11 Feb Tiny Fires
“Friend, good wood is priceless and it’s ridiculous to speculate with the bearing when what is really important is the quality of the supply.”
This is part of an email I received in response to a query about getting some briar from a mill which had re-opened after being closed for quite a few years. I wanted to make a small order, but various fees (shipping, a sanitation certificate, import taxes) were looking like more than the wood. So I was grousing a little bit. And this guy basically says “I dare you to not buy my stuff.” That’s fantastic.
I mean, one of the great joys for me in making pipes is procurement. I don’t speak French, Spanish, or Italian. So it’s… fun. And to have a vendor essentially threaten me with the thought of buying lesser stuff somewhere else… whaddya do? Naturally I capitulated and ordered a much larger amount of wood. Two can play at the passive aggression game; now the pressure’s on for this guy to come through.
There’s no twist to the ending of the story. Of course he did. And that’s why you build relationships in your industry, if you have any brains. I could get a “better” deal somewhere else. And … what of it? Pay less for worse wood? How’s that better?
No, I’ll take this guy at his word. If he sends junk, that’s the end. If he sends nice stuff, I buy more. It’s a simple equation. Except it’s not – this blog entry represents a full-circle tour for me through briar-country. I’ve bought briar from just about every seller out there now. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes the government boys decide a box of weird-looking wood should just be burned at the border. You take what you can get, literally. The full-circle is that this email was from the very same person from whom I bought my first plateau briar, in Spain. That’s some 12 years ago now. And in the interim, I’ve bought from Greece and Italy and Algeria. And it’s all been pretty good, really, it all has its little ups and downs. There’s no magic source for perfect blocks, briar’s briar. But if you’re nice to your briar guys, maybe they’ll be nice to you.
The relationships I have with any number of people in this community, vendors, customers, friends… I wouldn’t trade for anything. This is just huge fun in every direction. And yeah, I’m an irascible prick in lots of ways, I know that. But that’s because I can’t hide my passion, I refuse to. In our vanilla world of look-alike pop stars, and taste-alike beverages, soulless vehicles and sandwiches without flavor (yes I want sauerkraut on my Reuben, otherwise it’s not a Reuben), I find it wonderful to be tweaked by the human being on the other end of the email chain.
Congratulations, Your Order is Being Processed.
In regard to the wood itself, it obviously plays some role in “how the pipe smokes” but it’s not clear to me that any particular block can be analyzed and declared to be a block of some certain charming characteristic as a pipe. I think there are subtle but real differences between the products of certain mills and certain regions. This briar might be, in general, a little less physically dense than that briar, or it might be slightly sweeter or slightly more tannic on the first smoke, or whatever thing. And I think if you have fresh briar, these differences are more pronounced. I’m not sure what’s happening to briar as it sits, but it oxidises in some fashion, turning brown and becoming more physically stable as it ages. It also presents to the user as being “ready”, the pipe will require basically no break in time, there will be very little change from bowl 1 to bowl 20.
The difficulty with this, of course, is that you have to sit on it yourself or buy old stuff from someone else. I have done both, putting blocks aside or simply failing to use them as I went along, and I’ve had the good fortune to purchase blocks from other makers, blocks with significant age on them. Now, as I buy briar, I can simply put it aside for a few years. The good part of this is that what I am choosing from on any given day is ready to go. The bad side is that I am doing less assessment as to the ongoing quality of my supply – I am hoping that what I buy today is good stuff when I get to it in a few years here!
Briar is graded for grain density and intensity, and that’s that. Uniform highly striped wood costs more than less stripey wood, or less well cut wood. But the idea that one makes a better pipe than the other… I don’t think so. If that were the case, there would be a line up for certain pipes, birdseye grain on the side, or whatever. And a few people do indeed seek these particulars. The thing is, no group of pipe collectors agrees on the details. For every person who thinks birdseye smokes better, you can find a person who thinks straight grain smokes better (or Corsican, Algerian, North-facing morning-picked Alsacian…) All the old catalogs mention how desirable the heart of the burl is, and basically we avoid it now. It’s all bullshit!
Some pipes work great for some guys, and it’s because of how they pack, how they tamp, how hard they draw… it’s about the experience for that person. There’s no single definable set of specs for a “magic” pipe. You can make a great pipe day after day by being careful. That’s why there are so few stories in the collecting world about poor smoking hand made pipes – for the most part, the makers are very very careful about this.
Are there flukey pipes that are built right and don’t smoke great? Maybe, but I think they are few and far between. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one. Are there flukey pipes that are built “wrong” and smoke great? Yes, we’ve all had these. Pipes that maybe work better than they have a right to. But making something reliable is certainly possible, where the variance is small between the pipes at the end of the day. You just have to be really careful.
There’s lots of information out there, lots of opinions on what makes the best smoking experience. Probably the most obvious is the idea of the constant volume airway, where the pipe maker is attempting to keep the cross-sectional area of the airway the same from the bowl to the button, transitioning very smoothly from a round hole to a rectangular one. And this does seem to work (heck the old “orifice” pipes which are basically a round hole from end to end smoke fine). There are other ideas too, from calabash cooling chambers to condensing systems. One of the ideas I am attracted to is the venturi, where an airway tapers through its length. The idea is that as a gas is moving faster, it is exerting less pressure (interacting less with the walls of the tube). What a perfect thing in a pipe, where as the gas moves farther along a colder and colder tube, we would like very much for it not to condense on the walls of said tube.
Who cares about any of this? No one. Pipe makers are angels-on-the-pinhead people, a lot of us. Endlessly tinkering for that ultimate experience. But the truth is, if you make things halfway carefully and intentionally, there’s a dozen ways to make a great smoking pipe, and the buyers will never agree with which one is the best anyway.
Like the great British pipes, my pipe pipes are designed with slightly smaller draw than the average North American handmade – the industry standard is probably a 5/32” drill at the bowl and consant (or even expanding) volume from there. I drill a lot of pipes at 5/32” and a few at 11/64”, and I restrict the stem a little near the button (and have played with restriction that was too great, made the pipe difficult to use). My pipes will take a BJ Long regular, but they are not designed to take a giant fluffy or a full taper. This is absolutely intentional. Yes, you could have more smoke if I drilled the whole thing at a ½ inch. Smoke smoke smoke, all the smoke you could want. And no flavor at all. Keeping this system at the right temperature is the critical factor, and a slightly restricted pipe helps that. All those old Barlings, Dunhills, Sasienis… they taste great, they smoke nicely. Not one has a constant volume airway. And many are drilled at 1/8”, very small by today’s standards. And we love those pipes because they offer a tremendous range of flavors, they are “magic”.
So that’s the idea. I’m trying to build a pipe that respects the best parts of the best traditions, and meets the performance standards of the best modern pipes (which are very, very high standards now).