(l-r: Ash dowel rod, cheap czech tool knock off, Mr.C brass tamper, Pipe Nail, golf tee, Danish Smoking Competition tamper, Brebbia tamper, Mr.C brass tamper, czech tool)
Tampers. A tool that every pipe smoker needs. Why you use it, how, what you use, and how often during the smoke - that's all part of your own pipe smoking ritual that you develop over time. My way is my way, you figure out yours, as long as it works. I won't get into how it's used for pipe smoking competitions, I'm only talking about sitting down on the deck and reading a book, surfing the net, chit-chatting type of smoke.
haha... I have a vision of my dad yelling at me, "you're doing it all wrong!" He used his pinkie finger....
Some people new to pipe smoking don't like the ritualistic processes of pipe smoking, especially if they're use to smoking cigars. I'm smoking a Hoyo de Monterry Churchill from '01 as I type, so I know the difference between the two and their rituals. When I talk (type on a forum) to a newer pipe smoker, or someone just starting and asking questions, I always bring up the rituals and how the majority of pipe smokers enjoy them... repetitious movements become relaxing, along with the effect of the tobacco, it's one of the reasons why we smoke pipes. Some, I can only guess, only endure them.
Why are they used? Well, a few reasons. The biggest is to gently push the burning tobacco down to come into contact with the non-burning tobacco underneath it, otherwise the pipe will continue to go out. I'm not saying force it down, as that'll put out the tobacco as well. There are times, if you have the right kind of tamper for the job, that you'll need to push the tobacco that's not burning away from the pipes walls, in toward the middle so it can become lit as well.
The first time you'll use your tamper is after the charring light. The tobacco expands, or puffs up, during the charring light - you've all seen it. That is your first opportunity to tamp it back down, in contact with the tobacco below what is lit on top. I relight it, and as I'm taking a couple long slow draws, I have my tamper in hand and do it again, and twist it without putting much pressure on it. You may have heard some people talk about "tamp and twist", that's what I do for the most part, unless I have a tamper that won't allow for the twisting part.
How to use one is simple. The only time I don't tamp and twist, apart from having a crappy untwistable tamper on hand, is if I'm looking down inside the bowl to move a particular part of the tobacco away from the pipe walls back toward the center. I am right handed, so I do the tamping with my right hand. My left hand is holding the pipe while I'm still taking my slow draws. I have a couple larger diameter tampers that I prefer, and the body of them are also round, allowing me to gently roll it back and forth between my fat fingers, creating the twisting I mention previously. I twist as I tamp because it has the effect of breaking up the burnt tobacco, creating an insulating layer on top. It may or may not actually benefit, I have no scientific data to support it, but it's what I like to do and it works for me. It also allows me to periodically dump the ash by giving the side of the bowl a tap with a knuckle to loosen it up, then quick flick of the wrist to throw the ash into the wind.
Obviously, you don't want to press down too hard and compact the tobacco too much as the draw becomes too hard or blocks the draught hole. Once the pipe is lit, you can't re-pack it, and loosening it up is a pain in the ass with the pick portion of a czech tool, if you have one of those handy, which I normally don't. Practice is what it takes, the entire process of smoking a pipe takes practice to get good at, this is another of those aspects that needs practice.
I mentioned I normally don't have a "czech tool" on hand, which are popular and cheap tools of the pipe smoking trade. So, what do I use, or what can be used as a tamper? I have a few favorites, all of which are round where I grab them, allowing me to twist. An old forum friend of mine was a machinist and made a few batches of tampers from solid brass, we all call them "Mr.C tampers" due to his screen name. Very hefty, large bottom area, round body. The weight of these alone was enough pressure on the tobacco to get the job done. I was given a pipe smoking competition tamper of solid wood, but as it was a gift from a Danish competition from 1995, and unused, I will not use it. That tamper inspired me to make my own from solid Ash dowel rod I bought at Home Depot. I took it to the miter box, cut them at 4" and one end at a 45* angle to allow me to move the tobacco away from the pipe walls. I probably used too wide of rod stock, as it won't fit into some of my smaller chambered pipes, but it is what I grab most often (as you can see in the photo). One small dowel rod can easily make 8 tampers, I gave 6 away, with one my main tamper at home and one permanently residing in my truck (that one doesn't have an end cut at 45*, and I wish it did). A Pipe Nail is another that I would probably use more often if I didn't have my trusty "Mr.C" tamper, or my home made Ash dowel tampers. The body is round, allowing me to twist as I tamp, and it's skinny enough that I could possibly edge the tobacco away from the walls early on in the smoke. The only downside I can see with the pipe nail is that the bottom diameter is a little smaller than I prefer, it's just a hair wider than a standard golf tee. Speaking of a golf tee, I have used one of those, and the one in the photo was taken from my truck where it was used as a tamper a few times in the past. Hey, for a quick fix, it'll do. A Brebbia tamper is kind of odd, but useful. The shape of the bottom of it is square, the body flattens out and ends up in a tiny scoop, making it difficult to twist. I would still use the Brebbia tamper over a czech tool. For me, the czech tool is the worst tamping option around, aside from another cheap czech tool knock off I have, which is 5 different ways of suckage. The head is smaller than a pipe nail, the body is flat, making twisting impossible. The only benefit I can see in the czech tool when it comes to tamping is the flat edge of the body comes up from one of the edge sides, allowing easy access to tamping the tobacco away from the pipes walls further down the bowl than my wider tampers - and if I really need to do that, the built in tamper on my Corona Old Boy does that job.
What I didn't cover are the many tampers that are hand made with acrylic, deer horn, bone, bamboo with brass tip, and many other exotic materials. They are not only functional, but very nice to look at. Some range from $20 all the way up to nearly $70 or so. I have a couple that are not in the photograph above. I have never used mine, and I have no valid reason why.
How often do I tamp? Meh, whenever I feel like it. It comes back to individual tastes, I suppose. Once you get familiar with a particular pipe and the tobacco inside of it, how it smokes, you'll just know when you need to tamp. Is the pipe going out when it was smoking really well the past 10 minutes? Maybe it's time to tamp the burning tobacco down a bit to the lighter packed tobacco toward the bottom (depending on your filling method). Maybe the you just dumped some ash out and the draw is too light even after a relight. It's a learning process that involves a few factors, one being "feel". You'll just feel it.
*A quick side note about ash dumping, that I compare to the myth about cigar ash. Ever been around one of those cigar guys that just has this nasty long piece of ash hanging on for dear life at the end of their cigar? Why in the f*ck don't they knock the ash off?? Seriously, the myth that it gives a "cool smoke" is just utter bullcrap. How on earth does ash that's 5" away from you mouth cool off the smoke that's being generated 3" away from your mouth?? the smoke doesn't filter through the ash, so stop with the myth that a long ash makes a cool smoke on a cigar - it's total bullcrap. How that relates to a pipe, my ADD has kicked in and I've forgotten where I was going to tie this together. :) But I ash my pipes whenever I feel that there's too much in the pipe, possibly suffocating the cherry. I know we're going for a slow smoulder, but sometimes that ash can find its way down to the bottom of the bowl, and may find its way up the draught hole and up into your mouth on your next puff. So, I suppose I do it to keep the smoke "fresh", free of excess ash, and burning nicely. When I do knock the ash out of a pipe I'm smoking, I just rap my knuckle on the side of the bowl a few times, loosening up whatever ash is on top, and I quickly give the pipe a flip to the side and a little bit goes flying out. There have been a few times when I've been nearly down with a bowl and the quick flip sends out ALL the unsmoked tobacco with the ash. whoops!