Humans have smoked pipes since the Stone Age, and while the basics have changed little — burning a substance in a bowl and drawing the smoke through an airway — the materials and means of construction have adapted with technological advancement. Since the 19th century, briar has dominated the pipe-making landscape, but within the historical context of tobacco pipes, it remains a relatively recent innovation. Clay and meerschaum were favored for centuries before briar, and ancient pipes of stone and bone have dated back millennia. Morta is a comparatively more recent pipe-making discovery than briar, at least in terms of documented use; however, it's ironically among the oldest in terms of the material's age itself. Chuck's previous article on common tobacco pipe materials outlines a number of pipe types, including morta, but in this guide, I focus on morta in-depth, detailing its unique development, use as a tobacco pipe material, and signature characteristics.
What Is Morta?
Courtesy of Steve Norse
Also called "bog oak," morta is semi-petrified wood found in bogs across Europe. Petrification is the process of transforming a once-living organism into a mineral while retaining its visual properties and structure, but unlike fossilization — an impression of the organism in mud, earth, or stone — petrification is formed from a lack of oxygen, preventing the organic material from decomposing and instead hardening it. The semi-petrified trees used for morta are on track toward being fully petrified; however, that process takes tens of thousands to millions of years. Morta is comparatively younger, dating only between two and five thousand years — a funny modifier, "only": Morta is the oldest pipe material currently used, but compared to petrified wood, it's much younger. It's dense enough to resist a flame, but were it fully petrified, it would be as hard as rock and inefficient to craft.
Morta is the oldest pipe material currently used
Speaking with Steve Norse, owner of Vermont Freehand — among the largest purveyors of pipe-making materials in the world — was especially informative. He's worked with morta for years, and his prior experience in furniture making gives him keen insight into various wood types. "I'm sort of a nerd for wood grain," he says, "and morta, as an old-growth tree, has a tighter grain structure than you see in modern trees." Old-growth trees comprised forests that grew over the course of centuries and, as a result, have considerably more growth rings per inch compared to trees from modern forests, which have been intentionally cultivated to grow more rapidly. "The ancient oak trees that are now morta could grow much older back then, and the forest floor was a lot thicker," Steve says. "Then, these trees were submerged in bogs, in mud, so they received no sunlight and no oxygen for thousands of years. That's what helps them transform into morta."
Where Does Morta Come From?
Courtesy of Steve Norse
Much of the world's morta supply is confined to Europe, but it spans the entire continent: France, Ireland, Great Britain, Ukraine, and Russia among the most prominent morta-rich countries. Old-growth, hardwood trees necessary for morta aren't found on other continents; those tree types either never existed in those locales or were cut down during the past several centuries.
Steve deals specifically with a family in Ukraine, and sourcing morta requires strenuous effort and powerful machinery. "It takes an incredible amount of force to pull these logs out of the water," he says. "The suction is intense, and because they're soaking wet, they weigh an absolute ton. You have to dig around the individual logs to wrap a chain, and then a crane pulls them out and onto massive trucks. Sometimes they're pulling out pieces that are 10 inches in diameter, other times it's pieces that are three feet in diameter."
Because of millenia spent submerged, morta must be dried significantly before it can be used in woodworking. "After pulling out the logs, they cut them down on a band saw into manageable sizes, and then the drying process begins," says Steve. "It has to be done really slowly. For pipe-grade morta blocks, drying them in a kiln — as is popular for briar — would result in cracking, so all morta blocks have to be air-dried. The blocks are gradually acclimated to drier and drier environments before being placed on a concrete floor and covered in sawdust to complete the drying process."
... all morta blocks have to be air-dried
According to Steve, the general rule-of-thumb for drying wood to an appropriate moisture level for woodworking is one year per inch of thickness. "Typically, that's going to be around 11 percent, but for pipe making, you want it less than that — around five to six percent humidity. So, for a two-inch morta block, it's probably going to take three to four years to achieve the right dryness level." Not only is morta the result of a time-consuming process; it requires additional time to become usable in pipe making.
