Supply and Demand
Updated: Oct 5, 2020
From my college years, I kept three textbooks. Machine Tool Operation, of course. The other two are from a class called Humanistic Psychology which I took as a Sophomore at Washington State University. The Nature of Human Values, and The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, both by Dr. Milton Rokeach. Humanistic Psychology was an upper-level psychology class that I talked my way into — a stretch for a music major with none of the prerequisites, but I loved it.
Dr. Rokeach identified and divided values — durable beliefs that refer to modes of conduct or end-states of existence — into two types, terminal and instrumental. Examples of terminal (end-state) values are a comfortable life, an exciting life, equality, or salvation. Instrumental (conduct) values relate to morality or competence: ambitious, honest, broadminded, capable, independent. If a situation places two values in conflict — say, a comfortable life and an exciting life — we will act according to which value is more important. Rokeach studied this interplay between values and behavior.
All values are positive, so everyone feels justified in his or her actions. A person who ranks the instrumental values “ambitious” or “polite” top three and “honest” in the bottom three may tell a lie, but, because ambition or politeness trumps honesty, feel perfectly fine about it. With the application of some statistics, a person’s ordering of the two lists of values predicts how he or she will behave socially, economically, professionally, personally, politically. It was a fascinating class full of stories about psychological experiments in the 1950’s that would never pass a board of ethics today. If nothing else, the class drove home the point not to expect too much behavioral change from people; whatever jackass thing somebody is doing, it is his or her best option, taken for the best of reasons.
This is the lens through which I'm looking at the worst batch of briar I’ve received in over twenty years. I’ve sanded each block hoping to find something salvageable, and there may be six blocks that are light and sort of ok for sandblasts. Soon I’m going to close the box holding the remainder — small, heavy blocks, cut from such small burls that they are mostly bald heartwood — and store it somewhere in case I ever want to make briar doorknobs. I’ve been in contact with the cutter and we seem to be sorting things out so that it won't be a total loss, but perhaps this is the time to write about buying briar. It's a crucial transaction and the market is competitive and nuanced — every artisan maker wants the same thing. There is only so much of it. Everyone is doing his best.
People usually ask where I get briar, right after they sort of understand what it is. "Italy" is usually enough of an answer. A non-pipe friend who has taken an interest in my blog has been suggesting this topic for a while. He read a book about Michelangelo searching the quarries for the perfect block of marble for David, and his initial impression was that the quest for the perfect block of briar for a pipe must be similar. I explained that while the process might be like that for some makers, for me it’s more like if Michelangelo (not comparing myself to Michelangelo, just talking about blocks) never got to visit the quarry. Instead, he had to buy, sight unseen, as much marble as he could afford, hoping that the quarry owner would reward him by including a few good blocks along with the thirty blocks that he needed to get rid of. And then, Michelangelo chiseled into a flaw the size of a bowling ball right where David’s neck was going to be and had to start over.
Briar is treacherous — at least, what I get. No matter how good a block looks on the outside, or while carving at any point right up to buffing, it can turn on you. The person who knows the most about the interior of a given block is the briar cutter who cut the burl into blocks and got to see how many flaws there were, their type and distribution. He may not be able to say with certainty whether a given block will be flawed or flawless, but he knows more than we do.
Because his success depends at least partly on carvers liking him and believing that we are liked in return, the cutter is usually a people person, but it’s a tough business. Digging briar burls is hard work and there are fewer and fewer people willing to do it so the price keeps going up. Cutting the burls into blocks is a highly skilled, intuitive, and dangerous job. Boiling briar blocks is an arduous task requiring large quantities of clean, fresh water in regions where it may be scarce, and curing them takes more water, a long time and close attention. There have been several good articles and documentaries over the years — a recent film called Father the Flame is worth a look.
Then there is grading. Extra/Extra or AA is generally the top grade, but every cutter has a different eye and system, and after all the doorknobs that sparked this post were sold as Extra/Extra. For an artisan, beginning with anything but the best material you can get is poor economy. The challenge is getting the best blocks you can without wasting money. It’s all about relationships. Well, and luck.
A few North American carvers go to Italy to pick briar, which is ideal, but even if you can afford it (tax deduction) you need the relationship with a cutter so that he’ll show you his best blocks when his selection is good. Few have that access. With only so much “best” and a considerable gray area between “best” and the next grade down, the cutter has to spread it around. When a carver comes in and takes 200 of the better/best blocks, the cutter’s job just got harder. Those gray area blocks have to go somewhere.
Enter the newcomer, who may become a regular customer, maybe is the Next Big Thing, but the cutter doesn’t have enough great briar to satisfy the regular customers he already has. Besides, it is to his advantage for his best blocks to wind up in the hands of the best makers. The newcomer won’t get BAD briar, he’ll get APPROPRIATE briar — he’s probably learning and is likely to make bad pipes anyway. Why should he get Kurt Balleby’s blocks? The cutter must handle this artfully because he needs the little guys to keep coming back to buy what’s left after the big guys pick. Maybe it's not that calculated, but I've unpacked a lot of briar shipments from a lot of cutters over the years and the mix of blocks in a shipment tells me where I stand.
