Briar Purchasing in Greece
To Bring Back Briar (Part 1)
A Trip to Greece
by Mark Tinsky
Many of the questions posed when I meet people that smoke my pipes concern the briar that I use to make Americans. Since I can't meet all of my customers in person, I have prepared this series of photos that I took on a buying trip to Greece.
The wood blocks that pipes are made of are cut from the burl of the briar bush, scientific name Erica arborea, which is part of the Heath family. These bushes are generally under 10 feet high and the burl grows at ground level, the trunk of the bush growing up and the roots growing down. Briar grows in the arid, agriculturally unproductive land surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. The best briar available today comes from Greece. Algeria was a source for many years, but over harvesting and the ravages of World War II ended this.
Because of its severe habitat, briar grows very slowly. A marketable burl must be 40 years old before it can be harvested. Larger pipes would require an older burl. Larger burls from 100-year-old briars are becoming exceedingly hard to find. This is compounded by the fact that all easily accessible sources of briar have been used up and the back breaking labor of digging up burls must be accomplished without the help of power tools. Young workers are less inclined to do this hard work and find employment in the cities to be more remunerative and much easier.
Once the burls are dug up, they must be protected from drying out until they can have what little sap which is in them removed by boiling. The burls are placed in piles and covered by briar branches.
Then they can be transported, with mules, to the briar-cutting factory. Once there they are placed in heaps and are constantly watered to keep them from drying out.
The burls are next taken into the cutting room where the cutters perform their amazing task.
The burls, which have been constantly wet since being dug, are by now very slippery and irregularly shaped. The cutters sit before open saw blades and, working without any guards or safety devices, proceed to cut the burls into blocks
Why more of these courageous workmen are not missing fingers is a mystery. While they are working, the cutters have in mind what kind of block they want to end up with. Plateaux blocks are cut from the outer section of the burl with the rough natural surface left on the top of the block. This will yield the fine straight grain much prized by collectors. If the cutter is concerned only with a block of less quality, called an ebauchon, he is no longer concerned about grain direction but only with getting the largest block possible. Blocks cut for plateaux are much more wasteful, and this is one reason why they are so expensive.
To Bring Back Briar (Part 2)
The mountains of scraps are not wasted but are used for the next step. Now that the burls have been cut into blocks, it is time to boil out the little sap that is in the wood. Once this sap is removed, the blocks can be dried slowly without cracking. The scraps are used to fire the boiler that the blocks are placed in.
The boiler itself is two stories high. The blocks are placed in a cage and lowered into the boiler for 24 hours.
The blocks are then sorted into ebauchon and plateaux and then sorted again by size. They are placed in drying bins until they are sold.
Then they are bagged in large burlap sacks, which weigh over 200 pounds apiece, to be shipped to the pipe makers in England, Denmark, or, in our case, the United States.
Surrounded by sacks of briar, I am picking blocks to be shipped to the American Smoking Pipe Company.American Smoking Pipe Co.
When the blocks arrive here, they are still not ready to be made into pipes.The little drying time they have had in Greece is not enough to season them.On the average it takes about 2 years for an average block to reach the dryness (approximately 12 percent by weight) required to produce a fine smoking pipe. The only way to achieve this without cracking the block is by slow air drying. Blowing air over the blocks to speed the drying process will only result in more cracking, and using heat is even worse. They may only sit in the drying racks with occasional turning of the pile from top to bottom. Even with the utmost in care in monitoring of temperature and humidity, there will still be some cracking. If the cracks are small, it may be possible to cut the cracks out of the block or design a pipe around them. But it is not uncommon once you have started cutting to continue until you have no more block and a pile of scraps. Like the giant boiler back in Greece, we feed them to the stove in the winter- surely some of the most expensive firewood in the world!
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