I wrote this in 2008 for a friend who intended to keep the Pipe/Grabow history going forward. Didn't happen.
At least Pipedia gave me the credit.
Some of this has been edited today. Very few material changes but there may be some references to the original recipient that I've missed.
The Briar Used in Dr. Grabow pipes
The European Production
by TED as of July 1st, 2008
The subject of briar in Europe has been researched and told by better people than me. I've been there twice and this is what I know.
Briar, We call it, is ERICA ARBOREA, WHITE HEATH, TREE HEATH, BRUYERE, BRIER,TUSCEDO in Greece. It grows in all the countries that border the Medit. sea. Mostly northern Med. There is an Algerian briar, but I believe it comes from France and Spain. Not Algeria.
It is harvested after it blooms, beautiful blooms that look like a small white cross. Harvesting is tough, since the burl is underground. Every "forest worker" has a donkey, and the forest work is usually a part time job for the locals.
Burls are dug with an implement that looks like a combo between a hoe and an axe. The hoe end clears the earth, the axe cuts the root, after that, the hoe clears the the trash, and the axe cuts the roots, after that, the hoe clears....you get my point. Backbreaking work. I watched a "professional" and it took him 20 minutes to get out a burl that was no bigger than a small watermellon.
Burls must be kept wet. The donkeys carry a water supply to the fields. When the day is done, the forester MUST find a place to HIDE todays dig. Stealing of the burls is a problem, but if one is caught, penalties are severe, and are not handled by the courts. Locals dole out the punishment.
Small trucks pick up the burls, and the field workers are paid IN CASH for their work. A balance scale, unlike anything I'd ever seen,, was used to weigh the burls.
The mills were quite an experience. Sawyers (I know that spelling is funny, but that came from the Greeks) sit about 8 feet above the main floor of the building, on a "platform" with their legs dangling through the platform.The saw( 18" to 24") runs between their legs, inches from their crotch. Most sawyers have lost fingers or parts of fingers. The burls must be kept wet until sawed. Wet and slick, that makes the job harder. Sawyers usually had modified an old car or bus seat and had mounted it to the floor to give them back support, because the first cut was so stressful on their backs. That cut was to halve the burl. The average burl was about the size of a basketball. Sit on the floor, hold a slick, solid basketball, with an 18' circular saw 2" from your crotch, and try to split the ball. I don't have the BALLS for it. What amazed me was how many ebauchons they could get out of one burl. How do you get square blocks out of a round burl, with no waste? AMAZING. Sawyers are paid on the number of salable ebauchons they produce.
The sawyers, based on where the cut came from in relation to the burl edge, decided on the quality. Extra Extra, Extra, First. Mixed was "I don't know", or what missed the bag they threw it at. Ebauchons were boiled at the mills in vats that could easily hold 1000 gallons of water. Charcoal (a big product, using the stems of white heath) fired the vats. This boiled out the tannic acid, and sap. Tannic acid, when boiled is red, thus the term "blood" for the heart of the burl. The ebauchons were then air dried and bagged, ready for Grabow.
Ebauchons came in many sizes. "M" cut was for straight pipes, "R" cut was for bents and most Continentals. M1-2 made the Grabow 50 and 36, R2 made the 37L. CMF 1-2 made the 72,73,74,75, etc.
OK, Extra Extra, Extra, First, Mixed, How did we make Duke and Lark from those big pieces of briar? There was another catagory which answers a lot of questions. CM....As the sawyers got into the burl and couldn't get another big piece out of the burl, they cut CM. Never graded, the smallest(except for the Viking/Falcon Bowls). This we bought for Lark and Duke. When EE from Greece was $600/bag, CM1-2(for Lark and Duke) was $100/ bag and had 72 dozen. Talk about cheap. We did well off the small pipes.
Spanish mills were located Northeast of Barcelona in( I believe..Grenada). The Spaniards only cut "FIRST" and that was all they sold. Spanish "FIRST" was pretty bad, but we felt we needed to keep them in business, so we bought about 25% from them. Italy sold us about another 25%, and the Greeks were the other half.
I've got to remember the dead. Our broker in Spain was Rocco Cuttri. He died in about 74. Such a man.
