Why Briar?

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sablebrush52

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Jun 15, 2013
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Briar got its start in France in the late 1830's. It proved to be a suitable material for the cremation of plant leaves and was tougher than meerschaum. The whys and wherefores of why it worked came to be understood later. It was enough to know that it worked. By the 1850's briar was well established as a material that could be worked into pleasing shapes and provide a quality smoke. Other woods, like pear and olive, have their adherents, but the briar trade was well established and has remained so.
 
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chasingembers

Captain of the Black Frigate
Nov 12, 2014
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At one end of that spectrum, it's petrified, and at the other it isn't, so my suggestion is that there are important physical differences between petrified and unpetrified oak.

Petrification takes millions of years to occur so it's still just old oak. The brown isn't even it's original color as the wood is usually stained brown by tannins dissolved in the acidic water. The blackening comes from added mineralization after many more years but the brown is still a far cry from being wood and is just as difficult to carve.
 

chasingembers

Captain of the Black Frigate
Nov 12, 2014
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Briar got its start in France in the late 1830's. It proved to be a suitable material for the cremation of plant leaves and was tougher than meerschaum. The whys and wherefores of why it worked came to be understood later. It was enough to know that it worked. By the 1850's briar was well established as a material that could be worked into pleasing shapes and provide a quality smoke. Other woods, like pear and olive, have their adherents, but the briar trade was well established and has remained so.
The density of the burl makes it excellent as it is very resistant to burning as well. I still find it amusing that language corruption changed the word to briar though. Sort of like how the word "alligator" came about.
 

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Crawley1066

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Oct 14, 2014
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Thank you everyone for the information - it’s all fascinating stuff. Sounds like one of those ‘Stars aligned’ scenarios - good trade off from qualities and appearance. Appreciate briar was well engrained as a material of choice before we really knew the scientific reasons as to why.

My first briar block arrived in the post yesterday and I spent 12 hours in my small shop carving it. It carves beautifully - I think I’ve got a better understanding of why it’s taken centre stage for so long in pipe making... not to mention the fun of making your own!

Thanks again for your collective knowledge - very much appreciated. 🙏
 

sasquatch

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Jul 16, 2012
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Sasquatch, where did you get this from?

In "Characteristics of briarwood" by Tsoumis et al (1988) the authors state that the high temperature resistance of briar is NOT due to silica, because the silica content of briar is low. Rather, the heat resistance is due to extractives, or low potassium or calcium content in the wood.

Characteristics of Briarwood, Holzforschung - International Journal of the Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Technology of Wood | DeepDyve - https://www.deepdyve.com/lp/de-gruyter/characteristics-of-briarwood-6bg0zDqcxq
Yeah that's "the paper" on this stuff (I have a couple other published papers on briar but they are more to do with growth conditions than chemical makeup). I guess I take a slightly different conclusion out of that chart of numbers - Pine has far lower K and Ca numbers for example, and briar is the only one showing silica at all, even if it's a small percent in terms of the total makeup. The authors acknowledge that the "extactives" in other woods are similar or higher than briar, or rather, they acknowledge that there's conflicting data about what is supporting or suppressing the burn rate. I think their main conclusion, based more off the microscopic stuff than the chemical analysis is maybe more important, where they talk about the structure "containing amorphous crystal enclosures in cell cavities...." eg, the wood is full of mineralic content. So perhaps it would be better had I used that more general term.
 

yaddy306

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Aug 7, 2013
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Sas, if extractives or minerals are responsible for briar's heat resistance, and briar block prep involves boiling to remove resin, sap, "extractives" etc., then is briar boiling a sort of trade-off between making a better tasting but still heat resistant chunk of wood?
 

sasquatch

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Jul 16, 2012
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Sas, if extractives or minerals are responsible for briar's heat resistance, and briar block prep involves boiling to remove resin, sap, "extractives" etc., then is briar boiling a sort of trade-off between making a better tasting but still heat resistant chunk of wood?
I'm not sure what boiling gets out in terms of chemicals - it's just water, so I suspect it's about getting acid/tannin out of the block. Minerals etc I think are part of the wood proper. The analysis in the linked paper was done by grinding briar to powder, burning off the organic material etc. I've had a few briar blocks that were improperly or incompletely boiled, and they had a sort of bright pink juice in them, and it was tart.
 

canucklehead

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Aug 1, 2018
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I'm not sure what boiling gets out in terms of chemicals - it's just water, so I suspect it's about getting acid/tannin out of the block. Minerals etc I think are part of the wood proper. The analysis in the linked paper was done by grinding briar to powder, burning off the organic material etc. I've had a few briar blocks that were improperly or incompletely boiled, and they had a sort of bright pink juice in them, and it was tart.
A friend of mine harvests arbutus for pipe-making, and when he boils his blocks the water changes to a deep pink-red and apparently smells like vinegar, he has even used the leftover water concentrated as a wood stain. I would surmise that a lot of the stuff that comes out while boiling is tannins, but don't know for sure.
 
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craig61a

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Apr 29, 2017
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Petrification takes millions of years to occur so it's still just old oak. The brown isn't even it's original color as the wood is usually stained brown by tannins dissolved in the acidic water. The blackening comes from added mineralization after many more years but the brown is still a far cry from being wood and is just as difficult to carve.

It’s mineralized wood, and it does wear more on cutting tools and generates more heat while working.

And it will burn...
 

Country Bladesmith

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May 2, 2020
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It’s mineralized wood, and it does wear more on cutting tools and generates more heat while working.

And it will burn...
I use bog oak/morta for knife handle material fairly often. It is hard on my belts and bandsaw, but customers dig it when you tell them their knife handle is as old as the pyramids in Egypt.
 
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craig61a

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Apr 29, 2017
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My point exactly were it truly petrified, under normal conditions it wouldn't burn.

Which is why I let some cake form on my Morta pipes. There is a school of thought that Morta should be treated as Meerschaum, and cake should not be allowed to form.

That hasn’t been my experience, and like other woods, Morta can have soft spots.
 
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