A Closer Look at Briar Grain

A Closer Look at Briar Grain at Smokingpipes.com

Briar has dominated pipe manufacture for almost 150 years. It's a fabulously heat-resistant wood, making it efficient and durable for the purposes of tobacco combustion, but it has the additional allure of beautiful grain. Pipe makers have employed remarkable creativity to take advantage of briar's natural grain patterns with shapes like the Blowfish, for example, which commends birdseye grain with rounded side panels and highlights straight grain with flat panels, all with an organic and lithesome character. Many shapes have been developed to highlight the grain of briar. The efficiency of the "shape first, drill later" method of carving, for which the tobacco chamber and draft channel are completed only after the stummel has been shaped to capitalize on the grain, testifies to the importance of well-oriented briar, especially in terms of tight birdseye and straight grain.

Additional shapes, like the Dublin, are especially suited to the flaring, angling nature of briar grain, which is tighter at the heel and radiates outward as it travels upward, and the shape of the Dublin bowl complements that angling by likewise expanding from the heel to the rim. The Volcano shape also complements the angle of the grain, though inverted from the Dublin with the grain radiating outward from the rim to the heel. When the flanks of a pipe match the angle of the grain, the length of the capillaries is visible. If the angles don't match, we begin to see oval birdseye rather than straight grain, and tight pinpricks of birdseye appear when the surface is perpendicular to the grain.

The Volcano shape also complements the angle of the grain, though inverted from the Dublin

Briar's grain patterns don't require smooth, pristine surfaces. Sandblasted briar brings its own character to the possibilities with craggy, meandering lines and tactile feedback that itself provides an additional dimension to the smoking experience. Sandblasting offers a more rugged treatment that engages texture perception in the finger pads as well as provides the visual appeal of the blasted growth rings.

Orienting the grain of briar in blocks that are useful for pipe makers is an art performed by briar cutters at the sawmill that prepares the wood. They can read the grain hidden inside at a level bordering on the miraculous, as can many pipe makers. If the blocks were not properly oriented and graded, the attractive pipes that we expect from carvers would be nearly impossible.

The Heath Tree

Erica Arborea, also known as the heath, is the tree-like shrub most popular for pipe making. The best for this purpose grows in the Mediterranean region. It grows elsewhere, but the hot, arid hillsides of the Mediterranean, where the thin soil is poor for crops, are where the toughest, most fire-resistant briar grows. During WWII, when traditional briar harvesting stopped, the Mountain Laurel of North Carolina, also technically briar, was tried for pipes. But the soil was too rich, water too plentiful, and Mountain Laurel is not the same, being less resilient than its Mediterranean brethren and soft from easy Carolina living; the dense wood that struggles to grow over years in inhospitable, dry earth is preferable. Somehow, that hard upbringing generates briar that can withstand the heat required of smoking.

Mountain Laurel is not the same, being less resilient than its Mediterranean brethren and soft from easy Carolina living

The part of the tree used for pipes is a root ball, called a burl, that collects and stores water for the plant. Depending on its age, it can range from the size of a cantaloupe to something more like a medium beach ball. The burl lies just under the surface of the earth, with roots extending from underneath to collect moisture, and branches (almost always two) growing from the top, breaking through the soil and becoming trunks. As the reservoir for the plant, the burl directs water up the trunks to the leaves and nourishes the heath, and it is that burl that is harvested for pipes.

Grain Orientation in the Burl

Because the burl is spherical, the grain radiates out from the center. The fine striations of grain that we enjoy seeing on our pipes are made up of very fine capillaries in the wood, used to move water to the plant. But these capillaries do not grow in geometric precision. Sand and stones are picked up by the burl as it grows, and the grain shifts around these impurities. The branches of the heath also begin their formation in the burl. When you see an odd pattern of grain on a pipe, something that may look like a thumbprint in size where the grain entirely shifts and washes out, that's where a branch was forming in the burl. The grain around that growth is affected, and that has to be taken into account by the briar cutter and pipe maker.

A Closer Look at Briar Grain at Smokingpipes.com

A smooth piece by Claudio Cavicchi, this Dublin exhibits the subtle undulations of horizontal growth rings bisecting the vertical grain.

The center, or heart, of the burl has nothing in the way of grain. It is a red color and because of that hue is called blood. This section of the burl collects water and does not have capillaries; hence, no grain. From it, the capillaries form and radiate outward. If you picture that, you can see that parallel grain is all but impossible as the grain angles outward from the center, each line angled from the next in a fan shape.

