The Briar Used in Dr. Grabow pipes

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This is a work in progress, especially with regards to the formatting. Please bare with us...

The following article is the work of Russell McKay, and is from his website DrGrabow-pipe-info.com. It appears on Pipedia by kind permission of the author.

Briar 101 and 102 -- The Briar Used in Dr. Grabow pipes

Info as of 06-25-08

First of all, a disclaimer of sorts. I want to apologize right off for the haphazard appearance of this section, the misspelled words and lack of formating that would make it easier to read and follow. I have been working from over 26 pages of notes and information (and I am still gathering info) and as always, am pressed for time. My first goal was to get some of this information up, and then I could always come back and edit it later. Even though my friend said, "It's taken 75 years for the Dr. Grabow story to be told, a little while longer won't hurt", I felt I should at least make an earnest effort to get some information up as I got it, no matter how crude the form. If I wait until I can "get it right" or for some ellusive form of perfection, it'll simply never get done, and that I think, would be the real travesty.

So read, study and enjoy with an open mind and a bit of leniency as I continue to work on this. Right now I have to go back and relearn some of my HTML basics and code. Come back from time to time as this section, as well as the entire web page -- like major highway reconstruction and repair -- is continually undergoing construction! Be mindful of the potholes, patches and detours.,

I had a lot of help from a Dr. Grabow employee in putting together this section. This employee told me there was a lot of "BS" about briar out there and he wanted to give me the real scoop on it. This section is something that I wanted to do for a long time. At first my only interest, really, was to figure out about whether all the hype people were saying about how superior the WESTBROOK was over say, the retail pipes was true or not. My personal feeling was that there were pretty much retail equivalents for most of the RJ Reynolds "coupon" pipes (RJR) and I felt, as one example, the STARFIRE was every bit as good as the WESTBROOK. As it turns out, that is somewhat true, and as this discussion on briar will show, there is a simple reason why. Up until now, the only decent source I knew for the RJR Coupon pipes was written by K. Maxwell Graves Jr., Attorney At Law, and was posted on the apparently now defunct "Frency's Pipes" web site. That site is now gone, but I saved a copy of the text and you may view it by clicking on "Frency's Pipes". My friend at Dr. Grabow said, "Max got it about right. He sounds like he was involved".

Another thing it may help on is comparison with the briar used in other pipe makers' pipes. It is a mistaken impression to believe that because the Dr. Grabow pipe was sometimes considered a "drug store" pipe that inferior briar was used. The briar, for the most part, came from the same places that other pipe makers got theirs. Another good source for information on this subject and the important part Dr. Grabow pipes played in it can be found in a speech made in 1995 by Doug Allen, OPC member and President of Sparta Industries. This speech can be found on the Internet in several places, such as The Dr. Grabow Collector's Forum and the Ohio Pipe Collectors web page, so it won't be duplicated here.

To understand Dr. Grabow pipes, and more specifically the different lines of Dr. Grabow pipes, at least a cursory review of this section should be made. It will explain much. Maybe too much. Nevertheless, it is a very important subject. So much so, that the employee who furnished me this information insisted on telling me the story about briar before going into other subjects. At first I was puzzled, but once the briar had been sufficiently explained, then the things I learned later made more sense and I quickly saw why we started with the briar information.

So you can skip this section now, but I almost guarantee that you will have to come back to this subject later as other things about Dr. Grabow pipes are explained.

Briar 101, The European Production

by TED as of July 1st, 2008

Mac...The subject of briar in Europe has been researched and told by better people than me. DRB and TM could give lessons in briar. 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(see sawyers below).

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. If you want more, I can remember more.

Once, I told you that there were only a few qualities of briar from the mills. Now it's time to get more spefic. 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. Briarwood costs for Lark and Duke were .10 per pipe. We made a fortune off Lark and Duke.

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. He looked a lot like you Mac. If you catch HELL about that statement, I'll defend you. --TED--

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. 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 (actually to 8, but we'll get to that later) 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. -- Would work only for rustic (WILLARD rustic)
  5. -- Would work only for rustic (WILLARD rustic)
  6. -- Nearly firewood (WILLARD rustic).
  7. -- Were trash. The person giving me this information said, when he got to this point, "Briarwood will burn in a fire -- like a charcoal briquette." (Even so, some WILLARD rustic came from this.)

Now, from the above grades, #1 and #2 were then "wet selected". This used a solution of half methanol and half water (remember that formula as it will come into play again when we talk about stems) which "brings out" the grain. This selection resulted in the following for #1 and #2 (OK, and sometimes #3 was wet selected for full grain for things that came up like the COMMODORE or SCULPTURA, but more on that LATER):

#1 Grade

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)

#2 Grade:

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. Why? Because these wouldn't have been wet selected into "grain" (there's an exception or two, but we'll get to that later), so there was no other reference needed. This is important information to know because, if for nothing else, that is how this will be referred to elsewhere on this web page.

If you have made it this far in reading about briar, then you will understand why I thought you might return here. You will also understand why, in telling the story of Dr. Grabow pipes, that my friend insisted that we start with BRIAR 102!

But now, for a further challenge, especially to those who breezed through all this without the slightest bit of confusion, I am going to further "discuss" briar. I just do not think the Dr. Grabow pipe story can be told fully or properly without at least, touching on some of this. This is such treacherous ground that we are about to cover that my friend supplying the information warned me, "When you post the information about Briar, don't use #8. We used that quality so seldom that it would just confuse the readers. We only used it when we got desperate." And in regard to some of this other information my friend stated again, "Rather than confuse the readers more, it might be best if this info be left off your site. Your call."

I jest about the "treacherous ground", but will simply offer the advice that you may not want to proceed any further in reading about this topic. Before it is over though, and escially as I add new things to the web page, you may want to return here or you'll never know why things like WILLARD pipes are discussed on a web site dedicated to Dr. Grabow pipes.

As Paul Harvey would say, " . . . and now the rest of the story . . .":

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, PANELS and eventually "8".

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? In another area we will be talking about the WILLARD "military" and some other things and you will again see not only the importance of this discussion on briar, but also why seemingly unrelated non-Dr. Grabow pipes are discussed!

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. My friend says, "We never 'made' panels, but used them occasionally to keep the faults used up." Ever see a "paneled" "DUKE" line pipe that isn't exactly on the shape chart? Now you know why. See, I knew you would want to read this section!

My buddy also said in this regard, "In the short shanks, chip tops and panels, we dry selected for only #1, #3, #5 and "firewood".

And finally, #8. By now, I guess you are figuring you are at the bottom of the pile and there's not too much to do with it other than burn it. "Talk about trash!" my friend said. Well, maybe not all the time. My friend, who probably had the choice of any pipe in the factory to smoke, also said, "I once smoked a #8 that had a hole all the way through the bowl and was patched. It was wonderful -- a GREAT PIPE".

This Dr. Grabow employee also said that for several things that came up, including the COMMODORE and SCULPTURA, they 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. Hence the exception alluded to earlier in this section. He stated further, "I guess you've figured out by now that some #4 and #5 also had full grain. OK, we never used them for SMOOTH".

So now what?:

When I get some more time, this section will discuss what you do with all the less than perfect briar that accumulates from all those bags of briar after you have made the good and top of the line standard pipe shapes and finishes.