Published in Pipes & Tobaccos, Fall 1999. This version is unedited. Used by permission.
GRAIN, The first of an infrequent series of articles concerning THE BRIAR PIPE, By R. D. Field
Over the years I’ve overheard and taken part in many discussions concerning the part played by grain (or the lack thereof) in the enjoyment of pipe smoking. Some have argued that grain plays the most important part in a pipe’s ability to convey the true taste of tobacco while also adding something to that taste; others (very much in the minority) have pooh-poohed this as being utter nonsense. I will attempt in this article, as far as my experience allows, to look upon the issue in all its facets. However I can not claim that I will be able to lead anyone to the definitive answer.
Briar (a shrub) grows in many places in the world; that which is used in the crafting of pipes comes chiefly from areas surrounding the Mediterranean Sea (parts of France, Spain, Italy, Sicily, Greece, Corsica, Sardinia, northern Africa, etc.). A combination of hot (perhaps arid) climate, bad soil (the shrub grows on forested hills and in other places where farming can not be done), and miserable growing conditions put this shrub to a tortuous test: it struggles to ingest what little water there is in the surrounding soil- or it dies. Because of this struggle it grows very slowly- developing very fine capillaries to bring in and hold what little water is to be found. These capillaries are what we see as grain in a finished pipe. Now the capillaries of which I speak are located in the “burl” of the shrub- that part which grows under the ground in the form (more or less) of a ball and which acts as a holding or storage tank for the water that the plant needs to survive. Water flows from the holding tank upward through the branches that grow out of the soil giving nourishment to those branches and the leaves produced. Try to visualize it in this way- main branches (usually two) and their leaves growing out of the soil; a ball (the burl) under the soil from which the branches grow; and roots under the burl which ingest the water found and transfer it to the burl.
Any burl, whether it be 30 years old or 130, does not possess what we call grain in its totality. When a burl is split in half a variety of patterns are able to be discerned in that:
1) The center of the burl has no grain. The center, or heart, contains all the liquid held in the burl which is red in color and is known as blood. The wood surrounding this blood is also of a reddish tint and is devoid of capillaries as the water has got to where it was meant to be for storage.
2) Capillaries surround the center and, depending on the growing pattern of the burl and how it was split, can take the shape of straight grain, cross grain, flame grain, mixed grain, etc.
3) As we approach the upper part of the burl from where the branches emerge a pattern know as “branch wood” can be seen. Because the branches of the shrub actually start their growth within the burl the wood in these portions takes on some of the characteristics of the emerging branch. To look upon a swirling piece of briar devoid of other grain character (whether in a finished pipe or as part of the burl) is to look upon branch wood.
Please understand this important fact: there are no flawless pieces of briar. Every single block has flaws: they are on the surface, have just been cut away from the surface in the process of crafting a pipe bowl, or they are just under the surface of that seemingly pristine pipe you are holding as you read this. Remember that briar, growing in poor soil under poor growing conditions, makes very slow progress. And that this progress is often impeded by stones, pebbles, boring insects, etc. The burl, as is true to a greater or lesser extent of every living thing, attempts to heal itself. So that when the burl has grown around a pebble and then crushed it under pressure or when a boring insect has done its job and then departed the burl attempts to put new wood growth into the gap. This new growth is quite unlike the old growth; it looks so different that, if a block containing this new growth was made into a pipe, many will swear that it is not wood at all but a putty fill. In truth it is only nature being nature.
Depending upon what area it was dug briar is either revered, abhorred, or receives mixed notices. Briar from France and Spain is looked down upon while that from Corsica is highly sought after. Italian and Greek briar have been alternately praised and damned, while the now legendary Algerian used to be thought of as good only for cheap pipes. While briar coming from different areas each has its own characteristics it seems reasonable to assume that it is much more important to know under what conditions the briar grew than in what country it was harvested. For instance a burl growing in a farmer’s field in Corsica (if there is such a thing) will be useless while a burl grown on an arid hillside in southern Spain should be excellent. But as I stated briar does have its own characteristics depending on where it grew. While I don’t pretend to know about all briar I do have experience with three different types of briar coming from Italy and so can speak to these: Briar in the north of Italy comes from Liguria. The soil from which it comes contains clay and so, although it is white when cut (all briar to my knowledge is white) it is not so white as Tuscan or Calabrian briar because it contains both more moisture and has taken something from the surrounding clay. Pipe makers using briar from this region tend to air dry or age it for a minimum of five years before working it. Briar from Toscana, the middle of Italy, is not so moist and is a little whiter than that of Liguria, while Calabrian briar, supposedly the hardest in the world, comes from a light sandy soil and is very white when cut. These two briars require less aging- perhaps three years minimum.
