The Briar and the Meerschaum: -King and Queen of Pipes

The briar justly may be called the king of pipes. It has displaced almost every other kind of pipe from the smoker’s shelf. And rightly so, for briarwood is ideal pipe material—hard, tough and fire-resistant. Moreover, the briar pipe gives a cool, sweet, mellow smoke for many years. Similarly, the lovely white meerschaum may be called the queen of pipes. It is delicate, beautiful, and when carefully handled yields a gentle, sweet smoke. THE INVENTION OF THE MEERSCHAUM PIPE The meerschaum pipe made its debut in the tobacco world about 100 years before the discovery of the briar burl. Until the meer­schaum came into use, clay pipes were the average man’s smoke. According to an old story, it was pure chance that led to the utilization of meerschaum for pipe bowls. It seems that in the year 1720 there lived in Budapest, Hungary, a shoemaker named Karl Kovacs, who was also a talented carver. One day a member of Budapest society, Count Andrassy, brought Kovacs two white lumps of a strange mineral which the Count had found while traveling in the Near East. The Count wondered if the cobbler could carve some artistic design out of the material, as yet un­named. Kovacs examined the white lumps carefully, and it struck him that the light, porous mineral would be ideal for a pipe bowl. Being a heavy smoker, the Count readily agreed to the suggestion. Kovacs fashioned each lump into the shape of a bowl, gave one to the Count, and kept the other one for himself. After giving his bowl a trial smoke, Kovacs noticed that some parts of the white mineral had turned a golden brown. The brown spots were the prints of his fingers, which had been coated with cobbler’s wax. In a burst of inspiration, he waxed the rest of the bowl, and watched with satisfaction as the golden color spread evenly over the entire surface. Soon both Kovacs and Count Andrassy had the pleasure of smoking lovely, golden-brown meerschaum pipes. The demand for Kovacs’s pipes quickly grew, and the shoemak­er had less and less time left for his cobbling. It was commonly said that Kovacs literally carved gold out of meerschaum with his tools. His maiden pipe, created for Count Andrassy, was awarded a place of honor in the pipe collection of the National Museum in Budapest. For a century, from 1750 to 1850, hand-carved meerschaum pipes were too costly for the average pipe smoker. Only the wealthy could afford to purchase a block of meerschaum and engage some famous artist to carve the pipe. The pipes were fitted with pure amber stems, and were quite properly regarded as true works of art. As meerschaum pipe carving became a profitable business, determined efforts were made to uncover new deposits of the mineral. Finally, a meerschaum pipe boom began, lasting up to the end of the Nineteenth Century. During this period, numerous Austrian factories, employing hundreds of carvers, turned out thousands upon thousands of handsomely shaped meerschaum Continue Reading

Briar Pipes

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 Continue Reading