Published in Pipes & Tobaccos, Fall 2000
This version is unedited
Another in an infrequent series of articles
THE BRIAR PIPE
Curing sets briar pipes apart- one from the other.
Both have been rather unwell; one has been cured and one has not been cured.
“What in tarnation d’ya mean by that, son?”
Hold on a bit, and I’ll explain. Briar comes from
the soil- and a mean and nasty soil it is- where it has grown for many a year
before being uprooted by a man with a pick, shovel, and cart.
“Wait a minute! What d’you mean by mean
and nasty soil?”
Briar is a shrub, and varieties of this shrub grow
throughout the world; why there’s some comes from North Carolina that was
tried for pipes while the war was on in the 40’s. Wasn’t any good though,
because the soil it came from was too
good. Didn’t develop the characteristics that were needed to hold fire. For
that the shrub needs to sort of undergo torture, to struggle. Bad soil is what
it needs, and a bad climate. Not bad cold but bad hot, and with very little
water around. Under these
conditions briar grows real real slow- sort of just inching along year by
year. If it’s not dug up too quick- say give it 40 or 50 year at least- it
can make pipes. Some think that the grain has tightened enough so that, if
placed in the right hands, it can become a useful smoking chimney. Me- I don’t
think that’s it. I think there’s something else in the wood that leads to
this special character, but I don’t know what it is. That’s up to the
plant doctors to figure out.
Well, this stuff’s been in the ground a real long time, and there’s
all kind of stuff in the burl- that’s the part growing below ground that is
used to make pipes. It kind of looks like a ball with roots below and branches
above. Anyway, there’s all wonder of things inside that ball- and before
anyone can even think of making briar pipes a lot of stuff has to be done.
First the forester or woodsman or digger or whoever he is has to get that ball
out of the ground in one piece with no injuries. Wouldn’t do to have the end
of a pick axe rammed into the ball, exposing the inside to whatever before it
could be brought to the briar sawmill. So the guy first has to find the shrub,
which isn’t hard because in the area he’s working it’s all over the
place. Next he has to gauge the age of the shrub before he digs it; wouldn’t
do to dig up a little bitty burl. Not for pipes anyway. Might make a small
ashtray or match holder is all. Then, if he feels he’s got something to work
with he sets to work. Cuts off the branches low as he can so the stumps are
just above the soil. Digs around the burl with pick axe and spade- slowly
uncovering it. Hard mean work. No one around to talk to. Maybe a radio. After
that ball is uncovered there are still roots underneath. Have to separate the
burl from the roots with a saw and then put that heavy sucker into the cart.
Or else just leave it and go on to another. Come back with the cart and donkey
later. Did I mention that all these guys are old- 60’s and 70’s. No kids
want to work all day in the woods by themselves. Kids are in the towns working
where the action is. Lonely job here in the woods; I guess you got to be sort
of at peace with yourself to do it.
When the digger has enough burls he takes ‘em to the saw mill. Gets
paid on the spot. Cash business. Now no one at this point knows what’s in
those burls, if the wood is good or not. So the pay is for weight- nothing
The folks at the sawmill gather up the newly
harvested burls and pile ‘em on top of one another so that there stands a
small mountain of wood balls. And then they spray water on ‘em to clean ‘em
and such. Now at this point the wood is still alive, and the sawmill folks
have to kill it, but nicely, so it can be made into pipe bowls. So they put
the burls into trenches, cover ‘em with empty gunny sacks, and let ‘em sit
until they die- about three months time. Man, you ought to smell the aroma of
that wood in the trenches; there’s a real tang in the air, a good clean tang
that makes you feel good to be alive and to be in the countryside. Anyway, the
wood takes a time to die. And if you take away some sacking to look at the
burls you’ll see bright green shoots growing out of the wood. That wood is a
fighter; it doesn’t give up but tries to find new earth to bury itself in.
After the wood is dead is the time for cutting. One
part of the sawmill is composed of a great round building with a high ceiling.
This is the cutting room. Six cutters, all old, sit around that room, each
straddling a huge circular saw with teeth as big as my index finger. I’m
telling you it takes courage just to sit there with the saw whirling away
between your legs, let alone to cut anything. But the cutters know what they’re
about, or else they wouldn’t be there- literally. I’ll tell you a little
story about these cutters: they are so skilled at what they do that one of
these guys, for my benefit, took a block and carved it into a small rocking
chair on that huge circular saw. One piece of wood; no glue; no hand tools. I’m
telling you that I could not believe my eyes. Well anyway, each cutter has a
supply of burls which are now quite dead. Because the outside of the wood is
dry it has to be wet before cutting, or else it might chip when it comes into
contact with the huge blade. The cutter studies the burl before making the
first cut as this one is crucial- sort of like learning to carve a turkey with
the grain so it cuts real easy. The burl splits- revealing a small central
hollow cavity containing what looks like red water; the central portion of the
burl, also tinged with red which fades the further it recedes from the center;
interior wood; plateau- that part of the burl containing the outer crust or
From here the cutter cuts up the rest of the burl and
throws the blocks into various sacks depending on whether the wood was from
the outer plateau surface or the interior, and also depending on the size of
So now we have these blocks of wood, all in sacks
according to first grading. What happens then? The wood, sack by sack, is
boiled. Although the wood is dead it still has all kinds of nasty stuff in it
that would turn the mouth of a pipe smoker inside out if this step wasn’t
taken first. You see, boiling removes most of the sap and other impurities and
replaces it with water.