Fortunately, good pipes can be made from gray-area blocks. The smoking quality of briar is largely determined by boiling and curing and the top cutters rarely get that wrong. But as we ascend in price, differences in grain become more important. If you’re trying to satisfy the customer who wants (and is willing to pay for) flawless angel hair straight grain or a perfect ring blast, or a particularly large pipe or a very specific combination of shape and grain, you need the type of material that you probably won’t get without establishing bona fides. That’s my experience, anyway. One particular collector used to express an interest in my pipes but I never tried to sell him one because I knew his standard — only flawless 360-degree angel hair straight grains — and despite buying hundreds of blocks I never got one that measured up. It’s the same in many crafts; when there is competition for a scarce resource, the best and best-connected craftsmen get the best stuff, and it can be rough at the bottom of the food chain. Ask a violin bow maker about horsehair, or a fly rod maker about cork.
They say if you’re playing poker and can’t spot the fish in five minutes, you’re the fish. Starting out, I had no relationships or experience, and my first large briar purchase almost sank me. I had been buying blocks in twos and threes from an American supplier, and when I yelped about two blocks in a row with huge flaws he replied that it was a matter of probability, that you had to take the bad with the good and two blocks were enough neither to spread out the risk of a flaw nor to guarantee success. If you wanted a block that was one in a hundred, you had to buy a hundred blocks. So I saved up and bought a “bag” of briar. I forget how many pieces, but more than a hundred, maybe over 200. As I recall it cost nearly two grand, but it brought the price per block down to less than half of what I’d been paying and, I thought, would give me the same chance that the pros had at great blocks. I had committed to go to my first Chicago show, and I needed some great pipes.
Turned out, all of ”my” briar was useless. After fresh burls are sawn into blocks, the blocks are boiled to remove resins, then kept wet for months, during which time the moisture level is reduced slowly so the blocks shrink evenly. The outside of my blocks had dried hard with the inside still wet, so when the insides of the blocks dried and shrank the wood pulled itself apart. Almost every block was warped and the interior was a honeycomb of cracks. For an entire shipment to be like that was . . . odd. The supplier was . . . unsympathetic. That's briar, no guarantees. I was nobody, so while it seemed like I’d gotten a disproportionate share of bad luck, there also wasn’t anything I could do about it. For a while I would try a block or two from that batch but eventually I threw it all out. Tuition.
Fortunately, Tom Eltang was selling briar, which he would have picked at Stanwell, on his website. He said that when someone ordered six blocks, he reached into the box that he used for his own pipes and randomly pulled out six blocks and mailed them without any further consideration. All of his blocks ended up as pipes that I took to Chicago.
Speaking of relationships, that first show was where I became better friends with Paolo Becker, who had shown me around his shop when I was in Rome with the PSO to play Mahler for the Pope. I picked Paolo up at the Chicago airport, and I remember his relief in getting outside after the long flight and lighting his pipe. It was a short military mount Pot, with the chamber caked down to the size of a pencil and the top surface of the cake as shiny and black as a piece of ebony.
For several years, Paolo — rest in peace — picked for me when he visited Manno to buy his own briar, which was a huge favor and provided an introduction. Not quite somebody but also no longer nobody, I started getting better wood, but I never knew exactly what to expect. Payment was by wire orders, which are as uncommon in the US as they are commonplace in Europe, so nobody at the bank would know how and it would take an hour and cost sixty bucks. Shipping was expensive, and if the cutter used one of the private companies I’d get stuck with a big duty bill.
Before this Spring it had been more than ten years since I imported briar. Once briar cutters started bringing wood to the Chicago show I bought there. It felt great to pick my own blocks, not needing to impose, deal with shipping and duty, or wonder if the cutter remembered me. Maybe all the angel hair blocks had diappeared back in Italy but at least I had a choice. If I didn’t like it, I didn’t have to buy it.
In 2011, I helped a cutter wrestle two boxes the size of Marshall 4X12 speaker cabinets into the elevator and asked if this would be a good time to buy some briar. I was the only customer when he cut open the boxes and dumped them on his hotel room floor. I bought at least a hundred blocks. Then, at the end, when everyone was packing up, he offered me all his unsold briar for a very good price. It was picked over, but no worse than half of the blocks I’d have gotten if I‘d ordered from Italy. That was right before I started playing bass clarinet with the PSO and went from making fifty pipes a year to ten, so for a while it seemed like I might never need to buy briar again. And if I did, I’d go to the Chicago show and wait by the elevator. That sense of briar sufficiency lasted until this past May, when the show didn’t happen and I could see my stash dwindling. Waiting until the 2021 Chicago show (fingers crossed) to restock was out of the question. And to cutters, I was Rip Van Winkle.
It’s a balancing act, building a supply line, and it takes time. I don’t have the kind of relationship where I can put all my eggs in one basket. Although I might get better briar if I did, I can’t be sure of that, so as I regrow relationships I try to spread my business around and spend enough to be taken seriously but not so much that I can’t recover if I get doorknobs.
I’ve gotten briar from several different sources in the past few months. Makis Minetos is the very good friend of a very good friend and has treated me well. Premal at Smoker’s Haven, now with a pipemaking supply business, RawKrafted.com, remembers me from the old days and has picked some nice blocks. They’ll both get more business. The one problem happened because another maker reported getting unusually great briar from a new-to-me cutter. In the past, I got some of my best briar from smaller guys who were trying to expand, so it’s worth being alert for such opportunities and placing an exploratory order. That relationship has had a rocky start but may be headed in the right direction. One must take the long view. It helps to consider the nature of human values; in some way, the cutter believed he was doing me a favor.
Let me know if you’d like a doorknob.