Long before briar was used for making pipes, stone clay and other plants were used. Arguably, today briar pipes are the most preferred material for carving pipes, together with Meerschaum and CornCob pipes.
Briar (bruyère) originates from Erica Arborea, a shrub-tree native to the Mediterranean area. However, the part of the Erica Arborea used for carving pipes is actally the root burl of the plant.
Briar is well suited for pipe making because of its natural resistance to extreme heat and its inherent ability to absorb moisture. Briar burls can be either cut from the heart of the burl for normal briar blocks, or from the outer part of the burl for plateaux blocks. Plateuax blocks are preferred due to its beautiful graining.
It takes about 30 years for the root to grow large enough to get big enough blocks of wood (usually enough for approximately 6 pipes) for carving a pipe from it. Although harvesting these root burls usually means destroying the plant, it has become possible nowadays to harvest without destroying it.
After harvesting, the blocks are submerged in boiling water to remove resin and sap whereafter it is stored in large kilns to dry for at least a year. Some carvers prefer older blocks while others prefer younger ones.
„...a myriad of factors goes into what makes a pipe taste the way it does, the mind not the least of those. But in the last analysis, it is probably the briar - the result of the soil and climate in which that burl spet those fifty growing years - that makes the most difference with regard to taste.“- Fred Hanna -
Often, briar pipes are advertised referring to its grain. The more tight and unifrom the grain of the block is, the higher the quality of the block. The most popular grains amongst carvers are flame grain, straight grain and "bird's eye" grain - a cluster of tiny marks and whorls. Another mark of the quality of the briar is the appearance of small holes or flaws which carvers will fill. These pipes are generally cheaper. Fills have no bearing on the smoking quality and is generally an easthetic value. The same goes for grain.
Briar pipes provide a clean, dry and cool smoke without the disadvantages of Clay or Meerschaum pipes.
Meerschaum is a product that is farmed from the sea. It is an off-white substance which is porous yet hard and can withstand very high heat.
The first recorded use of meerschaum as a material for making pipes was about in 1723 and quickly Pipes African meerschaumbecame popular as the perfect material for providing a cool, dry, flavourful smoke. The porous nature of meerschaum draws moisture and tobacco tar into the stone and absorbs nicotine. Unlike briar, meerschaum does not burn and does not need pre-smoking to have a good quality performance. Meerschaum also does not require the layer of carbon (cake) which briar pipes to protect the wood and deliver a cool smoke.
Two mainline meerschaum pipes have been commercially manufactured over time – African (mainly from Tanzania) and Turkish meerschaum. In the African Great Lakes region, large deposits of meerschaum is mined in Tanzania. The main deposit of African meerschaum comes from the Amboseli basin surrounding the Lake Amboseli. Turkish meerschaum is found in Eskisehir, in central Turkey. Meerschaum pipes slowly change their colour as they age and are smoked into shades of gold and dark brown. However, African meerschaum is often stained. Turkish meerschaum is regarded as a better quality meerschaum as the African version but the African version is in great demand lately due to them not being manufactured any more. Before acquiring a meerschaum, its important to do some pipe collection meerschaumresearch – genuine block meerschaum is a pipe that is carved from a block of meerschaum. A non-genuine block meerschaum is a pipe that might be made from compressed meerschaum “dust”. They are therefore very brittle and virtually impossible to repair.
Why a meerschaum? Meerschaum smokes extremely cold as meerschaum can withstand extreme heat from your pipe. Meerschaum also does not absorb aromas from the tobacco, making meerschaum excellent for testing aromatic or new tobaccos where you want to prevent any tobacco “ghosts” in the bowl. And of course, it looks good and colourise over time due as you smoke a meerschaum.
I have a genuine African block meerschaum with “Tanzania” as an inscription and the familiar elephant logo on the stem. I also bought an estate African meerschaum from eBay in May 2014. The markings on this pipe is the elephant logo, “Tanzania” and “Genuine block meerschaum”.
Just to complete my meerschaum series, I recently bought a new Turkish meerschaum from a Turkishpipe collection turkish meerschaum carver, Mehmet Ali Birinci. I like supporting “upcoming” or craftsmanship-carvers because they are not mass-produced and I believe a lot of love and passion goes into their craft. This pipe is beautifully done and the seller has good feedback from customers. Fikri Baki gained a reputation to be one of the best Turkish meerschaum pipes and is therefore more pricey, but worth it. I might add one to my wish list though but I think having 2 meerschaums is probably enough for me – I’m more of a briar man.
You can also watch this video on my meerschaum pipes.
From the earliest tradition known, people smoked using all kinds of bowls available to them. Amongst these materials were clay, soapstone, gourds (calabash pipes) iron wood, mapple, oak, ash wood and olive wood. Probably the most popular amongst these were clay, used in Europe when pipe smoking were introduced during the 16th and 17th centuries.
Clay pipes are moulded from clay which is baked to from a hard material. Clay pipes are not very strong but resistant to extreme heat. At the same time, they don't smoke cool, making it difficult to "master" the smoking of a clay pipe but apparently offers a clean pure smoke of the tobacco. High quality clay pipes are labor-intensive which requires beating all air out of the clay, hand-rolling each pipe before molding it, piercing with a fine wire, and careful firing. They were made in moulds with the bore created by pushing an oiled wire inside the stem. Traditionally, clay pipes are un-glazed.
Corncobs are a popular American-style pipe. The corn cobs are usually dried for two years after which they are hollowed out to make a bowl shape. The bowls are dipped in a plaster-based mixture and varnished or lacquered on the outside. Shanks were made from pine wood but lately any stem can be insreted into the bowls. The best known and largest manufacturer of corncob pipes is Missouri Meerschaum, producing pipes since 1869. Corncob pipes are very popular because they are inexpensive and require no "break-in" period like briar pipes. Despite being made from corn cob, they offer a cool and clean smoke. Corncobs are a good "starter" pipe.
Calabash gourds are another material used for making pipes. It is made from a plant of the family Cucurbitaceae. Due to its historic reference to Sherlock Holmes (although Sherlock Homes apparently preferred a chruchwarden), it is nowadays carved from wood and sold as Calabash, due to its shape. These pipes are labour intensive to make and epensive.
Other materials often used are cherry wood,, olive, maple, oak and bog-wood to mention a few.