Pipe maker Alex Florov recently agreed to sit down with Bear Graves to talk about pipes and the life of a pipe maker:
Bear: Unless born into a pipe making family, very few pipe carvers grew up thinking that they would wind up carving pipes. Tell us a bit about your background, and what interests and events led you to choosing this most unusual form of artistic expression.
Alex: I have loved wood for longer than I can remember, and began working with the material since I was very young. Two members of my family were airplane designers, and they encouraged me to make model airplanes. From there, the next step was entering competitions. A great deal of the models that others entered were of staggering size, so while others "zigged", I "zagged", entering competitions at the 1/48th scale and concentrating an extreme detail. Ultimately, it was the detail that paid off and I frequently won... My abilities with wood eventually captured the attention of a master restorer in Moscow. He put me to work restoring expensive furniture for private collections. Restoration, at this level, is not simply sanding and applying varnish. Often, I had to recreate, in exact detail, the original feet, handles, you name it. Carving the piece was often less than half the battle, I had to match textures, finishes, pretty much everything to the point that the piece looked exactly as it would have, had it been perfectly stored.
I began to smoke a pipe at the age of 16. The pipe wasn't very good, Moscow didn't have a lot of high grades to choose from, nor could I afford them if they were available. Still, I enjoyed the pipe, and the ladies loved it, more than enough motivation to keep puffing. I moved to the US in 1992 to follow the love of my life, Vera. We had met in college in Russia, and I would have followed her anywhere. We married and settled down in the Chicago area where I became an Industrial Design model maker. It was in Chicago that I first encountered high grade pipes. I found them both fascinating and beautiful, but could not afford them. Vera's father gave me a fruit wood pipe, which until this day I still have, and challenged me to create a pipe. I bought some fruit wood and made him a few. My next step, like many beginners, was to buy a few pre-drilled kits from P.I.M.O.
It was at about this time that I discovered the Chicagoland Pipe Collectors Club and paid the club a visit. There, I met many great guys, including one who became pivotal to my career in pipes: Rex Poggenphol. It was Rex who introduced me to Tom Eltang who, in turn, sold me some quality blocks of briar. It was also Rex who pointed me to Mimmo, and I saw so many possibilities in the grain of his blocks. Talking with Tom and Mimmo made me want to try something new, well, new for me. I wanted to abandon the pre-drilled kits and create my own pipe, totally by hand, start to finish.
Bear: Every pipe maker seems to have a common theme that is apparent in most of his work. I have taken a look at your and they are most distinct. What is your primary inspiration, and how do you maintain that theme? What makes an Alex Florov pipe so special?
Alex: As to the first part, flowers are probably my main source of inspiration, I have loved them all of my life. I have a back yard full of them, and each one is a wonder to me. Flowers have such beautiful lines, and curve while reaching for the sun. My pipes contain central lines that reflect these curves. As one moves around a flower, one sees that far from being simple, soft and random, a flower contains some sharp angles and well defined lines to go along with the soft areas. My pipe shaping reflects all of these aspects and, I believe, captures that spirit. Sea Creatures also fascinate me. It's impossible to not appreciate their fluidity, shapes and colors.
Bear: Fish? Such as the blowfish?
Alex: Blowfish? Yes, but with a blowfish you have to take into account and additional element: the way that the fish moves. A great blowfish has to have a more profound sense of movement. On the matter of the second part of the question, the shaping of my pipes requires the use of demanding compound angles on a very small scale, as well as difficult combinations of soft lines and sharp curves. It is due to this complexity that I do 90% of my carving with chisels. Chisels allow me the freedom to create extremely detailed lines within the shape and make it possible for me to get into places that would be impossible with any other method. The same reasons require that I do a lot of small file work. Many pipe makers rely heavily on the disc sander. My disc sander is pretty much relegated to minimal work.
Bear: If a man has not tried your pipes why would he buy one? Why should he try one?
