Interview Meet Roman Kovalev of Doctor's Pipes

Bear Graves: Busting up my usual question format a bit, I have to ask: how did you decide on naming your company "Doctor's Pipes"

Roman Kovalev: Sixteen years of my life was spent working in a hospital as a pediatric neurologist, even then I smoked my pipes a good deal of the time. In addition I was an active member of Russian speaking pipe forum. My nick name there was DOC13. Thirteen is my Happy number. A lot of best things in my life have a connection with this number. My pipe smoking friends do not call me by my given name, usually they call me 'Doc'. So, once I start making my own pipes, "Doctor's Pipes" just seemed to be a natural fit.

Bear Graves: I have to admit that, when it comes to branding origins, that’s pretty amazing. When and where were you born?

Roman Kovalev: I was born in the Ukraine in 1971

Bear Graves: I understand that you currently live and work in St. Petersburg, did you move there from the Ukraine, or were there stops along the way?

Roman Kovalev: My father was Russian. Shortly after my birth he moved the family north, to Nizhnevartovsk City in Siberia, where my family and I resided until I moved to St. Petersburg in 2010.

Bear Graves: Tell us about your workshop, from what I have gathered it sounds pretty elaborate.

Roman Kovalev: Since I have moved to St. Petersburg, my workshop is actually in my apartment. This is the second workshop I have built, my first was in Nizhnevartovsk city. My present shop is quite large and consists of two rooms. One room is my workshop, proper, and the second one is soundproof compartment for noisy equipment, such as compressors, ventilation, vacuum cleaners and so on. I built both of my workshops solely on my own. I am a left-handed, simple efficiency demanded that I rebuild a lot of equipment for my convenience.

Bear Graves: Do you still smoke pipes on a regular basis?

Roman Kovalev: I only smoke pipes, and smoke quite a lot – 5-8 pipes a day, or, to be more precise, per night. From even my earliest days, my natural energy rhythms prefer to be active during night time. I love working at nights, and, as you may assume, I also smoke mostly at nights. My American friends like it, as it gives us the opportunity to communicate without having to take much consideration about the time differences.

Bear Graves: At roughly what age did you decide to become a pipe smoker?

Roman Kovalev: In 1995 I graduated from my medical university and in the same year I bought my first pipe. I had never smoked cigarettes and I decided to visit a local tobacconist to buy some cigars, but left with a pipe in my pocket instead. Initially, it was just the occasional bowl, but as my smoking increased, so did my purchases (mainly inexpensive machine made pipes).

Bear Graves: What types of blends do you prefer?

Roman Kovalev: I prefer mostly milder Virginia blends, though I went through quite a long period where I only smoked strong Latakia mixtures.

Bear Graves: Did you have any men in your life who smoked a pipe, men you looked up to and might have influenced your decision to take up the briar, perhaps even (eventually) to become a carver?

Roman Kovalev: My father never smoked a pipe, but my grandfather did. I saw him with a pipe a great deal of the time, and have little doubt that it influenced me. Though my father did not smoke a pipe, it would be impossible to overestimate his influence on me with his amazing ability to work with wood. He was a skilled cabinetmaker. He made and restores furniture. All the furniture in our house was made by him. I spent a lot of time in his workshop. He often made various animal or people figurines for me. I also tried to carve something, but best results I achieved at this young age was cutting my own fingers.

Bear Graves: At the present, do you have any vocation other than being a pipe carver?

Roman Kovalev: My only active vocation is that of a pipemaker, and while one never knows what might get thrown in the future, I hope keep it that way. That declaration aside, one of my passionate avocations turned into a vocation and that, in turn, allowed me to dedicate my time to making pipes.

Bear Graves: Ok, my curiosity is peaked to the point that I can’t just let it go like that. Could you please elaborate?

Roman Kovalev: One of my hobbies, actually ‘hobby’ is far too mild - but passions is coffee. I love great coffee, and, as it usually goes with things that I love, I couldn’t find coffee which met my standards in my city. At first I opened a shop to sell top-grade coffee to consumers, then I expanded into the coffee equipment trade (coffee machines, grinders and so on). In a short amount of time, I began supplying local cafés, bars and restaurants with good coffee. At the same time, I spent untold hours of intense study to obtain an advanced level of coffee making skill, I have several barista diplomas. Once my bona fides as a coffee making expert were firmly established and word got around, I opened my own barista school. I have personally prepared and certified 114 barista. Later, I registered the trademark and brand of “COFFEEJAZZ”. I quit the hands-on portion of this business, passing ‘the controls’ to my friend, and I now fully dedicate myself to pipemaking. Pipes are the companions of my life. I hope they will be with me up to the end.

