Elegance Through Fungus: Spalted Wood Accents

Accents can certainly add much to the handsomeness of a pipe, offering contrast of color and texture while elevating particular compositions by using rare and attractive materials. They are jewelry for pipes, and in many cases they could easily be mistaken for jewelry. Larry Roush, for example, is a jeweler who applies his expertise with precious metals to his craft of pipe making, adding sterling silver and sometimes gold in elegant bands, sometimes plain, sometimes angled and cut, sometimes flat and other times rounded, but always handsome additions that would be independent works of handcrafted jewelry.

Other accent materials offer their own unique elegance: black palm, antler, vulcanite, musk ox horn, olivewood, bamboo, boxwood, morta, cocobolo, acrylic, Bakelite, antique whale's tooth, Ivorite, mammoth, titanium, and even briar are among those that artisan carvers have used to terrific effect. Ivory is no longer used, of course, but there was a time when pre-embargo ivory was legal and if certified as such was used by pipe makers. Any attractive material may be employed by the creativity of pipe makers and its characteristics harnessed to amplify the beauty of smoking instruments.

That adornment is subject to individual taste. Many prefer pipes without accents, and it must be admitted that many pipes are more elegant by the omission of decorative fitments. That's part of the skill of the pipe maker: To recognize when and when not to utilize accenting elements is itself an impressive artform.

What is Spalting?

Among the most attractive and visually fascinating accent materials is wood that has been spalted, most often maple, poplar, beechwood, birch, and tamarind, but woodworkers also use spalted pine, apple, sycamore, and others. Any light colored wood is best. The easy undulation of dark streaks against lighter-toned wood is mesmerizing, each individual accent different from any other and as distinctive as fingerprints. These accents are natural and unique. Surprisingly and counterintuitively, spalted woods are given their beauty through a process of decomposition and the invasion of fungus.

Claudio Cavicchi Smooth Bent Billiard with Spalted Maple (CCC)

That doesn't sound appetizing, but these woods are stabilized and we should remember that we humans are distantly related to fungus from before our evolutionary branches diverged. It was a long time ago, but many of us, it may be argued, retain vestigial fungal characteristics. Without fungus, we wouldn't be here, and neither would spalted pipe accents.

Spalting is a result of a combination of factors associated with fungal contamination. Woodworkers take advantage of the unique patterning of spalting for cabinetry, decorative items, and even musical instruments. While a natural occurrence, spalting may be deliberately instigated, and the irresistible beauty of spalted wood has propelled an interest in many woodworkers to spalt wood themselves. Whether deliberate or natural, however, spalting undergoes the same processes.

Two different funguses cause primarily used spalting: White Rot fungus and Blue Stain fungus. Blue Stain fungus doesn't decay wood but its presence changes the wood's color, not just to blue, but yellow, red, black, and brown on the outside of the wood, most often just under the bark and not deep. The coloration is inconsistent and blotchy, but can be quite vibrant and attractive.

White Rot fungus is what provides the dark streaking that is so favored by woodworkers and the type we see for pipe accents. White Rot does decay the wood, and if not stabilized, will eventually cause the wood to become punky and useless. It's essential that the process be arrested when the streaking is at its best but before the wood is too compromised to be useful.

Mark Tinsky Mocha Freehand with Spalted Maple

Zone Lines

The attractive, fine lines of spalting are called zone lines, caused by pigment-producing filaments of mycelium constructed by the fungus as a protective barrier from insects, bacteria, and other fungi. Those lines actually display slightly different dark colors on either side of the demarcation, which provides a more three-dimensional impression and additional visual interest. The fungus creates areas of colors like pink, purple, and brown, with fine dark lines that meander in natural curves, often paralleling the grain of the wood. The surrounding wood is also lightened in color as the fungus appropriates its cellulose and lignin, increasing the contrast of hues.

Stabilizing the wood is a matter of reducing the moisture content and halting the fungal activity. Often a vacuum is used, and acrylic resins, varnish, or glue may be applied to seal and strengthen the wood, which has been somewhat weakened by the fungus. It's still a difficult wood to work with because its hardness is inconsistent, with hard and soft areas next to each other, making wood turning and finishing more difficult. This is not the case with Blue Stain fungus, which does not weaken the wood; indeed, no one seems to know how the pigmentation takes place with Blue Stain fungus.

Blue Stain Fungus

Types of Woods

Maple is one of the most favored woods for spalting because of its hardness and light color. Claudio Cavicchi has used spalted maple as an accent, as has Yuwei Huang, Bruce Weaver, Rad Davis, Abe Herbaugh, and many others. Mark Tinsky has used spalted maple as a cap for the rims of pipes as well as for accents at the ends of the shanks.

Tamarind is a large tropical tree that can produce 400 pounds of fruit a year, which is used for soups, stews, and sugar-coated candies, primarily in the Mediterranean, Asia, and the Middle East. It's also used as a cleaning agent, its pulp containing tartaric acid and highly effective for polishing copper and brass. Its hard, dark heartwood is not a primary interest but its softer sapwood is highly attractive to fungi and thus produces excellent spalting for woodworkers.

Brad Pohlmann Sandblasted Bent Brandy with Spalted Tamarind (Pipes & Tobaccos Magazine Pipe of the Year)

Spalted tamarind is often used in accenting pipes, but it isn't easy. Brad Pohlmann made the entire run of Pipes and tobaccos magazine's 2010 Pipe of the Year with spalted tamarind, those 50 pipes a Herculean feat given the material's difficulty. However, because of its handsome graining and tight spalting, many pipe makers find it difficult to resist, including Jody Davis, Ryan Alden, Sabina Santos, Daniel Mustran, Claudio Cavicchi, and Michael Lindner, to name just a few.

As pipe smokers, we're fascinated by the way wood can be used for artistic and practical pursuits, and aside from briar itself, spalted woods may be the most interesting. It's almost miraculous to think that the process of decomposition may be halted at just the right time and taken advantage of to craft stunningly beautiful accents to elevate our pipes and enrapture our attention. Pipe makers pursue every avenue for this purpose, and when they utilize spalted woods they're including a highly unique material, one that cannot be perfectly replicated from one pipe to the next, each as individualized and independent as pipe smokers themselves.

Comments

    • Dan on June 4, 2021
    • Very educational. I had a cousin that was a victim of white rot that never got stabilized, he was punky and useless. My wife teaches biology, chemistry, and physics; maybe I could get her to see how smart and scientific this hobby can be by introducing her to these articles. But then again, she would see how much money I've invested into this hobby...and still haven't reached GOLD status over the past 11yrs(thousands of dollars). Best I don't show her.

    • Robert Blanks on June 6, 2021
    • In the words of a famous Vulcan-“ fascinating !”😁

    • SO on June 6, 2021
    • Thank you for another interesting article. I didn't know we were related to fungus!

    • Bones on June 6, 2021
    • A green blooded pointy eared Vulcan would find it fascinating. It is fascinating!

    • Tad on June 7, 2021
    • Fascinating article, Chuck! I really love my Pohlmann Pipes & tobaccos sandblast with spalted tamarind. I've chatted with him about it it and, indeed, it is a lovely yet challenging material to work with. Never knew what caused the spalting. Thanks for the education!

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