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Originally Published in Pipes & Tobaccos, Fall 2000, this version is unedited, used by permission

CURING, Another in an infrequent series of articles concerning THE BRIAR PIPE, by R. D. Field

Curing sets briar pipes apart- one from the other. Both have been rather unwell; one has been cured and one has not been cured.

“What in tarnation d’ya mean by that, son?”

Hold on a bit, and I’ll explain. Briar comes from the soil- and a mean and nasty soil it is- where it has grown for many a year before being uprooted by a man with a pick, shovel, and cart.

“Wait a minute! What d’you mean by mean and nasty soil?”

Briar is a shrub, and varieties of this shrub grow throughout the world; why there’s some comes from North Carolina that was tried for pipes while the war was on in the 40’s. Wasn’t any good though, because the soil it came from was too good. Didn’t develop the characteristics that were needed to hold fire. For that the shrub needs to sort of undergo torture, to struggle. Bad soil is what it needs, and a bad climate. Not bad cold but bad hot, and with very little water around. Under these conditions briar grows real real slow- sort of just inching along year by year. If it’s not dug up too quick- say give it 40 or 50 year at least- it can make pipes. Some think that the grain has tightened enough so that, if placed in the right hands, it can become a useful smoking chimney. Me- I don’t think that’s it. I think there’s something else in the wood that leads to this special character, but I don’t know what it is. That’s up to the plant doctors to figure out.

Well, this stuff’s been in the ground a real long time, and there’s all kind of stuff in the burl- that’s the part growing below ground that is used to make pipes. It kind of looks like a ball with roots below and branches above. Anyway, there’s all wonder of things inside that ball- and before anyone can even think of making briar pipes a lot of stuff has to be done. First the forester or woodsman or digger or whoever he is has to get that ball out of the ground in one piece with no injuries. Wouldn’t do to have the end of a pick axe rammed into the ball, exposing the inside to whatever before it could be brought to the briar sawmill. So the guy first has to find the shrub, which isn’t hard because in the area he’s working it’s all over the place. Next he has to gauge the age of the shrub before he digs it; wouldn’t do to dig up a little bitty burl. Not for pipes anyway. Might make a small ashtray or match holder is all. Then, if he feels he’s got something to work with he sets to work. Cuts off the branches low as he can so the stumps are just above the soil. Digs around the burl with pick axe and spade- slowly uncovering it. Hard mean work. No one around to talk to. Maybe a radio. After that ball is uncovered there are still roots underneath. Have to separate the burl from the roots with a saw and then put that heavy sucker into the cart. Or else just leave it and go on to another. Come back with the cart and donkey later. Did I mention that all these guys are old- 60’s and 70’s. No kids want to work all day in the woods by themselves. Kids are in the towns working where the action is. Lonely job here in the woods; I guess you got to be sort of at peace with yourself to do it.

When the digger has enough burls he takes ‘em to the saw mill. Gets paid on the spot. Cash business. Now no one at this point knows what’s in those burls, if the wood is good or not. So the pay is for weight- nothing else.

The folks at the sawmill gather up the newly harvested burls and pile ‘em on top of one another so that there stands a small mountain of wood balls. And then they spray water on ‘em to clean ‘em and such. Now at this point the wood is still alive, and the sawmill folks have to kill it, but nicely, so it can be made into pipe bowls. So they put the burls into trenches, cover ‘em with empty gunny sacks, and let ‘em sit until they die- about three months time. Man, you ought to smell the aroma of that wood in the trenches; there’s a real tang in the air, a good clean tang that makes you feel good to be alive and to be in the countryside. Anyway, the wood takes a time to die. And if you take away some sacking to look at the burls you’ll see bright green shoots growing out of the wood. That wood is a fighter; it doesn’t give up but tries to find new earth to bury itself in.

After the wood is dead is the time for cutting. One part of the sawmill is composed of a great round building with a high ceiling. This is the cutting room. Six cutters, all old, sit around that room, each straddling a huge circular saw with teeth as big as my index finger. I’m telling you it takes courage just to sit there with the saw whirling away between your legs, let alone to cut anything. But the cutters know what they’re about, or else they wouldn’t be there- literally. I’ll tell you a little story about these cutters: they are so skilled at what they do that one of these guys, for my benefit, took a block and carved it into a small rocking chair on that huge circular saw. One piece of wood; no glue; no hand tools. I’m telling you that I could not believe my eyes. Well anyway, each cutter has a supply of burls which are now quite dead. Because the outside of the wood is dry it has to be wet before cutting, or else it might chip when it comes into contact with the huge blade. The cutter studies the burl before making the first cut as this one is crucial- sort of like learning to carve a turkey with the grain so it cuts real easy. The burl splits- revealing a small central hollow cavity containing what looks like red water; the central portion of the burl, also tinged with red which fades the further it recedes from the center; interior wood; plateau- that part of the burl containing the outer crust or covering.

From here the cutter cuts up the rest of the burl and throws the blocks into various sacks depending on whether the wood was from the outer plateau surface or the interior, and also depending on the size of each block.

