Better than Briar? What History Tells!
By Ben Rapaport, August 2022
Exclusive to pipedia.org
Today, most every smoker would agree that the briar is the perfect wood for a tobacco pipe. (Perfect: having all the required or desirable elements, qualities, or characteristics; as good as it is possible to be.) For almost 175 years, briar, having been discovered quite accidentally, has been the standard against which all other woods have been compared. This is one attempt to explain briar to a lay person: “No real briar is ever used in pipe-making. The so-called briar is a mispronunciation of the French word bruyere, the name for heather” (“With the Retailer,” The Tobacco Leaf, July 26, 1905). How about this: “The original briar pipe was made of a root or the stump and root of briar, whether wild rose, blackberry briar, or raspberry briar, or some other special type of briar is uncertain. Webster, under the head of briar root, says it is the root of the Southern Smilax laurifolia and S. Walteri that is used for tobacco pipes” (A. D. Webster, A Handbook of Forestry, 1920). It’s hard to believe that in the early 20th Century, there were some who had yet to figure out what, precisely, is la bruyère. And it’s even harder to accept this from a book published in this century: “Commonly used briar (my emphasis) woods are the Brazilian walnut, the manzanita, the myrtle, the mahogany, the walnut, the oak and the California redwood” (Massimo Gregori Grgic, Yacht Design Handbook (2015); the author could be excused because this is found in Chapter 17: The furniture materials.
The most detailed scientific study of briar is G. Toumis et al., “Characteristics of Briarwood” (Holzforschung, Volume 42, 1988) to determine “…the characteristics that make it a preferred material for making smoking pipes, and perhaps suggest replacements.”
Were there ever other woods that were better than briar, the most popular, commonly-used medium for a tobacco pipe today in performance, cost, and outward appearance? History tells that many woods were tested and compared with briar for hardness, tactility, and smokability. Unspooling this history reveals many disappointing tryouts and tests in the hope of finding suitable alternatives and substitutes.
In 1876, Cope’s Tobacco Plant listed 27 different woods.
|Olive||Perfumed Cherry||Plane Tree||Poplar|
|Tree of the Gods||Walnut||Wild Service|
The list was expanded in an 1880 issue of Cope’s to 34 by adding barberry, cherry, chestnut, cornell, vine, wayfaring tree, and yew. Morta, or bog oak, was engaged by a number of English pipe makers in the last quarter of the 19th Century, yet it is not on this list. (Other woods, mentioned elsewhere, were boree, gorse-root, morello, myall, and pear.) The survivors were alder, birch, boxwood, cherry, maple, oak, pear, and walnut, but they suffered from two unforgiving defects: they all burned along with the tobacco that shortened their life, and their toxicity. (See “Wood Working Toxic Effects,” spacecoastwoodturners.com). See Tim Fuller, “Pipes in Other Woods” (naspc.org), or “Alternative Woods Used For Pipemaking” (pipedia.org) for others. Experiments were conducted to determine if any were suitable for pipes.
One late 18th-century pipe smoker had this to say: “Of the woods used for pipes, all the fine-grained and compact such as ivy and laurel, hard enough to be carved, are unfit for smoking. They may be pretty toys, but they sweat the tobacco and are worse than worthless—they are nuisances” (“Pipes and Smoking,” Forest and Stream, February 3, 1881). In The Soverane Herbe (1901), W. A. Penn concluded: “The root of the French heath-tree, bruyère, corrupted into briar, is really the only suitable wood. …There are few woods which have not been tried at one time or another, but the result of all experiment [sic] is to confirm the fact that briar is practically the only wood suitable for pipes.”
Different and conflicting opinions about various woods appeared in the Press in the early 1900s. “The fact of the matter is that for quite a number of years, just how many is not known by the writer but it was some time prior to the great World’s Fair at St. Louis , the main source of supply for French brier-root pipes is in the North Carolina mountains … There is a certain mountain laurel in North Carolina, that is of the same species as that found on the shores of the Mediterranean from which the French brier originally came. The roots and stumps of this mountain laurel are dug up there and sold by the ton to local merchants who when they accumulate enough to make a shipment, send it to Rochester, N.Y., where it is made into French brier pipes” (L. Villek, “Brier Pipe Materials and Making,” Wood Craft, May 1909).
According to the aforementioned A Handbook of Forestry, the most popular woods for pipes in the United States as of 1912—in descending order of use—were applewood, French briar, red gum, ebony, birch, and olive. “It was thought that at one time that no other wood was so well adapted for making the best grades of pipes. The American manufacturers began to look around for native woods to be used in place of the French briar, and it was soon found that the European heath tree is not the only plant available for so special a purpose. The first native woods used for making pipes on a large scale were rhododendron and kalmia or mountain laurel. Both of these plants have very large roots, considering the size of the stems and crowns. Some of the roots are a foot in diameter, and pipe makers have found that they will serve as a splendid substitute for the French briar” (“The Briar Root and Its Substitutes,” Hardwood Record, December 25, 1913).
