Monday, October 3, 2011

Act Now, Supplies Are Limited

"Hey, check out this new pipe I just bought!"

(Becker Morta)

"Wow, that's cool looking. How much did it cost?"

"About $200."

"What?! Why would you spend that much for a pipe?"

"Because it's worth it. I mean, look at the grain and the shaping..."

"It's just a piece of wood. Why is it worth $200?"

I have had this conversation many, many times, clearly with someone who had no conception of what goes into making a pipe. What most people do not realize is that these prices are often extremely reasonable, and the people setting those prices, for the most part, are fine people and are not wanting to burn a whole in your wallet. There is a lot of work that went into that $200 pipe, possibly more than you realize.

Briar comes from the root, or burl, of a thorny, thicket-forming plant. This buried treasure of nature is often found on the side of rocky cliffs, and is not the easiest thing to get to. The best briar comes from older plants, usually 15 years old at minimum. The harvesters of the burl, also known as cutters, have to identify a plant that is ready for harvesting, climb up to it, cut out the appropriate area from beneath the ground while often hanging onto a cliff for dear life. Here's an additional problem: some of those carvers are less than careful, harvesting the burl in such a manner that kills the rest of the plant. With no one actively planting more of this thorny gem, the resource is more limited by the minute.

Once the cutters return with their harvest, there are a number of basic imperfections that are looked for by the briar dealer. Warped wood, large pit or faults, severe discoloration, etc. All of these flaws that are spotted by the dealer are purely external, as there is no way for them to tell what waits inside the block of briar. Of course, experienced harvesters and dealers can probably get a pretty decent idea of what's inside the block, but there are no guarantees in that business.

Next, the pipe carver has to purchase the blocks of briar from the dealer. There are a number of ways that this can be done, ranging from purchasing in bulk to actually visiting the dealer and purchasing a select number of blocks. This process itself is more difficult than it sounds, as the pipe carver relies on the reputation of the briar dealer.

Once the carver gets his happy mitts on his block, it's time for him to start carving. Now, remember how I said earlier that the only imperfections the briar dealer could detect were one the outside of the block of briar? Well, the pipe carver gets to find the rest. That means that the $35 block briar that he just bought could be totally ruined by an unexpected crack or sandpit. The more expensive the dealer that one purchases his briar from, the less common these events are, but the blocks are still a result of nature and can be difficult to work with.

After all of this, the carver finally gets to start working on the pipe, everything from shaping the pipe and drilling the holes for the tobacco chamber and airway, to fitting the stem, sandblasting or rusticating, lacquering, and possibly even hand-cutting the mouthpiece. This is a lot of work, taking hour upon hours, depending on the quality of the pipe. After all of this, the price that we pay to enjoy the fruits of their labor seems well worth it.

There are other materials for pipes to be considered, such as Morta and Meerschaum. Morta is fossilized bog wood, often thousands of years old. This resource, needless to say, is very limited, more difficult to locate, and even more rare in terms of a useable, quality piece. Thus, the prices on Morta tend to be even higher, though the sandblast is one of the most gorgeous things in all of pipedom.

What about Meerschaum? This porous, white mineral has sometimes been found floating in the Black Sea – hence, its name, meaning “Sea Foam”. More often than not, however, Meerschaum has to be mined from deep within the Earth in one small area of Turkey. This mining is often done without the luxury of some of the more modern equipment found in major American mines, and the miners are sometimes lowered down in a basket tied to a rope. Once again, this material is naturally formed and not synthesized, and it is thus difficult to locate a perfect sample. This mineral is then carved by artisans, forming anything as simple as a billiard to as complex as a stone version of the Last Supper (I have seen this pipe). Again, one is not only paying for a pipe, but the treacherous process of mining and the time-consuming, skill-intensive carving process.

Pipes are not just pieces of wood, they are connections from around the world, an intimate link between Earth and Man, artisan and layman, leaf and stone and fire. You are not just paying for a utensil, but a piece of a art, a tradition. 


  1. Wonderful article. A delight to read. And my sentiments exactly. Well done!


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  3. Thank you, kindly!

    I really appreciate those artisans who spend so much time working in order to create these wonderful pieces of art and pleasure that we call pipes.