Briarwood, in detail

 The briar burl, the hard knotty part of the heath tree whence the pipe derives, is found principally in those countries that border the Meditteranean Sea. There the climate is altogether unsuitable for plant life: The soil is sandy and rocky, there is a scant minimum of rainfall, and high winds incessantely and mercilessly test the plants' endurance. These unfavorable conditions, however, are necessary to the production of good sturdy burls.


For the heath tree (Erica Arborea in botanical nomenclature, bruyere in French), in its constant struggle for survival, produces the burl so that it can persevere. Located at the junction of the roots and the trunk, the burl is a tightly knit knob of wood that acts both as a root terminal and to hold the tree fast when the heavy winds roar. Due to its dual nature, it must be both large enough to send down a network of roots and strong enough to secure the twenty-foot-high tree under brutal winds.

But in order for the burl to attain maturity and, subsequently, be of sufficient size and dense enough consistency for the pipe, it takes anywhere from sixty to two hundred years. The older the burl the better the chance that it can yield perhaps a score of flawless pipes. However, not all burls of sufficient size are satisfactory. For on the burl's long and tedious road to adulthood, it frequently encounters a pebble, a piece of debris, or even a dead insect. What happens when it meets such an object is that the burl then grows, amoeba-like, around the obstruction, and so incorporates it into its mass. Consequently, a large number of burls contain imperfections. If foreign matter is too prevalent in the burl or if there are but one or two encapsulations too near the heart of it, the entire burl may have to be discarded and a hundred or more years of laborious growth come to naught.


It is precisely for this reason that some pipe manufacturers have recently taken to the malpractice of using inferior portions of the burl to stretch the profit. These portions generally come from the "branch," one of the larger roots growing out of the burl proper. In these instances, the briar is not as close-grained as it ought to be. In turn, this makes an altogether inferior pipe, more likely to give dissatisfaction than not. Whether you are selecting an unfinished block or a finished pipe, therefore, it is of utmost importance to be certain that what you are purchasing has been cut from the interior sphere of the burl itself, marked by its close-grained and unflawed texture. Reputable makers and merchants, it might be added, can generally be trusted to point out any existing imperfections in their products, inferior briar included.

 

 

Still, there exists a sufficient supply of good briar (coming from Spain, Algeria. Sicily, Greece, Sardinia, and other countries that touch the Sea) to elevate the briar pipe to a position once held by the clay; that is, Everyman's pipe. For today, when a gentleman makes reference to his pipe, tender or otherwise, chances are excellent that it is a briar. We know it is popular, overwhelmingly so: What then is it appeal? In all modesty, the briar has an amalgam of fine qualities that the clay, and for that matter the meerschaum, could never approach. To begin with the most obvious, both the clay and the meerschaum are notorious for their fragility. One drop to the floor and they are gone forever. Drop a briar to the floor, however, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred it will bounce back in chipper spirits.

The briar burl, due to its tenuous mountain existence, becomes hard, it is true, but surprisingly not callous; in this happy phenomenon lies its special appeal. For one thing, the obdurate hardness of the burl makes the pipe very nearly shock-proff; too, and just as vital, it causes the pipe to be adequately fire-resistant. Not perfectly resistant to a forest fire or one of that magnitude, the pipe does resist most of the ill effects of combustion, and, what it cannot resist, it uses to highly efficacious ends. Heat, of course, is the inevitable result of the tobacco's combustion. In some pipes this heat is effectively generated right to the outside of the pipe; consequently, you feel like you're holding the business end of a branding iron instead of your pipe. But the briar, in its wondrous way, uses that heat in such a fashion as to ultimately seduce the tobacco into yielding its fullest taste and fragrance.
It is a felicitous fact that as the tobacco burns, a scorchingly intimate relationship between it and the briar blossoms, so intimate in fact that it produces an offspring. For in burning, the tobacco generates an intense and concentrated heat; this heat then causes the interior walls of the bowl to expand: but, being a very closegrained wood, the briar expands only slightly, not too much so as to deliver the heat directly to your hand, not too little so as not to admit any of the moisture (which is concomitant with the heat). It is, as previously stated, adequately, not perfectly, fire-resistant. So, in its expansion, the briar accepts the volatile essences and oils of the tobacco at a miserly rate. When the pipe cools and the briar contracts, the tobacco essence and the wood have formed an inseparable union, a marriage if you will.
And, unselfishly merging their separate identities, they each contribute to produce a third. Like a son, this new creation is harder than either of the parents, and like a daughter more sensitive; the "love child/1 it is properly called the char.

 


Once this primary char has been produced, say after a dozen or so smokes, it then serves as the foundation for the secondary char, or what we might refer to as the char proper. Constructed largely by the hot toils of the tobacco, the char will steadily accumulate and thicken in direct proportion
to the number of bowlfuls smoked, and, if left to itself, will one day take over the entire
bowl; this, though, is certainly not the desired effect, and therefore a reamer must be periodically employed to maintain the char's thickness at one-sixteenth of an inch. This matter of reaming will be considered more fully later.
It is this special property of the briar, then, that is applauded so heartily. It is this property that lends to the pipe its subdued air of titillation that can be so sensibly heady. For as the worthy weed is consumed, the smoke passes now in now out of the char, much as Alice slipped through the looking glass only to discover a marvelous and previously hidden world. In like manner does the smoke, which curls up to you direct from re-entry as it were, reveal similar unimaginable pleasures to you, its conjurer. And as Wonderland itself took on a different feeling at each corner, so, too, does the briar yield a myriad of delights in its never-ending process of maturation, concentrating as it does so well more and more and still more of the tobacco's bright but secret heart."

 

William Goldring

The Pipe Book