When World War One interrupted the flow of both raw briar and finished briar pipes from Europe and England to the United States, other native and foreign woods were examined as possible alternatives, but, as you will read, most did not pass muster.
|Hickory||Honey Locust||Hydrangea paniculata||Jichi-mu|
|Mesquite||Mountain laurel||Musk root||Myrtle|
|Tulip wood||Violet wood||Wenge||Wild lilac|
When the U.S. Government considered increasing the duty on imported briar, William Demuth, the New York pipe manufacturer, objected, saying “…you cannot duplicate the imported briar with any American wood.” John Glossinger, President of the Manhattan Briar Pipe Company, sent a letter to Congress in January 1913: “We have been informed that the object of putting on this duty was to encourage the use of laurel root grown in North Carolina and Tennessee. We endeavored to conform to the intent of the framers of this paragraph [202, Schedule D] and tried to use it [laurel root] in place of the imported briar root. We regret that we are unable to use it, as it will in no way take the place of the imported wood. It is much lighter in weight, is much softer in texture, and hasn’t the beauty or compactness of grain which makes the French briar so desirable” (Tariff Schedules No. 5. Hearings Before the Committee on Ways and Means. House of Representatives…January 19, 1913). Leopold Demuth (WDC) was more direct: “No matter how much cheaper a laurelwood pipe may be, it can never be put in competition with the briar for the reason that the people do not want it.”
“It seems that French briar-wood, which has been held to be the best pipe-stuff in the world, cannot now be had, and the director of the forest-products laboratory at the University of Wisconsin reports that after a number of experiments, the California mountain mahogany has been designated as the best substitute yet found for French briar wood used in pipe-making” (“Another California Consolation,” Pacific Rural Press, April 15, 1916). “Our common mountain laurel has proven the best substitute yet found, although it is claimed that pipes made from it burn out much faster than those from the French briar” (“American Briar Pipes,” Meyer Brothers Druggist, September 1916). “Laurel Root.—Substitute for French Briar … Maple Wood.—Substitute for Briar” (Henry V. Arny, Report on the Progress of Pharmacy, 1916).
“Pipes made of walnut have lately been put on the market by several manufacturers in the United States. It is claimed that they are cheaper and show fewer burn-outs than the briar pipe: in fact, that complaints have been so few that there is little reason to doubt that the walnut pipe is in every way as satisfactory as the long time popular briar pipe” (“Smoking Pipes Made of Walnut,” American Exporter. Domestic Supplement, August 1917). “The root swellings or burla of the wild lilac are proving valuable as a substitute for briar in the manufacture of tobacco pipes” (“Valuable Products From Native Plants,” California Cultivator, January 5, 1918). Independently, Australia looked into expedient, highly-resistant alternatives to briar that they believed would become available for pipe-making: E. Fletcheri (box), Q. casuarina (oak), E. oralifolia (red box), Cas. Cambagei (belah), E. dealbata, and E. eugenioides (stringybark) (“Australian Woods for Tobacco Pipes,” Science and Industry, January 1920). “The ivy and laurel woods are of domestic growth, found chiefly in North Carolina. They are somewhat similar in appearance and quality to the briar root, but are much softer and impractical for the manufacture of tobacco pipes” (“Briar Root or Briar Wood,” United States Tariff Commission, Tariff Information Surveys, 1921).
The search for substitutes was renewed in 1926 (“Trees of the Southwest,” The Forest Pioneer):
Wood For Pipe Bowls. What American woods are the best substitutes for French briar in the manufacture of pipes is a question recently asked. Two shrubs found extensively in southern Oregon, California and southern Arizona and New Mexico, manzanita and wild lilac, have burls which local foresters believe are a fair substitute for French briar. Of the two, wild lilac appears to offer the greatest commercial possibilities, owing to the larger size of its burls and their more frequent occurrence. Qualities sought for in woods for pipe bowls are high resistance to charring, freedom from warping and cracking, attractive figure, ability to take color and polish, and a ‘sweet’ taste after continued use.
As we all know, all these hopes and expectations for a satisfactory domestic wood for pipes were eventually dashed. And the industry cautioned pipe smokers to avoid buying ersatz pipes called “bogus briars” made from apple, buttonwood, cocobolo, hazel, molave, peach, pear, and plum.
After several years of research with little success, the U.S. Government seemed to have come to its senses: “No comprehensive data have been developed which would recommend the use of any particular wood for the manufacture of tobacco pipes” (Alice J. Mullen, “New Pipewoods Sought as Brier Supply Wanes,” Domestic Commerce. A Weekly Bulletin, U.S. Department of Commerce, December 26, 1940). “In the United States, blocks are cut from such woods as mountain laurel (also known as ivy), rhododendron, and manzanita, all of the heath family. Although many experts regard pipes made from these domestic woods as equal in quality to pipes made from imported brier, pipes made from domestic woods lack market prestige” (“Summaries of Tariff Information, V.4, Wood and Manufactures,” U.S. Tariff Commission, 1948).
