When one walks into a pipe shop and looks around, one should see many different shapes, styles, and colors of pipes often hung on the wall or displayed in glass cases. At first it may appear that these pipes are crafted from differing woods or perhaps even ivory. But pipes actually fall into three categories; briar, meerschaum, and other.
Briar is the burl that grows on the roots of the White Heath tree that thrives in the rocky cliffs surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. This wood is ideal for pipes as it is hard, fire resistant, and porous as well as lovely when properly finished. Although it grows slowly (in fact it must grow at least 50 years to be used in a quality pipe) and has not to date been commercially produced, briar continues to be harvested as the most popular medium for the crafting of pipes. Pipe carvers differ as to the rate that briar is being used up and an impending briar shortage is rumored by some and denied by others. Briar can be stained with alcohol based dyes that provide a variety of colors as well as allow the pipe to continue filtering. All pipes darken with use and a well smoked and cared for briar pipe is a thing of beauty to a pipe enthusiast.
Meerschaum is a soft stone that is mined within a four mile radius of Eskishir Turkey and once finished has a white appearance that is often mistaken for ivory. Each pipe is hand carved by artists into shapes that range from the traditional to the fantastic. The porous properties of meerschaum combine with the heat of the smoke and the beeswax finish to change color and darken with use. Colors can range from pinks, roses, yellows, golds, browns, blacks, and reds as each pipe ages over a lifetime of use. Sometimes meerschaum pipes are per-colored to give the illusion of age by lighting wax soaked rags that have been carefully wrapped around the pipe.
Other mediums used in pipe making include ceramic, corn cobs, cherry wood, clay, and gourd used for calabash pipes. These mediums have worked with varying degrees of success over the years but certainly calabash pipes are in high demand. Ceramic pipes are often double walled to allow one to handle the pipe while smoking and many have images that only appear while smoking. The venerable corn cob pipe is still the only pipe that I will drop in the Niangua river on float trips!