Updated for Spring 2023. This article has been revised from the original published on August 16, 2019.
We've all experienced the "break-in" period, loading bowl after bowl into a new pipe while it shows no gratitude whatsoever and delivers acrid, hot, astringent smoke to our bewildered palates. Its online photos had accurately depicted the wonderful shape and finish, but the flavors it's delivering do not match the pipe's appearance. Something so beautiful should not taste like a flaming charcoal briquette.
Many pipes require break-in, which is the process of smoking multiple, less-than-satisfactory bowls of tobacco — several, usually; sometimes dozens — before the smoke starts to taste as it should. Anyone drinking from a garden hose lets the brackish, stale water wash through it before enjoying the cool refreshment that follows. That concept resembles breaking in a pipe.
Other reasons for disappointing initial flavor may contribute. If a pipe is dip stained, which is necessary for some circumstances, that stain inside the bowl probably won't be a delightful flavor extravaganza when smoked. Thankfully, it doesn't last. But most often, breaking in a pipe is the final step in curing the briar.
How Do You Cure Briar?
With tobacco, "curing" refers to its preparation, usually flue curing, fire curing or air curing. We wouldn't like uncured tobacco any more than we'd like uncured pipes. With briar, the curing process starts at the sawmill, where, after being cut into blocks, it's boiled in gigantic vats of water.
That boiling is important. It helps push the resins and saps out of the wood, replacing them with water. Those natural resins can make a pipe smoke hot and taste bad until they migrate through the porous briar, which can better absorb the collateral moisture of tobacco combustion afterward. The boiling process doesn't remove all of the impurities, though.
After boiling, the briar is gradually dried, which takes about 18 months. From there, the majority is purchased for factory-made pipes, which makes sense as they comprise the overwhelming majority of all pipes manufactured. Different factories store briar for different durations for additional air curing, sometimes years, but most pipes sold worldwide have been shaped and finished in only a few months because briar is expensive and it's difficult to keep prices down with years of inventory in storage. Air curing helps remove more of the impurities remaining after boiling.
The Expense of Briar Curing
However, long-term storage of briar is expensive. Few businesses can afford to leave inventory in storage for years. It makes little sense for a manufacturer to store briar for 10 years of additional curing only to sell the resulting pipe for $30. They wouldn't be in business long. Briar with substantial time investment needs to fetch a higher price, so it can't be used for basket pipes (so called because they're cheap and shops have often displayed them by the basketful), though certainly some briar ends up being more appropriate for basket pipes, bringing down the average success rate. When briar becomes expensive, it must be made into more valuable pipes, pipes that consumers find to be good values at higher prices. That means pipes that are more slowly made and finished.
... stain inside the bowl probably won't be a delightful flavor extravaganza when smoked
That's part of the reason pipe manufacturers in more expensive tiers employ artisan carvers, and promote smoking instruments of the highest quality for particular price brackets. They've invested too much in raw materials to merit a pipe that doesn't prove itself worth the additional expense to the consumer. And because of that investment, they've also purchased more expensive, higher-quality briar, to improve the odds of well-grained, flawless, higher-priced pipes that are beautiful, creatively designed, efficient smokers.
Briar purchased by artisan carvers often costs $70-$80 per block. And too many blocks must be tossed into the fire because of flaws — flaws that can often be accommodated in cheap factory pipes but render an artisan pipe useless.
Methods of Curing Briar
Some factories, and probably some artisans, utilize kiln drying, which is essentially the baking of the briar and most often used to bring the wood's moisture to its optimum working level, repositioning the blocks frequently to maintain moisture consistency throughout. Briar that is too dry will chip more easily when worked, and it won't cut cleanly if too wet.
Some artisans have additional curing processes, but they're cloaked in secrecy and the result of years of experimentation, usually with various heat sources. Perhaps the method most familiar to pipe enthusiasts is "oil curing."
... natural resins can make a pipe smoke hot and taste bad until they migrate through the porous briar
Championed by Alfred Dunhill, and a process often ascribed credit for the remarkably craggy sandblasts of early Dunhill pipes, oil curing with heat was not originally intended to improve flavor during the break-in period. Dunhill invented the process to more speedily and cost effectively prepare pipes for sale. At the time, oil curing a pipe meant storing it for an additional year for the oil to finish seeping to the surface. Here's a quote from Alfred Dunhill's U.S. patent application for oil curing pipes, Oct. 14, 1918:
... 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 represent 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.
Dunhill's method utilized brass pegs, heated to controlled temperatures with gas flames, onto which the pipes were placed with the tobacco chambers over the pegs. When heated, the oil would migrate through the fibers of the briar over a period of weeks, picking up resins and saps on its way. Referred to as "exudate," this oil was periodically cleaned from the surface of the pipes, otherwise a hard crust would form. Some have postulated that the exudate crust was left and then sandblasted off, contributing to the distinctive, early Dunhill ruggedness of texture so admired by collectors.
