Thursday, January 28, 2010

How to Smoke a Water Pipe

Shisha, nargila, hookah, whatever you choose to call it, it's increased in popularity in the last few years. With the recession still among us, creating a lounge atmosphere at home is becoming a fashionable and cost efficient way of spending an evening. Here's what you need to know if you want to hit the ground running in the hookah bizCoals
There are two kinds of coals you'll be seeing: natural and quick light. Natural coals need to be lit on a stove, bbq or coal chimney. Quick lights can easily be lit with a plain lighter. If you're just starting out with shisha, you shouldn't be hassling yourself with natural coals. Just get yourself some quick lights and don't complicate your life. When you get a bit
more adept at preparing your hookah and feel yourself wanting to fine-tune the quality of your smoke, natural coals generally burn longer, maintain a constant temperature and produce less ash.

Buying Shisha Tobacco
If you're lucky enough to live in a place where flavoured tobacco isn't outlawed (like Canada. Haha. Americans, envy my fruity-tasting tobacco and the way I write flavoUred!) then you should find yourself a source of shisha tobacco. It's different from cigarette rolling tobacco in that the cut is a lot thicker and the dried leaves are glazed with fruit preserve and molasses. If you can't find a tobacconist near you that sells it, there's a brand being sold on eBay for a very reasonable $3 a box. They get away with it because it's sugar cane bagasse and not really tobacco. Personally, I prefer it over the tobacco varieties. In any case, your shisha should be sticky and moist. Should you happen upon a dry batch or your batch dries up, glazing the dry leaves in honey and letting it sit for about an hour should breathe new life into your tobacco. To prevent having to resort to this, it's advised to store your nargila boxes in the fridge.

Coal Handling
Whenever handling a coal it's important to use a set of coal tongs (for obvious reasons).
Avoid smoking the hookah while quick light coals are in the process of lighting. The smoke the let out is quite unpleasant.
To light a new coal, just put a new coal on top of the lit one and blow gently. It should catch in no time.
If you're transitioning to a new coal, you may want to keep you old coal on for a bit until the new one reaches full heat. Pay special attention to the flavor of the smoke. If you notice it becomes harsher, you're burning your coals too hot and that's your cue to remove one.
It's normal to go through 2-3 coals depending on the size of the bowl, quality of the coals, moisture of the tobacco, etc.
Start your coal on the edge of the bowl and gradually, over the process of the full smoking session, shift it around the entire perimeter of the bowl. This will ensure a full and pleasant burn of your tobacco. Leaving the coal in the middle for the entire session will lead to a charred center bowl and an unburnt circumference. On top of that, the tobacco is more likely to heat up past the optimal temperature and produce a harsher smoke

Preparing the Hookah
  • Fill the vase with water
  • Wet the rubber gaskets of the stem, connect the stem to the vase and twist it a bit to form a good seal.
  • Connect the hose to the stem and, again, twist it a bit to form a good seal.
  • Wet the gasket of the bowl and twist it on.
  • Fill the bowl with tobacco and cover it in foil as if you were wrapping a serving bowl of food.
  • With a fork or tooth pick, punch a few holes in the aluminum.
  • Light the coal and set it on the foil
  • Let the coal sit for 30 seconds.
  • Start smoking the shisha.
  • As you draw, the smoke will gradually get thicker.
  • When the air filled part of the vase turns opaque with smoke, you know your hookah's smoking at full capacity.

Filling the vase:
Since the water in the vase is what's going to be filtering and cooling your smoke, it should come as no surprise that altering the contents will lead to new flavors and a better smoke. Firstly, the colder the water the better. You can even add ice to the vase and/or put it in the freezer. Cold water makes a thicker and cooler smoke. Instead of water, you can choose to put in a variety of liquids like wine, coffee, juice, spirits, milk. Of all of them, the most successful for me has been some cold juice with a few sprigs of mint. One thing that's great about shisha is that you can fine tune the recipe to produce your signature tobacco/liquid blend.

Filling the bowl:
The tobacco should have a good smell and be very sticky. If you notice it's dried up, just drizzle a bit of honey on it and let it absorb. When you do pack your bowl, pile the tobacco down and gently press down. Your mound should rise slightly above the level of the lip of the bowl. Cover it with a piece of aluminum and poke holes in the foil with a fork, toothpick or any fine poking device.


