by Richard Frederics and Ernie Whitenack
The Story of the Pipe Tamper by Richard Frederics
Did you ever wonder how the pipe tamper came into being? We give a lot of credit to Sir Walter Raleigh for introducing the smoking of tobacco (in a pipe of course) to the Elizabethan court in 1585. Up until 1881 the pipe was king, but then the cigarette machine was invented. From English sailors to philosophers, to professors, to tavern keepers to generals to your ordinary citizen – everybody had a pipe within reach.
Nothing has changed to ensure a good smoke. Tobacco leaves burning in a pipe bowl, even back then, required special care. To achieve a smooth and even draw of smoke you needed to push or “tamp” the stuff down. It is said that Sir Isaac Newton once used a lady’s finger (still attached to its owner, it seems) to “tamp” his pipe with fiery results. There had to be a better way.
Japan had miniature sculpted figurines, called netsukes that would hang from their purse-strings (basically, these were medicine pouches). Europe came up with figural pipe tampers. Like the netsukes and medicine pouches, tampers or “stoppers” as they were referred to in British English, were small, portable, useful and superbly decorative.
“In the tobacco-stopper alone was anything like taste or fancy displayed. This was the only article on which the English smoker prided himself. It was made of various materials – wood, bone, ivory, mother-of-pearl, brass, and silver: and the forms which it assured were exceedingly diversified.” Joseph Fume 1839
The tamper in a pipe smoker’s hand became a conversational piece. Within these little sculptures every aspect of contemporary life could be depicted, glorified, satirized.
By the 1800’s manufacturing had replaced this craft to a large extent. Pipe smoking, the activity of a slower time, gave way to the faster, disposable cigarette. And tampers? They went the way of crafts people from the workshop to the factory. Nearly all of today’s mass produced tampers are functional – they are not meant to also tell a story, they are only meant to serve a purpose.
More often than not you can’t tell what it really is – something from the garage or perhaps it’s some cooking tool. And while these serve the primary purpose, we have lost what they were also intended to do; yes, be functional but also brought color, thought and humor to the day. It added glorification to the smoker who had this priceless piece in his possession.
I do possess several different pipe tampers that are unique and have
a special story behind them. Two are representative of Sherlock Holmes
– one being the SHPC tamper of several years back. I have a brass
hand tamper that I got at David P. Ehrlichs over forty years ago. And
as I write this piece I can’t help but think of the story each one
has - where I got them and how I have used them over the years.How many
of you have one of those special tampers that you put in the drawer and
now use “the nail.” Maybe it’s time to get the special
A Thesis on Tamping........... by Ernie Whitenack
I have come to a conclusion, after all these years of pipe smoking, that tamping is not only necessary to keeping a pipe lit but, also in controlling the burning quality and pleasure of the tobacco.
Now, I realize many will think I’m full of it and am splitting hairs on a subject that just doesn’t need discussing. In any event, bear with me for a bit as I think I can make your smoking a tad bit more enjoyable.
First off there is the tamper. We all recognize the popular Czech Pipe Tool – the humble but noble Pipe Nail – the Brebbia Horse Shoe Nail with its square tamping surface. Other shapes, sizes and price are uncountable.
And, then there are what I think are the most useless of all, the strange
little things that pop out of the sides and bottoms of various pipe lighters.
Some are square and quite small; which makes it easy if one wanted to
put a square peg in a round hole and completely miss the edges of the
hole. Others I've seen were just too short. I personally don't care to
juggle a tamper with a comparatively heavy lighter topping it off while
performing a task that should be done with precision.
Remember that you are working to keep bits of tobacco in contact so that as a layer burns it will ignite the layer below it. Your tobacco should be at the proper compression before lighting; or at least after the first tamping and relight. Take a few seconds when filling to tamp to a level surface. After that it will be a breeze. Cube and rough cuts require a bit more compression then a shag or ribbon cut.
Keeping the top layer of tobacco and ash level will allow it to burn consistently and slowly while avoiding hot spots at the center or edge of the chamber. The trick here is to use the proper tamper – a round one. After all, you are working within a circular area. Start tamping around the perimeter of the chamber and work to the center. Keep a soft hand to avoid too much compression and a hard draw. Check visually to assure you have a level surface.
When using the Czech Pipe Tool, or others that have one flat side, rotate it as you go around the perimeter of the chamber keeping the rounded part against the edge of the chamber and the flat section facing center.
So, here’s to a cooler more flavorful smoke. It will take a little practice but is well worth
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