Dunhill's oil curing method has been lauded as providing excellent smoking characteristics, with many smokers arguing it was the best of its kind worldwide. The Dunhill company eventually decided the process was not practical and that it offered little improvement, if any, and discontinued its use, most likely sometime in the 1970s.
... oil curing with heat was not originally intended to improve flavor during the break-in period
A few modern manufacturers continue to find benefit in oil curing. Ashton, Radice, and Ferndown enjoy enthusiastic approval from their customers. Sasieni pipes were oil cured. Bill Taylor of Ashton pipes worked for Dunhill for many years, so it's unsurprising that he would incorporate heated oil treatment in his own pipes, and when Jimmy Craig took over Ashton manufacturing after Bill's death, he continued the method. Randy Wiley oil cured his pipes for decades before briefly relinquishing the process in the early 2000s because of the time involved. He developed a new oil-curing method that is faster, and has continued to oil cure his pipes since that interlude.
When heated, the oil would migrate through the fibers of the briar over a period of weeks, picking up resins and saps on its way
Advocates of oil curing find the flavor of these briars to be especially pleasing, with a nutty character, and some say that the process renders the fibers of the briar more stable and better able to endure high temperatures. Many claim that oil curing is the best curing method available.
However, those who are attracted by the initial flavor of oil-cured briar may be disappointed to learn it does not last more than a few weeks. Just as impurities can be smoked out of a pipe, so can the oil, and then the nutty characteristic is gone. But what's left is a pipe that's well broken in.
Briar Curing and Pipe Break-In
One of the reasons inexpensive pipes require break-in is because they've not undergone the time-consuming process of additional curing that adds so much to the cost of pipes. The consumer has opted, with cheaper pipes, to do that curing on their own, adding to the value of the piece with their own diligent smoking instead of paying for additional curing up front.
We've all experienced or heard stories of wonderful pipes that by all rights should not smoke well. Maybe they're cheaply made with improper drilling and poor smoke-channel alignment, but they still smoke great. Sometimes a particular pipe just tastes great on its own for no discernible reason, despite poor construction. As good as it is, it would smoke even better had it been artisan-engineered. The extra steps taken by artisans elevate whatever potential a block of briar may have to its highest level.
One pipe show attendee recently related the story of a pipe that simply would not break in for him. He loved the shape and everything about the pipe, but it tasted horrible, and he was determined to tame it. He smoked and smoked it, stubbornly investing time in foul-tasting smoke, until deciding he'd had enough abuse and was ready to throw the pipe in his driveway and run over it multiple times with his pickup truck, just for revenge. But before he was ready for that sweet vengeance, the pipe turned. He said it was probably his 40th smoke when it suddenly started tasting better. He'd smoked through the impurities at last and was rewarded with a pipe that has been a favorite ever since.
The Relationship Between Briar Curing and Smoking Properties
Collectors of artisan pipes will tell you that the inverse is possible as well. You may have a pipe that is perfectly engineered and executed, drilled to perfection, and made from briar cured for years on end. Everything about that pipe is right, but it still won't deliver a great smoke. That's disappointing but is thankfully rare. It's just the nature of briar. What you get with artisan pipes, though, is a much better likelihood of a good smoke, because everything that can be done to give that briar its opportunity to perform has been done to the highest degree. Pipes are like quantum mechanics: their performance level is a field of probability rather than a pre-determinable outcome.
Sometimes a particular pipe just tastes great on its own for no discernible reason
Still, it's remotely possible that a well-made pipe costing thousands of dollars may not smoke as well as a poorly made pipe costing $20. Those $20 performers are like winning the lottery, but when it happens, it's enormous fun. It's not so fun to invest in an expensive piece and find that the briar still can't perform because of stubborn invisible impurities in the wood that simply won't dissipate. Thankfully, carvers have found the methods necessary to reduce that likelihood to a remotely small percentage. Ultimately, however, Mother Nature makes the final decision.
When we think about cured briar, it's beneficial to remember that curing is an essential element for enjoying cool, flavorful smoking without tongue bite. Most of the curing is achieved at the sawmill, but the remainder is what we smokers must contend with, either by gambling on a high-end artisan piece, gambling on a low-end basket pipe, or gambling on something in between. Ninety-nine percent of the artisan-cured pipes will perform at the level they should, and do so immediately with little break-in necessary. Ninety-nine percent of basket pipes won't, and will require dedication to bring into line. We pay for curing one way or another, either up front with higher prices, better briar, and detailed craftsmanship, or on the back end with user time and sacrifice. Either way, though, the result should be a pipe that performs well and tastes great.