Preparing to smoke clay pipe

Clay Pipe smoker

There isn’t really much that needs to be done to a clay pipe before you can just pack it up and smoke it.

First, you need to check the bowl to ensure there are no objects sitting in it.
Sometimes new pipes have a slight dusting of clay dust from the manufacturer, and this can be removed with a slightly damp cloth if you’ve a mind to. Unless there’s an awful lot of it, it shouldn’t bother you though.

Some manufacturers dip the bit of their pipes in sealing wax to provide a slightly more comfortable grip between your teeth. If you like, you can remove this by gently scraping it with a knife, then holding it in a flame until it burns off. You will be left with a charred bit, but this will wear off with use or during the first fire cleaning.

Packing a Clay Pipe

It is important to note that while packing your clay pipe, you should not hold it by the stem. Grasp the base of the bowl between your index finger and thumb while packing.

Grasping any kind of pipe by the bowl is generally a good idea when packing it, but the smaller, fragile-looking bowls of a clay pipe often make people nervous. There is really no need for this, provided you grip the bowl by the base and not the lip and don’t squeeze too hard.
It’s no different from being able to hold a glass without it shattering in your grip. Just loosen up and let your fingers figure out the best grip by themselves.

The process of packing a clay pipe is basically identical to what you would use with a briar.

Some people advocate packing more loosely, feeling that clay pipes smoke hotter than briar. They do sometimes smoke a little hotter, but not very much.
If you pack your pipe a little more tightly than usual, you will find that taking long, slow draws will keep the pipe lit and at about the right temperature. You will also avoid bite.

Many briar smokers complain of bite when smoking clay, but this derives from the looser pack that is optimum in a briar. The clay of the pipe gets much hotter than a briar, and helps to keep the tobacco itself smouldering at lower temperatures.

Wood has a lower specific heat than fired clay does, so the wood tends to be a little cooler than the ember in a briar pipe.

Clay, on the other hand, can sit at the burning temperature of the tobacco without any danger of burning itself.
It also radiates heat better than briar which should mean that the bottom of the bowl and the stem will be much cooler than the parts nearer the ember – probably almost room temperature – and will help to cool the smoke before it reaches your mouth.

Clay Pipes

Smoking Your Clay

Lighting should proceed as normal for your briars.

As most clay pipes have a stem that is a bit longer than the average briar, you might find the process a bit awkward at first as you adjust, but it should take only 2 or 3 lightings for you to be just as proficient as with your usual pipe.

An advantage of clay pipes is that they are fire proof. This means that you have many more options for lighting your pipe than with a briar. Candles, flaming twigs, blow torches, coals lifted straight from a fire, Bunsen burners, or just sticking your head close enough to the fire to get the bowl in there and puff are all options.

While you are smoking your clay, you will probably find tamping to be less necessary than with your briar pipes. Again, this is related to the density of the pack.
The denser pack used in clay smoulders rather than burning – at first you will probably need to relight more than in a briar, but as you get the hang of it you may find that your clay pipes smoke more smoothly.

While you are smoking, it is not wise to handle the bowl.
The bowl will get quite hot, certainly much hotter than a briar and hotter than meerschaum too.

The best way to hold a clay pipe with a stem of any length is to rest the stem on your ring finger, curling your index and middle fingers over top. Once you have found the pipe’s centre of gravity, this method becomes effortless.

Pipes with shorter stems are generally intended to be clamped in the mouth, but if you don’t like to use your teeth while smoking you can hold the part of the stem closest to the bowl between your thumb and forefinger and rest the stem on the knuckles of your other fingers.

Many pipes with shorter stems are equipped with a “dewdrop” hanging either from the bottom of the bowl or at the point where the bowl and stem meet – this is intended for gripping, and on a well designed pipe will stay remarkably cool during the course of a smoke.


This is the part that turns most people off clay pipe smoking, even though it really isn’t as problematic as they think.

As with a briar, once the smoke is finished, empty out the ashes and dottle.
Clay pipes don’t require a cake, and can actually suffer from the presence of one if it is allowed to grow much so you might want to wipe the inside of the bowl once it has cooled a little.
If the stem has a large enough airway, run a pipe cleaner through. If a pipecleaner doesn’t go in easily, DON’T force it. You will almost certainly not succeed anyway, and risk snapping the stem.

Generally, a clay pipe won’t suffer much from not having the stem swabbed out, since the clay seems to absorb and redistribute moisture much better than briar, and certainly better than vulcanite, horn, metal… as is usually used in briar pipe stems.
However, if you are unable to clean the stem mechanically you will wind up fire cleaning more often.

Extremely small brushes with long stems are available for cleaning small pieces of lab equipment such as the larger gauge glass tubes. If you can get hold of one of those it should work quite well.

If you clean carefully between smokes and are careful to avoid wet smoking (complete with gurgle) you may be able to keep your clay going for quite some time before fire cleaning becomes necessary. This will allow you to properly season it, which can improve the smoking qualities of the pipe but it quite a bit more difficult with clay pipes due to the nature of the material.

Smoking clay pipe
American sailors smoking clay pipes – 1942

Resting and Rotation

Clay pipes both absorb and release moisture more quickly than briar, and in addition the fact that they are inorganic means that souring is less of a problem.

These qualities of clay mean that a clay pipe can be smoked quite heavily during the course of a day, left to rest over night (possibly longer if the local humidity is high), and then treated in much the same way the next day.

