The Mill

April 20, 2014;
    The Old Briar vs Brand Debate...

One of the most contentious and even
divisive issues to enliven (although
that is not the word all participants and
onlookers would use) our hobby in
recent years is the debate over which
is most important feature in
considering the purchase of a pipe, the
brand or the briar.  I hope I'm not
misrepresenting the heart of the
argument with that brief description.  
Another way to put it, maybe, is to ask
whether you can tell if you're going to
get a good smoker by buying your
favorite brand name pipe, or will the
vicissitudes of the wood, the luck of
the draw, as it were, trump anything a
pipe maker can do to fashion a good
  If this subject strikes your fancy, you
can look at some of the old issues of
“The Pipe Collector,” a newsletter out
of Columbus, Ohio
wherein this argument raged for a few
issues.  I say raged, but although there
might have been a hurt feeling or two,
nobody called anybody names, that I
recall.  I chimed in with a short article
or a long letter, I forget which.  As
usual, nobody cared.
  I took the side of briar, and I've never
had a reason to change my thought on
that, although I am a devotee of the
older English pipes and the pre-1965
Dunhills most specifically, which
sounds like I'm straddling the fence or
contradicting myself, which I do quite
frequently and rarely with any guilt or
  As I type, it occurs to me that there is
a 3rd element to be examined, and that
is environment.  It's kind of tricky
because the wood is where the
environment is, and so is the brand.  
Perhaps environment is the
determining factor, and no pipe coming
out of, say, Sofia, Bulgaria, or Waco,
Texas can ever be great.  Or, and
here's the beauty of the system, no
pipe coming out of any other place can
be as great as pipes coming out of
Sofia and Waco.
  What do I mean by environment?  
Well, for one, the air is saltier in
Copenhagen, and London, than it is in
Waco, or St. Claude, France.  If the
briar sits in the salty air long enough, it
will pick up a hint of that air's
properties.  It it sits in a wood pile long
enough, it will pick up and absorb rat
piss and the droppings of other pests
that run through wood piles.  You
better believe it.  
  I have thought this must be the case
for decades and decades.  Half in jest,
in my mind, but also half true.  Then, I
heard two of the finest Danish pipe
makers in the world, I can't recall who
'cause it was probably at the Chicago
show and they just about all come, and
they were talking about the exact same
thing, rat piss on the wood.  I think
deer piss on briar, too, when they have
the opportunity.  
  This is likely to provide already tasty
briar with a certain je ne sais quoi.  
  The key here, you'll notice if you were
paying attention, is that the briar must
sit, piled one block on another, for a
good long time if this “value added”
effluvia is to result. Years are
necessary, decades are preferable.  Of
course, it's often hard to ask the pipe
maker, “hey, do you happen to know
what animal peed on that fantastic pipe
I bought from you last year.”  A
sheepish look on the pipe maker's face
might give you the answer.
  This issue came up with
correspondent and frequent
contributor to “The Pipe Collector”
Regis McCafferty as we were talking
our mutual preferences for old English
pipes.  The styles may seem
ultra-conservative to many smokers
today, but one huge advantage that the
old companies had was that they
bought briar for the long run, imagining
that their businesses would go on for
generations and that today's high price
for briar would work out to be
tomorrow's bargain.  To this end,
Regis had a story for me, and now for

  A related story for you: Back in the
late 60s, early 70s, I worked in an office
just 2 1/2 blocks from Smoker's Haven
in downtown Columbus. You can
guess where my lunch hours were
spent several days a week. I got to
know the owners and staff very well
and was a regular customer. I think it
was about 1969 that several
representatives of Charatan came to S.
H. for what we today would call a trunk
show. Smoker's Haven was one of the
leading sellers of Charatan in the US,
maybe even the top seller. I was lucky
enough to be invited to lunch with
them and several of the S.H. staff. One
of the Charatan staff, who I happened
to sit next to, had the unusual title of
"Briar Buyer". His father and
grandfather before him had held the
same title with Charatan. He told me
they selected briar and warehoused it
for years. He said that his father
bought briar that he knew wouldn't be
made into a pipe till after he retired.
Some of their briar was warehoused
for as long as fifty years before it was
selected to make a pipe. They had
thousands of blocks. Dunhill probably
got most in the late 70s when they took
over Charatan but it was rumored that
Barry Jones managed to acquire
several thousand blocks when he left
to start Upshall, which is also why
some of the early Upshalls are fine
smoking pipes. Old briar.

  What does all this mean?  Probably
different things to different pipe
buyers.  What it means to me is that I
am essentially disinterested in buying
anything from a pipe maker born after
With almost no exceptions (Andrew
Marks is actually an exception.  
Andrew bought his last briar block in
something like 1974.  Everything he
makes is from wood that old) it is
impossible to find a pipe maker with
briar aged long enough to make a
contrarian like myself satisfied that
enough has gone on with the wood so
that it can smoke well enough to
induce me put down any of my present
  At its simplest, the mysteries of pipe
smoking are insolvable.  Adding
another unquantifiable, like how long,
and where, the briar has aged creates
another layer of inscrutability.  Good
luck with your pipe choices.
P.S.  While all of the above is an
accurate reflection of how I feel, it's
mostly for the sake of starting a good
argument.  It would be easy to make
me into a hypocrite; there are plenty of
good examples that disprove the rule,
so to speak.  For example, I am a
strong, strong devotee of uncoated
bowls, yet the old Dunhills that I so
revere all had coated bowls.  Some of
the best smokers I have are from small
craftsmen who, like today's most
favored pipe makers, couldn't possibly
store briar for 40 years before using.  
ultimate advice is not to listen to
anyone else, certainly not me, and be
sure to choose your own poison.

