It is no easy task to transform a rough piece of natural briar into a fine pipe—a pipe that that will smoke well and remain an object of lasting beauty. Skilled craftsmen plus the best modern machinery are required to create today’s high-quality pipe.
Before the development of the power-turning lathe, all pipes were made by hand. Pipe making was a carver’s art, passed on for generations from father to son. Early briar pipes were ornately carved and as abundantly decorated as their forerunners, the clays and the meerschaums. Hand-carved pipes are still available today from most pipe manufacturers. These pipes come in various shapes and designs, depicting the heads of famous people, or animals, or many kinds of objects. But since the end of the First World War, the trend has been away from ornamented hand-carved designs.
Although the pipe-carving art is still practiced, most of today’s pipe smokers prefer the perfectly turned bowl, sleek finish, and scientific design of pipes made with power machinery. This does not mean that automatic machines turn out modern quality pipes by the million. On the contrary, it is highly unlikely that quality pipe manufacture will ever be automated.
It takes as many as eighty individual operations to transform a briar block into a finished pipe. Skilled craftsmen, with years of experience and time-tested judgment, control each of these operations. The machines they use merely provide the power and precision to produce a perfect pipe — something no hand craftsmen could ever hope to achieve.
CUTTING THE BURL
The creation of a briar pipe begins not in the factory but in the region where the briar grows. When a digger has unearthed a briar burl, he chops away the inferior portions; then he brings the burl to a sawmill.
The men who process the briar first must dry up all the moisture within the burls. They place the freshly cut briar in long, shallow trenches and cover it with damp earth and straw. This permits the briar to mellow slowly without drying out too quickly. It is said that the best briar burls are those from plants which remain in the ground for several years. This presumably allows the moisture to dry out completely.
Skilled workers then use high-speed circular saws to slice each burl into several pieces. After each slice is cut away, it is examined for cracks, flaws, or inferior wood. Each slice is then segmented into a number of more or less perfect briar blocks, roughly pipe-shaped, and called ebauchons. A large prime burl will yield up to fifty briar blocks. From each block, a single pipe will be made.
Most briar blocks from which pipes are eventually carved are about three inches in length, and a burl must be at least this diameter to be of any use. Young burls, however, are so small that almost an entire burl is required to make a pipe. Such a small burl does not make a good pipe because the entire burl must be used, including the poorer sections.
Not all parts of the burl are of the best quality. The section where the soft, pulpy briar trunk passes through the burl is considered inferior. In fact, the trunk section within the burl differs only slightly from ordinary lumber. Thus, the choicest briar blocks are those cut from the sides of the burl, where the wood is hard and tightly grained. For this reason, some quality pipe manufacturers buy entire burls from the growers and cut the burl in their own workshops. Such procedure insures that the manufacturer’s best pipes will be made from only the choicest wood.
It takes at least forty years for a burl to grow to a size large enough so that pipes carved from it do not incorporate the poorer wood of the trunk. Therefore, the choicest burls are the venerable ones (often more than one hundred years old), possessing the right size and sturdiness. Four-year-old, or even twelve-year-old, briar burls usually yield inferior pipes. A pipe made of briar cut from inside the burl (not including the trunk) will usually possess superb grain and be free from flaws.
CURING THE BRIAR BLOCKS
Briar is wood and, like all wood when freshly cut, contains moisture in the form of sap. Ordinary green wood, such as a pine board, may be cured simply by allowing its sap to dry. When pine lumber is made into a table or chair, it never experiences intense heat. As a result, it gives satisfactory performance. But a piece of briar made into a pipe becomes, in fact, a small furnace. As a result, it must be treated differently.
If the sap were allowed to remain in the briar, it would melt when subjected to heat, and would soon be forced to the surface of the bowl, where it would appear as a sticky mess. Some of the sap would also be consumed along with the tobacco inside the bowl, and the smoker would experience a bitter, unpleasant taste.
The removal of the natural sap also allows the wood to “breathe.” Pipes made from the best wood correctly cured will give a sweet smoke and increasing satisfaction over the years.
To remove the tar and resins which have hardened with the briar blocks, the briar is boiled from twenty-four to forty-eight hours, or longer. At the end of that time, the tars and resins have been replaced with water, and the water is then allowed to evaporate. The drying must be done slowly, otherwise the blocks will split and become useless.
The blocks are dried for a minimum of three months, and up to three years in certain cases. For this entire period they are kept in a moisture-free room at normal temperature, protected from the weather, but not subject to artificial heat. The blocks are then placed in special drying rooms, and air is circulated over the entire surface of each block. Over a period of several weeks, workers slowly raise the temperature in these rooms. The operation is complete when the wood is bone dry.
The blocks are then graded and bundled into burlap bags for shipment, each bag containing from sixty to eighty-five dozen blocks.
When the dried blocks reach the pipe factory, they must pass through the hands of skilled inspectors, who grade the blocks according to size and possible flaws. Some surface defects may extend deeply into the block; other buried flaws may not be noticeable until after the block is cut. Men who have worked with briar for many years usually do the inspecting. They save the manufacturer the expense of shaping a pipe that will later have to be discarded.