The majority of pipes sold today, whether handmade or machine made, are fashioned from briar (French: bruyère).
Briar is a particularly good wood for pipe making for a number of reasons. The first and most important is its natural resistance to fire. The second is its inherent ability to absorb moisture. The burl absorbs water in nature to supply the tree in the dry times and likewise will absorb the moisture that is a by- product of combustion.
Briar is cut from the root burl of the tree heath (Erica arborea), which is native to the rocky and sandy soils of the Mediterranean region. Briar burls are cut into two types of blocks; ebauchon and plateaux. Ebauchon is taken from the heart of the burl while plateaux is taken from the outer part of the burl.
While both types of blocks can produce briar pipes of the highest quality, most artisan pipe makers prefer to use plateaux because of its superior graining.
Using a pipe
Smoking a pipe requires more apparatus and technique than cigarette or even cigar smoking. In addition to the pipe itself and matches or a lighter, smokers usually require a pipe tool for packing, adjusting, and emptying the tobacco in the bowl, and a regular supply of pipe cleaners.
Pipe tobacco can be purchased in several forms, which vary both in flavour (leading to many blends, or the opportunity for the smoker to blend their own tobaccos) and in the physical shape and size to which the tobacco has been reduced.
Most tobaccos resemble cigarette tobacco, but are substantially more moist (so they must be kept in airtight packaging), and are cut much more coarsely. Too finely cut tobacco does not allow enough air to flow through the pipe, and overly dry tobacco burns too quickly with little flavour.
Some pipe tobaccos are cut into long narrow ribbons. Some are pressed into flat cakes which are cut up. Others are tightly wound into long ropes, then sliced into discs. Flake tobacco (sliced cakes or ropes) may be prepared in several ways. Generally it is rubbed out with the fingers and palms until it is loose enough to pack. It can also be crumbled or simply folded and stuffed into a pipe. Some people also prefer to dice up very coarse tobaccos before using them, making them easier to pack.
In the most common method of packing, tobacco is added to the bowl of the pipe in several batches, each one pressed down until the mixture has a uniform density that optimises airflow (something that it is difficult to gauge without practice). This can be done with a finger or thumb, but if the tobacco needs to be repacked later, while it is burning, the tamper on a pipe tool is sometimes used. If it needs to be loosened, the reamer, or any similar long pin can be used.
A traditional way of packing the pipe is to fill the bowl and then pack gently to about 1/3 full, fill again and pack slightly more firmly to about 2/3 full , and then pack more firmly still to the top.
An alternate packing technique called the Frank method involved lightly dropping tobacco in the pipe, after which a large plug is gingerly pushed into the bowl all at once.
Matches, or even separately lit slivers of wood, are usually considered preferable to lighters. Butane lighters especially made for pipes are made which permit a flame to be directed downward into the bowl. Naptha fueled conventional lighters are felt to impart a chemical taste to the smoke.
When matches are employed they are allowed to burn for several seconds to allow the sulphur from the tip to carry away and the match to produce a full flame. The flame is then moved in circles above the pipe while the smoker draws the flame into the tobacco.
With care, a briar pipe can last a very long time without burning out. However, due to aggressive (hot) smoking, imperfections in the wood, or just bad luck, a hole can be burned in the tobacco chamber of the pipe.
There are several methods used to help prevent a wood pipe from burning out. These generally involve pre- coating the chamber with carbon, or by gently smoking a new pipe to build up carbon deposits (cake, see below) on the walls.
One method to prevent a wood pipe from burning is to make a 50/50 mix of honey or powdered sugar and water, then using one’s finger to spread it around the inside of the bowl, and allowing this mixture to dry.
After a few bowls, the mix will create a barrier that will be burn resistant. Some people argue that this method is not effective, while others say it adds flavour which may be desirable to smokers. Some pipe makers use a combination of natural sour cream, buttermilk, and activated charcoal. The sour cream and buttermilk are mixed to the consistency of milk, and the activated charcoal is added until dark grey. A pipe cleaner is pre-positioned with the tip just entering the chamber, to keep the draught hole cleared, and the tobacco chamber is coated evenly with the mixture and allowed to dry.
Another method is to coat the inside of the pipe bowl with a paste made from fine cigar ash. This is allowed to dry overnight. This speeds the build- up of the desired bowl cake.
Many modern briar pipes are already pre-treated to resist burn, and if smoked correctly, the cake (a mixture of ash, unburned tobacco, oils, sugars, and other residue) will build up properly on its own.
Or a more accepted technique is to alternate a half- bowl and a full- bowl the first several times the pipe is used to build an even cake. Burley is often recommended to help a new pipe build cake.
Pipe smoke, like cigar smoke, is usually not inhaled. It is merely brought into the mouth and then released. It is normal to have to relight a pipe periodically. If it is smoked too slowly, this will happen more often. If it is smoked too quickly, it can produce excess moisture causing a gurgling sound in the pipe and an uncomfortable sensation on the tongue (referred to as “pipe tongue”, or more commonly, “tongue bite”).
A pipe cleaner can be used to dry out the bowl and, wetted with alcohol, the inner channel. The bowl of the pipe can also become uncomfortably hot, depending on the material and the rate of smoking.
For this reason clay pipes in particular are often held by the stem. Meerschaum pipes are held in a square of chamois leather, with gloves, or else by the stem in order to prevent uneven colouring of the material.
The ash and the last bits of unburned tobacco, known as dottle), must be cleaned out with a pipe tool. A pipe cleaner is then run through the airways of the stem and shank to remove any moisture, ash, and other residue before the pipe is allowed to dry.
A pipe should be allowed to cool before removing the stem to avoid the possibility of warping it.
A cake of ash eventually develops inside the bowl. This is generally considered desirable for controlling overall heat. However, if it becomes too thick, it may expand faster than the bowl of the pipe itself when heated, cracking the bowl. Before reaching this point, it needs to be scraped down with a reamer.
It is generally recommended to keep the cake at approximately the thickness of an U.S. dime (about 1/20th of an inch or 1.5 mm), though sometimes the cake is removed entirely as part of efforts to eliminate off flavours or aromas.
Cake is considered undesirable in meerschaum pipes because it can easily crack the bowl and/or interfere with the mineral’s natural porosity.
When tobacco is burned, oils are vaporized and condense on the walls of the bowl, in the existing cake, and in the shank. Over time, these oils can oxidize and turn rancid, causing the pipe to give a sour or bitter smoke.
An effective measure called the Professor’s Pipe-Sweetening Treatment involves filling the bowl with kosher salt and carefully wetting it with strong spirits. It is important to not use iodised salt, as many experts feel the iodine and other additives impart an off flavour.
Some people find that regularly wiping out the bowl with spirits is helpful in preventing souring. Commercial pipe-sweetening products are also available.