So now we have these blocks of wood, all in sacks according to first grading. What happens then? The wood, sack by sack, is boiled. Although the wood is dead it still has all kinds of nasty stuff in it that would turn the mouth of a pipe smoker inside out if this step wasn’t taken first. You see, boiling removes most of the sap and other impurities and replaces it with water.

After boiling the blocks are spread, each in their own grade area, to surface dry after which time they are re-graded. Grading is very subjective because no one knows what is in the block. At the present moment plateau is considered very high quality whereas in the 20’s one famous pipe manufacturer claimed that “The centre of the root yields the most perfect pipe that can be obtained.” [1]

After the second grading the blocks are supposed to continue to dry for an additional eighteen months before they are ready for selection. Actually this doesn’t always happen- depending on the need of the pipe maker(s) in question or on how badly the sawmill needs cash.

Pipe bowls can not be made if the wood is too wet or too dry. Too wet and it doesn’t cut correctly, and it also shows patches of damp; too dry and the wood chips away when cut. So an equilibrium has to be reached before a bowl can be fashioned- whether by hand or by machine. Once this equilibrium has been reached we can divide pipe bowls into two types- the cured and the uncured.

The Uncured have gone through all the processes mentioned above, but no more. The pipe bowl is turned, the mouthpiece attached, finishing is completed, and the pipe is ready for sale. Pipes fitting this description are the vast majority sold today. They are relatively inexpensive, made by machine, and almost always have putty fills. They are strictly utilitarian. They may smoke well, they may not. Usually they require extensive “break-in” before a well-regarded flavor comes through.

The Cured continue to undergo processing in order to insure a delicious smoking experience. These constitute the gentlemen farmers of briar pipes. There are all kinds of curing methods, and folks are coming up with new ones all the time. But I’ll just talk about the three main types:

Kiln drying- some say that this isn’t a curing method at all, but just a quick way to get wet wood into condition to be turned. Others swear that, with their method of heat control, this method works just as well as air curing and takes only days or weeks instead of years. Kiln drying is essentially oven drying. Blocks are put into a kiln or oven and dried with artificial heat. Care has to be taken to turn the blocks while in the kiln or one part of a block may dry more quickly than another causing it to split and so become useless.

Air curing- with this method what was started in the saw mill is continued by the pipe maker. This is a very costly method in that many years supply of briar is literally sitting around the workshop- for years- before it can be used. Briar is purchased from the sawmill, taken to the workshop or storage shed and put on wire racks to continue drying or curing. The blocks have to be turned every so often to insure even drying or they will split. This aging, depending on the type of briar and on the pipe maker, goes on for from three to five years. Now you got to remember- most of the bad stuff was taken out at the sawmill by boiling. It's the remaining sap, resins, impurities that this continued aging is after. These hand-crafters are real “artistes”; they want the stuff they make to be perfect. If a lot of their money is tied up in doing so- that’s the way it has to be.

Oil curing- originally invented by Alfred Dunhill as a way to short-cut the time needed for air curing but not the quality of an air cured block. I quote from the patent application filed with the United States Patent Office on October 14, 1918 by Alfred Dunhill:

In the manufacture of tobacco pipes, from brier (sic) and other woods it is often advisable to employ oil in the preparation and finishing of the pipe, but such employment of oil is open to the objection that when such pipes are first used the heat of the burning tobacco causes such oil to exude, and not only impart an unpleasant flavor in the mouth of the smoker, but also destroy the finished glossy appearance of the exterior surface of the pipe. In order to overcome this objection, more especially in pipes of high quality, they are frequently stored for a considerable period, such as twelve months or longer, to insure the perfect incorporation of the oil with the fibers of the wood and to thoroughly season the pipe. But it will be obvious that such storage of manufactured or partly manufactured articles represents capital lying idle, and the object of the present invention is to prepare and season such pipes, as to render them ready for sale and use in a comparatively short space of time.(my italics)

Dunhill led the way in developing a whole new curing system- a system that many people from around the world swear was and is the best in the world. From 1918 onward Dunhill pipes were steeped in a bath of vegetable oil or oils, and then placed on brass heat pegs which stood over heated gas jets. The heat was controlled so that, over a period of weeks the oil would exude from the bowl bringing with it sap, resins, and other impurities. This “exudite” was periodically wiped from the surface of the pipe bowl before it could harden into an impervious coating. In a manner of weeks the pipe was cured. But this type of curing is different than air curing; the flavor caused by the curing is different. Nutty, say some; oily, say others. Advocates of this system feel that the fibers in the wood are somehow changed, made more durable and able to withstand higher temperatures than an air cured or kiln cured pipe.

So there you have it. A heck of a lot of time, effort, and money in order to insure a really pleasant smoking experience. As I said before these guys are “artistes”; they are perfectionists. They want the stuff they make to be as perfect as humanly possible. And while no one can guarantee that a properly cured pipe will smoke wonderfully (because that is up to nature herself) the craftsmen who make these goods have tried to warrant just that.

[1] About Smoke, an encyclopaedia of smoking. Alfred Dunhill Ltd. 1928.