The Relation between Grain and Smoking Quality
This article on the relation of grain to the cost of the pipe came about
from a correspondence with Robert Holmes. It is his words in quotation.
"While there is support for the contention that the grain of the briar
doesn't NECESSARILY affect the smoking quality of the pipe, it would also
seem that there is a correlation between grain tightness and smoking qualities.
Presumably the denser the briar the better the smoke. You say, "...the
grain of the briar is not the SOLE determinant in how a pipe will smoke."
This suggests that grain is, in some measure at least, a determinant."
I think what we need to do is examine what function briar plays in the smoking
pipe. First and foremost it is to contain the burning tobacco. Not an easy
job for a piece of wood that also burns. I have never seen that burn out
is more likely to occur in lesser grain pieces than in strait grains. In
fact the opposite often seems to be the case. Mostly due perhaps that they
are more painful to replace and therefore more noticeable. Grain is not
a primary factor in a pipe's foremost job, to contain burning tobacco.
The second most important function of a pipe is to deal with the by products
of combustion of which I will refer to by the condensed term of moisture.
This is where I believe the grain of a pipe to play a necessary part. My
belief is that the grain is the natural passageways of the briar. It allows
moisture to travel to and fro. One must consider the function of the briar
burl in nature which is to act as an aquifer for the briar bush. Slowly
absorbing moisture in the wetter winter months and releasing it back to
the plant in the drier summer time. This property and its density (in resisting
burning) make it the ideal material for a pipe; as well as a neutral taste
after the sap has been boiled out. So here grain can play an important factor
in pipe smoking as it facilitates the drying and breathing of a pipe. However,
is it necessary for the grain to be perfectly straight for this to occur?
Why couldn't a good tight cross cut or flame achieve the same purpose? Possible
a pipe without good grain characteristics could still provide a good consistent
smoke as long as its well rested between smokes. At any rate a good coat
of lacquer can foil whatever good grain configuration a pipe may have!
That's especially why I believe straight grain has no linkage to taste,
i.e.. good smoking as I mentioned in my previous article. While grain is
provides an important functional property of the pipe I think factors in
its manufacture contribute more to how well a pipe smokes.
>I'd like to try and follow the process. You say you have to do twice
as >much work to produce a sandblast as a natural straight grain. In
his, The >Ultimate Pipe Book, Hacker says, "It takes a good grade
of briar to create >a truly fine sandblast, as it is the actual wood
grain that creates the >dimensional dips and ridges which make a sharply
defined sandblast so >desirable." (RH)
Again, I don t know how many times I, or Pete Siegel will say this : No
one takes a truly fine clean block of briar and makes a sandblast out of
it. I don t care what Dunhill says, what Hacker says, what anyone says!
Sandblasts and carved pipes are done as a last resort to save some of your
material and labor investment that has already gone into a pipe. You may
get 3/4 way into producing a pipe before the flaw shows up. Its still worth
while to spend another significant portion of labor expense to at least
get something back on your initial investment. This is not to say that its
a bad piece of briar. Flaws are inimical to ALL briar , creating a perfect
straight grain is as much a matter of luck as it is skill. Creating a well
shaped sandblast, however , is not luck as a sandblast is the lowest common
denominator of pipe making. There are beautiful straight grain pipes I have
made that have seen nothing but the wood stove as some flaws are even too
bad to blast. You d go right through the bowl wall if you did. A sandblast
is not an achievement, its pipe making's way of bowing to the statistical
forces of nature. X percent of all manufactured pipes can not be firsts(smoothes
without fills) what is left is either firewood or seconds, yes I said seconds,
which are sandblasts. Pipes with visible flaws in them, seconds or sandblast
can smoke very well. Flaws unless the undermine the structural integrity
of the pipe don t affect the way a pipe smokes. Unfortunately they are ghastly
looking and undesirable from that standpoint.
>Therefore, let's assume you start with a briar ebauchon "first"
that could >produce either a natural straight grain which you would sell
for $300 or a >"truly fine" sandblast. If the labor cost component
to produce the >straight grain is, say, 5, then to produce the sandblast
from the same >block would require a labor component of 10 (twice as
much). >Let's assume that labor costs represent 70% of the retail cost
of the >finished pipe, (cost of briar, stem material, assorted business
costs and >profit representing the other 30%). The $300 straight grain
requires a >labor cost component of $210 and the sandblast requires $420
(twice as >much). To maintain the same relationship you would have to
sell the >sandblast for $510 - presuming you accept the same profit $
on both pipes.(RH)
Unfortunately pipe making isn't t analogous to a process like car manufacturing
where you have factors of labor cost, material cost, you add them together
put on your % of profit and you have your cost of goods. Pipe making maybe
more like gold mining in the sense you go through a lot of dreck to find
that gold nugget. You accept the dreck as part of the cost of business.
Maybe the waste ore contains a cheaper ore like led that you can still sell
to meet your expenses. Though you make your profit on the big strikes; in
my case its clean straight grains. Pipe makers don't lose money producing
sandblasts. They just don t make that t much. These are market forces due
to rarity and not to any thing so valuable in the commodity itself. I m
sure over the years Pipe manufacturers have done their share of smoke blowing
to inculcate this myth.
This is not to say a beautiful straight grain won t provide a truly excellent
smoke, or a fine sandblast won t either. What I m trying to say there are
more important determinants than price ( market forces) in producing a smoking
pipe that can lead its owner to a good smoking experience. T o summarize:
a good piece of briar that has been properly cured and aged, proper inner
bowl to outer bowl wall ratio's, and proper finishing, no lacquer on the
outer bowl, no stain on the inner bowl.
>The issue isn't whether market forces will allow you to sell $510 >sandblasts,
it's whether a $75 sandblast smokes as well as a $510 >sandblast. You
state, "My $75 sandblast should smoke as well as my $300 >straight
grain. Same wood, same curing, etc." Logically this doesn't seem >reasonable,
what am I missing?(RH)
I hope this answers your question . Mark Tinsky
American Smoking Pipe Co.
HC 88 Box 223
Pocono Lake, Pa. 18347