Although I have viewed thousands of pipes crafted with these three briars I can not say that I have noticed any type of grain character unique to one type (although I certainly have noticed differences in how different artisans carve to achieve different grain effects). In truth, the only briar which I can point to as being different as to character of grain is Algerian. This briar appears almost spongy in that it has so much soft grain compared to hard. The birdseye is so much more open than that of any other wood I’ve seen. Early on this briar was thought to be inferior because it did not have the beautiful grain patterns desired in smooth pipes; after it was found that the briar could be sandblasted to a very craggy appearance its esteem rose- and then not by much. It is only since the source of this briar is no more that it has become revered.
There are three main types of finish in the world of pipes- smooth, sandblast, carved. Most folks to whom I’ve spoken tell me that there is something “wrong” with a sandblasted or carved piece. In one sense these folks are correct in that there was something (perhaps a sandspot or a discoloration in a part of the briar) that prevented the pipe being a smooth. Let’s look at the three finishes more closely in order to find what affects the pipe smoker as to finish, and why.
Smooth finish- of the three finishes mentioned above this finish costs the most and yet requires the least work of the pipe maker. As there are no flaws or discolorations on the bowl surface the bowl is sanded, stained and waxed so that the grain of the wood can be readily seen and admired (actually some stains are used to hide minor surface blemishes, but this is another story). As the pipe maker achieves more money from a smooth pipe than from a sandblasted or carved one he will endeavor to produce as many smooth pieces as possible. This entails sanding or re-working bowls with surface flaws until the flaw is extinguished. But briar, being nature, rarely cooperates to the fullest. As a rule small flaws enlarge rather than dissipate, and so if the craftsman continues to try to work the bowl until it is clean he may have an extremely small bowl (or nothing) left.
Sandblast finish- sandblasting was first applied to the surface of briar pipe bowls in the early 1900’s. It may surprise the reader to know that at one time the retail price structure between smooth and sandblasted pipes was the reverse of what it is today in that sandblasted pipes used to cost more because of the extra processes (labor) involved. Today sandblasting is done to pipe bowls if there are sandspots, minor surface flaws or discolorations. Sandblasting, if skillfully achieved, has the effect of removing the soft grain of the bowl while leaving the hard grain in bold relief. Therefore the grain of the pipe can be felt as well as viewed. I wish to point out here that the bowl must possess grain in order that it be sandblasted; sandblasting a grainless piece of briar results in the removal of all the wood at the same time and so changes the pipe bowl into a shapeless mass.
Carved finish- this finish requires the most actual work to be performed by the pipe maker and yet costs the least. I am afraid that my next statement is going to shock some of you dear readers. Pipe bowls are carved when 1) there are flaws that can not be eradicated through sandblasting and/or 2) the bowl possesses no grain. In fact it is my studied opinion that most high-grade carved finish pipes have little or no grain. In order to replace this lack the pipe maker uses his skill to produce an artificial surface that appears grain-like to most.
Is grain necessary to smoking pleasure? Well, this question probably has to be qualified. Do we mean tight grain? straight grain? mixed grain? or just some type of grain? And even if left unqualified it remains a really perplexing question. I submit the following as food for thought; it is only my personal opinion and I do not wish to lead a crusade. So read it, and if you can derive anything from it- great. If not, toss it away and continue on.
I believe that a pipe does not need any type of grain to smoke well. Remember that each burl contains a heart (with no grain structure) and also branch wood, as well as the portion containing the capillaries. There are many reasons why pipe makers of the first order may wind up with grainless blocks (again this is another story) but the fact is that they do, and they pay as dearly for those blocks as for the others. Not wanting to make an expensive fire those blocks are used for the carved finish. And I can truthfully say that I have many carved pipes that I know to have no grain; they smoke well- as well as any of my other pipes. Grain, or the absence of, seems to have no bearing whatsoever on the smoking quality of a high-grade pipe.
But smoking quality does not encompass all that there is in smoking pleasure; there are certainly visual and tactile aspects as well. To view the smoke as it curls up from the bowl; to admire the tightness of grain on a beautiful crosscut; to massage the bowl of a gnarly sandblast. All these factors play a large part in pipe smoking. Our smoking pipes are part of us, they reflect who we are, they are true friends. Far be it from me to tell you, the reader, what type of finish you should set your sights on. In ending I can say only this: the smooth finish shows nature’s perfection; the sandblasted pipe lets one feel nature; the carved finish brings one closer to the craftsman.