Gervais Sawyer

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I was very surprised to be asked for my bio for IRG. Who me? Then I reflected that in my time with IRG I have gone from being the most junior to a senior!  Where did the years go? My life seems to have been a series of very lucky breaks. I will explain.  There are those lucky few for whom their career path is mapped out clearly, but for many of us we blunder along deciding on those bits that you enjoy and those that you don't. So, you follow the 'enjoy' path and occasionally take a wrong turn. A sort of career snakes and ladders.


I am a Sussex boy, and grew up in Crawley Down, 35 miles south of London. The farm is now largely given over to long term car parking for Gatwick Airport.   I grew up knowing myself as Juurrrrviss in Sussex dialect. The big problem of being on an out-of-town farm with workaholic parents, is that you have a social circle of three at best.   My father was a civil engineer, which clearly provided some powers of mathematics, and my mother was a dairy farmer.

I had had enough of 6am milking so that farming was not in my future. Then I saw a brochure on the careers shelves from the Timber Trade Federation, promoting careers in the timber industry. First lucky break was to join a training scheme with William Mallinson Ltd who were the leading hardwood company in the UK. That meant working hours of 7.30 to 5.30 followed by 6.30 to 9.30 evening classes in wood science. I don't know how I stayed awake – certainly never slept through John Levy lectures! In my time with them I had experience not only in hardwoods, sawmilling and veneers but also in manufacturing of architectural panels. The time came when I thought that I needed experience in softwood and lucky break number two was to join Burt Boulton & Heywood who were long established softwood importers and preservers.   I was mentored by the late Denis Holland who ensured that I took opportunities and expanded my skills including teaching wood science evening classes. BBH manufactured all the track timbers for the London Underground railway as well as hundreds of thousands of telegraph and electricity poles. In due course I became manager of that division and caught the creosote bug. In the office opposite to mine was a certain Alan Oliver who will be well known to those in the boron area. He educated me in the opportunities of in-situ wood preservation.

Family pressures called for a boost in income so I moved back into hardwoods. This was a seriously bad move which has almost been erased from my memory banks. Suffice to say that it had appalling industrial relations problems to the extent that it was life threatening.  My wife Basia, who was working at that time and told me to walk away. After all, she reminded me, I still had my bus driver's license and we would survive.


Almost immediately I discovered that Bucks University required a lecturer in timber commerce and trading. That really was most enjoyable, and I worked with some great educators. The job seemed to change every five years or so. There was little chance to get stale. Alan Oliver had joined the university before me as lecturer in wood preservation and had established training courses for the in-situ and property maintenance industry and we enjoyed working together. 

The next lucky break came when Simon Cragg joined the university, and he established a strong research culture. Simon really fired up my enthusiasm for research and gave me the opportunity to develop my talents as a technical facilitator. You need new equipment for your research or want to learn how to use equipment - Gervais will fix it for you. That is something that I still do, making bespoke apparatus and test materials in my well-equipped workshop.

Simon brought me to my first IRG meeting (IRG23 in Harrogate) and since the university never had any money for such things, we learnt how to do it on the cheap.  At IRG I felt that I had met some of the gods of wood science, but quickly learned that if you love your subject, they are right there with you. Every time that I go to a meeting, I get a big buzz. I could write a book of memorable moments. Come IRG26 in Denmark we decided to take four PhD students. To make it affordable we had the cheapest car ferry and rented a self-catering bungalow. I seem to have caught the economy bug ever since.

Eventually, the university decided to change direction and progressively eliminate courses that had expensive laboratories and workshops. Although I was over retirement age at the time, it did require a certain reappraisal. I retired for all of a week before demands for my services prompted me to set up my own consultancy.  Inspired by Terry Conners at Kentucky State University, I started doing outreach to schools. The UK government says that wood, one way or another, is the sixth biggest economic activity, and so, I argue, there should be a career there for you. To school children I am known as 'The Saw Doctor'. The greatest fun is with the youngest children who are up to have a go at anything. If by some chance you find your way to my YouTube channel, you may find a video called “I broke my teacher out of jail with wood science”.  Great fun but quite exhausting to keep it up for two days!  Also by Instagram, we found the oldest telegraph pole in service in the UK installed in 1894 – that's creosote longevity.

At about the time that I tried to retire, I was persuaded to become editor of the Institute of Wood Science Journal. The IWS joined the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IoM3) who had a publishing agreement with Taylor & Francis, so this seemed to be a good opportunity to relaunch the journal as International Wood Products Journal, increase it to four issues a year and broaden its scope. It is immensely time consuming but gives me the international social contact and opportunities to attend conferences in search of new and interesting material to publish. Still teaching too, for the property care industry which is a real pleasure. The audience are people who won't necessarily get any immediate benefit from the training – they just want to improve themselves.

Life away from Work

My wife Basia is a polyglot bundle of energy of Polish parents. She is known throughout the UK for her devotion to expanding awareness of Polish folk culture. She has been decorated by the Polish government for her work. She runs the dance group Orleta and the walls of our house are bulging with stores of dance costumes and music. The culture has rubbed off on to my two daughters. Alexandra is a mother of three, singer-songwriter who records as Mee and the Band.  For a fun take, check out her whimsical "Eat Pierogi" video here. Her sister Laura is a freelance stylist, choreographer and dancer with a significant web presence. The sisters often work together but they also help me in my schools’ outreach activities, as do the grandchildren.

There are some moments that are mine and they are devoted to singing or making things or helping around my district as well as pursuing some private research to satisfy my curiosity. Performance of timbers in the sea especially as regards resistance to shingle abrasion and the potential use of water repellents as alternatives to biocides in certain applications.

I am now 76 and have no intention of slowing down. I enjoy what I do so why should I stop?

Hopefully we will meet again at IRG53 in Bled.


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This bio was written for the February 2022 IRG newsletter.