We've all admired beautiful grain on a fine briar. That grain is coaxed by the briar cutter and the pipemaker into sometimes spectacular visual enhancements for a smoking instrument, but it's difficult to understand grain without understanding the plants that create briar and the way that briar is prepared.
Erica Arborea, also known as the heath, is a tree-like shrub, the root-ball of which is used for briar pipes. 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 briar, was tried for pipes. But the soil was too rich 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.
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 (usually 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.
The part of the tree used for pipes is a root ball, called a burl, that collects and stores water for the plant.
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 pipemaker.
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 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.
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.
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. Every block of briar contains such flaws and similar natural formations. When a pipemaker 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 underneath. Such is the world of pipemaking. 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 sanding disk.
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.
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. 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 be 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.
The orientation of the grain is determined by the briar cutter and ordered by the pipemaker 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.
This Jody Davis displays stunning vertical grain as well as horizontal growth rings.
I personally prefer a sandblasted pipe to a smooth, 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.
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.