pipe cake

A well caked pipe

Have you ever heard the somewhat barbaric term “building up a cake“? What does it mean? When would you use it? How do you do it? In this article, we will go through the basics of pipe smoking and we will explain the “building up a cake” process to you step by step. This process is essential when using a new pipe.

What is building up a cake?

Building up a cake is the very first stage in the life of a new pipe. Building up a cake means creating a layer of carbon on the chamber walls of your pipe. This carbon lining will protect the briar wood from the heat. It is absolutely necessary! Without it, your burning tobacco (at a very high temperature) will be in direct contact with the wood chamber of your pipe. Obviously, if you don’t have this protective layer (the “cake“), you risk damaging the wood, the outside finish, or even burning out your pipe.

Building up a cake must be done on a new pipe, but there is no need to build up a cake on the pipe you inherited from your grand-father. Your old pipe will more likely be in need of a clean-up in order to reduce the cake that has built up over time.

Bastien, la Pipe Rit

By now, you understand that building up a cake is the key to a long life for your pipe. There is no avoiding it! By doing so, your pipe will be in good health and keep you company for years and years to come.

Just so you know, even for a pipe chamber made of meerschaum you still need to build up a cake. Some people will say otherwise but it is better to start smoking it slowly. Even though meerschaum is more resistant to heat due to its characteristics, we recommend that you break in your new pipe anyway. Same as you would for a briar wood pipe, don’t immediately fill up your meerschaum bowl. Take your time and get used to it slowly. This way, you will come to appreciate it more and more as time goes on.

How to build up a cake?

Did you just get your new pipe? Let’s get started, you can now start building up a cake. First of all, you should know that building up a cake is done over the first 10 (or maybe 15) times you use your pipe. Because of this, it is not something that can be done in a single day but progressively.

The best technique:

To build up a cake you will have to progressively increase the quantity of tobacco you use to fill up your bowl with time. To start, put very little tobacco in the bottom of the chamber and smoke gently. The next day, for your second smoke, you can put slightly more tobacco. For the next few times, same thing, increase the amount little by little. until you reach the top of the chamber. You generally need to use your pipe 10 to 15 times to get there (this will of course depend on the size of your chamber, and whether it is very short or tall).

Following these steps, the cake (meaning the carbon layer) will form the base of the chamber. In general, it is said that the carbon layer needs to be around 2 mm thick (about the thickness of a dime). This is a good thickness because it protects the briar without getting in the way of packing your tobacco. Be careful! If the cake gets too thick, not only could it get in the way of packing, it might even crack the wood.

We often hear about the so called “third” method: you fill up one third of your chamber on your first 5 smokes, you fill up two third of the chamber on the next 5, and you fully fill your chamber on the last 5. This method also works well. The important thing is for the carbon layer to be built up from bottom to top. That is why you have to progressively fill up your chamber on your first ten or more pipes.

You already know how to build up a cake if you are a long-time pipe smoker and have gone through a number of new pipes. If you are just starting, though, take the time to give your new companion a nice cake. If you take good care of it, it will take good care of you in return.

The cake is generally the mark of a good smoker. There is a reason why a pipe can last an entire lifetime!

Things you should not do:

  • Don’t smoke outside (when there is strong wind)! The wind will intensify the combustion and heat up the wood walls of the chamber (still fragile at this point)
  • Don’t smoke rapidly! Be patient, take your time and don’t take big hits. Yes, you, the former cigarette smoker who is used to fast smoking, we can see you!
  • Don’t scratch the inside of the chamber! The carbon layer is building up right now, don’t damage it right away.
  • Don’t let your pipe overheat! It is good advice for any of your pipes but even more so for the first piece of your pipe collection. If you feel your pipe is getting hot while you are holding it let it rest, light it up later and just start right where you had left off.

Side note. Going through internet forums you may have read that some people use alcohol (or honey) to build up a cake? This (bad) practice consists of burning alcohol inside the chamber. We strongly advise against doing so. This will damage your chamber and imprint an unpleasant taste (permanently), but most of all you will shorten your pipe’s life expectancy (and it’s brand new. ).

Let us take a little trip back in time! Between 1960 and 1980, pipe makers used to coat the inside of the chamber with a special lacquer. Before you could smoke your pipe, it was recommended to burn this lacquer down, but today pipe makers no longer use this lacquer. It is quite ironic: nowadays building up a cake prevents the pipe from burning, but back then you had to start by burning alcohol inside your pipe.

