A briar pipe is a pipe which has been carved from briar, a special sort of wood which is ideally suited to the manufacture of pipes. Many people think of a briar pipe as the quintessential wood pipe, and numerous companies manufacture briar pipes for consumers, using both traditional hand carving techniques and mechanized mass production methods. Most tobacconists and pipe stores carry briar pipes, often in a selection of shapes and sizes.
Briar comes from the roots of Erica arborea, also known as the White Heath Tree. This plant is native to the Mediterranean, where it has evolved to thrive in arid, harsh environments. It typically takes the form of a tall shrub or small tree, with the wood being harvested from its thick, knotting roots. Briar typically comes from burls, deformed knobs which form in the roots. Burlwood has a very distinctive and complex grain which many people find attractive.
When the briar used in a pipe comes from the outside edges of a burl, it is said to be plateaux wood. When the wood comes from the core of the burl, it is known as ebauchon. Both woods have a very twisted, close grain which can glow in the hands of an experienced pipe-maker, and they range in color from pale golden brown to a dark, rich, earthy tone.
There are several reasons why briar has become such a popular wood for pipes. In the first place, it is extremely durable and sturdy, holding up to years of hard use. Briar is also naturally fire-resistant, and it is a very porous wood. A good briar pipe comes from briar which has been treated and allowed to sit for up to two years, ensuring that all the water and resin in the wood are gone.
Once the wood has been cured significantly, the pipe-maker can cut out a bowl and stem to make a briar pipe. Some pipes are solid, while others are jointed, depending on the style and skills of the pipe maker. The outside of a briar pipe may be cut and polished to highlight the grain of the wood, or left coarse, to reference the natural environment it came from. Many pipe companies also season their pipes before sale, ensuring that they will burn properly and efficiently in the hands of consumers.