Of Fills and Flaws

There’s an ongoing debate about fills in briar pipes. Many people won’t buy a pipe with any kind of fill. To clarify, a fill is when there’s a flaw in the outside of a (mostly) finished pipe that has been filled in with a putty or a mixture of briar dust and glue. Does putting a fill in a pipe constitute trying to “put one over” on the consumer? In my mind, not really, as long as the pipe sells for less than what a flawless piece would cost. People ask why the maker didn’t just sandblast or rusticate the pipe. A small flaw might not be discovered until the final sanding after the pipe has been stained. At that point, blasting or carving may be out of the question. An artisan carver would almost certainly use a combination of briar dust and cyanoacrylate (super glue) to fill in the flaw, as this combination will accept stain so the fill will be virtually invisible.

If a flaw is noticed early enough, sandblasting or rusticating the pipe is the usual fix, as long as the flaw isn’t deep enough that it might cause a burnout. If there’s even a chance that the flaw goes that deep into the briar, it’s basically firewood. I understand why someone would like a “perfect” pipe, but briar is a particularly imperfect material because it grows underground, so pits and voids are pretty much unavoidable. I know that people might view filling a flaw as an attempt to deceive, but let’s look at some facts. First, briar isn’t cheap. It’s difficult to harvest, takes a lot of care to cure properly and only grows in select locations around the Mediterranean. Second, according to our own Dan Chlebove, if the pipe is truly hand made, including a hand cut stem, it will usually take him 8 to 12 hours to make a pipe start to finish. Factor in that a pipe maker will wind up throwing away some of their pipes because of large flaws, their profit margin is actually pretty slim, except for some of the elite. Looking at it that way, using a small fill to save a pipe doesn’t seem to be a terrible thing.

The funny thing is, I’ve seen people pass around a pipe that they just got from a high-end factory or artisan with pride, and after looking at it, I’ve noticed some fills, even though they were artfully done, and I’m certainly never going to point it out because I don’t want to spoil their enjoyment. There are pipes out there over a thousand dollars with fills, but they command the price because of who made them and I’ve seen factory pipes that sell for $30 without a single flaw. Which is more justified? That depends upon the buyer.

Personally, if I like the esthetics of a pipe and it smokes well, a well-done fill won’t bother me. If it’s been done using putty so that after awhile it becomes readily apparent, I’m going to be more than a little ticked off. I guess what it comes down to for me is how well the fill is done. after all, if you don’t know it’s there, it shouldn’t bother you, right?

About Russ

Russ Ouellette is the blender/creator of the Hearth & Home series of tobaccos for www.pipesandcigars.com in Bethlehem, PA. He has been a pipe smoker and blender for over 30 years, and enjoys feedback from the pipe smoking public. You can reach Russ at russo@pipesandcigars.com or by calling 1-800-494-9144.