Imperfections are Inevitable

The grain must also accommodate previously mentioned sand and stones, as well as any damage from wood-boring insects; it curves around those interlopers as well as branch formation, breaking the symmetry. Every block of briar contains such flaws and similar natural formations. When a pipe maker embarks on what he or she hopes will be a straight-grain pipe, they start with a block that has no apparent flaws, superficially. But there could be anything inside, from nearly flawless wood to that containing stones, fissures, sand, cracks, or uninteresting grain. Such is the world of pipe making. Carver stories about stunningly grained pipes ruined at the last moment by a flaw appearing in the wood are common. The frustration factor must be high indeed. But the best carvers accommodate small flaws as they work, often finding creative shapes as they chase away imperfections on the sander, always hoping that those imperfections do not become ambitious and ruinous.

... there could be anything inside, from nearly flawless wood to that containing stones, fissures, sand, cracks, or uninteresting grain

Grain is made up not only of capillaries but of growth rings. Most noticeable on sandblasted pipes, though discernible on smooth pipes with excellent grain as well, growth rings may be envisioned by imagining the spherical burl. As years go by, the sphere grows in annual layers that sheath the root ball, layer after layer, outward from the center and bisecting the capillaries at nearly right angles.

Growth Rings and Grain

If you look carefully at a sandblasted pipe with good grain, you might see ring grain, which has the grain running up and down, but the growth rings are stacked up the bowl perpendicular to the grain. That's how we can see the fine grain of a sandblast running vertically, for example, with growth rings bisecting the grain horizontally. Birdseye grain appears at the tips of the capillaries. Plateau-topped pipes would display birdseye if sanded smooth. When the block is oriented for the grain to run horizontally, birdseye will appear on the sides of the pipe, but most often the orientation is for the birdseye to be at the rim and heel. It's all about the angle from which the capillaries are viewed.

Plateau-topped pipes would display birdseye if sanded smooth

The orientation of the grain is determined by the briar cutter and ordered by the pipe maker for a particular shape or group of shapes. On smooth pipes, the growth rings are more difficult to see, but they are there, especially when the grain is excellent. Faint visual undulations may be spied from the correct angle and in the right light, and the ring grain that would have resulted from sandblasting is apparent.

A Closer Look at Briar Grain at Smokingpipes.com

This Jody Davis displays stunning vertical grain as well as horizontal growth rings.

I personally prefer a sandblasted to a smooth pipe, and often, when viewing a smooth pipe with inspiring grain, I think what a shame it is that it wasn't sandblasted. I attribute that preference to my love for briar grain, which is not only visual but tactile for a sandblasted pipe. It's easy to hold a sandblasted pipe because of the aggressive texture, which is useful for those of us whose minds wander and fingers forget. However, the elegant beauty of smooth briar grain is obvious.

Whether you're a fan of smooth pipes or sandblasted, the limitless variety of interesting ways that grain and growth rings meet the skill of the cutter and carver guarantee that we'll always be looking for the next best pipe with the most impressive grain Mother Nature can provide.

Note: This article was originally published February 1st, 2019. It has been updated for added relevance and detail.

Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   Briar Pipe Basics Pipe Making


    • Randy Tuggle on February 2, 2019
    • Great article! Can't believe it took all this time to see something such as this. I have a new appreciation for sandblasted pipes.

    • Sam Vior on February 2, 2019
    • Great Info...

    • Samuel Vior on February 2, 2019
    • Great Article!!!

    • Hendrik van der Breggen on February 2, 2019
    • Excellent article! Thanks for posting -- I really enjoyed it. I thought, though, to make the article even more excellent, a few additional photos would be helpful for purposes of illustration. For example, to illustrate the effects of sandblasting in which the growth rings bisect the capillaries, a photo of this beautiful Savinelli Punto Oro (603) would be most appropriate: https://www.smokingpipes.com/pipes/new/savinelli/moreinfo.cfm?product_id=272337

    • Phil on February 2, 2019
    • Wonderful article. Well done.

    • Phil on February 2, 2019
    • Wonderful article. Well done.

    • Stephen Milano on February 3, 2019
    • Fascinating. Thank you.

    • Robert Kaul on February 4, 2019
    • Great Article, I favor sandblasted myself.

    • Mark Lebanowski on February 4, 2019
    • Great and interesting information. Thanks!

    • Chuck on February 7, 2019
    • Hendrik: Many thanks for your comment. We've changed the photos to better illustrate the points of the essay. Good call!

    • Linwood on February 7, 2019
    • Excellent article and explanation. Another one for "the book".

    • Thier M.David on February 12, 2019
    • A good illustration of "straight grain" pipes. I assume the cross grain with the birdseye on either side is achieved by turning the block 90 degrees. Correct? Also, what makes the "birdseye" formation?

    • Chuck Stanion on February 13, 2019
    • Thier: I can't believe I forgot to mention birdseye, my favorite part of the grain. I've edited the text to include an explanation of how it occurs. Thanks!