Moonshine: Sandblasted Morta Long Stem Devil Anse
Differences Between Morta and Briar
Even apart from formation and curing, morta is also distinct from briar in its aesthetic and smoking attributes:
- Smoking flavor
"Like any wood that grows above ground, morta is formed from linear-grained wood," says Steve. "Briar, by contrast, grows underground and only has ring grain. It doesn't have the vertical grain characteristics that an above-ground wood has. With linear-grained wood, you have to be extremely careful in how it's dried because of the tension that the wood has and having a more consistent grain structure." Such a grain structure is prone to cracking if not cured slowly, and it's also what gives morta its distinctive aesthetic. Morta's grain is more open than briar's, and it has a more geometric aspect to it, with vertical and horizontal streaks intersecting in a patchwork-like orientation. One of the primary reasons pipe makers and collectors are drawn to morta pipes is for their singular aesthetic.
Morta's grain is more open than briar's, and it has a more geometric aspect to it, with vertical and horizontal streaks intersecting in a patchwork-like orientation
There's a variation of hues among morta, depending on how old it is, but all examples follow a gray scale of tones. "For morta to become fully black," says Steve, "it takes about 5,000 years. If it was submerged for, say, three or four thousand years, it's going to be more of a grayish color, and for one or two thousand years, it's going to be more of a golden-gray color." While morta can be stained a darker shade of gray or black, it doesn't afford the color diversity of briar — reds, browns, greens. Instead, it offers a deep, charcoal hue that's difficult to achieve with briar.
Morta Smoking Flavor
Many pipe smokers have remarked on the different flavors highlighted by morta pipes compared to those fashioned from briar. Unlike more neutral materials, like clay and meerschaum, wood imparts its own natural essences to the tobacco smoke, albeit subtly so. Max Rimensi, the artisan carver behind Il Duca pipes, is prolific in working with morta pipes, and he smokes one in particular: "I use my morta pipe specifically for smoking Latakia blends, such as Pirate Kake or similar. I find it softens the varietal's sharper notes."
Likewise, Claudio Albieri, a prestigious leatherworker who crafts luxury pipe accessories and who first introduced Max to morta, confirms the harmonious pairing between Latakia and morta: "Morta pipes are for Latakia lovers. You can smoke whatever you like, but with Latakia, morta is better than briar." Another notable carver of morta pipes, Chris Askwith remarks that "morta seems to consistently smoke cooler and drier than briar pipes in my experience. What little flavor it does impart, I can probably only describe as savory and clean, but everyone who buys one touts it as among their best smoking pipes." Of course, everyone's personal experiences will differ slightly, but one of the most intriguing aspects of the pipe-smoking hobby is the experimentation involved in finding what blends smoke best out of what pipes.
"... morta seems to consistently smoke cooler and drier than briar pipes in my experience"
Morta as a Pipe-Making Material
Il Duca: Sandblasted Morta Volcano with Black Palm
Alongside its different aesthetics and smoking properties, morta also requires different crafting techniques than briar, mostly regarding cutting and drilling. "Since it has an open-pore grain structure," says Steve, "morta has more furring when you cut it." Furring refers to the slender, hair-like fragments that hang off the bottom edge of a cut, so for morta pipes, that furring must be sanded down.
Moreover, reaming the mortise and chamber of a morta pipe is even more essential than for a briar pipe. "Because of how wood moves when tension is released," says Steve, "drilling a hole will never create a perfect circle. The grain can release in sort of a circular pattern, so it will create two thicker sides in the direction of the grain." For this reason, most professional pipe makers will hand-ream the mortise after drilling to achieve a perfectly centered circle and, thus, a better stem fit. While they often do this on briar pipes, too, it's especially necessary for morta pipes. "Since morta is a linear-grained wood, it's more prone to cracking at the shank unless it has a perfect stem fit." A good stem fit is a crucial aspect of a well-made pipe, but even more so if that pipe is fashioned from morta.
Finishing a morta pipe also has its unique rigors, as the open grain structure can more easily trap various polishing compounds. Most experienced pipe makers, when working with morta, sand it to a finer grit before oiling, waxing, and polishing the pipe. "You're better off," says Steve, "just avoiding the polish and sanding with a higher grit, then oiling and waxing the pipe. That gets the wax inside of those pores and really does a better job of sealing it, or if you're oiling it first, the oil seals everything and then the wax gives you your shine." Making a morta pipe requires a slight change in process compared to briar pipes, and if left unaccounted can lead to loss of durability or an unattractive finish. Morta sandblasts much more quickly than briar, and such a finish not only showcases morta's signature grain pattern but also makes for a more efficient finishing process.
