What Makes a Good Briar Pipe

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Originally published in the Spring 1985 edition of Pipe Smoker, and used by permission.

What Makes A Good Briar Pipe, by R.D. Field[1]

Part 1

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.

Material

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.

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 a 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 out of a sandy soil in a rather dry state and requires 1-3 years of drying (with more 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.

Part 2

Published in Pipe Smoker, Summer 1985 and used by permission

What Makes A Good Briar Pipe, Part 2

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.

Making the pipe

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?

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 where the briar is from.

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 up

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.

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.

Well - I have gone over certain criteria regarding "what makes a good briar pipe" and I have tried to help the reader look at different methods employed. But, as promised, I have not answered the question. I can't. Or rather I can't for anyone except myself. Hopefully in discussing the criteria mentioned above various choices will be put in focus for the reader so that this most difficult question may draw an answer from each of us.