Two Alternative Pipe Woods – Robert M. Leverette


Blog by Robert Mike Leverette

A dear friend of mine penned this article on alternative pipe woods before he died. I know it has been posed elsewhere but I wanted to pass on what he has written as I have found it informative and helpful as I navigate alternative woods. In honour of Mike’s memory I post this article that he wrote 21 Dec. 2006.

Throughout tobacco history, there has been a bewildering number of materials used for making pipes.  Among these materials are; stone, clay, porcelain, glass, various metals and of course woods, such as briar; the burl of the Erica Arborea or White Heath.  Woods of different species have been used for centuries from reeds used by the American Indian, as well as, young boys for their first smoking experiences, (such as my first reed pipe I made and smoked when only 13 years old in 1952) to many different hard woods.  Some of the well known woods used as alternatives to briar are wild olive and black thorn by Johann Slabert, bog oak by Peterson and Morta by Trever Talbert, Rosewood by the Exotic Pipe Company and now peach root pipes by modern Russian makers.

Several alternative woods are discussed in “Pipes In Other Woods” by T. C. Fuller (Fuller 2005) with pipes of some of these woods found on his web site www.tcfullerpipes.com.  Mr. Fuller lists the following woods along with some of his observations:  Cherry; Apple; Olive; Hawthorn root; Maple burl; Black Palm; Myrtle; Walnut; Curly Ash; Ebony; and Pawlonia.  Mr. Fuller states that his olive wood pipes sweated tobacco juices by quoting a friend of his;
“He has smoked the pipe extensively and had this to say about it: “This particular olive has very thin walls.  During the pipe’s breaking in, I noticed that residue was seeping through its walls, (…).”

I have not had an olive wood pipe to sweat, maybe because I like my tobaccos on the dry side.  Mr. Fuller and I have had the same experience with Black Walnut; it gives a pleasing nutty flavor to your smoke.
Another excellent article on alternative woods is Ben Rapaport’s “Un-Briars” (Rapaport 2001) in which he lists 29 woods, from Acacia to Walnut, used primarily by early European pipe makers and peoples who, by my thoughts, are probably still using these woods for personal pipes.

Then too, there is the article by Chuck Stanion “From Beechwood to Briar” (Stanion 2001) in which, by giving the history of Stanwell pipes, he writes of Poul Nielsen making pipes of Beechwood in 1942 due to the war shortage of briar.  These Beechwood pipes were under the name of Kyringe pipes.

Why haven’t these woods, or at least a few of these woods, gained as much popularity as has briar?  The general consensus is that they are not as durable as briar.  Well, what is it about briar that gives its durability?  Again the general consensus is briar owes its durability to its hardness but we all know there are woods mentioned above that are harder than briar by the Janka and other scales.

There are two woods that I think can compete with the durability of briar, or at least, very close, and they are Manzanita and Mountain Laurel.  A briar pipe may last several life times while pipes of these two woods may last half a life time shorter, but only if  they are taken care of as lovingly as briar pipes.  Both of these woods were used in the United States during World War II when briar was impossible to obtain.  Pipes of these two woods that I have come across are excellent smokers and are in excellent condition considering that over sixty years have elapsed since they were made. I expect they will last for many more years.  These two alternative woods are more thoroughly reviewed below.

Manzanita or Mission Briar

Though Manzanita was used for pipes during World War II and for a couple of years after that conflict; Wikipedia does not list smoking pipes as one of its usages.  Wikipedia gives the following description for the wood (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manzanita):
“The Manzanitas are a subgenus of the genus Arctostaphylos. They are evergreen present in the chaparral biome of western North America, where they occur from southern British Columbia in Canada, Washington to California and New Mexico in the United States, and throughout much of northern and central Mexico. They are characterized by smooth, orange or red bark and stiff, twisting branches. There are about 60 species of manzanita, ranging from ground-hugging coastal and mountain species to small trees up to 6m tall. Manzanitas bloom in the winter to early spring and carry berries in spring and summer. The berries and flowers of most species are edible, though not particularly tasty.”

