Briar is a remarkable wood, but it has to do with more than just the beauty of the grain. What makes briar a superb material for pipes has a lot to do with where it comes from.
First off, briar is not a tree, it’s the subterranean burl of the white heath (or heather) tree. The burls grow between the root and the trunk, with many weighing in from 25 to 40 pounds. Because these short, scrubby trees grow mostly in poor soil on rocky hillsides, the wood of the burl tends to be quite hard. The twisted grain is due to the fact that the burls are an extension of the root system, and that’s critical to the elegant beauty of the wood.
When you look at a cross section of a burl that shows the linear grain (whether it’s perfectly straight or not), it’s referred to as straight grain if it runs up and down the bowl. If it runs parallel to the top line of the bowl, it’s called cross-grain. When viewing the grain where the wood is cut slightly on a bias, and has an appearance that looks like little tongues of fire, it’s called flame grain. But possibly the most desirable of all may be the end-grain which looks like dots in a circle and is called bird’s-eye, for obvious reasons. In a straight or flame grain, you’ll find bird’s-eye at the top and bottom of the bowl and shank. In a cross-grain, it’s found on the sides of the bowl. When the grain is close together, we usually refer to it as “tight”. But what is grain, exactly?
The light and dark whorls and dots we call grain is the differentiation between soft and hard wood. The darker material is hard, while the lighter colored stuff is softer. This fact allows for two wonderfully artistic effects. The first one is a technique called contrast staining. To do this, the entire stummel (the wooden part of a pipe) is stained with, usually, a dark red, brown or black. Then, the pipe is buffed out on an arbor wrapped with steel wool. The soft wood will absorb the stain readily, and when buffed, the stain is partially or completely removed from the harder wood. Then a second, contrasting color or tone of stain is applied, giving a striated effect that can often be visually stunning. One brand that uses this technique to great effect is Neerup, where the lighter color is a bit on the orange side, and with the darker grain for contrast, takes on a tiger’s stripe look.
Another way a pipemaker can take advantage of the varying hardness of the grain is to sandblast the wood. Blasting can be done using sand, metal particles, glass beads or other fine materials. When the wood is exposed to the high pressure bombardment of the tiny pieces, the soft wood gets ripped away, leaving behind the ridges of hard grain, making it look somewhat like ripples on water or a sand dune. Peder Jeppesen and Svend Handgaard do a nice job of blasting pipes.
When the grain is uninteresting, it doesn’t mean that a beautiful pipe can’t result. The pipe can be carved or gouged in such a way as to leave a rough finish. This technique, most commonly called rustication, can make for a very attractive pipe, especially with a nice color scheme. Another particularly advantageous purpose for rustication is to make a pipe easier to hold onto, particularly for someone with arthritic hands or any other affliction that makes it difficult to handle smooth items.
Why is briar so expensive? Firstly, it only grows in one area – the area around the Mediterranean, most notably Corsica, France, Greece and Algeria, so the people who harvest the burls know how difficult it is to get good wood. Additionally, not many people want to go climbing up rocky hillsides to dig up the base of a tree to excise an underground piece of burl.