Claire, la Pipe Rit

Congratulations, you successfully broke in your pipe. You will now be able to fully enjoy your tobacco and appreciate all its flavors and subtleties.

Selecting a pipe with bowl coating?

When you buy a new pipe, it may already be pre-carbonized (or “bowl coated”), but that is not the case for all pipes. Some smokers prefer building up the cake from scratch, starting with a “bare” chamber. Pipe smokers generally like to take their time. Thus, building up a cake can be part of the pleasure of smoking.

The pipe makers who choose to pre-carbonize their pipes before sale do not all use the same “secret recipe”. This internal pre-carbonization process is different from one maker to another. Whichever technique is used, you can’t please everyone, and that is why we find and will always find both coated and non-coated pipe bowls.


A pipe with bowl coating has a thin layer of protective carbon that has been applied to the inside of its chamber.

  • Bowl coating helps the first few times you are using your pipe. Be careful though, you must still build up a cake. Start smoking by progressively increasing the amount of tobacco with each use.
  • A pipe with a coated bowl will be better for smokers with little experience (but not exclusively!). Conversely, a “bare” chamber (uncoated) will require a bit more time. The art of pipe smoking has sometimes discouraged potential recruits because of the time it takes to develop a cake before you can fully appreciate its pleasure and delights. That is why a little help can give a novice pipe smoker a more relaxed start.

Did you know?

In the 19th century, bowl coating was already getting more popular. There were even some companies exclusively dedicated to bowl coating, truly specialized in the field. In 1855, the Parisian company “Paris-Fumeur” was one of these specialists.

In the 1980’s, a famous pipe maker invented a machine to coat pipe bowls. And then the inevitable happened. This machine was soon forgotten, only a few years after it started being sold. Pipe smokers did not see the appeal of it!

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What is a pre-coated pipe? How do you break in a new pipe? Why do you need to build up a cake when you buy a new pipe? We are going to answer all of your questions…

Pipe cake

Posted by Renia Carsillo on 29th Apr 2014

Developing a proper cake inside the bowl of your new tobacco pipe is a critical step in ensuring your pipe lasts for years to come. This can be one of the most frustrating parts of learning to smoke a pipe–knowing when you have just the right thickness and developing it in the first place.

Why develop cake on your pipe

The purpose of building the cake (breaking in, if you will) your new pipes is to create a barrier around the entire bowl chamber. Cake refers to the carbon deposits that are left behind by the smoked tobacco. These carbon deposits insulate the chamber and keep the briar from charring.

In addition to protecting the chamber, cake helps make your smoking experience sweeter. This happens because the carbon is actually formed from the sugars in the tobacco. The carbon deposits blend with some of the flavor of the briar, resulting in a mellow smoke.

How to develop cake

To develop the initial cake, you’ll need to smoke it a little differently than normal. Learning how to do this properly takes time and patience. Follow these steps carefully:

  1. Fill the bowl a quarter full with tobacco. It is important to do this, to give the carbon room to form evenly.
  2. Light the partial bowl evenly. Take your first draw, then tamp with your tamper and do your second light.
  3. Smoke the bowl slowly and completely. Take your time, even more so than usual, with this smoke. Draw slowly and methodically. It will help you form an even cake. Make sure to smoke the whole bowl, all the way to the bottom. Developing cake at the bottom of the bowl is the hardest.
  4. Continue this process for 3-5 smokes. Then, follow the process with a half-bowl a few times, than three quarters a few times. By increasing the amount of tobacco in the bowl gradually, over time, you’ll build a more even cake, from bottom to top, inside the chamber. It will take most pipes at least a dozen smokes to begin forming a nice cake and we’ve seen some take much longer.

Maintaining the proper cake

Once the cake is developed in your new tobacco pipe, you’ll need to make sure not to allow the cake to become too thick. When this happens, the cake begins to expand outward as it cools and can break your pipe.

Aim to keep the carbon build up to about 1.5 mm (1/6th of an inch), but don’t get your ruler out! Think about the thickness of a dime, that’s about how thick your cake should be.

Carefully scraping, or “trimming” the cake with a pipe tool or blunt knife will help keep the build up even and at its proper thickness. This should be done with extreme care, as it’s all too easy to scrape off too much or damage the pipe.

Developing cake on a smoking pipe is an area where new smokers tend to obsess. We recommend you follow these guidelines carefully, but don’t become overly cautious or obsessive. Remember, your goal is to ENJOY your pipe.

In the 6th installation in our basic guide on How to Smoke A Pipe, we’re explaining how to develop cake on your tobacco pipe.