Bill Feuerbach in his excellent article on the history of “S. M. Frank & Co., Inc.” (Feuerbach 1977) had this to say about Manzanita:
“During World War II, getting briar imported into this country was not easy. Italian and French briar couldn’t be had until very late in the war. Kaywoodie was able to import 1400 5-gross bags of briar (about 1,000,000 blocks) out of North Africa in 1943 after the German army was defeated there. Early in 1941, Kaywoodie embarked on a project of domestically grown briar wood, called Mission Briar. This wood is botanically the same as Mediterranean briar. The Pacific Briarwood Company, a KBB subsidiary, began harvesting the burl type wood growing on the slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. However, the smoking characteristics were not quite as good and the project was abandoned after the war.”

We do know that there were at least three brands of pipes using Mission Briar, a marketing ploy for manzanita to capitalize on the name briar.  They were; Kaywoodie, Monterey and Reiss Premium pipes.  Though Mr. Feuerbach does not actually say that Kaywoodie pipes were made from Mission Briar during those years, it is implied in his history.  Monterey Pipes were also owned and made by Kaywoodie.  Within my collection, I have two Monterey Specimen Grain Mission Briar pipes; a bulldog and a billiard; both great smokers though I am not a fan of metal condensers; thus leaving me at a loss to understand his comment, “However, the smoking characteristics were not quite as good (…).”  Maybe it is just my old abused pallette coming into play!

Mountain Laurel

Mountain Laurel was also used for pipes during the war and for a couple of years after that conflict; and again, Wikipedia does not list smoking pipes as one of its usages.  Wikipedia gives the following description for the wood (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mountain_Laurel):

“Kalmia latifolia (Mountain-laurel) is a flowering plant in the family Ericaceae, native to the eastern United States, from southern Maine south to northern Florida, and west to Indiana and Louisiana. It is an evergreen shrub growing to 3-9 m tall. The leaves are 3-12 cm long and 1-4 cm wide. Its flowers are star-shaped, ranging from red to pink to white, and occurring in clusters. It blooms between May and June. All parts of the plant are poisonous.  The plant is naturally found on rocky slopes and mountainous forest areas. The plant often grows in large thickets, covering large areas of forest floor.  It is also known as Ivybush, Calico Bush, Spoonwood (because native Americans used to make their spoons out of it), Sheep Laurel, Lambkill and Clamoun.”

Though Wikipedia states that “All parts of the plant are poisonous,” other botanical sources state that only the leaves are poisonous, and here poisonous would be in reference to cattle and sheep eating the leaves with fatalities depending on the quantity consumed.  The milk from cows will also be toxic, though not necessarily fatal, to humans drinking said beverage.

There were at least three pipe brands made from the Mountain Laurel; Trapwell, Breezewood and Custombilt.  Trapwell pipes were made by D & P Pipe Works beginning on or before 1943.  D & P Pipe Works, owned by D. P. Levitas (Ross 2005), began making pipes in 1938 (Wilczak and Colwell 1997) probably in New York City but relocated to Sparta, Alleghany County, North Carolina in 1943 (Sparta/Alleghany CoC 2006), in order to be closer to the huge population of Mountain Laurel in the area.  Later, this company changed their name to Sparta Pipe Works and still later to Sparta Industries.  I have one Trapwell World’s Best Briar  pipe in my collection, a small billiard, and here again, it is a great little smoker.  World’s Best Briar was their marketing ploy for Mountain Laurel.  Trapwell’s ‘trap’ is a highly complicated condensing system when compared to most regular metal condensers.  After the war, Trapwell pipes were made from regular briar wood, or “imported briar” until their demise.

According to a 1942 Life magazine advertisement, Breezewood pipes were made by The Breezewood Pipe Company, located at 630 Fifth Avenue, New York City, though Wilczak and Colwell state the Breezewood pipes were made by Kaufmann Brothers & Bondy (KB&B) beginning in 1941 (Wilczak and Colwell 1997).  The Breezewood Pipe Company may have been a subsidiary of KB&B.  To quote the 1942 Life magazine advertisement;  “There, deep in the Great Smoky Mountains, they found it – found an uncharted virgin forest of burls, great old burls that had been growing there uncounted years.  And from these old burls, pipes of astonishing lightness of weight are made – their name: Breezewood.”