P.S.     Most recently posted were a
Castello Collection, a Becker One
Heart, Castello Sea Rock, a Radice Silk
Cuts and an Ardor Matera on the Italian
page.Also, a Stanwell on the Danish
 On the English page is a Dunhill
Cumberland, a Comoy's Mark 2 and an
old Hardcastle.  Check out how far the
Chinese pipe makers of H.S. Studio
have come in their craft development
on the Miscellaneous page.

P.P.S.  I haven't updated the quotes
The Portable Curmudgeon in
quite a while, but a quote that I
particularly like came into sight again
today, so I'll share it.  
The law, in its majestic equality, forbids
the rich as well as the poor to sleep
under bridges, to beg in the streets,
and to steal bread. -Anatole France,
novelist, essayist, Nobel laureate (1844-
Quotes & anecdotes from "The Portable Curmudgeon"

Life is a God-damned, stinking, treacherous game and nine hundered
and ninety-nine men out of a thousand are bastards.
Theodore Dreiser

Literature: proclaiming in front of everyone what one is careful to
conceal from one's immediate circle.     Jean Rostand

For certain people, after fifty, litigation takes the place of sex.
Gore Vidal

London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers of the Empire
are irresistibly drained.                               Arthur Conan Doyle

London, like a bowl of viscid human fluid, boils sullenly over the rim of
its encircling hills and slops messily and uglily into the home counties.
H.G. Wells                                                                                      
The monstrous tuberosity of civilized life, the capital of England.
Thomas Carlyle

Isn't it nice that people who prefer Los Angeles to San Francisco live
there?                                                              Herb Caen

A big hard-boiled city with no more personality than a paper cup.
Raymond Chandler

Everything in Los Angeles is too large, too loud and usually banal in
concept...The plastic asshole of the world.     William Faulkner

I figure you have the same chance of winning the lottery whether you
play or not.                                               Fran Lebowitz

Love is the delightful interval between meeting a beautiful girl and
discovering that she looks like a haddock.  John Barrymore

Love is the state in which man sees things most decidedly as they are
not.                                                               Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

A temporary insanity curable by marriage.             Ambrose Bierce

The delusion that one woman differs from another.
H.L. Mencken

In the forties, to get a girl you had to be a GI or a jock.  In the Fifties to
get a girl you had to be Jewish.  In the Sixties, to get a girl you had to be
black.  In the Seventies, to get a girl you've got to be a girl.
Mort Sahl

By the time you swear you're his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying--
One of you is lying.                                          Dorothy Parker

Many a man in love with a dimple makes the mistake of marrying the
whole girl.                                                                       Stephen Leacock

Many a man has fallen love with a girl in a light so dim he would not
have chosen a suit by it.                                         Maurice Chevalier

It is a mistake to speak of a bad choice in love, since as soon as a
choice exists, it can only be bad.                         Marcel Proust

It's possible to love a human being if you don't know them too well.
Charles Bukowski

Love is only a dirty trick played on us to achieve the continuation of the
species.                                                                        W. Somerset Maugham

The only true love is love at first sight; second sight dispels it.
Israel Zangwill

Boy Meets Girl.  So What?                                       Bertolt Brecht
This photo was taken only days before my beloved San Francisco
store, Sherlock's Haven,  was closed for good in June of '06, thereby
diminishing the quality of life on this planet no little and quite some.  
The man to my right was my trusty pipe tobacco and cigar taste-tester,
Johnson, of the sensitive palate.  He is now  plying his trade in
Phoenix.  The tall gent behind him is Jimmy Walker, hand picked to be
my successor until lease negotiations broke down.  The hoodlum
looking character to my left is my good friend and Consigliere, Steve
Brunner.  Among the regulars are a number who are still friends and
with whom I have regular intercourse.  There has never been a more
congenial spot than Sherlock's Haven, the Camelot of tobacco stores.  
As its proprietor is how I'd like to be remembered.
I wanted to caption this photo, "I knew more about pipes when I was
seven than you know now," but my P.R. firm nixed that idea.  So, let's
try, "With the pristine palate that accompanies youth, Marty smokes a
blend without a full complement of Latakia for the first time in his life."
I don't actually know what was going through my mind at the time, but
the photo was taken circa 1950, and probably in Williamsburg, Virginia.
(And no, I did not actually smoke a pipe until I was 18 years old, really.)
Shortly after my mother met my wife, she told Joy that all it took to
keep me happy in the back seat of our 1938 LaSalle during our annual
one week vacations was a pipe in my mouth and a cap on my head.  
Joy responded with the fact that nothing has changed except that now
I'm in the front seat.  
Above is my sister, with whom I contentiously shared that large back
seat, and my father.  The sweater was knitted by my Aunt Rae.  The
site was most probably Niagara Falls and the year 1949.  I'm guessing.
Welcome to Pulvers Briar
This website is devoted to pipes and my enjoyment of talking
about and showing them.  For your part, I hope you derive some
pleasure in seeing and reading about briar and meerschaum
There are plenty of pipe websites and lots of good pipes other
than mine.  What will distinguish my site from most of the others
is the willingness to voice my  opinion in the relatively rare
occurrence when a pipe is not superior, or has a noticeable flaw.
Mostly, I'm pleased with the pipes I choose to offer for sale, both
in pipe quality and price.  But please, look and decide for
You will see new and used pipes for sale, the new often having
been hand picked and the used always having been cleaned
and reconditioned and ready for you to smoke upon arrival.  
Please enjoy your time spent here today, and please come back
I'm almost always happy to hear from you and to field your
questions, concerns, ideas or other input.
Feel free to write.
Marty Pulvers
Pulvers' Prior Briar
P.O. Box 61146
Palo Alto, CA  94306

(650) 965-7403
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