Briar 102, Briar Selection, Grades and Use In Dr. Grabow Pipes
The following information about briar mainly covers the area from the 1960s to maybe the late-1980s, but other than the prices, probably has at least some application to the period prior to that as well as after. In other words, having a basic knowledge of this, one might be able to better understand how Linkman was doing business in Chicago -- a period I have little to no information on. The prices are for around the 1980s and 1990s and are used primarily to give a general idea of the cost and quality relationship. When the pipe names are given in parenthesis, it is not an all-inlcusive, nor exclusive list -- they are provided for convenience and to give a general feel for what briar went into what pipe.
So here we go!
First of all, briar is ONLY available in five SELECTIONS (forget CM). They will be listed below. Briarwood is purchased in bags and the price is per bag. Depending on the size block a bag can have as few as 24 dozen, or as many as 72 dozen:
PLACAS (We call them "plateaus") -- Used for freehands because the burl is attached. You are assured of straight grain, but not guaranteed quality. Grabow never really bought these.
EXTRA EXTRA (EE) -- $600 a bag. 75% of this would be #1 and #2 grade (see below).
EXTRA (E) -- $400 to $500 a bag. 45 to 55% of this would be #1 and #2 grade (see below).
FIRST (F) -- $320 to $400 a bag. 25 to 35% of this would be #1 and #2 grade (see below).
MIXED (M) -- Only $200 a bag, but just 10% of this would be #1 and #2 grade (see below).
Blocks (stummels) were turned into bowls, rough sanded and dry selected. Dry selection separated them into seven grades (GRADED by the flaws -- number of imperfections -- in the wood) from 1 to 7 as below:
1-- Clean, absolutely perfect (for application, see more below).
2- Has a few small imperfections, easily filled (for application, see more below).
3-- Would make a smooth pipe with fills, patching (REGAL, WILLARD smooth, VISCOUNT rustic)4
4-- Would work only for rustic (WILLARD rustic)
5- Would work only for rustic (WILLARD rustic)
6-- Nearly firewood (WILLARD rustic).
7-- Were trash.
Now, from the above grades, #1 and #2 were then "wet selected". This used a solution of half methanol and half water (which is the same formula that we used to bend stems) which "brings out" the grain. This selection resulted in the following for #1 and #2. Remember #1's are perfect and #2's are nearly in quality only
A -- Full grain (EMPEROR, ELDORADO, most VISCOUNT, some STARFIRE, SCULPTURA).:
B -- 75% grain (REGAL, SILVER DUKE and others).
C -- 50% grain (WILLARD for smooth).
D -- Less than 50% grain (Painted pipes like COLOR VISCOUNT, COLOR DUKE)
E -- Full Grain (VISCOUNT, SCULPTURA, STARFIRE, WESTBROOK, GOLDEN DUKE, some SILVER DUKE and a few others):
F -- 75% grain (REGAL, SILVER DUKE and others).
G -- 50% grain (WILLARD for smooth).
H -- Less than 50% grain (Painted pipes like COLOR VISCOUNT, COLOR DUKE)
When referring to the above grades, the number for "#1" and "#2" were never used, but rather it was just A, B, C, D and H. Why? Probably because it was just redundant to say, "1A" or "2E". For the rest it would be just 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7.
Short Shanks, Chip Top, and Panels
Okay, we have covered "A" through "H" and "3" through "7". Now we proceed to SHORT SHANKS (5/8" and 7/16"), CHIP TOPS, and PANELS.
7/16" and 5/8" refer to shank length which are faults in the length of the block of briar. They were sawed wrong in Europe. Ever get the idea that some "banded" pipes were made that way for more than simply the looks? We could use these short shanks for these..... and don't forget Willard.
CHIP TOPS are also faults of the block, in that it is too short (height) for the shape it was selected for. The top ends up being rough. Sparta used them by sanding the top shorter.
PANELS are also faults. Too narrow left or right or front to back for their selected shape. Sparta had a "panel machine" that could cut flat panels on one, two, four or eight sides. Ever see a "paneled" "DUKE" line pipe that isn't exactly on the shape chart? Now you know why.
"In the short shanks, chip tops and panels, we dry selected for only #1, #3, #5 and "firewood".
COMMODORE and SCULPTURA, were wet selected #3 for FULL GRAIN. For this you have to think about those sandblasted finishes and how the briar could have defects, but full grain would be important. "I guess you've figured out by now that some #4 and #5 also had full grain. OK, we never used them for SMOOTH".
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