Natural Finish Pipes

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Natural Finish Pipes

Written by Jon Werner
Editied BY Dan Callahan and John Enger


That quote was from the late William F. Buckley Jr. in a remark to a guest on his television show "FIRING LINE" many! years ago. This comment has become one of my guiding principles. I have since developed corollary "FOR ALL YOU KNOW, OR ALL YOU THINK YOU KNOW; ABOUT ANY GIVEN SUBJECT, THERE IS ALWAYS SOMEONE OUT THERE THAT KNOWS MORE ABOUT IT THAN YOU DO!" Thus I do not allow myself the last word on anything. But when it comes to the subject of smoking pipes, I feel I am able to at least hold an intelligent conversation. Almost all pipe smokers have preferences regarding the shape and finish of a pipe. Many times it comes from a friend's or relative's recommendation. For example, Great Northern Pipe Club president Tony Soderman collects and smokes long shank Canadians almost exclusively. His Name on E-Bay is Mr. CAN (MR. CANADIAN). This came about because both his grandfather and his uncle told him that "long shank pipes smoke cooler." Thus the long shank preference manifested itself and Tony now has hundreds of long shank Canadian pipes.

My own personal horror story

Many pipes, if not most, are bought as gifts. Invariably, the gift giver will almost always wind up buying the pipe he or she personally finds attractive. For some strange reason, stained pipes are usually preferred by the gift giver over natural finished ones. Thus, stained pipes almost always rule out in the economic marketplace over the natural honey blond finish. I do want to state that a natural finish is only a preference. I have a number of stained pipes in my collection and enjoy smoking them thoroughly. One has to compromise and give a little to get a little sometimes. What I do not care for is the manner in which many lower priced pipes are stained. The higher quality stained pipes will only be finished on the outside surface of the bowl and shank. On the lesser grades, however, they dunk the entire pipe in stain. It seems they have never heard of rubber stoppers to keep the stain out of the inside of the bowl and shank. Depending on when it is stained, the pipe maker may let it soak during an entire lunch period, or worse, overnight. To illustrate this problem to the maximum, I once bought a reddish orange stained freehand pipe through a mail order house. This pipe was supposed to be one of their freehand collector series. Whenever I order pipes through the mail, the anticipation during the waiting period always seems to blur my objectivity and I could not wait to light up and try my new pipe. The firm was also kind enough to send along a sample of their famous "PEACH GLOP" aromatic tobacco. It smelled like peaches, it tasted like peaches. Unfortunately, I could only smoke a partial bowl before I started getting the queazies. During this short period of time, the stain came off the pipe and turned my hand a reddish orange color. But this was not my only surprise. When I emptied the half-finished bowl of "PEACH GLOP" from my new prize, I expected to find an incredibly gooey mess in the bowl and shank. But when I ran pipe cleaners through it, the pipe cleaners came out a reddish orange as well. One has to wonder if the stain enhanced the flavors and smoking qualities of the tobacco. After using the old professor’s Pipe Sweetening Treatment at least three times, I eventually got all the excess stain off the pipe both inside and out. I have cast a skeptical eye about stained briar pipes ever since.

The natural briar coloring process

In all my reading of pipe books and literature; and considering how much ink has been slung over the fact that meerschaum pipes will darken in color as they are smoked, it is amazing how little has been written of the fact that a similar coloring process will also occur with a natural finish briar pipe. With stained pipes, on the other hand, the color of the pipe is pretty much fixed by the stain and will change very little if at all. The problems I experienced with my freehand collector pipe previously described does not occur with a natural finish pipe. After my gourd calabash, I have a soft spot for the first really decent quality briar pipe that I purchased for myself. It is a naturally finished Danish styled freehand pipe. An "RVW" that was carved by Tampa Florida area pipe maker Randy Wiley. The pipes that Mr. Wiley cannot sell as firsts become "RVW's" and there is absolutely no difference between the smoking quality between his first's and his seconds. My "RVW" started out as a light honey blonde color and over the years of use it has interacted with the oils in my hand and has darkened its hue. Mr. Wiley also uses an oil curing process in his briar pipe making process and I have noticed that oil cured pipes have a very short, if any, break in period. My oil cured pipes seem to color more quickly than natural finish briar pipes that have not gone through an oil curing process.

And what about grain?

