0.0002"x0.0000". Two-ten-thousandths of an inch. Those are the sort of tolerances that Alex Florov works with. While that is perhaps a large measurement in circuit board manufacturing, it is infinitesimally tiny by pipe standards. Alex is a model maker. He creates metal and plastic prototypes for industrial and commercial applications. Alex is also a pipe-maker. Clearly his long career as a designer and maker of models has influenced his pipe making.
I'm sitting in Alex Florov's workshop as I write this; it's the day after the Chicago pipe show and Ted and I are in Round Lake, IL visiting Alex and Vera Florov with Hiroyuki Tokutomi and our friend Tom Looker. The screams of briar being pressed against a sanding disk and the roar of a dust collection system fill the room. Six of us fit in here quite comfortably, with Alex Florov and Tokutomi both working, and the "piperazzi" (to quote Adam Davidson) snapping pictures and filming in the background.
Alex is one of the very few pipe-makers in the world with a milling machine. Though I've been in lots of pipe makers' workshops, I didn't recognize the thing at all - it sort of looked like a drill press to me at first. Well, one with a bunch of extra knobs and buttons. And a digital readout. Which displays measurements to the ten-thousandth of an inch (or one thousandth of a millimeter). This is not even a machine designed for woodworking. This is a machine designed to machine high-precision metal parts, large or small, for industrial applications. But, of course, it can be used for pipes too - and so Alex does.
Alex is a perfectionist. I knew this of my Russian-American pipe-making friend before I stepped foot in his workshop. I imagine that if one spends enough of one's life working with industrial models that require those sorts of tolerances, it will inevitably instill a certain perfectionism in one's pipe-making. With Alex it means that most pipe-makers' tools would not even be able to measure, let alone replicate, his drilling tolerances.
Tokutomi, in many respects, couldn't be more different. It's not that he doesn't measure when he works sometimes, but his attitude is much more that of the creative artist than the careful machinist. His background is as an artist. Alex's is that of a machinist and engineer. These two men, while they very much like each other and respect each other as pipe-makers, could not possibly be more different.
A number of people have kindly written to ask about our friends in Japan since the horrifying earthquake that struck the northeast coast of Honshu on March 11th. All of the pipe makers and their families are fine. Most of them are in and around Tokyo, so while they experienced some shaking and had some stuff jump off of shelves, they weren't terribly affected by the quake.
Hiroyuki Tokutomi lives with his family in Maebashi, in Gunma Prefecture, northwest of Tokyo, and was a little closer to the epicenter. They experienced some damage and problems with computers and power and whatnot, but nothing threatening or serious.
Again, thank you all for your kind curiosity. It's always nice to see the way the pipe community responds to such events.
On a rather chilly, blustery Saturday morning, Hiroyuki Tokutomi pulled up at my hotel to pick me up for the three hour drive to Maebashi, a mid-sized city on at the northwestern fringe of the Kanto plain. Tokutomi lives on the far side of Maebashi from Tokyo, an area that starts to feel rural, in the foothills of the mountains that dominate vistas from the city. While the Kanto plain is home to some forty-million people, being the largest plain in the Japanese archipelago and home to Tokyo, Tokutomi's home is more suburban. His neighbors have large vegetable gardens, extending well past what a normal family could consume. Tokutomi lives at very much the edge of urban and rural Japan, a contrast that seems far starker than in other countries.
I spent two days in Maebashi with Tokutomi, spending most of the time watching him work, taking photos and video of the process. I've spent many hours watching Tokutomi work over the years, but this is the first time I've made a seriously concerted effort to document the process while in his workshop. Tokutomi's workshop is decidedly well appointed. Multiple sanding disks, set up for a left-hander, buffing wheels and lathes dominate the space, split into two large rooms by a half wall. He also has an entire arsenal of air powered tools, drawing compressed air from his sandblaster compressor. Not being an expert on such things, I asked him about the relative benefits. He explained that the airpowered tools were higher torque than their electricity powered counterparts, plus the flexibility of one power source for many different attachments is quite a boon. In the past, he's also showed me the knives he used in his pre-dremel days, and still breaks out occasionally for certain work, but the mix of air-powered tools radically improves his productivity.
We spent most of the time with Tokutomi at the sanding disk, doing what he does best. Watching Tokutomi at the disk is a pretty remarkable thing. He works so efficiently and effortlessly. It seems to be an entirely intuitive process for him, envisioning the pipe in the block of wood. He shaped two pipes while I was there, a squat tomato shape for which Tokutomi is quite famous and a beautifully grained volcano. He also drilled both pieces and worked on a stem on a third pipe, the pipe for the three pipe set that he, Jeff Gracik and Adam Davidson started at Adam's workshop here in Myrtle Beach after the Richmond show in early October. Tokutomi's three-year-old grandson Rinto spent the entire time in the workshop too, though he isn't really a terribly helpful helper (though no one told him that).
