Cooking up a good cake
Effectively building a healthy carbon lining inside a pipe�s chamber
takes place before, during and after the smoke.
By Dale Harrison
Dust, ash, spittle, rings of fire and distilled spirits conjure images of sorcery. Actually, each is an element used in breaking in a tobacco pipe and building a hearty carbon cake. It�s a process that, for many smokers, might as well be relegated to the realm of the mystical.
Whatever the formula used, there seems to be an elusive dose of magic involved in building that precious carbon lining in a pipe�s chamber. A healthy buildup of carbon along the pipe�s walls insulates and protects the chamber, absorbs moisture and provides a cooler smoke.
Building a good cake is a bottom-up process, starting with the very first smoke. Most break-in procedures call for smoking only half-bowls for the first several smokes. Others recommend smoking several quarter-bowls, then half-bowls, and finally, three-quarter-bowls before filling the pipe to the top.
Once a good cake takes hold, maintaining it properly will enhance the pipe�s performance. With its maximum chamber volume and even distribution of cake throughout the bowl, a refurbished cake puts a pipe in optimum smoking condition.
Before the first smoke
Some pipes are available with precoatings in the chamber that serve as the first layer of cake and hasten the break-in process. Some pipe artisans have put considerable time and effort into developing unique precoatings, such as J.T. Cooke. Cooke�s recipe is a closely guarded secret, but he is willing to describe the two-step process in applying the precoating and the general properties of the recipe. The first coat is a single ingredient, and the second is a mixture of four.
�The first coat is applied directly to the raw wood and is a fireproofer,� explained Cooke. �That coat has to really bond tight to the wood. The second coat is the cake-building element. It�s dry to the touch but gets tacky when exposed to heat.�
When Cooke set out to develop his formula with pipe retailer Barry Levin, several goals had to be met. It needed to be tacky and heat resistant but also safe and indiscernible to the palate.
�It had to be nontoxic. We had to be able to stick our fingers in it and taste it. It might not taste really good, but it wasn�t going to hurt us,� says Cooke. �It had to have no obvious taste or odor during smoking.�
All but one of the elements he uses are available off the shelf, and Cooke reveals that two are charcoal and water.
Most pipecarvers opt for no precoating, and some pipe smokers insist that chambers of new pipes remain bare so they can clearly see the grain before purchasing a pipe. With pristine chambers, an effective precoating that smokers can apply themselves will come in handy for those who prefer a coating.
While achieving the sophistication of Cooke�s coating is probably not feasible for most, there are many household ingredients that are widely used. Precoatings range from the simplest, such as whiskey, to more conspicuous coatings of honey or jelly and tobacco dust. Whatever the catalyst, the goal is to promote both combustion and tackiness along the walls of the chamber.
Pipecarver Tim West relies on the extremely high sugar content of grape jelly to act as a catalyst in a precoating he uses. After placing a pipe cleaner in the stem to avoid clogging the draft hole, West rubs a very thin coat of jelly over the entire surface of the chamber�the coating must be paper thin or thinner. He then coats the jelly with tobacco dust that is prepared by toasting a favorite blend in the oven or on the stove. When crispy, the tobacco is turned to dust in a coffee grinder, with mortar and pestle, or by rubbing vigorously between the hands. Tobacco dust is placed in the chamber, which is covered with the thumb. Gently shaking the pipe distributes dust evenly over the jelly, and the excess is tapped out. Then comes the hard part, says West. �The trick to working with grape jelly is to have a lot of patience. Once the coating is on, you have to wait days to allow the coating to dry out. If you smoke the pipe while it�s still wet, the coating will slough off.�
West recommends waiting five days to a week. After about 72 hours, the jelly coating will become dry and firm to the touch, unlike other substances. Honey and syrup are also used as cake catalysts but remain wet even after 72 hours. They also tend to pool, leaving the bottom of the bowl far too wet for the needed combustion to take place. When these substances become hot, they become even wetter, seeping into the briar and leaving little behind. With West�s jelly technique, what�s left behind is mostly hardened gelatin and sugar, which makes for a stable, tacky and fairly neutral substance.
Smokers who want more subtle cake catalysts opt for a distilled spirit of choice, such as whiskey, and even saliva, but the cake-building process is considerably slower.
During the smoke
Lighting technique is crucial during the cake-building process. Cake builds most quickly where combustion directly meets the walls of the chamber, forming carbon deposits. West says pipe smokers should break out the butane to break in a pipe�light it frequently throughout a smoke. Tamping technique also affects accumulation of cake during break-in, and West says many smokers undermine the process by moving unburned tobacco away from the walls to the center of the pipe. To the contrary, ash should be tamped toward the middle of the bowl, leaving fresh tobacco to be burned along the walls. When the flame is directed toward the unburned tobacco along the edges, a ring of fire emerges. That ring indicates where cake will build. Thus, a brightly burning center and ashy outer edges indicate that little cake is forming in the chamber. Strive for a ring of fire all the way down the bowl, says West, and cake will form relatively effortlessly.