For many pipe smokers, pipes can become an obsession along the lines of Hummel figurine collecting. They usually go to extremes over a particular pipe brand or pipe shape. Or else they just have to have that perfect straight grain and will pay any price for it. I once met a fellow who spent a small fortune on a Castello Fiamatta (handmade) pipe. It started out as a perfect natural straight grain pipe that over several years of rather intense use had darkened to the point where one had to observe the pipe at rather close range to see the graining. Pipe smokers who do happen to own a flawless straight grained pipe also run the risk of losing the perfect finish they so heavily invested in if they light up their prize possession. In much the same way that frost will cause rocks to rise to the surface of a farm field during the freeze thaw cycle in the springtime, the heat of smoking a straight grained pipe will expand and contract the wood and could possibly cause a flaw such as a piece of sand to rise up from just below the surface. If you do happen to be lucky enough to own a perfect straight grain specimen, I suggest that you take a look at all the other pipes in your rack and ask yourself the question "do I really need to light this one up?" I enjoy collecting well grained pipes. I do not have an unlimited budget however. I am not willing to pay out vast sums of money for the privilege of owning a perfect straight grain specimen. If one knows about and takes into consideration the natural finish briar coloring process, then the opportunity to get some real value for your money is possible. This is because as the pipe is smoked, minor sand spots and flaws will become almost unnoticeable as the wood takes on a darker hue. Again, on the theory that one has to compromise or give a little to get a little, I do recommend that you do not reject a pipe because of minor surface flaws such as sand spots or pits. Sand spots and pits should color over as the pipe is smoked. I do not even mind if the pipe maker uses spot carvings over the surface of the pipe to remove or hide surface flaws. What I do try to avoid, however, are putty fills on a pipe. Pipe makers use wood putty or plaster to fill voids in the outside surfaces of the pipe. They will add stain, dye, and briar dust in the putty to try and match the final finish of the pipe. In some pipe making operations, the filling of flaws is an art form, and you have to examine the pipe very carefully to tell if has been putty filled. The person who does the putty fills is often the highest paid worker in the whole pipe making operation. When a putty filled pipe is initially purchased it may look ok. But briar is a porous substance and will change color as the pipe is smoked. The putty, on the other hand, is not porous and will not change color with the briar. And thus the pipe may start to look like it has a bad case of acne after a few years of ownership. Often the use of a dark stain such as walnut or teak is employed to help make flaws a whole lot less noticeable. If fills are found, it should result in a reduced pipe price. Far too many pipe smokers and collectors are blinded by a pipe firm’s reputation and the model and grade stamping on a pipe is all that is considered. What they say about fools and their money aptly applies. If flaws do exist, I much prefer sandblasting or spot carving of the flaws with a carving tool rather than trying to cover things up with putty. I have to agree with and thank Fred Hanna for his " THE MYTH OF BRAND AND MAKER" article that appeared in the North American Pipe Collectors Society newsletter. I came to the same premise long before it was published. That is, in general, all briar pipes that have properly cured wood are mechanically sound by being properly drilled and have been "broken in" properly, will smoke pretty much the same! GETTING A GOOD CARBON CAKE LINING IN THE BOWL, AS WELL AS BOWL SHAPE AND SIZE ARE MUCH MORE IMPORTANT FACTORS IN GETTING A GOOD QUALITY SMOKE. For example, take the old adage "THE LARGER THE BOWL THE COOLER THE SMOKE". Once a pipe is broken in, a blind taste test would prove that there is not enough difference between pipe brands to warrant spending huge sums of money over and above another manufacturer’s pipe. A STRAIGHT GRAIN, IS A STRAIGHT GRAIN, IS A STRAIGHT GRAIN. And is the top of the line regardless of the reputation of the pipe maker who got lucky enough to make it! The economic law of "diminishing returns" also applies to pipe collecting. One aspect of the law of diminishing returns is that one has to spend exponentially larger and larger sums of money to get smaller and smaller improvements in performance. If you like a pipe’s size and shape and are willing to put up with minor surface flaws such as sand spots or pits on a natural finish pipe until it can color over, you can save a small fortune over the pristine straight grains out there.

Staining to highlight the grain

I want to add to this story something that was told to me by Tony Soderman a few years back after the Chicago pipe show. One day he went into Rich Lewis's shop in downtown Minneapolis. He was smoking a new unstained and unfinished briar pipe that he bought at the Chicago Pipe Show. Rich Lewis sees it and says to Tony "LET ME FIX THAT PIPE FOR YOU" Tony hands it to him and Rich starts applying a yellow stain to it, lets it soak in for a while before he starts buffing it off. The pipe was a rather bland piece of briar with little to no visible graining in the wood. After Rich's treatment, a magic transformation happened. The stain he applied highlighted the graining in the briar while keeping the light finish of the pipe intact. The appearance was a vast night and day improvement! So much for my no stain rule, just goes to show you that there are no absolutes. Everything is relative after all… because I also have added a number of putty filled pipes in my collection over the years and enjoy smoking these as well. When I do break down and buy a putty filled pipe, I do try to make sure that the fills are minor or on the underside of the pipe where I or no one else is going to be looking at it anyway. It depends when and where I am going to smoke a pipe that determines a pipes value to me. For example, I like to go fishing and it would definitely ruin my day to see one of my prized pipes go overboard while on the lake. Thus I take along one of my less expensive pipes.

Given the choice, I prefer ‘au naturel

For me, I will always have a preference for natural finish virgin briar pipes. But it is only a preference and not a hard and fast rule. If you are unsure of your preference, you should ask yourself: “if the pipe was a perfect straight grain, would they add extra cost to the pipe by staining, sandblasting, rusticating, and other finishing operations if they didn't have to?"

At the beginning of this article, I said that I do not consider myself the last word on any given subject. Therefore, I want to quote from someone who probably knew more about pipes and tobacco than I will ever know.

“The coloring of a new pipe is generally a reliable indication of its quality. Pipes that are very lightly stained or not stained at all are inviting the smoker to examine their grain. The finest briar pipes are always light in color. When a manufacturer puts on a dark stain on a pipe, he is often trying to obscure the unattractive grain pattern." (a passage of out of Carl Ehwa Jr.'s "The book of Pipes and Tobaccos)"

With that, I will have the last words……Happy pipe hunting!