Askwith: Smooth Morta Dublin Cavalier
Morta Tobacco Pipes
The earliest record I could find of a morta tobacco pipe is from Peterson's 1906 catalog, courtesy of Mark Irwin's Peterson Pipe Notes blog and his book with Gary Malmberg, The Peterson Pipe Book. Though little is known about these Peterson bog-oak pipes, their images are designated as the 8B and 15B shape, each carved with stunning detail across the bowls. In their book, Irwin and Malmberg speculate that Peterson could well have been the first manufacturer of morta pipes, though production was substantially limited and, in later decades, nonexistent.
In more recent years, however, the use of morta has increased, and its popularity has surged, particularly with artisan pipe makers and modern workshops. Trever Talbert was among the first modern artisans to craft handmade morta pipes. Later, in 2009, both Chris Askwith and Max Rimensi began utilizing the material, with Chris referencing Trever as the only other carver he was aware of using morta at the time. Chris and Max were both drawn to morta's unique grain structure, and Chris also appreciated the material being native to his home in the U.K., sourcing his stock from the fens of Norfolk.
Because of its eccentricities, morta pipes are most commonly produced by artisan carvers, like Trever, Chris, and Max, but the BriarWorks workshop is among the exceptions. The Tennessee-based manufacturer's combination of mass-production and hand-applied techniques work well to overcome the obstacles endemic to morta. Artisan pipe maker Pete Prevost supervises BriarWorks' operation, and all of their pipes are hand-finished and hand-fitted to each stem, including their morta offerings.
Because of its eccentricities, morta pipes are most commonly produced by artisan carvers
"Around 2017, Steve Norse asked us to make a line of morta pipes for Vermont Freehand, so that was our introduction to using morta," says Pete. Because every BriarWorks stummel is shaped on CNC (computer numerical control) machines, though, the team wasn't sure exactly how morta would fit into their process. "But actually, it machined just fine," Pete says. "The only thing was the furring along the edges." With BriarWorks pipes all being hand-finished, though, that aspect was well accounted for and easily overcome.
Conveniently, morta blocks were quite well-suited to BriarWorks' automated shaping process, thanks to how morta is cut. "Briar blocks are often irregularly cut," says Pete. "So, we have to true the sides in order to fit them into our machines. With morta, though — at least the blocks we source from Steve — the cutters do a really good job of cutting the blocks with perfectly rectangular dimensions. We can load them straight into our fixtures without having to reshape the blocks." Sanding morta may take a little more time, but it's made up for thanks to the uniformly cut blocks and because of morta's sandblasting ease.
After that initial foray into morta pipes, BriarWorks began offering the material in their Moonshine line in 2018. They're the perfect introduction to morta for those who are curious about its smoking properties and aesthetic but aren't ready to spend money on a completely handmade piece.
Morta Pipe Care
A common theme throughout this guide has been morta's linear, open-pore grain structure. It's to thank for its distinctive aesthetic and also a cause of some of its crafting idiosyncrasies, and it also requires slightly different maintenance than a briar pipe. "Heat and moisture are transferred differently in a morta pipe because of its open grain," says Steve, "so if it's smoked really hot, it's prone to cracking." Obviously, even a briar pipe will burn out if smoked too hot, but the need for a measured cadence is even more important with morta. Don't let that deter your curiosity, however. Steve recommends that morta pipes should have a bowl coating for added protection, and Chris and Max both recommend maintaining a lighter cake to avoid additional strain on the wood. Lastly, because morta is more absorbent than briar, never soak a morta pipe in liquid when cleaning. For those who ascribe to alcohol or saltwater soaks, or the retort method, it's advised that those be avoided on morta pipes.
the need for a measured cadence is even more important with morta
Morta is among the most fascinating of all pipe materials. It's rare to find a hundred-year-old pipe, and yet carvers are fashioning pipes out of a material from thousands of years ago. In the past two decades, morta pipes have grown considerably in popularity thanks to pioneering carvers like Trever Talbert, Chris Askwith, Max Rimensi, and the BriarWorks team, as well as Steve Norse who has made the material more accessible to pipe makers than ever. While morta pipes have existed at least since the early 20th century, they're being crafted today at the highest standards. There's never been a better era of pipe-making history to introduce a morta pipe to your collection, and for those of you who regularly smoke morta pipes, share your experiences in the comments below!
Il Duca: Sandblasted Morta Bent Apple with Bamboo
- Steve Norse
- Pete Prevost
- Max Rimensi (with translation by Federica Bruno)
- Chris Askwith
- Claudio Albieri
Tagged in: BriarWorks Chris Askwith Claudio Albieri Il Duca Moonshine Morta Pete Prevost