At the present time, this is all I have been able to find on the history of Breezewood pipes.  Here again, the one Breezewood pipe, a small billiard, I have in my collection is a great little smoker.  I am not overly fond of metal condensers and this Breezewood pipe has a simple tube condenser similar to Dunhill’s “innertube.“

It would be pure speculation on my part, for I have found no history of such, but Dr. Grabows could also have been made from the Mountain Laurel burls during the early World War II years.  I can find no exact date but Mary Linkman and Company (MLC) moved their Dr. Grabow operations to Charlotte North Carolina probably sometime in the 1940s.  Later in 1955, MLC sold Dr. Grabow pipes to Sparta Pipe Works which may indicate a past relationship of Dr. Grabow pipes with Mountain Laurel.  {emphasis mine — RJM}

In the Autumn 97 – Winter 1998 issue of “The Pipe Smoker’s Ephemeris is a 1979 letter from Claude L. Stuart, owner of Tracy Mincer pipes, to Mr. Fred C. Janusek in which he writes the following;
“The “convertible” pipe was made during World War II when briar was not available and was made largely from scrap briar. The word “imported briar” was deleted from some of the Custombilt pipes from this period because some of the pipes were made from rhodium found in the southern part of the United States. This was used until briar again became available from the Mediterranean Sea area.”

Though Mountain Laurel is not a rhododendron, some people in the south refer to it by rhododendron and the above ‘rhodium’ is probably a misspelling of the word.

Comparisons – My Personal Observations

In comparing pipes of the two woods (Manzanita and Mountain Laurel), the manzanita pipes appear to be heavier in weight and darker in coloring than the mountain laurel pipes though both manzanita conditions could be from heavier smoking resulting in more tobacco juices absorbed in the wood.  Coloring of course could also depend on the stain used.  I readily admit that all of my pipes of these two woods were purchased on the estate pipe market, so I have no idea as to how much each pipe was smoked before they came into my possession.  They both smoke equally great with my briars in that department.  As to durability; pipes of these woods may not be as durable as briar but I am sure they will last a couple of life times if taken care of properly.

In comparing the grain of the two woods to that of briar, they have as pretty and as interesting grain as briar though the birds-eye is not as tight. Both the Mission Briar and the Mountain Laurel pipes smoke Latakia blends (my favorites), Virginia and Virginia-perique tobaccos as well as my briars and olive woods, but again, this could be due my pallette.  In summary, it is puzzling to me why Manzanita and Mountain Laurel loss so much favor in the pipe making world.  Makers bowing to the demand for briar can be the only answer though I am sure pipes of these woods would still sell to the dyed-in-the-wool pipe smokers and collectors of today.

References Cited:
Feuerbach III, Bill – 1977; http://www.smfrankcoinc.com/history/index.htm
Fuller, T. C.- 2005, April issue; “The Pipe Collector” See also, www.tcfullerpipes.com
Rapaport, Ben – 2001, Spring issue; “Pipes and Tobaccos”
Ross, Stephen A. – 2005, Spring issue; “The Doctor is In,” Pipes and Tobaccos
Sparta NC Chamber of Commerce – 2006; http://sparta-nc.com/chamber/history.htm
Stanion, Chuck – 2001, Summer issue; “Pipes and Tobaccos”
Wilczak, Herb and Tom Colwell – 1997; “Who Made That Pipe?”

Appreciation
I would like to express my appreciation to the following for their help:
Benjamin Rapaort; The Nicotian Network & Nexus (Antiquarian Tobbaciana Publication)
Jim Wagner with the Wyoming County NY Sheriff’s Department
James J. Shive of Legacy Consulting Services; Contract Archaeologist

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6 thoughts on “Two Alternative Pipe Woods – Robert M. Leverette

  1. Chuck Rewalt aka Velveteagle

    So enjoyed this information. Now you have me curious about Black Walnut. They grow all over the place here.. Such beautiful grain and coloring also.. Thanks..

    Reply
      1. Chuck Rewalt aka Velveteagle

        Oh wow.. How kind of your daughter.. Perhaps a photo at one point or another if you would.. Curious. I know the roots and fruits of the Black Walnut are not good for one.. The covering of the nuts I should say.. Native American tribes around here used to use the crushed pulp of the nuts on the Black Walnut to stun fish in slow shallow rivers and ponds to gather and eat..

        Reply

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