A pipe's finish, while not directly related to its function as a smoking instrument, plays a major role in a pipe's aesthetic appeal. It's one of the most obvious visual aspects of a pipe, and the finish is also one of the main features with which a smoker interacts, second only, perhaps, to the lip button. A finish often makes use of and highlights the briar's natural grain, and it can accentuate texture or attractive color palettes that appeal to collectors as much as the pipe's shape itself, if not more so in some cases. Many pipe smokers have devoted entire collections to specific finishes, and for some, a finish might be the deciding factor for purchasing a pipe.
Our glossary section presents simple definitions of pipe and tobacco terminology, including pipe finishes; however, for those interested in a slightly more in-depth look, the following article will overview the most common pipe finishes and the techniques used to achieve each presentation.
Before Dunhill's introduction of the Shell Briar sandblast in 1917, all pipes were finished smooth. More than any other finish, a smooth treatment showcases the briar's grain in its most natural state, sanded smooth to reveal flame and birdseye grain patterns. Much like staining any other wooden object, staining a pipe involves allowing the briar to soak up a certain stain, layering it accordingly for different depths of color and grain definition, as the different densities throughout the wood absorb the stain to differing degrees. Some pipe makers, particularly among artisan carvers, utilize a contrast stain, a technical, time-consuming process that involves stains of two different colors, with certain aspects of the briar's grain taking to one of the two stains for even more vivid definition.
Dunhill's Shell Briar line brought the first sandblasted finish to pipe making in 1917. Though textured, a sandblast still highlights the briar's natural grain patterns but in three dimensions, as softer sections of the wood are removed in the blasting cabinet. More so than in a smooth finish, sandblasts are able to prominently define the briar's natural growth rings, which lie underneath the flame or birdseye we see in smooth finishes. A sandblasted finish can wear the same stains as a smooth finish, with some makers using contrast stains on sandblasted pipes as well.
Unlike smooth and sandblasted finishes, rustications prioritize texture over grain orientation, often offering deep, craggy presentations that aren't restricted by the briar's natural grain patterns. Rusticated finishes are perfect for those who enjoy a more tactile experience when smoking, especially for larger pipes, and many Italian pipe makers are renowned for their rustication styles, pairing well with the often larger proportions of Italian pipe design. Not dictated by the briar's natural grain patterns, rusticated finishes are often used when a certain briar block doesn't display a very consistent grain orientation, turning what would otherwise have been an unimpressive smooth pipe into one with stimulating texture and rugged appeal.
Similar to rustications, carved finishes don't follow the briar's natural grain patterns. They're often less dense and less uniform than rusticated finishes, though, with some makers carving the briar into extravagant patterns and textures. Meerschaum pipes are most often carved as well, the porous medium catering well to detailed carvings compared to briar. That said, meerschaum pipes can also be finished smooth or rusticated.
So there you have it: a brief overview of some of the major pipe finishes. Keep in mind, though, that each pipe maker's execution is different, especially when it comes to proprietary stains and sandblasting techniques. To fully appreciate the variety and nuance of these finishes, be sure to use our Pipe Locator tool, through which you can filter by type of finish and return only results that match exactly what you're looking for.
What about you? Do you have a favorite finish? What finishes from specific makers are you especially drawn to? Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.