What Makes A Good Briar Pipe: Part 1
Published in the Spring 1985 edition of Pipe Smoker. Used by permission.
What Makes A Good Briar Pipe
Perhaps the question most often asked of me in my capacity as pipe smoker, collector, and importer is, "What makes a good briar pipe?" Is it the quality of briar? the curing? the hand work? the symmetry of shape? comfort in the mouth and hand? the finish? the weight? Must all these factors be taken into consideration? Or none?
Easy to ask, yes - but not at all easy to answer. So much of what makes a good briar pipe is subjective - in the hands and eyes of the smoker. And if the smoker truly likes the way a particular pipe looks and feels the chances are great that the pipe will smoke very well indeed - for imagination comprises one-half of smoking.
In truth I am not going to be able to answer specifically, the question of "what makes a good briar pipe?"; but I am going to go over certain aspects of the craft of making a premium pipe. with an eye toward difference, and sometimes I will offer personal opinion.
a) origin - briar used for smoking pipes comes from the Mediterranean area- countries include Spain, France, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Italy, Yugoslavia, Albania, Greece. Among collectors certain countries and islands have the reputation for delivering roots of high quality (such as Italy, Sardinia, Greece, Algeria) while other countries (Spain and France for example) are understood to produce pieces of lesser quality. This is a huge area in which to delve and deserves an article unto itself (preferably written by an expert botanist). My personal opinion is that a first class piece of briar should make a first-class pipe no matter from which country it comes, all other aspects being equal.
b) age - it is generally recognized that in order to have a superior smoking pipe the briar from which it is made must be at least fifty years old. It is only with age that the briar root becomes tight enough, dense enough to withstand both the heat of lighted tobacco and the juices produced during smoking for very long periods of time. Whereas the pores of less-aged briar tend to clog from absorption in a relatively short time the well-aged briar absorbs much less in a given smoke and so should last for decades if well-treated by the smoker.
It is not generally difficult to select a pipe made from well-aged briar by simple visual examination. To put the matter into three words - grain equals age. Be it flame grain, mixed grain, birdseye, straight grain, cross grain, etc. the tighter the grain pattern the older the briar. The grain pattern is obvious in a smooth finish pipe, less so in a sandblast. But a sandblasted pipe can still be inspected for age of briar by looking at the pattern of indentations made by the sand jet (and this has nothing to do with whether the sandblast is deep or shallow).
It must be mentioned that well-aged burls being dug today are coming from less accessible regions than those of yesteryear which has made for a decrease in burl size. Climatic and soil conditions in the areas where the older, briar is now growing are such that the wood has to struggle more than previously to survive. This makes growth a much slower process and yields fewer premium pieces.
c) weight - it has been said that lightness in a pipe equals perfection. Many pipemakers strive for lightness in their product, and many pipe smokers feel that aTwo types of briar.gif (67045 bytes) heavy pipe is a bad pipe. I do not agree. Besides the obvious facets that may make for a heavy pipe (size, shape, wall-thickness, etc.) it is important to note that there are two types of briar burls from which pipes are made. One comes from the male plant and is tall, rather thin, and light. The other, coming from the female plant, is short, round, and more dense (this type of burl is invariably the one used in photographs of "100 year, old briar root'. Each burl has its attributes. For, those who wish a light pipe and do not smoke "hot" the briar from the male plant is excellent. but the briar from the female plant is made to order for those who smoke a "hot" pipe and who tend to have pipes burn out. Being more dense this briar is harder to destroy with heat. There are also those (perhaps many more than have admitted so) who like the "heft" of a heavy pipe.
d) curing - after receiving the briar blocks from the briar broker a pipemaker has two choices - to air-dry for a long period (years) or to kiln-dry for a much shorter period (days). Most makers of premium pipes prefer to air-dry under controlled conditions because it is a natural way of curing and also minimizes the chance of cracks or splits developing in any block. The amount of time required to air-cure briar depends a great deal upon where the briar was unearthed. Calabrian briar (southern Italy) comes nut of a sandy soil in a rather dry state and requires 1-3 years of drying (with mom time being given the larger blocks); Tuscan briar (north central Italy) is dug from a soil containing large amounts of clay and so requires drying for 3-5 years.
Kiln drying is obviously much faster, but, apart from the loss incurred with this method it is thought by some that the natural resins are baked into the briar instead of evaporating.
That brings us to a good stopping place. Remember . . . whenever you purchase a fine smoking pipe, whether, it be here or, abroad, new or pre-smoked, your satisfaction depends on where the briar was grown, how old the piece was and whether it was from a male or, a female plant. All of these factors, in conjunction with the handling of the ebauchon (the roughly cut pieces of briar) from curing to the finished piece, and the experience and talents of the pipemaker, go into the end result... which is a "good briar pipe". In the next issue we will discuss the process of actually making a pipe.