Alex: The initial attraction will be the shape, the stain and the grain. As a result of my particular way of creating a pipe, that man will be buying a pipe with shaping details that he will not see from another carver. By facing off a block and following through with a milling machine, I almost always wind up with the perfect grain to complement an given shape. That same milling machine does the drilling, so all interior chambers are perfectly aligned. Finally, I put great effort into creating excellent bits, all carved from German ebonite rod. If a mouthpiece is too wide, or too thick, it will be uncomfortable and greatly detract from the smoke. An owner of my pipes will tell you that my bits are always and thin and very comfortable.
Bear: Describe a "perfect" pipe making day.
Alex: A perfect day is when everything goes right, and is usually preceded by cascades of ideas on previous days. To elaborate, ideas come to me when I am at work, when I am driving home, sometimes they come across at the most unexpected of moments. Once an idea forms, I cannot get it out of my head and fully concentrate on other things until I am able to sketch it. As a result, I have sketches on paper, envelopes, and even on napkins. If that shape looks as good on paper as it did in my head, I look through my supply of briar to find the perfect block for that specific design. If everything works out from there, I have had a perfect pipe day.
Bear: Many pipe carvers, on occasion, experience the carving equivalent of "writer's block". Does this ever happen to you and, if it does, what do you do to get the train back on track?
Alex: Sometimes, an idea of a shape will actually block my work on a pipe that I am working on. If I can't shake that shape out of my head, I will stop work on the first pipe and immediately start work on the "intruder" (laughs). As far as when nothing is coming to me? I need to change my environment. Usually this means getting out, sit, relax, and think about other things. If the block occurs in winter, I often use it as an opportunity to go skiing. After being in a different environment for a bit my mind, of its own accord, returns to the shop and starts working on shapes and details again. At this point I can head back to the workshop and begin again with a new found enthusiasm.
Bear: Which, if any, pipe makers influence you?
Alex: Where to begin?! Tonni Nielsen made the first high grades that I ever saw. I really like his shapes and own a Viking grade that I absolutely love. Peter Heeschen influenced me a lot with his organic shapes and elongated shanks, as did. Tom Eltang, with a daring engineering and innovations. The Ivarsson family. I have a Sixten Acorn that I would never part with. Sixten was an incredible innovator and many of his shapes could never be duplicated on a machine. Lars and Nanna for their beautiful shapes, their tear drop shank is both profound, and exerts a tremendous influence on modern pipes. Teddy (Knudsen) combines incredible shaping with some of the finest grain in the world. Tokutomi is so daring, and is utterly unafraid to push the limits of what a block of briar can produce. That man motivates me to always try something new. His cavalier pipes, his blowfish and his carved mouthpieces always leave me pleasantly stunned. I cannot think of bamboo without thinking of Satou, and Gotoh completely amazes me. Of course, who could think about high grade pipes and not think of Bo Nordh?!
Bear: Do you smoke a pipe? What is your favorite tobacco?
Alex: Of course I smoke a pipe. Are you kidding?! I love them!! I mainly smoke virginias. One of my favorites is Cornell & Diehl "Briar Fox". My absolute favorite? G.L. Pease Bohemian Scandal.
Bear: What are your plans for the future?
Alex: That's a tough one. I don't think that I will ever carve pipes full time. I love my job as a model maker, and it's a pleasure to come home after a long day of work and be able to relax in my shop. The stark contrast in environments works very well in the creativity department. I will continue to make many more pipes, go to shows, and meet many new friends.
Bear: Aside from making pipes, what other things or interests are you passionate about?
Alex: I am from Moscow and, if we could, we would be skiing or ice skating all of the time! My wife works as a ski instructor near Chicago, and you will find me on the slopes a few days a week in the winter, providing we have snow. I have racing skis and enjoy friendly competition. I love violins. They are a lot like pipes in many ways. They are vibrant, breathing objects that are best enjoyed when being used. A violin needs to be used frequently to stay in top form, so does a pipe. You can tell a good violin from a bad one, just like pipes. They both will work, but a differences will be noticed, Classical music is another great passion, I often listen to it as a soothing back ground, and I love fine art, especially Art Nouveau. The era was wonderful. So many fluid lines, from the great sculptures, all the way down to everyday objects.