Everything began at the ‘precise’ moment when a dry leaf of a certain plant caught fire and was inhaled by someone. A fortunate act, a chain of chance events and a series of coincidences that can only be imagined, thus no precise indication can be given. Then the pipe appeared, giving rise to a long, adventurous journey through materials, technologies and shapes. From natural materials, more or less modified natural materials, natural materials so completely modified as to appear artificial, to completely artificial materials. Technologies to transform the materials, and those to control and ‘tame’ smoke. Shapes inspired by imagination and those linked to practical needs.
“Invention”, from the Latin inventio, is the act of finding, of discovering, thus ‘discovery’. The fact of discovering the existence of clay, learning to shape it and fire it in a kiln was an invention. So was the realisation that the Erica arborea shrub concealed an astonishing growth made of wood underground. So, too, was the invention of methods to make smoking tobacco drier and fresher, or else creating farming techniques that could transform a gourd into a pipe. The invention of the pipe was not simple at all, but rather an unpredictable, complex series of discoveries that have brought us to the present. Nowadays, numerous materials have been consigned to history or else used by a limited circle of enthusiasts. Thus, only a few, but highly interesting materials remain for the general smoker. Let’s now look at these materials.
Materials for bowl and stem
This incredible wood is the material that is most used for pipes today. Its appearance on the market dates back to the mid-nineteenth century, but it is said that its properties had already been known for some time by the lucky few in the area where the plant grew.
Briar is a wholly natural product, extracted from the burl and subjected to extremely delicate processes required by curing. It is natural and unique: no two ebauchons and plateaux are the same. It is also natural and precious: out of the countless possible forms of ebauchons, only few make it past the first selection and likewise few survive the process, when a hidden flaw may appear at any moment.
Pipe briar is a dense wood, difficult to work with, but is quite striking in appearance and offers numerous important functional characteristics. It is not excessively porous, and absorbs moisture, enabling a dry smoke. Moreover, its physical and chemical features allow it to withstand the intense heat of burning tobacco. According to a study conducted by the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in 1988, this resistance to heat is attributed to the limited amount of calcium and potassium, as well as to its extractive content (tannins, terpenes etc.) whose exposure to high temperatures produces a frothing action that renders the wood fire resistant. One of the aims of boiling the ebauchons is to eliminate such extractives, in order to improve the flavour of the tobacco, but the study in question suggests that the extractives are in fact only partially eliminated when the briarwood is boiled, and what remains is enough to protect it from the heat. However, some other studies have rejected this explanation, although all agree on one other important aspect of boiling the burl, which is that it increases the dimensional stability of the briarwood, thus limiting splitting during the drying process.
It is said that prior to being used as an ideal material for pipes, the burl of the Erica arborea had already been extracted and used in the forests by the charcoal burners, whose task was to carbonise wood through the controlled partial combustion of wood. The burl, being so hard and dense, produced a variety of charcoal that was sought-after by the smiths for their forges. If this is so, then it would be nice to think that the discovery of briarwood for pipes was made by someone who often handled this wood and at a certain point tried to use it in an alternative way. The first pipes may have appeared in this way, more or less roughly created by some charcoal burners. Subsequently, when pipe manufacturers identified the burl as an ideal wood for pipes, it seems logical that the previous use of the wood would have been forgotten.
It is true to say that a certain type of briarwood is also used for furniture, dashboards in luxury cars and art objects, although it is not the same type used for pipes. Other plant species can yield a mass of irregularly arranged wooden tissue, with twisted, entangled fibres, and aesthetically pleasing grain; it is of little importance if they are less fire resistant. This mass of tissue is not always to be found in the roots, but often also between root and stem, as a kind of growth. The plants that are use most are walnut, elm, maple, ash, birch, black poplar and various tropical varieties.
Other types of wood
In previous centuries, when pipes were much more common, quality was not the main objective and as briarwood had yet to appear on the scene, many other types of wood were used to fashion smoking pipes. Those considered most suitable were chosen amongst local materials. Then they underwent various types of curing processes, and subsequently were crafted in large or small quantities. Briar was in short supply during World War II, so even famous manufacturers turned to alternative types of wood with rather good results. Nowadays, manufacturing and buying a pipe made from alternative wood is no longer a necessity but a choice, limited to a few options.
Considered the ‘cousin’ of Erica arborea, this shrub has many features in common with briar. Both belong to the Ericaceae family and grow in the same places and types of soil. They also both have a burl growth between the roots and stem. However, apart from that there are also many differences. The strawberry wood burl is larger than the briar at the same age; its grain is wider as are its fibres: it is much lighter and has far fewer inclusions, defects that are present in the burl of the Erica arborea making work more difficult for sawyers and pipe makers. All in all, the strawberry briar is much more regular anatomically speaking and so easier to carve. However, there is one drawback: it is less heat resistant.
