Each of us has a pipe finish that attracts us. Some love grain to “pop”, so they may like a smooth, polished surface with a contrast staining that makes the grain truly stand out. Lots of people really like the rough and rocky look of a coral rustication. For myself, there’s nothing like a deep, craggy sandblast. Let’s look at the various types of briar pipe finishes.
No matter what the finish is, it’s going to take time. A smooth finish may look like it doesn’t require a lot of work, but it does. Although I’ve never made a pipe (which is a good thing), I know about polishing, and it’s not just a matter of putting a shiny coating on the wood. A regular stain will be a matter of a single color applied to the wood, whereas a contrast staining requires applying a dark stain, using an abrasive to remove the stain that’s on the hard part of the grain and putting on a lighter, contrasting color. This will make the grain really stand out. Danish makers seem to especially like this technique, and it’s been used extensively by Bjarne, Neerup and Nording, among others.
To polish, once the shape is achieved, the wood is sanded with finer and finer grades of sandpaper (how fine will depend upon the maker). The shine comes from the application of a hard wax and/or a finish. How does wax shine a pipe? The same way it shines your car- by “sanding” the surface and leaving a coating behind. You see, wax is a micro-abrasive and also fills in minute scratches to make the surface amazingly smooth. Using a lacquer just fills in the fine abrasions and leaves a very smooth and shiny outer coating, but many smokers avoid lacquered pipes as they believe that the finish makes a pipe smoke hot.
Sandblasting is achieved by exactly what you’d think- blasting the wood with air-propelled bits of fine abrasives. Because briar has both hard and soft wood in each piece, the grain is the delineation of the hard and soft material. When the wood has sand, metal or glass bits fired at it at fairly high pressure, the abrasive gradually rips away the soft wood, leaving the hard ridges behind. This is where the intriguing layered look comes from. Also, since the hard wood transmits heat better than the soft, and the surface area of the pipe is increased, sandblasted pipes tend to smoke (marginally) cooler than smooth pipes. Most companies have some sandblasted pipes in their lineup, but I lean toward the blasts by individual carvers like Luigi Viprati and Kevin Arthur, for example.
Rusticated pipes are as varied as they are intriguing. There are so many different ways to rusticate a pipe (such as line carving and the aforementioned coral finish) that it’s almost impossible to describe them all. But in each case, there’s a fair amount of work involved. Each type of finish requires a unique tool that is used to gouge or scratch the wood, and is oftentimes made and/or designed by the pipemaker. Each carver or company has a one-of-a-kind rustication, and some of these finishes are justifiably well-known in the pipe community. The Italian companies certainly have a flair for those coral finishes. Ardor, Castello, Rinaldo, Gepetto and Savinelli, among others, have their own version of this style, and with a combination of colored stains are true works of art.
Which finish is best? It’s the one that pleases you most for the particular pipe you’re looking at. After all, if there were such a thing as a “best finish”, that’s the only style people would buy. As for myself, my collection contains a number of examples of each of these types, as my preferences seem to change with my mood.
If variety is the spice of life, then selecting a collection of pipes based on the outer finish is my kind of spice. Look around, you’ll be amazed at what’s out there.
Editor’s Note: We recently caught an episode of How It’s Made where they visit the Dunhill factory to show how smoking pipes are made. You can see firsthand some of the techniques Russ explains by way of the video below.