Hookah vases tend to be in intricate shapes and are almost always a chore to clean. Sure, the dummies solution is to pop it in the dishwasher but, since the opening is so narrow in comparison to the rest of the vase, the inside won't receive a steam bath at best. If you actually want to get you vase clean and not gross your friends out with crap floating in your hookah water, you'll head to a place where you'll go to a kitchen store and look for one of those bendable scrubbing sticks for wine decanters. The poor man's solution is to put a small handful of uncooked rice in your bowl along with two cups of hot, soapy water. Shake and swirl your vase up like a lychee martini. The rice should act as an abrasive that'll scrub the walls.

The bowl, being a simple piece of ceramic, can be scrubbed or put in the dishwasher like any other ceramic piece.

The importance of stem cleanliness is highly underrated. A dirty, sooty stem leads to a less pure, harsher smoke. Put the stem under a hot faucet and let the water run through the length of the stem to remove the loose soot and soften the encrusted layer. Next use a pipe brush to remove all the crap from the inside.
Unless you know for a fact your hose is washable, it probably isn't. Running water through the inside could crack the rubber. Instead, blow as hard as you can through the hose while rapidly block and unblocking the end.

Pop ‘em in the dishwasher. Shame on you for making me explain that.
Shisha Etiquette
Shisha, unlike cigarette smoking, is a social event. While your typical Tau Bro Phi probably won't know a thing about any sort etiquette associated with smoking nargila, if you find yourself in a Middle Eastern shisha lounge (or country) it's expected that you respect a certain level of decorum. Here are the basic rules you should keep in mind:
  1. The hookah bong is built tall for a reason. It's meant to be placed on the floor next to you, not on the table. Putting it on the table is seen as a form of idol worship - a no-no in a monotheistic culture.

  2. Never pass the hose hand to hand. Rest in on the table to the next person in rotation and rotate the hookah if need be.

  3. If it's your turn with the hose, don't rest it on the table unless your passing it. It's seen as rude to not let others smoke just so you can take a breather while the tobacco's still smoking. Either puff or pass.

  4. On the flip side of rule #2, it's rude to hurry a person with the hose or ask that he pass it. Basically it's a mutually understood manner that one person won't delay too long and the others won't pressure him. It's all for the sake of preserving the friendly, relaxed atmosphere.

  5. Don't think that just because people are smoking, it's okay for you to light up a cigarette. There's something to be enjoyed about the mellow, fruity aroma of the nargila in the air.
And that's all she wrote. It may sound like an intricate process but it's all really common sense. It's just the close attention to detail that separates the truly enjoyable, relaxing smoke experience from the two high school seniors chuffing on ash in their parents' poorly heated garage. Whatever your situation may be, keep in mind that shisha smoking isn't about getting your nicotine fix. It's all about relaxing, socializing with friends, and occasionally just sitting back and enjoying smoke patterns. So take it easy and don't work too hard.

Friday, January 8, 2010

How to Smoke a Tobacco Pipe

Though it may seem a bit too nostalgic (or downright weird) pipe smoking is starting to make a significant comeback; especially in the 21 - 30 age demographic. Some appeal to the classy/manly look and feel of a pipe as they sit down with a friend, catch up on some reading, or sip some fail-me-not bourbon on the rocks. Others find more appeal in the fact that it is form of smoking that is less harmful than cigarettes. Whatever your reason, your looking to get into pipe smoking. Let's go over some basics.

Pipe tobacco varies greatly from one brand to the next. A good tobacconist will have a big enough selection to help you find exactly what kind of tobacco suits you.
To start off, the are two types of tobaccos you have to choose from- english or aromatic. The generalization is that beginners tend to like the sweet aromatics and more experienced pipe smokers will prefer a more full-bodied english tobacco. You can believe that if you want, but not everyone learns to appreciate Smirnoff Ice before they can enjoy Guiness, if you catch my metaphor. Whatever your preference, it's generally a good idea to find at least one aromatic tobacco you enjoy since, in a case where you find yourself smoking in front of others, people tend to like the smoke of aromatics. It's somewhat less intrusive. I've also heard of people hiding their pipe smoking session by using an aromatic tobacco and, afterwards, lighting an incense stick to blend with the smell and fool people into thinking the stick is the source of the odor.

