My Visit to A Briar Sawmill

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'Originally published in Pipe Smoker, Winter 1987, and used by permission

My Visit To A Briar Sawmill, by R.D. Field[1]

R.D. Field at the Sawmill

Back in the fall of 1984 the Italian government lifted restrictions regarding the export of briar wood to other nations. Prior to this, wood could only leave the country in the form of manufactured items, i.e. turned pipe bowls. With the lifting of restrictions, briar could now leave the country in its natural state.

After learning this I phoned my friend Bill (William-Ashton) Taylor in London with the news. Bill, who makes the Ashton pipe, had been buying wood from secondary sources in England and could not secure enough really large blocks to make his popular LX and ELX size pipes for the American market. Bill was elated at the possibility of buying the "much coveted" Italian briar and within days he had found the address and contact person for the largest briar "segheria" (sawmill) in Italy. He immediately planned a trip and asked me to accompany him. It was to be an adventure.

My wife, Sylvia, and I flew to Italy and went to Stresa, where we met Bill Taylor and his wife, Irene. Bill and I were to travel by train to Milan and then to Livorno, where we were to look for a small man wearing a dark hat who would drive us the 68 km. to Sassetta, where the sawmill was. We left Stresa at 4:30 AM and what should have been a half-day trip saw us running about 2-1/2 hours late due to a language barrier and our misreading the train schedules.

Upon arrival at Livorno station, we decided to look for our driver on the chance he might have waited for us. His name was Dara and he is known as "the mad Irishman". (We later found out why). With my unlit pipe in my mouth, a prearranged signal, we went outside and heard "Taylor ... Field, I am Dara". And we were whisked off in a black VW Golf. We were finally on our way and found out from Dara that he owned a working farm in Toscana and does a bit of work for Fanis (owner/manager of the segheria), translation and such (thank God, 1 thought).

The countryside is beautiful -wild and mountainous, and cooler as we climb. Dara tells us that the briar is all around in these wilds everywhere. Toscana, which is the provence where Livorno and Sassetta are located, is a major source of Italian briar. Radice and Castello, among others, use briar from this region almost exclusively). What is rare, he says, are the "cioccaioli", the briar diggers. It takes great skill to unearth a burl without harming it.

The only tools used are hand tools; the work is very hard and requires strength and delicacy in equal measure. Although the diggers are now well paid, the job is getting no new recruits from the young who would much rather do work that is less strenuous. Diggers under the age of 40 are now a great rarity, and there is real concern for the future of the work.

We have climbed now to where the air is cool and misty. One last turn and we are at the segheria two large barnlike structures with an office and living quarters over the top of one. Farris Cresci comes out to greet us and right away I notice I understand not a word he says.

It's 3:30 now and Bill looks a bit worn as he hasn't the capacity to sleep on trains. And we begin. There is briar everywhere. Both inside and outside the barns; in every condition from soaking wet to bone dry; whole burls, halves, huge pieces, ebauchons; in sacks and out; being sprayed, being boiled, being dried. Everywhere. This is Segherie In Maremma the largest in Italy. Farris Cresci has control of 70% of his country's briar- and most of it seems to be surrounding me at this very moment.

We look at the wood in its varying states for a long time. Bill is, in fact, studying it whereas I am looking. Then Fanis and Data lead us toward an earsplitting rasping noise into a room where six cutters are at work, each seated before a great circular saw. Here is where the burls are cut and graded. I picked out one cutter and watched him carefully. He picks up a burl and studies where to make the first cut; this seems to be crucial. And so it is, because time after time I could see straight grain in the halves that resulted. Then other cuts were made - some resulting in large pieces and some in small, and I don't know the reason for either. I also noticed that in the center of many burls when cut there was a deep red color- rot or "rust" as it is termed, and at the very center a sort of cavity. All this is cut out as being unusable.

Back outside I had a chance to again look at the burls being sprayed or wetted down in a huge storage shed. They were huge much, much bigger than I was previously led to believe were being pulled from the earth today. I could find only one small burl about the size of my two fists held together - which was described as being about 20 years of age. The others, all the others, were huge in comparison and were at least 100 years old. And they were still growing. Most had green shoots running out toward the light; they were alive.

Back into one of the barns and upstairs in order to select the wood. But it was well into the evening by now; too dark to see well. We have to stay over. Bill and I look at each other. His wife is back in Stresa too. Maybe Irene and Sylvia can keep each other company.

On to the local hotel/ restaurant for a meal and a night's sleep. We will begin again at 6 the next morning. The four of us sat at leisure over food and wine and talked. I mostly listened. Cresci really knows briar and its characteristics.

Cresci has wood coming from all over the country - from Liguria in the northwest, Toscana, Calabria in the south, Sardinia, Corsica. Different pipemakers prefer different types of briar according to the characteristics each perceives in the various types. To Cresci all are essentially equal along with the briar of southern Spain, the south coast of France, Albania, Yugoslavia. The really different briar comes from the African side of the Mediterranean Algeria, Tunisia, Morrocco. This briar has a very different growth pattern than that coming from Europe.

Next morning we were ready to roll at 6. Fanis, the exceptional host, had picked up our hotel bill. A three minute ride in the black VW and we were at the mill - first to the office where shipping arrangements were made and then to one of the barns to select. This was a long and laborious process consisting of dumping bag after bag of briar onto the floor one at a time, looking, studying, and finally choosing- piece by piece. 1 felt perfectly helpless here. For all that I've read I've no first-band knowledge of briar. Bill, on the other hand, has twenty-seven years experience as a pipemaker and knew exactly what he was looking for.

In the end Bill selected Calabrian extra large for his smooth large pipes, Calabrian plateau for the smooth straight grains, and both Sardinian extra large and Corsican extra large for the large sandblast pipes.

It was going on 12 noon. To take a train back was ridiculous and the only flight to Milan left Pisa airport at 1:30. Data said the drive took an hour. Half an hour to wrap-up and we were in the car and off. On this drive I found why Darn is called "the mad Irishman". The drive to Pisa airport from Sassetta takes an hour only if the driver is a lunatic, and Dara proved now that he was senior in this fraternity. After a time I just closed my eyes.

We pulled to the airport at 1:25, dashed to the ticket counter, thrust wads of banknotes at the agent. "Two to Milan!" As I said... "it WAS an adventure".