Gurgles can be good. The burbling of a mountain brook is a pleasant, peaceful sound. Listening to the water splashing over rocks while lounging in the spreading shade of a willow on a sunny summer day can be positively therapeutic. Gurgles can be fun. Witness the sheer joy of children as they frolic in the playful spray of a splash park. Gurgles can even be art as people more clever than I channel water into high-arcing fountain displays in public squares around the world.
But gurgles can be considerably less pleasure-inducing when they come from your pipe during a much-anticipated moment of rest at the end of a busy day. So why do pipes gurgle and how can we fix it? It all boils down to two simple factors: condensation and construction.
Let’s deal with condensation first. Condensation is water, and there is water in all tobacco. In fact, water is necessary for the full enjoyment of the smoking experience, as it’s the water vapour in the smoke that carries much of the flavour profile of your favourite blends, especially aromatics (those that have tried smoking a really dry, forgotten tin of tobacco will remember the dull, flat, lifeless experience).
Most experts agree that a moisture level of around 13% is ideal. Too wet and there is too much water vapour (aka steam) in the smoke and it will bite and taste like, well, water instead of the Zen-trance-inducing Unicorn blend you ordered from that small-scale boutique blender. At the other extreme, overly dry tobacco burns fast and hot – again, neither a pretty nor a tasty experience, and potentially harmful to your best briar.
So we need water, but too much of it in the wrong place produces that annoying bottom-of-the-milkshake sound best restricted to teenagers in malt shops. This is where we pull in the other determining factor – construction.
We know from elementary school science class that water turns to steam when it heats up and that steam condenses back into liquid water when it cools. Both of these processes occur inside a pipe during smoking. The heat from your match lights the tobacco, which causes the water within the tobacco to evaporate as steam. As the smoke is drawn through the draft hole into the airway, where things are a bit cooler, some of the steam condenses back into liquid water, which can restrict the airway and produce the dreaded gurgle.
The water needs somewhere to go. This is the basic reason behind those (mostly annoying) metal stingers installed on so many pipes in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The pipe-makers were attempting to force the water vapour to condense in a relatively open area of the pipe where it couldn’t block up the airway and create a gurgle, or even worse, get drawn into your mouth. Yuck!
Peterson understood condensation and built a pipe-making empire on the merits of his System Pipe, which gave the condensation somewhere to go outside the main flow of the airway. Brigham did much the same with his design in which the moisture is absorbed by a rock maple filter as it passes through the airway.
In essence, if you have a pipe that consistently gurgles, odds are that you’re dealing with too much water in too little space. Here is a little checklist for diagnosing and treating the gurgle that should work to sort out most problems.
- My apologies, this first one is a little gross,but needs to be pointed out. If you are new to pipes, your body may be inadvertently producing more saliva than usual in an attempt to flush the smoke out of your mouth. Make sure you’re not adding extra water into your pipe through the mouthpiece. Enough said.
- Assuming you’ve gotten past the drool factory stage, chances are good that your tobacco is too wet. Let it dry out a bit more before packing it into the pipe, especially if you smoke aromatic tobaccos. These are usually significantly wetter than non-aromatic blends.
- OK. We’ve controlled the amount of water in the pipe. Still gurgling? Check your pipe’s airway. Not all pipes are drilled to the same internal dimensions, and some airways are just too narrow to accommodate water and air at the same time. And remember that even well-drilled airways can get narrowed over time by tars and debris.
- Remember that the airway includes the stem! Though much less common, sometimes the airway through the stem can be the bottleneck in your pipe’s plumbing. It’s relatively easy to bore out a straight stem if there is enough girth to the tenon (an over-drilled tenon is prone to breaking), but a bent stem requires careful straightening before and rebending after the drilling. If the idea of doing this makes you queasy, you’re better to send your pipe to a professional for adjustments.
As an example, I have a non-system, 1/4-bent pipe that despite regular cleaning, has consistently smoked poorly for me with a tight draw and gurgles that kick in before I’m halfway through the bowl. I worked through the steps above and found that the pipe’s airway was drilled to a measly 7/64″. I pulled out my drill bits and worked them by hand to re-cut the airway to the much more common 5/32″ bore. Success! The pipe now smokes like a champ, with an easy, open draw and zero gurgles. It also lights and stays lit much more easily and is fast becoming a go-to pipe when I want to relax.
So that’s the story of gurgling pipes. Annoyingly simple when it’s broken down, but not nearly as annoying as trying to enjoy a gurgling pipe! Now that you understand where gurgles come from, I hope you too can successfully rehabilitate your own trouble-prone pipes into carefree companions and enjoy them as they were meant to be enjoyed.
Thanks for reading, and until next time, Happy Piping!