All in all, it was a really special experience. Watching someone of Tokutomi's caliber work is special in its own right. To have a two day all-access pass is special indeed.
Here's the third and final entry in the video series of my interview with Alex Florov. Being not a terribly structured interview-- Alex and I both have a tendency towards free association, wandering from topic to topic without much structure-- it's more like just a conversation between old friends. I hope you enjoy it! We certainly did.
Putting together this video was incredibly satisfying. When we were shooting all this footage, now two Mondays past, Tokutomi took a moment to talk freely on his experience in the workshop with Adam and Jeff. Because he is more comfortable speaking Japanese than English he opted to share his thoughts with us in his native language. Eager to understand his sentiments we employed a translator and were pleasantly surprised to learn just how touching his words had been that day.
And now for the second installation of "In The Workshop" with Adam Davidson, Jeff Gracik, and Hiroyuki Tokutomi.
As you likely know, on Monday, Jeff Gracik (of J. Alan Pipes) and Hiroyuki Tokutomi met with Adam Davidson at his workshop in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina again this year after the annual CORPS show in Richmond, Virginia, so that they might collaborate on a set of three pipes. Fortunately, Sykes was mindful enough to have brought along a camera and a video recorder. The collaboration was an all day affair and from it we've put together the video before you. Enjoy!
(Sorry about our false start with the video. Apparently, we goofed when we rendered it the first time. Audio and video tracks, rather conveniently, now match...again, we're sorry).
I’d never had the opportunity to see a pipe made. I’m familiar enough with some of the tools that get used in such a process, like lathes and drill bits and jigsaws and what all, but the step-by-step process of manufacturing a pipe by hand had remained to me elusive. One of the first questions I asked Adam Davidson after starting work here at Smokingpipes.com a month ago was if he might eventually show me around his workshop. This Monday I was blessed at long-last with the chance not only to see Adam but also Jeff Gracik of J. Alan Pipes and Hiroyuki Tokutomi rough out a few pipes. The experience was as incredibly fascinating as it was inspiring. I’d so many questions to ask (many of which I did), but I felt a little guilty about bothering an artist while he works with his fingers less than a quarter inch from punishing sanding disks that can spin at 4,000 RPM. Mostly, I just quietly watched.
This isn’t the first time that Jeff, Tokutomi, and Adam have come together to collaborate in pipe making. Last year at this time, just after the Richmond show, the threesome met in Adam’s shop and jointly produced a beautiful two-pipe set and matching case. In that spirit they’ve huddled again and brainstormed new ideas on a fresh endeavor. This time it was agreed that they'd make a three-piece pipe set with bamboo shank as the cohesive component.
Jeff worked out the first sketch and with a thumbs-up from Adam and a nod from Tokutomi they set to work. With three pipe makers and only so many machines available to use their production processes required some thoughtful stage staggering. And as Adam pointed out, for Jeff and Toku to get around in his foreign work space is akin to preparing a Thanksgiving dinner in a stranger’s kitchen. If you’re talented enough the outcome will be expectedly outstanding, but not without having to go through the headaches of first hunting around for every single tool and utensil. Keep in mind the added challenge for Toku who is left-handed and had to work with a couple of lathes setup for Adam, a right-handed craftsman.
After a full day’s work, the three had fleshed out enough of their project that they could afford to take back to their respective studios the unfinished pieces for the last stages of production. It was pretty awesome to behold. A month ago I’d never held an Adam Davidson or J. Alan pipe; I’d never been privileged to touch one of Tokutomi’s masterpieces. Now I’ve done just that, I’ve also got to know them some, and I’ve been awarded the rare fortune to see them work.
So I’ve seen some pipes get made. Sweet. I can check that off my to-do list. Next up? Start pestering Adam to let me try my hand at making a pipe. Hopefully I can keep all of my fingers in the process.
Here we are, on the eve of the Richmond CORPS show, hosting a small get together of friends, family, and special guests. We've had a wholesome supper of 'Southern' food and for dessert Jeff made peach cobbler. Excitement is in the air. We're passing the time telling stories and talking about pipes. Tokutomi has even dusted off his guitar for the occasion.
Tokutomi warms up his guitar in the bulk tobacco room.
Brian plays with his strange, pipe smoking brown bear.
The weeks before and after the Richmond Show are a big deal here in Little River, SC. Right now, we have pipe makers Hiroyuki Tokutomi and Jeff Gracik, plus pipe collector and writer Tom Looker and PipesMagazine.com owner Kevin Godbee visiting. We'll have a bunch more stuff up on the blog as the weekend progresses, plus, I'm sure, videos and whatnot as we have time to edit them. In the meantime, here are some photos...
Tokutomi explains the finer points of a pipe shape to Ted Swearingen.
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