While this will definitely increase the frequency with which you find it desirable to fire clean your pipe, you will probably not notice any other adverse effects.

If you smoke slowly, are usually able to avoid smoking wet, and are able to swab out the stem after each smoke, you may be able to continue this way indefinately, especially if you actually have a rotation of 2 or 3 clay pipes to work with.
Also, remember that a clay pipe won’t burn and doesn’t suffer from warping; if you are concerned that your pipe isn’t getting enough time to rest (a clay pipe with particularly thick walls may require more drying time, while the less dense slip cast pipes may require less) you can solve the problem simply by placing it on top of a heating vent or even on a tray in the oven. Force drying clay pipes doesn’t seem to have any adverse effects.

The fact that clay pipes are so hardy under difficult conditions make them an excellent addition to one’s rotation. They allow you to dedicate certain briar pipes to specific tobaccos (taking advantage of the very different properties of wood and the cake that builds in a briar pipe), and yet not have to curtail your smoking even if you haven’t got a large collection.
Also, if you have a bare minimum rotation of briars, a clay can pick up the slack when you want to rest one pipe a little longer or give it a more thorough cleaning.

Fire Cleaning

From time to time, you will probably find that the sheer quantity of tar and other nasty things that have accumulated in the porous material of a clay pipe will result in a much decreased absorbency and thus wetter smokes, complete with the occasional quantity of “pipe juice” coming up the stem and into your mouth.
The flavour of your tobacco will be marred, you will often be spitting tar and juices out, and the increased moisture will increase the chances of bite.
This is when you need to clean the pipe more thoroughly, and the best method is baptism by fire.

Ideally, if you have access to a gas kiln, either in your own home or through a friend, or even by hiring space at a commercial ceramic supply shop, refiring your pipe is the perfect cleaning.

The pipe is placed in the kiln, and heated to a temperature below the one it was originally fired to, but high enough to drive out and burn all the chemicals that have accumulated in the clay.
This is the only way to thoroughly clean your clay pipe, but unfortunately all seasoning is also lost : when the process is finished, the pipe will be almost like new.
It will have regained so much absorbency that you will feel it clinging to your fingers and lips when you smoke it for the first time !

This is the ideal situation, but not everyone has access to a kiln, and of course if you don’t have a number of pipes to clean simultaneously it might not be cost effective.

There are other methods you might find more convenient:

— putting your pipe in the oven, with the rack as high as possible, then putting the oven on “self clean” can sometimes do the trick.
You won’t get as clean a pipe as from a kiln, but it will certainly set back the clock.
The disadvantage of this if you have an electric oven is that the tars might not actually combust, but simply evaporate, in which case you may end up with a slight residue on the elements and other surfaces in the oven.
The effect will only be slight, but you might detect a slight smoke smell while cooking in the future.
If you happen to have a self-cleaning gas oven, you should have no problem, as the gas burners will consume the residue more completely and drive what is left out through the exhaust. When the self-clean cycle is done, your pipe will be as clean as it can get from this method.

— if you have a gas oven with a grill, or a gas barbeque, you can place your pipes as close to the flame as possible, light the gas, close the lid/door and leave it alone for a while.
Cleaning will take at least 20 minutes, and may take as long as an hour depending on how hot your grill actually gets.
Depending on the arrangement, you may want to turn the pipe from time to time to ensure even cleaning.

— a very traditional way of cleaning your pipe, and the only one that actually contributes to the seasoning in my opinion, is to place it in a fire.
Carefully arrange your pipe in the fire, then rake glowing coals overtop. Your pipe is now completely surrounded on all sides by burning material.
Typically, one will need to leave the pipe in the fire quite some time and it won’t appear as clean due to the accumulation of soot and such on the outer surface, but a campfire cleaned pipe has a special something about it that needs to be tried to be understood.

Other Cleaning Methods

Having given very serious thought to alternate methods of cleaning clay pipes, it has occurred to me that since the clay itself would not be at risk the way briar would, soaking might in fact be the answer.

I have soaked pipes in boiling water, salt water, boiling salt water, and vodka.

– Boiling salted water was reasonably successful, though it took some time and needed to be watched, which is far from optimal.

– Vodka also worked reasonably well, though it took much longer than the boiling method. I think that heated alcohol, and possibly a higher concentration would work more quickly. I wish I still had access to lab facilities so I could try it without having to worry too much about flashpoints.

Acetone would likely work nicely, but I’m leery of using anything on my pipes that I wouldn’t put in my mouth. I plan to experiment with vinegar (organic acids can be excellent tar solvents)and vinegar/salt solutions.

Thus far, none of the solvent methods I’ve tried has been satisfactory, but neither have they shown any sign of damaging the pipes.

Clay pipes can also be cleaned on the top rack of your dishwasher if you so desire.
You should wash your pipe alone, however, as the residues are quite strong smelling and may permeate any plastic or wooden items included at the same time.

I also recommend putting the pipe in one of those little plastic cages you can get for washing small objects to avoid damage from the pipe being battered around inside the dishwasher.

Such a cleaning is, however, superficial. It will remove deposits from the outside of the pipe, and from the bowl, but will not be very effective on deposits in the stem. Dishwashers do not get hot enough to drive out the materials that have been absorbed into the clay of your pipe. Frankly, the risk to your pipe probably outweighs the advantages of this method.

One comment

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