The wild olive tree is almost like a shrub, and only through pruning does it become a tree, with its striking twisted trunk and grain. The olive tree has no burl, but may have its briar root (in the general sense): a growth in the trunk near the ground. Both the growth and the trunk are used to make pipes. The wood is hard and dense, with irregular fibres, which is difficult to dry, as it tends to split. It is quite resistant to fire, but certainly less than briarwood.
In this case the wood is taken only from the trunk and not the root. The wood, white and light yellow in colour, is hard, heavy and easy to carve. Apart from pipes, the wood lends itself to handmade pens and other small objects. It has no high heat resistance.
In general, the pipes that are carved in these alternative types of wood are recommended for expert smokers who are able to control tobacco combustion. In this case, smokers achieve a good smoke also by choosing the right tobacco.
Not exactly wood, but a material that was once wood and today resembles it in some way. The term ‘morta’ is common in the world of pipe smokers, although other names are also attributed, such as abonos, literally ‘fertilizer’ in Spanish, or ‘bog oak’, namely oak which has been preserved in peat bog.
The process through which the timber evolves into morta may take hundreds or even thousands of years, certainly not a short time. It derives from trees (not only oaks, but other water-dwelling plants such as pine, yew, swamp cypress and the exotic kauri tree) that have fallen into a river, lake or marshland and sunk to the riverbed. Here mud and sediment gradually cover the timber over time and being deprived of oxygen undergoes a process of partial fossilization. The fibres slowly lose their wood property as the organic cells are gradually substituted by mineral components. Thus, physical and chemical conditions permitting, it is no longer wood as such, but still displays the same fibres and grain. Its colour ranges from golden brown (tannin residue) for relatively ‘young’ trunks to black for those that have undergone fossilization for a longer period of time.
It is a much sought-after and fascinating material, not only for making pipes, but also for other objects, even furniture and flooring. It is hard to find and recover from the water, being buried in marshland, peat bogs and lying at the bottom of rivers. It is also difficult to dry without cracking, and hard to carve, as the ebauchons suitable for pipe making are mainly small and their highly variable structure and hardness make it almost impossible to drill precisely. As such, they are quite fragile and may crack or split at ant any time during pipe making.
Therefore, the pipes are quite expensive. On the other hand, if handled with care, their unusual aspect, extremely light weight, resistance to high temperatures and the fact that the material imparts a neutral taste so that it does not affect the tobacco, are all quite appealing features.
Also écume de mer, or meerschaum, sea-foam is a material that has no similarity to wood at all, but seems to have been especially made for pipes, being aesthetically pleasing, with a colour that changes over time, easy to carve, light, with an ideal porosity to absorb moisture and a mineral nature that imparts a neutral taste, like morta. However, its porosity means that sea-foam may retain the taste of the tobacco, so it is best to use the same variety of tobacco.
Apart from the legends surrounding its origins, sea-foam is sepiolite, a hydrous magnesium silicate that is the result of ancient complex physical and chemical reactions, similar to the reddish pipestone from which the Native Americans have been carving their pipes until today. The most suitable form of sepiolite for smoking is extracted from the ancient Anatolian deposits near the Turkish city of Eskişehir, which have been mined since Roman times, when the mineral was transformed into necklaces and small objects. From the seventeenth century onwards it was gradually introduced into the world of pipes, achieving success in manufacturing and increasing demand only two centuries later. However, following World War I it went into sad decline. Nowadays, few manufacturers offer Meerschaum pipes. Even if the market is limited, the same cannot be said for the attraction of this pipe for refined smokers.
Material for stems
Pleasant and indispensable between the bowl and smoker, stems have been made in various types of wood and other materials like bone, ivory and amber. Today, apart from some exceptions, stems are produced using only two artificial substances, both valued for their indisputable qualities: ebonite and methacrylate.
Ebonite is derived from a natural substance which is obtained by coagulating the latex that oozes from an incision in the bark of the rubber tree. Although rubber had appeared as early as the eighteenth century in Europe, it was practically useless, as it became sticky when hot, but hard and brittle when cold. It was only in 1839 that following a series of failed experiments it was discovered that by mixing rubber with sulphur and heating it (vulcanization process), the material became more stable, elastic and adaptable. A few years later, undergoing prolonged vulcanization, the rubber turned into another type of material: no longer elastic but hard, as black as ebony. So it was called ebonite.
It was used in different ways in the field of electrical equipment, 78 rpm records, fountain pen feeds, parts of musical instruments and bowling balls. Around 1870, in the early days of briarwood, ebonite was introduced to smokers in the form of the stem.
