As you enter Biesanz Woodworks and feast your eyes on an exquisite collection of boxes, bowls and souvenirs created from exotic tropical woods, you know you have arrived in a woodworker’s treasure trove. The showroom, built to look like a typical old adobe house, is painted blue and yellow, no doubt to ward off the legendary brujas or witches of Escazú.
In this western San José suburb, in the hills of Bello Horizonte, Barry Biesanz works with his team of assistants, transforming seasoned precious hardwoods into unique works of art.
“I like to think of my work as a sequence from seed to sawdust,” says Biesanz, 57, the burly woodworker with a wonderful dry sense of humor.
For many expatriates who have made their home in Costa Rica, Biesanz is a household name. Biesanz’s parents, John and Mavis Biesanz, first came here in the 1940s to write “Costa Rican Life,” a sociological study about the country. Subsequently, Mavis Biesanz co-authored two more informative and fascinating books with her other son John and his wife Karen, entitled “The Costa Ricans” and “The Ticos.”
“When my parents retired here in 1971, I drove down from the United States and have lived here ever since,” Biesanz says. “I’m now a naturalized citizen of my adopted homeland.”
Biesanz first learned to become a wood turner in this country, when he apprenticed himself to a U.S. woodworker and then inherited a shop full of tools and an old lathe.
“I studied Sufism (Islamic mysticism) and wanted to do something with my hands, but had no idea if I had any talent,” he recalls.
Biesanz persevered, and today works with a modern lathe and is regarded as one of Costa Rica’s preeminent craftsmen, internationally acclaimed. Many of his designs are inspired by Greek, pre-Columbian and Oriental pottery, as well as by U.S. master wood turner Bob Stockdale.
“I don’t try to impose a shape,” Biesanz says, referring to his bowls. “But in all my work, I try to discover the wood’s inherent traits.”
Simplicity and elegance, in addition to the grain and texture of the wood, top-quality joinery, smooth, rounded edges and hours of polishing all contribute to his inspired craftsmanship. His creations are a delight to look upon. Some are true objets d’art, while others are sensuous to the touch and invite handling and use.
When you visit the workshop, it’s hard to believe that the stunning, museum-quality pieces you see in the showroom originated from the piles of cut logs and pieces of rotting fallen trees stacked in every corner. Biesanz buys his native wood sets, particularly dead or fallen trees, mostly from Nicaragua and whenever possible from local Tico farmers.
“I never buy wood cut from trees that are in danger of extinction,” he emphasizes. For his bowls and boxes, he uses mostly cocobolo, an indigenous rosewood, but he also likes working with other species, such as lacewood and the green-hued Lignum vitae.
As Biesanz shows you around the workshop, he is eager to chat about the methods he uses.
“I twice turn the bowls, and after the first turning the roughed-out bowls are dated and completely coated with wax by my assistants,” he explains. “They are left in piles and air-dried for at least a year, then placed in a dehumidifying kiln before being returned to the lathe for the final turning.”
The sanding, polishing and application of the organic, nontoxic shellac is done by Biesanz’s trained woodworkers.
“Over the years I have trained more than 50,” he says. “Some leave and start their own shops, but most stay and become part of the family.”
Many assistants have been with Biesanz for more than 15 years, and shop steward Hernán Jiménez has been with him 28 years.
As you browse around the showroom and gaze upon the magic of Biesanz’s lathe, apart from the stunning bowls, you will find boxes of every shape and size, traditional jewelry boxes, roll-top ones for stationary, ring boxes and others that stack neatly together, tea caddies, credit card cases, rings, earring racks, wooden combs and even elegant condom boxes as a gift for the man who has everything.
Biesanz’s humidors are world famous.
“There’s even one in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica,” Biesanz chuckles with pride.
“My humidors will last for generations, and some hold more than 80 Churchill cigars. Others have been used as cremation urns.”
Biesanz’s signed masterpieces are used as state gifts by the Costa Rican government, and many can be found worldwide in the homes of the rich and famous: world leaders, including the last four U.S. presidents, prime ministers, the late Pope John Paul II and Queen Sofía of Spain, among many others.
He has participated in many national and international exhibitions and his work is displayed in a permanent collection at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum in Taiwan.
Note: Biesanz’s designs are widely copied and only signed pieces are guaranteed to be genuine.
A man of many talents, Biesanz, when not turning at his lathe, plays guitar with Harmony Roads, a band he started four years ago, known for its country and western, old-time, blues and classic rock music. He also admits to being a Scrabble fanatic, like his mother Mavis, 87.
“But she often beats me,” he laughs. Biesanz Woodworks is open Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturdays by appointment. The shop is 800 meters south of the Bello Horizonte school. At the fruit and vegetable stand in the center of the village, follow the sign uphill for 400 meters; you’ll see Biesanz Woodworks on your left.
For more information, prices and export enquiries, visit www.biesanz.com or call 289-4337.
The Tree Nursery
Woodworker Barry Biesanz and his wife Sarah Blanchet are dedicated environmentalists, and behind the showroom at Biesanz Woodworks in Bello Horizonte is a rare-hardwood, nonprofit tree nursery where exotic wood saplings are being cultivated from seed.
“We have 30 different species, and we like to encourage people to plant native trees to attract birds and wildlife,” Biesanz says.
Corteza amarilla, mountain almond – particularly liked by macaws – guanacaste and orange jasmine are among the many varieties of saplings the Biesanzes give away.
“It’s all part of our reforestation program, and you don’t have to have a large property to plant many of our species,” emphasizes Biesanz, who is more than happy to give advice regarding cultivation.
The Biesanzes own a 100-hectare farm on the Pacific coast, where they preserve tracts of primary rain forest. Their reforestation projects help to restore the natural habitat of endangered species.
For more information, call 289-4337 or visit Biesanz Woodworks in Bello Horizonte de Escazú.