328. “Simply by Luck”: A View on Birdseye
Time for your routine Sunday morning reality check: what’s your favorite grain pattern on a Pete?
If you answered straight you’re surely in the majority. If you answered mixed, that shows you’re a very well-adjusted pipeman, because that’s mostly what we see. If you answered any you’re obviously not a fan of the Heritage stain. Ouch.
Rosslare B10, HM 2003 (first year issue)
Back in 2004 I came across this Rosslare B10. The line had only appeared the previous year with it the debut of the B10 and B11, as near as I can tell. The shape was wonderful, the beautiful sterling band with its deep twin rings was wonderful, the faux-spigot sterling mouthpiece was wonderful. But what made it almost unbelievable was the birdseye, which I’d never noticed in such profusion before on a Peterson.
Since then I’ve come to realize that from my own kappnismologist’s point of view—as someone who’s loved the brand for over 40 years and has studied it with the best of them—as far as grain goes, what says “Peterson pipe” to me above all is birdseye. What conscientized me to it was this fantastic engraving from the 1945 and 1950 catalogs, which you’ve seen in an earlier post:
To begin at the beginning, let’s review Kurt Hahn’s distinction between plateaux and ebauchon briar blocks from Pipedia:
“The two main shapes of briar blocks, as they come from the cutter, are ebauchon and plateaux. Ebauchon blocks are largely rectangular, are cut from the burl to maximize the number of blocks that can be created, and, as a result, usually have fairly random grain patterns. Most of the pipes that have ever been made from briar have been made from ebauchon blocks. They’re typically very economical, costing much less than plateaux blocks, and they’re easy to work with, having been squared by the cutter so that they’re easy to clamp in a vise or chuck. Plateaux blocks are cut from the outer portion of the burl and still have bark on the outer edge. They resemble a quarter of a circle, by and large, and are usually quite a bit larger than ebauchon. These are typically cut to maximize the grain orientation, and so there are usually fewer garnered from a given burl. Because of this, they’re also more expensive than ebauchon. Pipes with striking straight grain are almost always made from plateaux.”
All Petersons (apart from the seldom-seen Plato) are made from ebauchon. That being the case, while there are an infinitesimal number of ebauchon straight grains and a few more flame grains, there’s a lot more birdseye than either one. It goes without saying that the vast majority of ebauchon blocks are mixed grain and some are even no grain (which are perfect for ebony pipes).
WHAT IS “BIRDSEYE”?
If you take a a straight grain pipe (vertical grain on each flank) and look at the top of the rim and shank and the bottom, you’ll see end grain, the straight “vein” at its tip. That’s birdseye.
The block of ebauchon seen in the top photo of the two types above shows how this type of block can yield great birdseye, which is what we’re seeing on the flank.
I’d like to suggest an elementary taxonomy based on the presence of this type of grain:
- Paisley birdseye
- Pure birdseye
I would hazard a definition of a birdseye-grain pipe as “characterized by end grain visually dominating the obverse and reverse flanks and straight grain wrapping the top, bottom, front and back of bowl and shank.”*
A 309 Standard System Paisley from Linwood Hines
I discussed paisley in Post #220, but I want to expand that here. Paisley is the heavy metal hero of birdseye. The analogy is intentional: paisley is loud, big, bold, crazy. When the grain is stained black as it was in the 309 above it can be almost mermerizing it’s so eye catching. I suspect paisley’s boldness derives from dense flame grain, rather than straight grain—hence the size and dazzling patterns of its swirls. But as many of you know more about pipe-making than I do, I’d gladly be educated on this point as well as any others I make here.
Late Republic 307 Standard System Birdseye
Paisley and birdseye can be found across the tiers of the System and Classic Range. Above is another Standard System, this time a Late Republic 307. The paisley isn’t as pronounced on the reverse as the obverse, but it’s still absolutely infested. As you see, it adheres to its tier grading and does have a few small fills. But given a choice, I think I’d rather have a paisley Standard than a mixed-grain Premier or DeLuxe.
A Lestrade Dark Paisley
While no one in the trade that I’ve heard of has commented on the sparsity of decently-grained briar—meaning mixed grain, birdseye and flame—I have a strong suspicion that such is the case, using the “ye shall know them by their fruits” rubric. There are still some new “grained” pipes being released, and this fairly recent SH Lestrade Dark shows off just how beautiful paisley can be in a darker stain.
An Irish Whiskey 120 Pure Birdseye
When I conjure up an archetype of birdseye, something like this Irish Whiskey 120 comes to mind. It’s got those tiny little beads that are as small as root marks but in such profusion that they’ve been known to induce vertigo, and the straight grain actually cuts firmly across the front and back of the bowl and the upper and lower shank.
A Writers Collection Yeats Pure Birdseye
This Yeats is another fine example of what my understanding of pure birdseye, with astounding grain to be seen everywhere you look. It is true that the horizontal straight grain shifts almost to the center of the front of the bowl, but the visual impression is still overwhelmingly birdseye, with no mixed grain or swirls to be seen anywhere.
14B POY 2022 Natural Pure Birdseye 4/925
Here’s one of the uber-rare pure birdseyes I’ve spotted in the past five years: #4/925 of the 2022 14B POY. I don’t remember who bagged it, but I wish you joy of it for many years to come!
An Early Republic 11s Paisley De Luxe from Paul Combs
For the third tier, “birdseye,” I think of a pipe with a great deal of birdseye, but perhaps not entirely covering both flanks, like this gorgeous Early Republic 11s De Luxe.
XL90 Emerald Birdseye
This XL90 has full swatches of birdseye on both flanks, but notice the swirling of grain at the bottom front of the bowl. Distinguishing between birdseye and pure birdseye is a subjective judgement call, I suppose, although there’s a definite difference between the intensity of the two grades.
While birdseye is certainly as rare as straight grain, it’s received nothing like the attention of straight and even flame grain. When I asked Adam Davidson at SPC about it not too long ago, he wrote back,
“Just like straight grain, birdseye is simply a grain pattern. Makers can achieve it by cutting a block in a specific way. Factories (like Peterson and/or any others) get it simply by luck. Blocks are often cut, dried, and turned in a factory setting however they fit into the machines or however the pipe pattern fits onto the block, which is why you see this sometimes but not always.
“There is a little something extra about making it look good and ‘pop,’ though, and that has to do with whatever stain, finishing oil, waxes, and polishing processes are used.”
If you’ve ever done any bird-watching at all, you know how much luck has to do with it. You can wait and wait and never see anything. You can get up before sunrise, sit down in your camp chair with your best spotting-scope and never catch sight of the Clark’s Nutcracker you hiked three miles up the trail to see. In much the same way, you can look every day for a year on eBay and not run across a pure birdseye or paisley. Or maybe find three in a single week. That’s one of the big reasons I love Petes above most artisan pipes I see. Artisans are much more in control of their grain. They pay a premium for a great block of plateaux and stand a good chance of creating something spectacular with every pipe. With Petes, it’s a matter of luck—or grace. And there’s a gift in that.
Thanks to Adam Davidson
Detail from artisan quilt “Time for Smokin’ Crows”
by Donna H. Irwin
IPSD banners by PPN artist-in-residence Brian Heydn
IPSD is Monday, February 20. See you then!
*Do feel free to comment, contradict or emend this, as I’m never amiss to being enlightened.
The Zippo Pete Geek lighters are on schedule in the production queue!