Today it is manufactured by mixing rubber, sulphur and other organic substances and minerals that results in a uniform mixture which then undergoes extrusion. Rods are produced that are pressed into a mould. It is only at this point that prolonged vulcanisation takes place, through indirect steam heat, which will transform the original mixture into a material that is stable and compact: ebonite. Once cooled down, the finishing touches are added to each piece largely while it is cool, but in certain stages the material is reheated to recover flexibility. The pipe maker may work on the initial simple extruded and vulcanised (or semi-worked) rod until it is finished. The final test of the ebonite product is the polishing, which will only be perfect if the product is uniform and compact.
Smokers appreciate an ebonite stem because although solid, it is also relatively soft and thus easy to clench between the teeth. As it has no taste, it has no impact on the taste of the tobacco. It is highly attractive once it is polished. Unfortunately, over time it may lose its shine, become discoloured or display strange colours due to the fact that the sulphur emerges. Smokers exchange tips on the products and techniques used to bring the stem back to its original aspect. They often achieve a good result, but it is time-consuming and requires a great deal of effort. Moreover, the bite marks on the stem that appear over time can be ugly. Nevertheless, numerous smokers prefer this type of stem, also because not all ebonite stems are the same. Those of superior quality usually have fewer problems.
Amongst all the substances mentioned here, methacrylate is the most artificial. The exact name is polymethyl methacrylate: a “plastic material produced from the polymerisation of methyl methacrylate, an ester of methacrylic acid”.
Developed in 1928 in various European laboratories, marketed in 1933 by a German manufacturer, it is an extremely versatile product, lighter and more transparent than glass. Plexiglas, Perspex, and Lucite are some of its trademarks. It is often used to produce contact lenses, aircraft canopies, optical fibres and numerous other everyday objects. Its first use in pipe stems dates back to around 1965, and since then is quite commonly used among smokers.
Methacrylate stems are produced through moulds or else through cold mechanical processing, the latter process resulting in high quality products. Manufacturers of these types of stems allow the smoker the choice between a finished stem (with many variations) and numerous semifinished products, thus offering various opportunities for customisation. The material can be produced in a vast array of colours and patterns. The current trend is a completely opaque, non-transparent methacrylate.
These stems easily pass the polishing test, as they remain glossy for a long time, and they are also easy to clean compared to ebonite. On the other hand, they are heavier and not so pleasant to bite due to being harder.
Ebonite is by nature black, but a limited range of colours is possible. The bodies of a few late 19th-century fountain pens are black mottled red and brown, the result of multiple extrusions: first strings, bars, black and coloured sheets were produced, assembled and then were subjected to further extrusions. Fountain pens of this type (in different hues) were extremely fashionable until around 1930. Dunhill stems produced through a similar process appeared in the following decades, called “bowling ball”. Around 1979, Dunhill designed a special stem in ebonite mottled red and brown inspired by a few old Root Briar pipes found in a London warehouse in Cumberland Road, giving rise to the name ‘Cumberland’.
The name extended later on to similar (or not so similar) products produced in mottled ebonite by other manufacturers. As for methacrylate, the material’s excellent characteristics lends itself to the creation of stems that are streaked, marbled, etc. These are also, or partially, considered Cumberland. Indeed, in manufacturing history it is not the first time that a specific name then becomes generic.
Cumberland stems in ebonite have subtle colours and patterns, which is why they are appreciated. On the other hand, their methacrylate rivals have bolder patterns and an enviable array of hues, which are also much appreciated.
Thus, today the term Cumberland does not refer to a precise material, but to its attractive, multicoloured features that special processes are able to apply to the material of the stem.
Ebonite or methacrylate stems? A real dilemma. So why not find a compromise that enhances the quality and limits the defects as much as possible of both materials? In theory, it would be enough to mix the two products in the correct proportions to achieve the ideal product, a sort of ‘ebocrylate’. However, from the physical and chemical point of view this idea raises some questions, and if someone has managed to achieve this, they will never reveal their secret. However, attempts to bring the two products closer together have been rather successful. For instance, methacrylate was originally transparent, but nowadays it can be rendered opaque so as to resemble the features of ebonite.
Ebonite is by its very nature a blend of substances that, save for the predominance of rubber and sulphur, may to a certain extent vary in its ingredients, proportions and processing techniques. A wide range of formulas have been tested to improve its characteristics. The most effective solution today is to combine natural rubber with synthetic rubber that has the highest degree of compatibility.
However, technology, research and experiments are ongoing: who knows where they are heading.
A special thanks to:
Mimmo Romeo - Romeo Briar
Sofia Macchi - Macchi Serafino S.r.l.
Alessandra Giudici - Carlo Giudici S.N.C. Di Alessandra E Carla Maria Giudici