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What is Briar Wood?

Have you ever wondered why tobacco pipes are made out of briar wood? We have a lot of enquiries about our pipes and a lot is to make sure the wood is briar. Previously pipes have been made out of clay, stone and Meerschaum with some success, but once the first briar wood pipe was released we never looked back.

So what is briar wood? It is actually part of the root from a large shrub known as Erica Arborea, a plant has tiny white flowers and can grow up to 21 feet which makes it instantly recognisable. It is native to the Mediterranean, Portugal, The Canary and Madeira Islands. However the shrub has somehow made its way to Ethiopia and Cameroon although the briar from those regions are not as good quality. 

The part of the plant we have come to know as briar wood grows just about the root, known as ‘tree heath’, these compact roots are dug out by hand and then cut into small blocks known as burls. In previous years this would have destroyed the plant, however it has become possible to harvest the briar without destroying the shrub. This is extra important as it takes 30 years for the plant to grow so harvesting as much as possible is vital. One plant only creates up to 10 pounds of burl which is only enough to create six to twelve pipes.

Once cut into blocks, the briar is submerged in boiling water to remove any sap and resin that may appear, afterwards the blocks are stored in large kilns to dry and age for a year or more - this is all before a carver has even got their hands on it.

So why briar wood for pipes?
Briar wood has many positives, firstly the wood is naturally fire resistant - it has been known to withstand temperatures of 371 degrees celsius. Secondly, briar wood is extremely solid but is porous too, this incredible combination allows the wood to absorb moisture from pipe tobacco which results in a cool and dry smoking experience.

Before briar, pipes used to be made out of clay which smoked clean, however they also became very hot and are very easy to break. After clay there was Meerschaum, they are very beautiful pipes and smoke cool but are expensive and difficult to make. Briar became the go to material due to making the smoke cool, clean and not too hot to handle.

Due to being grown underground, Briar wood often has small air pockets which dirt and in some cases stones can be caught inside. This is why many cheaper and machine made pipes have fills in them, the small holes which only become visible after carving has to be dealt with. If you find a pipe with no fills visible it usually indicates a high quality briar - To determine high quality briar you need to have a detailed look at the wood. The best quality briar will have a tight uniform grain and the pattern will have a combination of swirls and straight grains.

Most pipe brands will use high quality briar and this reflects in the price, due to the amount of time and effort it takes to grow briar wood. Peterson, Savinelli and Rattrays are all committed to using high quality briar, which keeps the product to a high standard and keeps their fanbase happy.

Written by Oliver Partington