The Briar wood used in tobacco pipes originates from a plant known as the Erica arborea, or Tree Heath. The Erica arborea is a shrub commonly found in the harsh and rocky shrublands of the Mediterranean basin, as well as areas of Portugal, the Canary Islands and The Madeira Islands. It can also be found in the Ethiopian Highlands, Ruwenzori and the Cameroon Mountains of Africa. The Erica arborea has small white flowers and reaches a typical height of 3-12 feet, though some have been known to reach as high as 21 feet.
The wood itself is actually from the root of the Tree Heath. The dense roots of the tree heath are often dug out by hand and divided into small blocks known as burls. Once cut into blocks, the burls are submerged into boiling water in order to remove any sap or resin that may be remain in the pores of the roots after they have been cut. Once the sap and resin are removed, the blocks are set aside in large kilns for a drying period of at least one year. Once the drying period is complete, the Briar wood burls are ready to be turned into tobacco pipes.
Briar wood pipes are desirable for several reasons. The wood is naturally fire resistant able to withstand heat exceeding 700 degrees Fahrenheit. It is very dense, but porous, which allows the wood to absorb much of the tar and moisture of the tobacco, which result in a much cooler and dryer smoke for the pipe smoker. Another reason that they are desirable is due to the length of time that it takes for the roots to reach a point where they can be turned into briar wood for tobacco pipes. It takes approximately 30 years for the root to become big enough to make a 5-10 pound burl, which is enough to create 6-12 pipes.
The best quality Briar wood for tobacco pipes has a fairly tight and uniform grain, as well as an even combination of swirling and straight grains. They are esthetically appealing, light in weight and have excellent heat dissipation properties, which make them highly prized among pipe enthusiasts. When compared with some of the other hardwoods often used to make pipes, Briar wood pipes have an advantage of not releasing an unpleasant taste along with the smoke. When Briar wood pipes are properly maintained and well cared for, they can be passed down from generation to generation.