The Romeo Briar Process from Father the Flame on YouTube
The documentary, Father the Flame, gave us all new insight into the details and personalities behind the manufacture of pipes, and Chad Terpstra, the director, and his colleagues have now provided a YouTube channel for shorter vignettes of pipe making interest. One of the first of these is about Mimmo Romeo, one of the most respected briar cutters in the world.
If you have any artisan pipes in your pipe rack, chances are pretty good that Mimmo Romeo had something to do with some of them. He's a briar sawmill operator, pipe maker, and briar cutter who prepares blocks for many of the most revered carvers in the industry. With more than 30 years of experience, he has developed remarkable insight regarding the orientation and reading of fine grain. When carvers order briar from Mimmo, they know they'll get what they require for upcoming projects and for general pipe making in their own styles, and that is an enormously rare commodity.
Mimmo delivers briar to best accommodate the individual styles of his clients. That was an unprecedented service not long ago. Only with the advent of extraordinary, hand-carved smoking instruments has the need for such a service been in such high demand.
If you have any artisan pipes in your pipe rack, chances are pretty good that Mimmo Romeo had something to do with some of them.
Mimmo comes from a family of briar cutters. His molecular structure is bonded by briar, his thoughts dominated by grain orientation, and his vision attuned to briar's unique structure. His inhalations are of briar dust and his exhalations are of briar knowledge. It's difficult to believe anyone on the planet possesses a superior understanding of the medium.
He learned from the best: Filippo "Pippo" Romeo, his father, as well as his uncle Toto, himself a briar cutter of renown. Pippo passed away in 2015, and although his decades of experience are terribly missed, his techniques for the many intricacies of the craft carry on in Mimmo.
Filippo "Pippo" Romeo, courtesy of Father the Flame
It was around 1946 when Pippo decided between the three things he most loved doing: playing soccer, baking bread, and cutting briar. He had experience with briar from working in a local factory, and then moving to a larger factory run by his great-uncle in Calabria. He also worked for his brother Sebastiano in a smaller factory for a time, beginning as all briar cutters do, by cleaning the factory, but soon he was measuring ebauchons according to height, width and depth, learning how to identify the correct categories for different types of cut blocks and becoming familiar with this remarkable wood. After he started cutting briar, it was about four years before he felt he knew the basics of what he was doing.
His molecular structure is bonded by briar, his thoughts dominated by grain orientation, and his vision attuned to briar's unique structure.
After WWII, the area around these briar factories was depopulated with briar, and Pippo moved to better hunting grounds to get closer to the sources, trying different locations until settling in the northwestern town of Taggia, where Mimmo now runs the same factory his father built. Pippo developed a well-earned reputation for an ability to see into the briar and identify choice wood. Such Italian pipe making workshops as Savinelli, Castello and Brebbia bought much of their briar from him.
Mimmo decided upon briar cutting as a career when he was 18, and Pippo started teaching him. That was in the mid-1980s and Mimmo continues his enthusiasm for his craft and for briar, and has become a carver of pipes himself, making him particularly good at his job because he not only sees briar as a cutter sees it, but as an artisan carver.
Mimmo Romeo's cut briar, courtesy of Father the Flame
"There are a few things that set Mimmo apart from other briar cutters," says carver Jeff Gracik of J. Alan Pipes. "The first one is that he makes pipes. That alone means that he understands what I need as an artisan pipe maker. He sees briar as a pipe maker, not as a wood cutter. Cutting for me is different than cutting for a factory. Often other briar mills cut all of their blocks in a few ways that are designed for factory use and then they grade them by the quality of grain and number of visible imperfections. When I'm looking through wood from most mills, I'll pick one out of 50 or even one out of 100 in any given grade of briar. But with Mimmo, it may be one out of five."
The first one is that he makes pipes. That alone means that he understands what I need as an artisan pipe maker. He sees briar as a pipe maker, not as a wood cutter. -Jeff Gracik of J. Alan Pipes
Mimmo cutting briar, courtesy of Father the Flame
Mimmo's among the very best at cutting blocks for specific purposes, something that makers of artisan pipes appreciate. His skills, however, are not enough to overcome Mother Nature, who dispenses straight grain briar in a miserly trickle. Fully 70 percent of the briar going through Mimmo's factory ends up as firewood, worthless for pipe making. Twenty percent is good for pipe factories, leaving only 10 percent for artisans. Briar blocks of superior quality are extraordinarily rare and quite expensive, and even so provide an artisan only a better chance at a great pipe; there's no guarantee. That's a contributing factor in the prices of artisan carvings.
Cutting briar is much like cutting diamonds. The cuts must be made in such a way as to render the greatest volume of clean material, the same as with diamonds; and also with both, there is a great dependency of the industry on the cutter. A good cutter can provide better and more voluminous output and finding the best results can make a gigantic difference in the potential outcome for a carver.
A talent such as Mimmo's deserves highlighting, and Chad Terpstra and his colleagues have done so. When putting together the documentary, Father the Flame, they found they had more material than would fit in the film, and have now begun releasing shorter, focused films on various specific facets of the pipe making community, available for viewing on YouTube. If you enjoyed this featurette on Mimmo, watch for future releases planned for the upcoming months by subscribing or monitoring the channel. Historically, we pipe smokers have had little in the way of high-quality film production dedicated to our interests, and it's exhilarating to at last see our hobby so well represented by such talented cinematographers.
Mimmo Romeo watering briar, courtesy of Father the Flame
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