Your pipe should meet its match

I occasionally write about tobacco pipes here, and I’ll admit to turning my nose up at a $68 pipe lighter. Just listen to this piece of marketing copy, courtesy of SmokingPipes: “Your lighter, like your choice of cuff-links or writing pen, communicates much about your discerning tastes to others. Let your new Kiribi Kabuto Short do some of the talking, others will get the message.”

Image courtesy Wikimedia user Subhrajyoti07, under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

I have no opinion about cuff links, but I once worked for a major manufacturer of pens that ranged from the humble Papermate to Parkers and Watermans at prices that rival the endowment of a Divison III university. I probably don’t need to tell you this, but pens at both ends of the spectrum will successfully put ink on paper.

All sorts of tools will light a pipe. Although I’m disinclined to spend a pipe’s worth of money on a lighter, I dry heave at the thought of igniting mine with the same $2 BIC I use on a lowly cigarette since those cheap gas station flames light indiscriminately. They’ll torch your tobacco and your briar together! Zippos provide a middle ground of sorts and my brother swore by them before he got a Nimrod my dad gave him and, later, his own Kiribi Kabuto.

Dad’s sick 1960s cigarette holder and table lighter in the shape of a brass Cadillac might be cool, but it won’t do well lighting a pipe.

I don’t like Zippos for lighting pipes either, though. Therefore, I present to you a third way: Matches! These plebeian sticks of wood and chemicals are perfect for lighting a pipe, so long as you wait half a second for all the crap to burn off the end.

Matches have been around for nearly forever. Sulfur matches were described in 1366 as having been used in China for eight hundred years, but the first self-igniting match was created by a Frenchman named Jean Chancel in 1805. It used a head composed of potassium chlorate, sulfur, gum arabic, and sugar. You lit it by dipping it in an asbestos bottle filled with sulfuric acid.

I’d rather not do that today! Thankfully Samuel Jones, a Londoner, patented what he called a Promethean match in 1828. It was a tiny glass capsule with sulfuric acid and indigo, coated with potassium chlorate, and all wrapped in paper. Instead of dipping it in an asbestos bottle full of acid, you lit it by crushing it with pliers.

I’d prefer to use some kindling and a hand drill over those early matches. Or a BIC lighter, as a matter of fact- even one plastered with the face of Dale Earnhardt.

French safety matches, sold under the Independence Safety Match brand. Image courtesy of Wikimedia user Agnat under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

Matches that ignited through friction were invented by John Walker in 1826 before Sir Isaac Holden improved upon his process three years later. These early matches involved white phosphorus, which gave the people who frequently came into contact with them a disturbing affliction called phossy jaw. The perils of white phosphorous led match manufacturers to invent the safety match, which used the less-harmful red phosphorous on the tip. 

Diamond Match Company’s Chico, California factory, as depicted in an old postcard.

In 1880, a man named Ohio Columbus Barber who was from Akron, not Columbus, purchased several New England match manufacturers and consolidated them under his Barber Match Company before changing the name to Diamond after its most popular brand. Eventually, Diamond became the country’s largest match manufacturer and its Strike Anywhere, Strike-On-Box, and Ohio Blue Tip matches became known worldwide. Diamond’s later history was one of mergers, acquisitions, and bankruptcies. Astonishingly, none impacted the operation of its 1920s-era factory in Cloquet, Minnesota until 2016, when it was shuttered for good. Today, Diamond matches are made in Chile. 

I haven’t noticed any sharp decrease in quality when it comes to Diamond matches made today versus those from seven or eight years ago. But whether you’re using matches from Diamond, Ohio Blue Tip, Penley, Ideal, D.D. Bean, or a guy off the street, the pipe-lighting process is the same. First, know what you’ve got: matches come in three basic styles: book, penny, and kitchen. 

To start, take the little book of paper matches you were given at the liquor store and throw them away. They’re fun to display, and Diamond even made a series of Presidential matches that was great to collect until you inevitably wound up with 14 William McKinley’s and not a single Silent Cal. Pitch ‘em- you’ll thank yourself to use a wooden penny or kitchen-sized match instead, which are made of aspen and won’t go flying onto the reams of grain dust, tanks of gasoline, and nitrate film stock you forgot you were storing in the corner.

Diamond Matches strike again- pun intended. Photo taken August 19, 2012.

Strike the match on the rough strip on your box and give it a second to burn the chemicals off. From there, position the match above your pipe and begin to move it around your tobacco, making sure to set all of it on fire. As you do, you’ll notice the tobacco contract in the bowl of your pipe. This is what’s supposed to happen- you’re releasing all of the moisture for what will ideally become a clean, dry, smoke. After you’ve gotten it all burning, let the pipe go out and give it a quick tamp with a 3-way Czech pipe tool, a roofing nail, or a spare metatarsal. You’ll have just completed what’s known as the charring, or false, light. 

Repeat the process once the pipe goes out. This time, you’re lighting the pipe for real. Once that’s done, smoke away! It’s fine if your pipe goes out while you smoke it. Just re-light and tamp again.

I actually worked in brand management for Diamond for about five years, when it was under the ownership of a company called Jarden Corporation. By that point, the fire-starting side of Diamond consisted of wood matches and the presidential series of matchbooks, along with a variety of handheld grill lighters that were manufactured in China, some of which actually opened up and contained a tiny BIC-style lighter inside to provide the real muscle. There was also something called Strike-A-Fire, which was like a thin, pressed firelog with a striker head.

In addition to moonlighting in consumer affairs for Diamond being paid to say things like “Sir, I’m afraid I can’t recommend that you teach your five-year-old to light our Strike Anywhere matches,” I was part of the team that brought back Diamond’s dormant line of Ohio Blue Tips!

Image courtesy Wikimedia user Francesco Schiavone, under the CC BY 4.0 license.

We wanted to reintroduce the brand as a top-tier statement SKU marketed towards guys who would display each box on the table of their man cave next to their Harley-Davidson bottle openers and shiny Mustang wall art. To that end, we gave each box a solid strike strip, reduced the match count from 300 to 250 to suggest a thicker stick, commissioned three pieces of box art that were absolutely seeped in Americana, and charged the consumer a dollar more for the privilege of purchasing them.

The reintroduction was a success! I took the bait hook, line, and sinker: even though I had easy access to all of the matches I could possibly want for free, I bought five cases from Meijer and, sadly, burned through the last one last December, a decade later. Only now do I realize that I could have gotten three Japanese pipe lighters for the price of sixty boxes of Ohio Blue Tips, but you only live once and with the benefit of hindsight, I guess the Kiribi copy I quoted from SmokingPipes makes a little more sense when I remember how cool those Ohio Blue Tips turned out to be.

I’m sure that luxurious, artisan matches made from Sandalwood, Pink Ivory, or Red Leicester are out there somewhere. Nowadays, I’d rather spend my money on pipes instead of the means of firing them up. Matches are cheap, they’re utilitarian, and they’re available. What’s not to love? For me, red phosphorous and aspen are the perfect match for my pipe-lighting needs- Zippos, Bics, Kiribis, and whatever else be damned!

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