Yet again, at mid-century, there was renewed interest in finding permanent alternatives to briar. In October 1960, the Forest Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture published Miscellaneous Paper No. 53, “California Manzanita for Smoking Pipes.” It listed the specifications for any wood that might compete with briar:
Alternative woods for pipe bowls must have the same qualities that are found in the burl wood of tree heath; (1) resistance to charring, (2) absence of disagreeable odor in charring, (3) resistance to checking under heat, (4) strength, (5) attractive figure (flame grain, if possible), (6) reception of coloring with stain, (7) ability to take polish. The tangled fiber structure of burl wood supplies the features of attractive figure and homogeneous strength properties. In addition to technical qualities a merchantable wood must occur in burls of good quality in quantities that are accessible enough to repay establishment of block-cutting mills. ... The terms ‘brier’ and brierwood have long been associated with good smoking quality in the minds of the pipe-smoking public. For this reason pipe manufacturers will probably encounter some sales resistance in the introduction of alternative pipe woods.
The report’s conclusion was that only if the smoking quality of manzanita was, in fact, not inferior to genuine briar, it would be possible that a market demand for genuine manzanita smoking pipes could be created. Manzanita did not meet the durability and taste test to develop a viable block industry to compete with briar.
Until he retired in 1993, Thomas Arcoleo of Tom Pipecarver and Son, Princeton, New Jersey, was the only American who engaged African bubinga—a popular wood for some musical instruments—to make pipes. Nowadays, there are a few who believe there is still a market for alternative woods. A number of Russian pipe makers are using beechwood; Poland’s Mr. Brog is using pearwood; Italy’s M. Gasparini, Paronelli, and Matteo Stefani each offer a line of olivewood pipes; and a few pipe makers have reintroduced walnut. Flogglewerks.com sells custom-made “wizard” pipes in cherry, maple, and myrtle, and Etsy.com offers an assortment of pipes in exotic woods, such as bocote, curly koa, Makau peach wood, mango, Padauk, and Tasmanian blackwood, but none of these are serious competitors to the traditional briar. There are many tropical hardwoods around the globe that have not yet been examined or tested for their utility, such as shedua, a dense African walnut from Central Africa and zebrawood from West Africa. Ever heard of Berchemia zeyheri whose common names are pink ivory and red ivorywood? The Xhosa of South Africa use it for tobacco pipes. Maybe these and others will eventually be investigated, but I don’t believe it’ll be any time soon. Given the history of all those experimental woods of the past that had not met the desired results, the likelihood that any of those being considered today will pass the proverbial taste test is slim to none.
All things considered, briar is unquestionably the very best naturally dried and matured wood for a pipe. No other wood used in the past for pipes has ever matched its properties, undeniable qualities, and characteristics. It is resistant to heat, durable (nearly indestructible), dense, yet porous, has a neutral aroma, absorbs tar and moisture, and gives a sweet smoke. From straight-grain to cross-grained, to bird’s-eye, with so many different grades and prices—some say that there are as many as 16 classes of briar—the smoker has myriad choices, and he need not spend very much to buy a good-smoking pipe. Nature has provided this wood that surpasses all other woods in spite of many investigative efforts and attempts, through time, to find alternative or suitable woods. Marine scientists call the dugong, a species of the so-called sea cow, “functionally extinct,” and I say that’s also true for all those alternative woods today. Or maybe a better term for these woods might be what garment makers call unused fabrics: “deadstock.” (BTW: how about this unintentional mistranslation: “The Different Types of Briar Wood for Plumbing: A Comprehensive Guide,” muxiang.shop)?
George Apperson had posited: “It is highly probable that one of the things which led to the great increase in pipe-smoking which took place from this time onwards was the introduction of the briar pipe” (The Social History of Smoking, 1914). He was spot on. No other pipe has been so omnipresent and omnipotent for so long since its introduction; it has pretty much supplanted most other pipe mediums. No other pipe wood in the market today can make this claim … and no other pipe has been called “the king of pipe-making materials,” or “the king of pipes.” “KING BRIAR STANDS UNSURPASSED at the head of the many pipe smoking materials. And these other materials are legion!” wrote Sidney Ram (How to Get More Fun Out of Smoking, 1941). Rather than salute the king, some prefer to heap their praise on briar’s genesis, Saint-Claude, France, with the expression: “Thanks be the Saints!”
To conclude, some 500 years ago, François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire, offered this aphorism: “Le mieux est le mortel ennemi du bien” (The best is the mortal enemy of the good), which has since been popularized as “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” This adage somewhat applies to the pipe trade, with a slight word modification. Briar, the perfect pipe wood is the enemy of many tried and tested less-than-good woods. The king is not dead … long live the king!
Postscript: For those wanting to read about the post-World War Two history of U.S. tobacco pipe manufacture, it can be read online: Tobacco Pipes of Wood. Report to the President on the Investigation Under Section 7 of the Trade Agreements Extension Act of 1951, United States Tariff Commission, Washington, D.C., December 1952.