Briar is an amazing material, and is ideally suited to making tobacco pipes. It’s a hard wood that polishes beautifully, it’s heat-resistant and it has a relatively neutral flavor. But one of the main reasons for its popularity as a pipe making wood is the intriguing grain that it has. The way it grows accounts for the intricate and unique appearance of the wood. So, this is a little bit about the types of grain exhibited in briar pipes.
To understand why the grain varies so much it helps to realize that briar burls grow underground between the roots and the trunk of the white heath or heather tree (Erica Arborea). The burls have grain that radiate outward from a somewhat central point. The grain doesn’t grow particularly straight and gets progressively wider as it approaches the outside of the burl.
The most prized pipes are those classified as straight grain. These pipes have a fairly tight grain that runs up and down the bowl of the pipe, and some also follow the lines of the shank as well. To be a true straight grain, it has to conform to the shape of the pipe. I’ve included photos of all of the different types of grain (with captions) to illustrate. Additionally, straight grains also show excellent examples of the other most prized type- bird’s eye.
Bird’s eye is the end grain and is so named because it looks like a grouping of little eyes. Like the burlwood of curly maple, good bird’s eye is remarkably beautiful in appearance, and when it covers the top of the bowl, the heel of the pipe and/or the upper and lower parts of the shank, it truly accents the attractiveness of the piece.
Plateaux is bird’s eye from the outside of the burl, so instead of the little whorls, you see peaks and valleys like a topographical map of a mountain range. Up until the 1960s, plateau was rarely seen in a pipe, but when the Danish revolution came about, with the more organic shapes and carving to the grain of the wood, plateaux began showing up, usually around the crest of the bowl. Most of the pipes described as freehands have plateaux covering the top.
Flame grain is somewhat similar to straight grain, except that it tends to flare outward a bit, making it look a bit like a flame. At one end (the
narrow end of the grain), the bird’s eye will tend to be quite tight, but at the flared end, the bird’s eye will be more openly spaced. In its own way, though, flame grain is every bit as impressive as many straight grains.
In older, more traditional pipes, the most popular type of grain was cross grain. The grain runs from the side of the bowl to the opposite side, with straight or flame grain covering the front and back of the bowl, running parallel to the top line, and bird’s eye on the sides. The great British pipes frequently were made with this kind of grain, and it’s still used extensively by makers such as Peterson.
One of the most impressive looking types of grain shows up when a pipe is sandblasted. The soft wood is ripped away, leaving concentric rings that sort of look like the broken cross section of
sedimentary rock. The rings can be deep and sharp or shallow and detailed, depending upon the size and type of the blasting media used, the amount of time the wood is blasted and the pressure used. A number of collectors (myself included) would rather see a well defined sandblast than the usual smooth graining .
Part of what can make a pipe’s graining particularly attractive is how it is stained, with one specific technique being the most impressive. The staining that makes the grain stand out the best is called contrast staining. The way this is done is to stain the pipe with a dark color and then sand or use steel wool to take off a thin layer of wood. The stain will go deeply into the softer wood, but not the harder material, so after removing some of the surface, the soft wood is the only part that’s dark. Then a lighter color stain can be applied before buffing and polishing so the grain really pops out. Common stain color combinations are ruby/black, gold/dark brown and natural/medium brown.
Of course, the upshot is that the grain has minimal, if any, impact on the smokeability of the pipe, but it certainly makes each individual pipe interesting and unique, and adds an artistic aspect.