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