After boiling the blocks are spread, each in their
own grade area, to surface dry after which time they are re-graded. Grading is
very subjective because no one knows what is in the block. At the present moment plateau is considered very high
quality whereas in the 20’s one famous pipe manufacturer claimed that “The
centre of the root yields the most perfect pipe that can be obtained.”
After the second grading the blocks are supposed to
continue to dry for an additional eighteen months before they are ready for
selection. Actually this doesn’t always happen- depending on the need of the
pipe maker(s) in question or on how badly the sawmill needs cash.
Pipe bowls can not be made if the wood is too wet or
too dry. Too wet and it doesn’t cut correctly, and it also shows patches of
damp; too dry and the wood chips away when cut. So an equilibrium has to be
reached before a bowl can be fashioned- whether by hand or by machine. Once
this equilibrium has been reached we can divide pipe bowls into two types- the
cured and the uncured.
have gone through all the processes mentioned above, but no more. The pipe
bowl is turned, the mouthpiece attached, finishing is completed, and the pipe
is ready for sale. Pipes fitting this description are the vast majority sold
today. They are relatively inexpensive, made by machine, and almost always
have putty fills. They are strictly utilitarian. They may smoke well, they may
not. Usually they require extensive “break-in” before a well-regarded
flavor comes through.
continue to undergo processing in order to insure a delicious smoking
experience. These constitute the gentlemen farmers of briar pipes. There are
all kinds of curing methods, and folks are coming up with new ones all the
time. But I’ll just talk about the three main types:
some say that this isn’t a curing method at all, but just a quick way to get
wet wood into condition to be turned. Others swear that, with their method of
heat control, this method works just as well as air curing and takes only days
or weeks instead of years. Kiln drying is essentially oven drying. Blocks are
put into a kiln or oven and dried with artificial heat. Care has to be taken
to turn the blocks while in the kiln or one part of a block may dry more
quickly than another causing it to split and so become useless.
with this method what was started in the saw mill is continued by the pipe
maker. This is a very costly method in that many years supply of briar is
literally sitting around the workshop- for years- before it can be used. Briar
is purchased from the sawmill, taken to the workshop or storage shed and put
on wire racks to continue drying or curing.
The blocks have to be turned every so often to insure even drying or they will
split. This aging, depending on the type of briar and on the pipe maker, goes
on for from three to five years. Now you got to remember- most of the bad
stuff was taken out at the sawmill by boiling. It's the remaining sap, resins,
impurities that this continued aging is after. These hand-crafters are real
“artistes”; they want the stuff they make to be perfect. If a lot of their
money is tied up in doing so- that’s the way it has to be.
originally invented by Alfred Dunhill as a way to short-cut the time needed
for air curing but not the quality of an air cured block. I quote from the
patent application filed with the United States Patent Office on October 14,
1918 by Alfred Dunhill:
In the manufacture of tobacco pipes, from brier (sic) and other woods it is often advisable to employ oil in the preparation and finishing of the pipe, but such employment of oil is open to the objection that when such pipes are first used the heat of the burning tobacco causes such oil to exude, and not only impart an unpleasant flavor in the mouth of the smoker, but also destroy the finished glossy appearance of the exterior surface of the pipe. In order to overcome this objection, more especially in pipes of high quality, they are frequently stored for a considerable period, such as twelve months or longer, to insure the perfect incorporation of the oil with the fibers of the wood and to thoroughly season the pipe. But it will be obvious that such storage of manufactured or partly manufactured articles represents capital lying idle, and the object of the present invention is to prepare and season such pipes, as to render them ready for sale and use in a comparatively short space of time.(my italics)
Dunhill led the way in developing a whole new curing system- a system that many people from around the world swear was and is the best in the world. From 1918 onward Dunhill pipes were steeped in a bath of vegetable oil or oils, and then placed on brass heat pegs which stood over heated gas jets. The heat was controlled so that, over a period of weeks the oil would exude from the bowl bringing with it sap, resins, and other impurities. This “exudite” was periodically wiped from the surface of the pipe bowl before it could harden into an impervious coating. In a manner of weeks the pipe was cured. But this type of curing is different than air curing; the flavor caused by the curing is different. Nutty, say some; oily, say others. Advocates of this system feel that the fibers in the wood are somehow changed, made more durable and able to withstand higher temperatures than an air cured or kiln cured pipe.
So there you have it. A heck of a lot of time, effort, and money in order to insure a really pleasant smoking experience. As I said before these guys are “artistes”; they are perfectionists. They want the stuff they make to be as perfect as humanly possible. And while no one can guarantee that a properly cured pipe will smoke wonderfully (because that is up to nature herself) the craftsmen who make these goods have tried to warrant just that.
 About Smoke, an encyclopaedia of smoking. Alfred Dunhill Ltd. 1928.