Pipe tool
A pipe tool is super basic and doesn't need to be sophisticated at all. Basically, a pipe tool consists of a tamper, scoop and probe. The tamper is the flat foot used to “tamp” down the tobacco to let the embers spread. The probe is the long poker that’s used for stirring ash and aerating the tobacco. The scoop, through process of elimination and logical semantics, is used to scoop out the “dottle” – the ash and unburnt tobacco.

A pipe filter is an optional addition to your smoking experience. The filter is a piece of either cotton with carbon in it or balsa wood. Filters advertise that they absorb many of the carcinogens in the smoke. Along with that, the filter will also absorb some of the steam let off by the burning tobacco; leading to a cooler, drier smoke. Filters may also be something you'd want to try if you find yourself in the possession of a pipe that, all too often, begins gurgling from a moisture buildup.

Packing your pipe
This is where skill comes into play. Many people won't pack a pipe properly and might have an experience that discourages them from continuing. A properly packed pipe is like writing a short story. If you structure it properly and are conscious about the subtle details, you'll be drawn in with an intriguing introduction, held in place by a consistently enjoyable journey and, finally, be left satisfied with the gradual conclusion.
The predominant method of packing a pipe is the "Child, mother, father method." In this method, you grab your first pinch of tobacco, put it into the bowl of your pipe, and press it down gently with your finger - as a child would. Your next pinch of tobacco is put into the bowl and stuffed in with a press firmer than before. The third, and final, pinch of tobacco is placed into your bowl and pressed down firmly. By doing this, you're packing your bowl with layers of firmness that ensure a pleasant, even smoke.

Lighting your pipe
There are three main devices you can use to light your pipe. As with anything some tools are better suited for the job than others.

Matches: best - matches impart the perfect heat to the bowl. If your tobacco is burnt at too high of a heat, the smoke will be stingy and unpleasant. Matches tend to burn at relatively cool temperature. One thing to always remember is to let the match burn out the head before you bring it to the bowl. You don’t want the sulfuric, phosphoric properties of the match head affecting your smoke.

Butane lighter: Good – If you find yourself in a situation without matches, a butane lighter will do fine. Zippo makes a specialized pipe lighter that can be turned sideways and still have flame exposed below (see pic). Other lighters have a little extension that points the flame downwards. These are both just to make life easier for you.

Jet lighter: Worst – A jet-style lighter is probably the worst thing you could use to light your pipe. Your tobacco will char and produce a smoke that will scorch your tongue. If a jet lighter is all you have, then just don’t smoke. It’s like adding orange juice to your cereal because you don’t have milk. There is no possible reason to be using a jet lighter.

Whichever device you use to light, always keep the flame just above the tobacco and move it in a circular pattern while drawing in. The initial light is actually called a “false light.” The top layer of tobacco will light and puff up. The puffing up means the rest of the bowl won’t light. That’s why, after every initial light, you have to tamp the tobacco down and re-light to make sure you have a nice, last, even light.

It’s completely normal to have to relight your pipe 2-3 times throughout your smoke, the ash buildup tends to choke the embers of oxygen. Use your probe to gently stir and collapse the layers of ash then have another pass with your lighter/match.

Concluding the Experience
When your smoking experience is done, simply empty out the contents of the bowl using the scoop and let your pipe rest for about 24 hours before smoking again. For the first smoke, it’s especially important to let the pipe rest since it’s still being broken in. Also, for a new pipe, go very light on the scoop tool. Try not to scratch the walls of the bowl. You’re trying to buildup a carbon “cake” on the wall so as to give the bowl a bit of a burn protection layer for future lights.

As with most hobbies, you should invest in quality equipment for when you first start. Sure you can cut your spending to under $20 if you buy Captain Black and a pipe from China but that $20 is a complete waste if you end up having a bad experience and get turned off pipe smoking all together. Cheap tobaccos taste crappy. Cheap pipes can have a hot smoke, be prone to gurgling, have loose seals, break easily (happened to me), and even stain your hands with their varnish.

Anyone can buy a pack of cigarettes from a gas station and get their quick nicotine fix. Pipe smoking is about something completely different. It’s about appreciating smoke consistency, flavor, intensity, temperature, etc. I hope you enjoy your venture into pipe smoking. Keep it classy and take it easy.

I want to thank PipeFriendCHS for being my professor in Pipe Smoking 101. I recommend checking out his
YouTube channel and how-to playlist.