More About Briar Wood

The Story of Briar

The beautiful wood used in our Cavendish Series tamper handles is exotic Mediterranean briar. Briar has long been sought after for its beauty and unique properties well suited for tobacco pipes. This intriguing wood comes from the Erica arborea, a small tree which grows in the Mediterranean basin no taller than fifteen or twenty feet tall. At the meeting point of the trunk and the root, a large round growth develops called a burl. The burl serves as a reservoir where the plant stores water as it struggles for survival in a harsh climate. It is the habit of the burl to grow in a mass of swirling and intertwined grain that produces the beautiful and irregular patterns of briar wood.

The arid, rocky soil and harsh growing conditions mean the growth of the Erica arborea burl is slow, and it takes forty or more years for a plant to grow to a suitable size for harvesting. Local harvesters endure the backbreaking work of digging the burls out of the ground and transporting them to the cutting factory. Between harvesting and cutting, it is necessary to keep the briar wet so it does not dry too quickly and crack. Skilled craftsmen sit before open blades cutting the wet, irregular burls into usable blocks. Too often the burls prove unsuitable for carving purposes when they are cut open due to a rotten core or an embedded stone. Sometimes cavities, called sandspots, develop in the briar as it forms. At times these sandspots contribute to the varied, unpredictable pattern of the wood while at other times they are large enough to ruin a block. These factors contribute to the rare and exotic nature of briar wood since so few burls produce usable blocks.

The briar blocks are then dried in a kiln for twenty-four hours to remove moisture and prevent them from cracking. The briar pieces are sorted and shipped to England, Denmark, and the US among other places where they are fashioned into pipes, knife handles, and now tamper handles. Even after they are shipped to their intended destinations they must be further dried for several years before they are ready for carving.

This long and difficult process makes briar difficult and expensive to obtain. In spite of all this, we at Prima are thrilled with the end product and confident that it is worth the cost and effort to use this unique material.

The Anatomy of Briar

Even a quick look at a fine briar pipe or one of our Cavendish Series tamper handles will reveal a world of pattern in the wood. The unique characteristics of briar produce patterns in the grain that are rarely matched in any other wood. Pipe makers and smokers have named some of these grain patterns and we have used the same terms to describe our handles.

Info-graphic showing examples of all grain patterns common in briar

Straight grain refers to parallel vertical lines in the grain. The lines in straight grain wood may be tight and close together or loose and further apart. Tighter lines, in any pattern, indicate an older piece of briar.

Flame grain is a pattern very similar to straight grain. The lines in flame grain patterns are not perfectly parallel, but fan out reminiscent of flames. Differences in the span and shape of the flames mean that no two flame grain patterns are ever the same.

Horizontal grain is made up of parallel lines much like the flame or straight grain, however they are oriented horizontally rather than vertically. Horizontal patterns loop around the handle, often ending in flame patterns.

Bird's eye grain consists of tight circular swirls clustered together. Often bird’s eye grain is visible on surfaces that are perpendicular to surfaces with straight or flame grain. So this means when our handles have flame grain on the sides of the neck, bird’s eye is usually visible on the top of the head.

Random grain is comprised of lines that seem to be in no particular order. Sometimes they swirl or sweep together and other times they converge in an elegant and disordered mass. This pattern can often produce unique shapes and even images.

Sandspots are cavities and inconsistencies left in the briar as the tree interacted with insects, rocks, sand and other environmental hazards. For example, after an insect chewed at the bark or a piece of sand became lodged in the wood, the tree healed over the damage. The resulting scar is called a sandspot. These marks act in concert with the grain patterns to produce truly one of a kind patterns.

The remarkable patterns possible in briar make every handle a one of a kind work of art. The intricate lines in the grain were put in place over many years in a difficult climate. We are excited to offer you the chance to own a stunning piece that truly took a lifetime to create. It is the great time necessary for briar growth, effort to harvest it, natural beauty, and careful craftsmanship that make Cavendish Series tampers exceptional and valuable.