that they always provide.

      45 days and counting 🙂

      E. Spear

      • Mr. E. Spear,

        Despite the legality of smoking, I still am not convinced that I am old enough to do it.
        I talked to my grandfather, who would be more than willing to send me one of his old pipes, but on the condition that I don’t smoke it. He is concerned for the health problems, as well as the habitual effects of smoking. He agrees that pipe smoking is better than cigarette smoking, but he still holds that I am too young to do either.
        Frankly, I am inclined to believe him.

        I just want to hear the opinion and experiences of other Catholic Gentlemen on the subject.

      • I started to smoke pipes at 15. I never mind what other people think since I’m doing nothing illegal or sinning. If you want to smoke, do it, you are a free man but it should be your decision.
        If you choose to smoke, enjoy it!

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