One of the pleasures of pipe smoking is enjoying all the rituals involved in the experience, and �ashing� is one that promotes cake-building. This procedure distributes dry ash evenly throughout the bowl to induce drying out the cake. Because ash becomes part of the carbon lining with this procedure, some say it results in a softer cake. Most �ashers� start midway through the smoke and stir the surface ash to loosen it and reduce it to dust. With a thumb over the bowl, they lightly shake the ash to distribute it. Ash adheres to surface moisture on the cake. After gently tapping out excess ash, they relight the pipe and repeat the process when the bowl is done.
After the smoke
The widespread adage that cake should be no thinner than a dime is a good rule of thumb. Cake should be cut when it reaches the thickness of a nickel, adds Cooke. There are three basic methods for cutting cake, with some variations on each. Generally, the basic methods include sanding by hand, using an electric rotary tool, or using reaming tools designed for the purpose.
Reaming tools and kits range in complexity and price, from a relatively inexpensive single, one-size-fits-all tool to complete kits with different sizes and shapes to fit a variety of bowls. When working with tools that self-adjust during reaming, it is important to note that they follow the contour of the cake, as opposed to the contour of the chamber. Care must be taken to increase pressure where cake is particularly built up or stubborn. At the same time, the tool needs to remain properly aligned against the walls of the chamber. A slightly misaligned reaming tool is prone to chipping the cake. Reaming tools seek perfect symmetry, so they have limited utility on shapes with unique lines.
Cooke prefers sanding by hand, a method that ensures maximum control of the process. By using sandpaper mounted on a dowel, cake is slowly sanded away following the contour of the pipe.
The first step is to fashion pieces of dowel so that each has a tapered, conical tip that resembles the shape of a bullet. Use dowels of different sizes to match different bowls and a 6- or 8-inch stick-on sanding disc, which is pliable and will adhere to the dowel and itself. Cut a wedge-shaped section of sandpaper from the disc, which will resemble a healthy piece of pie. This shape will allow the sandpaper paper to follow the coned contour of the dowel�s tip. Mount the sandpaper by placing the tapered tip of the dowel at the narrow tip of the wedge, laying the rest of the dowel along one side of the wedge. Carefully roll the sandpaper on, securing it tightly to the dowel and itself as you go, following the contour of the dowel tip.
With the dowel ready, sand carefully in and out of the chamber while turning the bowl. Periodically tap out the black cake dust that results from sanding. Save it�this will come in handy for cake repairs.
This cake-cutting process is slow and deliberate, which means low-grit sandpaper will speed up the process. Cooke recommends 100-grit sandpaper. The lower grit also keeps the cake rough at its surface, which will promote forming new cake over the old.
For a speedier sanding procedure, small handheld rotary tools are ideal. Use a speed setting between 8,000 rpm and 12,000 rpm. The goal is to slowly whisk away cake using the speed of the tool with very little pressure against the surface. A speed setting that is too slow will cause the tool to grate across the surface, catching against uneven surfaces and breaking the cake. Too fast will create too much force, and the slightest misalignment of the tool will likely chip the cake.
Work the tool slowly in, out and around the inner circumference of the chamber. With this method, move only the tool while cutting cake. Remove the tool completely before turning the bowl to avoid unintended contact with the rim. Stop periodically and inspect the cake throughout the process and tap out the black cake dust.
Regardless of how carefully a cake is cut, it�s hard to avoid digging up a few divots along the way. West uses an equal amount of cake dust and grape jelly to make a repair paste that is pressed into the divots and leveled off with existing cake. Again, allow five to seven days for the paste to dry completely.
With each technique, the goal is to shape cake consistently throughout the chamber. After each cutting, be sure the draft hole is free of carbon deposits, which can hang over the hole inside
the chamber and impede airflow. Use a long poker on a pipe tool and run it through the shank and into the draft hole. Slide the poker along the wall of the draft hole toward the bowl, feeling for obstructions. Check the entire circumference. The poker will jam on deposits that are protruding over the hole. These need to be gently chipped away from the draft hole with the tip of the poker.
There is certainly nothing �easy as cake� about inducing, building and maintaining a healthy carbon lining inside a pipe. It�s a process that involves patience and vigilance, but one that pays big dividends in pipe-smoking pleasure.