Robert Wexelblatt



If a briar isn’t good after five uses, toss it.  Should you hold on to a bad briar, either you’ll never try it again or, if you do, it’ll be a waste of tobacco. 


The shape of the stem counts for more than that of the bowl.


To be sure, the briar pipe’s essentially a delivery system; yet what it is inessentially can be more essential than what it is essentially.  A good old briar is a talisman, a boon companion, a possession as intimate as your toothbrush, but with more character and a greater life-expectancy.


On book jackets, back when their portraits were black-and-white and they were deferentially called authors, writers were often photographed with their pipes.  Some held the briar in their hands, others, thoughtfully, between their teeth.  There might be a platoon of pipes in a rack on the author’s desk or one reclining in an ashtray by the typewriter.  Authors and pipes seemed to have an affinity such that naïve readers might be excused for wondering if pipes might not be muses.  It turns out that, in a chemical rather than poetic sense, muses are just what your briar is, delivering nicotine to stimulate the adrenal gland, jacking up the dopamine, and dousing the brain with epinephrine—or inspiration.


For René Magritte, the briar was a model, even if it wasn’t.  That smooth pipe he famously didn’t paint?  C’est un billard courbé.


The price of briars can run to hundreds of dollars yet there’s no guarantee a luxury Danish Bent or high-end Squat Bulldog will be better than a thirty-buck Canadian—or even as good.  There may be a moral in that.


As with the mating game, so with briars:  some pipes get on with some tobaccos and not others.  In both cases, it’s down to chemistry.  The best pipes, like the best spouses, are faithful, devoted to one brand of tobacco until parted by death.


Briar root (French: bruyère) is good for pipe making because it resists fire and absorbs moisture, two related qualities.  Like a page of Hegel, briar wood is exceptionally hard and dense; and, again like Hegel, it has no effect on the aroma of tobacco.


Briar wood is a tuber, about the size of a football when ready for harvest.  Like a philosopher, the tuber is largely useless before it’s thirty years old; sixty is best.  If you want to carve your own briar, somebody will have had to do the planting for you long ago.  But you should plant anyway; it is always gracious to pay it forward.  


From time to time, you have to ream your briar.  Do it vigorously but not mercilessly.  A scout knife works well.  It’s satisfying to break off the black deposits.  You can pretend you’re clearing a drain, stripping flowered wallpaper, scouring the lungs of a cigarette smoker.  Again, be thorough, not ruthless, as you would if bathing a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. 


You ought to store your briar in a rack, with its companions.  Bowl down or bowl up, it doesn’t matter as much as you’d think.  The rack isn’t just a matter of tidiness but of standards.  It is a good principle to treat your vices with the same respect you want from them.


Your briar’s stem will break long before the bowl, all the sooner if you’re a biter.  It’s regrettable, but part of the appeal of your briar is precisely that you can chomp on its stem. 


As with friends, parents, and religions, some pipe cleaners are rigid while others are more flexible. The preference for bristle cleaners over the fluffy sort is a function of character, a generally predictable one, too. 


If you try to replace a stem you’ll discover that each one is unique as a fingerprint or a Vermeer.  It’s a minor mystery.


A really good briar isn’t just for the mouth but also your brain and will service all three of it:  your Reptilian Complex and its dark desires, the impetuous emotions of your Limbic System, the indefatigable and vexed consciousness of your Neo-Cortex.


After a stressful day at work, a half-hour balancing the checkbook, while designing a solid-state circuit, in the middle of compiling an annual report, in the course of composing a novel, elegy, symphony, your briar will feel easy in your hand.  There are few things so calming.  Moreover, lighting up your briar can be an inducement to sit down to balance the checkbook, start the next chapter of the novel, etc.  Taking up your briar is a bribe you give yourself to get down to work.


Over time, your feelings for your briar will become more intimate and more complicated so that it is unlikely others will correctly apprehend them.  Some will reprove, accusing you of addiction.  Others, with more tenderness but also more contempt, will excuse your attachment as a consolation. These are only two of the ways you and your briar can be misunderstood.