    • Hendrik van der Breggen on February 25, 2019
    • Thanks Chuck! The additional photo looks great! Thanks again for the excellent article. Best regards.

    • Ken the Dire Daddy on March 11, 2019
    • Great article, but what got me in the manly heart was how reachable and relatable Chuck is. Just from a few comments (which he obviously read with genuine sincerity) he grabs hold of sentiment without feeling slighted. I don't believe in "constructive criticism" when genuine conversational friendship is much more appropriate. Thank you, Mr. Chuck, for listening and hearing...and then offering even more insight and experience. I love it here at smokingpipes simply because of this comradery.

    • Gregory munk on March 26, 2019
    • Great article and tool for learning the hoppy of pipe smoking ... I’m a seasoned cigar smoker so I have much to learn about pipe smoking . I see myself Switching over

    • Stan Durbin on September 15, 2019
    • I enjoyed this article on briar grain. I too am a fan of the sand blasted finish. Your mention of the attempt to use North Carolina briar for pipes reminded me of a news article I read many years ago about the harvesting of old growth lumber from the bottom of Lake Superior, prized for the tight grain and superior strength due to slow growth conditions that no longer exist. (Following is a link to an article on the topic: https://www.motherearthnews.com/nature-and-environment/underwater-logging-zmaz98onzraw).
      I'm also reminded of doing some repair work years ago on my parents' 100 year old house constructed from oak lumber. Cutting the wood with a saw was so difficult I thought I was using a dull blade. Replacing the blade with a new one, I had no better luck. The wood was obviously old growth lumber, dense, tightly grained, and very challenging to cut. What I looked at then as a nuisance, I now reflect fondly upon, a scarce resource, rapidly dwindling, and likely never to be replaced.

    • Don Sawyer on October 12, 2020
    • Fascinating and engagingly written, as always. One question: are the shrubs grown commercially in tended stands, or are they all harvested from wild plants?

    • Chuck Stanion on October 12, 2020
    • Don Sawyer: Briar is wild. Diggers have to lead donkeys into the hills and find the briar. I seem to remember that someone tried a briar farm a few decades ago and it didn't work out, though I haven't the details. Might be fun to investigate that for a future article.

    • Lori Gregor on January 14, 2023
    • The article I've been waiting for Chuck, thank you.

    • Blake on January 15, 2023
    • Love the old craggy blasts to briar on some of my patent era Dunhill pipes. Compared to the blast on the newer pipes, it is obvious which look and smoke better.I always look for good birdseye on heel and plateau. Then the tight flame grain up the sides. Castello stain and grain on their higher end pipes grabs my attention. Cavicchi picks some nice briar too on their higher end CCCC. Quite pleased oogling while smoking.Enjoy yourselves.

    • DAVE SOMMER on January 15, 2023

    • Stephen on January 15, 2023
    • Thanks for another article on the esoterica of the pipe world.I'm wondering if that plant will grow in S. Texas. We haven't had rain in a year, so I think we classify as dry. We are nominally listed as ag zone 8b. I will try to find some and plant it.

    • Joseph Kirkland on January 15, 2023
    • Chuck, another great article.For Stephen: our Mesquite is a cousin. Several have tried making pipes out of Mesquite. It doesn’t cure well and mesquite tends to split in the curing process.

    • BantyRooster on January 15, 2023
    • I am so glad this article was reprinted. I missed it in 2019. Also appreciate the update to include the birdseye as it is a favorite of mine also. Actually I enjoy all of characteristics of the briar as my collection of 70 testifies. Thanks Chuck for a great article.

    • Tad Gage on January 15, 2023
    • Excellent overview, Chuck, and really well written as always! I've studied and written about the ins and outs of briar for 25 years, known and talked with a gazillion pipe makers and collected all manner of pipes with all manner of grains. How pipemakers read grain, design and create a beautiful pipe from a lump of burl continues to amaze (and perplex) me.

    • Larry Naraki on January 15, 2023
    • Great article and examples. I really like Claudio Cavicchi's sandblasted volcano pipes with the triangle shaped stems. Thank you.

    • David B Graham on January 15, 2023
    • Thanks for the article. How old are the heath trees before they are thought to be "harvestable"?

    • Doyle on January 17, 2023
    • Interesting article. I prefer rusticated or sandblasted as well. I smoked a new blasted Bing's Favorite today.

    • Linwood on January 22, 2023
    • Thanks for this update Chuck! Had this been out in my drafting days, I would have loved to draw a burl, with cut-outs showing grain orientation, and how the briar cutter cuts the burl, then the blocks/ebauchons - and the resulting grain patterns! Maybe I'll tackle that - but there are bound to be artists, or draftsmen that can generate that (now days on a computer program) with more accuracy and fine perspective than I can!

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