MANY and varied are the craftsmen who have plied the ancient craft of pipe-making, and varied, too, are the materials they have used.
In the ice deserts of the north, the Eskimo has long favoured walrus ivory; the originators of the Indian water-cooled Nargilehpreferred a coconut; and the ancient practice of smoking opium produced Far Eastern pipes withbowls the size of acorns and stems that are beautifully chased and ornamented with jade and lacquer. Wood, bone, iron, glass, porcelain, clay, gourds, metals of all kinds and even the earth itself – all these materials have been used long before briar was heard of well over 100 years ago.
The majority of these materials produce pipes that are too brittle or too heavy; others are too rare and expensive; but almost all of them become too hot when in contact with burning tobacco. Nevertheless, however impractical clays and meerschaums may be for the tempo of modern life, they might still be smoked in large numbers were it not for what seems to have happened by chance. Legend has it that, almost a century ago, a French pipe-maker on a visit to Napoleon’s birthplace broke his meerschaum and ordered a Corsican peasant to copy it in the local briar. Whether or not this is true, the fact is that specimens of the wood found their way to St. Claude, a remote village high in the Jura hills where a wood carving industry had been long established.
Towards the end of 19th century, therefore, the villagers turned their attention from their work in the local box-wood to the production of ‘la pipe’, and they produced many of the finest briars that were seen for many years. As you are no doubt aware the briaror Tree Heath (Erica arborea) from which pipes are made is a species of heather growing usually in the rocky hillsides of Mediterranean countries, and it is the effort to support itself through severe seasonal changes in temperature that has caused it to produce its characteristic large and closely-grained roots which lie close to the surface of the ground. As the original Corsican pipe maker may have found for himself, they combine toughness, lightness in weight and resistance to heat in a way that is unique and makes them far and away the finest material that pipe-makers have ever come upon. But the best of the wood is extremely rare and costly to obtain.
When bowls have been turned by a manufacturer who deals with this part of the work, the bowls are normally classified as ‘clean’ or ‘flawed’ and both categories are further sub-divided into three different grades, each being suitable for the production of a certain class of pipe. First quality pipes are naturally cut from first quality wood and, in view of the amount of wastage at every stage of manufacture, it is obvious that the supply of such pipes is always insufficient to meet demands; and while inferior bowls have cracks and flaws that must be filled with a mastic, many of them, lacking the further seasoning and some of the finishing processes bestowed upon first-class pipes, are nevertheless serviceable products, which, properly handled, can give good and lasting satisfaction.
Though the way in which both bowl and mouthpiece have been cut and assembled are indicative of the quality of the pipe, the grain of the wood is an important yardstick. In the first place, it is indicative of the type and quality of the briar. An evenly marked, closely grained bowl is likely to have been cut from the central part of a well-seasoned root which should have all the best properties of good briar. It does not greatly matter whether the grain runs in clearly marked lines across the stem and bowl or whether the markings are in small spirals which are called ‘birds-eye’. Pipes with such bowls, provided they carry a sufficient thickness of wood in the walls, should give cool enjoyable smoking and need little ‘breaking in’. But when the surface of the bowl has areas which are bare or marked with patches which resemble small knots in the wood, it is likely that it has been cut from ‘branch wood’ which is considerably less mature and is thus inferior in quality. Such pipes may tend to ‘sweat’ and burn when hot and, since the wood will contract around the carbon more quickly than well grained briar, they have a greater tendency to crack. Besides, if the wood tends to be soft and inadequately matured, the inside of the bowl will more quickly absorb the tars in the tobacco smoke and will be more difficult to keep clean.
When examining grain, it should also be remembered that good quality wood makes it possible to bring out the natural grain and produces a high polish with the minimum of stain and varnish which may be used to conceal fillings and to enhance the appearance of inferior briar. Some pipes are given a corrugated effect by cutting away irregular grooves in the surface of the bowl, but a far better method used on more expensive pipes, known as sandblasting, removes only the softer portions of the wood and leaves the natural hard grain in relief. Such pipes are light and can be attractive in appearance, but there is a great deal of difference in the results of these two processes.
If all the properties required to produce top quality briar make this wood rare, briarsthat carry a ‘straight grain’ – parallel and symmetrical markings that are evenly spaced around the bowl – are rarer still and become the prize specimens of the connoisseur. They are not necessarily better pipes to smoke than bowls of similar quality but withless symmetrical markings, though they are naturally more pleasing in appearance – an appearance that mellows and darkens with age – and they are the most expensive in the top class of pipes simply because they are relatively rare (see our own Woodstock pipe of the year as an example…). It can be concluded, therefore, that clear and even markings in the grain—though not necessarily ‘straight’—indicate that a pipe is made from natural briarof good quality and that it is likely to have been well and carefully handled in the finishing processes. Such a pipe should need no ‘breaking in’; it should be resistant to tobacco tars and, withgood handling, it should have a long life. In addition, to bring out its natural polish, all it should need is a light rub witha soft cloth.
Many special shapes are cut on account of the way the grain runs in the wood, and the quality of the bowl-turning can often be judged by the way the grain has been handled. Even so, the bowl and grain markings are not the only criteria. It is equally important to examine the thickness of the bowl, the boring of the stem, the quality of mouthpiece and the precision with which it is fitted to the stem.
But when all is said and done, a pipe – even a ‘straight grain’ – should not be judged merely on its appearance. It is just as important that it should be comfortable and well balanced when in the mouth of the smoker. After all, a pipe should spend more time in this position than held out polished and gleaming in the lamp-light for the delight of the owner’s admiring eye!
This article is taken from ‘All About Pipes’, a handbook for Tobacconists published in the days of Pounds, Shillings and Pence…