What Makes A Good Briar Pipe: Part 2
Published in Pipe Smoker, Summer 1985. Used by permission.
What Makes A Good Briar Pipe
In our last article we discussed materials, aging, and weight of fine briar in the rough stages. We also discussed the differences between the briar burls from the male and female plant. This article deals with the handling of briar in the actual making of a pipe. I hope that you will find this information helpful in your pursuit of Kapnismology.
1. Making the pipe
a) cutting bowl and shank -there are two methods of cutting bowl and shank - by hand and by machine. With hand-turning relatively little briar is wasted as the craftsman can work around flaws changing the shape or size of the pipe while doing so. While a hand-turned bowl may look symmetrical, close examination will reveal that it is not - one wall may be a trifle thicker than the other, or there may be a little unevenness as the hand rubs against the outside of the bowl or shank. That the pipe looks symmetrical is the mark of a good hand-turner; that it has a unique feel tells that it was made-by hand.
With machine-cutting the perfect shape is achieved- time and again. But only one of every 100 perfectly shaped bowls is without obvious blemish and goes on to become a premium pipe.
Is one method better than the other? Yes and no! It depends what the smoker is after. Does he want to feel that there is a bit of the maker in every hand-turned bowl? Does he want the perfect symmetry of the perfect classical shape?
b) seasoning - seasoning here refers to a process undertaken after the bowl has been cut (as far as I am aware only one maker is currently employing this process). It has been thought by some than even when the briar block has been air-dried for a number of years all the resins within the wood do not evaporate and may even "set", making for a prolonged period before the pipe gives the proper taste to the smoker. In 1913 a process was invented which, by a unique combination of heat and beneficial oils, enabled all resins and sap to "exude" from the bowl leaving it thoroughly seasoned for the smoker. Besides seasoning the pipe this process has another effect all pipes on which this process is used have the same "nutty" taste no matter from where the briar.
c) making the mouthpiece - again, two methods are used- injection-molding and hand-cutting; also two types of material are in general usage- vulcanite and plexiglas. Injection-molded mouthpieces are stock items of many shapes and sizes which come from moulds (they are what the local pipe repairman uses when he replaces a mouthpiece). Fitting such a mouthpiece to a pipe is a fairly simple operation in that it involves selecting the size and shape wanted, perhaps turning down the tenon a bit for a good fit, and buffing down the outside of the mouthpiece where it meets the shank of the pipe.
Hand-cutting a mouthpiece involves taking a sheet or rod of solid vulcanite or plexiglas and turning it to proper size and shape much as one would hand-turn a bowl lit is interesting to note here that of the premium pipemakers, some who hand-turn bowls use injection-molded mouthpieces and some who machine-turn bowls use hand-cut mouthpieces). Not only is size and shape important (the mouthpiece has to blend with the symmetry of the bowl) but the lip receives a fantastic amount of attention. For it is here that even the uninitiated can tell the difference. While the lip of the injection-molded mouthpiece is thick (unless some hand-work has been added) the lip of the hand-cut mouthpiece is thin, the buttons unobtrusive. The difference in comfort level between the two types for those who grip their pipe at the end of the lip is dramatic. I have long maintained that the mouthpiece comprises one-half the pipe, and it is this half that is so often neglected.
It is obvious to the reader which type of mouthpiece I prefer, but I will give the injection molted mouthpiece its due - it certainly holds down
d) finishing - every pipemaker has his own finishing techniques; some are closely guarded secrets. With regard to a premium pipe, finishing involves much hand work - hand-sanding, hand-staining, hand-waxing, etc. There are only two rules of thumb which come to mind regarding a pipe's finish: 1) the finish should not have a varnished look; 2) the finish should not come off in the smoker's hand when the pipe is hot.
e) blemishes - a controversial area. Are blemishes i.e. sandspots acceptable with regards to the premium pipe? The sandspot has proven to be a rather two-faced fellow. Appearing on an unsmoked pipe it may disappear once the pipe has been smoked; conversely one or more may rise to the surface when smoking a pipe that had previously shown none.
Be it known that a pipe without minor blemishes is a real rarity. There are sandspots in every single piece of briar; these sandspots have either just been cut away in the turning of the bowl, are on the bowl surface right now, or are just below the surface. Stains and finishes besides bringing out the natural beauty of the grain do a very good job in hiding sandspots.
My personal preferences in this regard have undergone revision over the years. I used to be one that would not accept a pipe if I could detect any blemish no matter how much I liked it otherwise. But then I found that I was not really skilled at detection when others pointed out flaws that I had missed. I have since become much more skilled but at the same time my attitude has changed so that what I consider minor blemishes now rate hardly at all in my selection process.