Bear Graves: A coffee aficionado, who finds the local coffee below his standards, corrects the problem through a combination of passion, intensity... a manifestation of “Will to Power” (if you will), and the result is becoming a major player in high-end coffee. A result which now allows you to pursue yet another passion?

Roman Kovalev: Maybe a bit overstated, kind of sounds like a narrative voice-over in a movie-trailer, but that is the gist of it. The one correction that I would add is that the result didn’t merely allow me to pursue ‘yet another passion’, it allows me to dedicate myself to my greatest passion.

Bear Graves: The record stands corrected. We have learned that your hours of watching your father work with wood was an influence. I can only imagine how much hand-to-eye coordination, fine motor skills and attention to detail that it takes to be a pediatric neurologist. What other skills might you have picked up before becoming a pipe maker, which helped once you actually began the process of pipe making?

Roman Kovalev: I can, if you wish, recite a ‘dry’ list of the skills and mindset that I brought to my first work bench, but without any background to provide context: my nature, my aptitudes, how they were applied and grew as a result of pursuing my passions (pipes especially), it’s just a list, and one that might not be intuitive to a reader.

Bear Graves: I, and I believe our readers as well, would prefer to get the background, have a ‘context’ to help us understand how skills and aptitudes were developed. Where do we start?

Roman Kovalev: My nature is such that, when I develop an interest which turns into a passion, my involvement is never a casual one, never simply ‘get acquainted’ and move on, no half-measures. My nature needs to understand every aspect of my interest, from the ‘big picture’ on down to the minutest level. Hand-in-glove with this aspect is a strong dislike for simply accepting the status-quo. While some personalities are perfectly comfortable with simply making the best of what little is available to them, I take a look at a situation and my first thought is “What changes can I make to any aspect of this process, in order to optimize my chances of success?” If those changes or adjustments aren’t possible within any pre-made, ‘ready-to-go’ options, I will create them. The construction and modifications to my workshops, as well as my coffee adventures are just a couple of examples.

Bear Graves: It sounds like we have some commonality, as far as “all the way, or no way”, when it comes to things that interest us. Still, I have yet to go so far as to create anything unique to aid me in my pursuits.

Roman Kovalev: “All the way, or no way” sounds about right. I have had an avid interest in racing for a long time. I was part of a great team. We made engines and built cars. Quite often, I went to garage and spent half a night assembling engines immediately after I left the hospital (my working place), despite the fact that driving was my main position in our team. Improving our game superseded any need to rest.

Bear Graves: Now that I can relate to! Given that your ultimate passion is pipes (and after studying your incredible compositions), I have little doubt that your nature, mindset and aptitudes didn’t take a break when it came to your study, and eventual execution of pipes.

Roman Kovalev: It didn’t.

Bear Graves: Who was the maker of your first high-quality pipe?

Roman Kovalev: As I mentioned earlier, my first pipes after graduating medical school were cheap and machine made, but as smoking a pipe moved, quickly, from a spur-of-the-moment lark, to something that I was passionate about, I entered the collection period of my life. Actually, “collector” would be inaccurate, I am a smoker, not a collector. I have studiously smoked every pipe I have bought, the idea of purchasing a pipe just to lay on a shelf is an anathema to me, and I have really never understood that practice in others. A definitive answer to the first high grade pipe that I owned would be difficult, for my idea of what truly constitutes a high grade rapidly changed with more exposure. I can say, as I found my preferences narrowing, I became an admirer of the great Japanese carvers, especially their ability to present an amazing totality, not just objects with interesting elements, my most prominent recollection of that period being the manner in which Tokutomi executed his long-shanked Blowfish. I even went as far as corresponding with Mr. Tokutomi, and you can imagine how delighted I was to get this type of pipe from him. That was back in 1998.

Bear Graves: You already owned a Tokutomi Blowfish in 1998?! My first Tokutomi was in 2002, and here I was thinking of myself an ‘early adopter’!

Roman Kovalev: My obsession with any given pipe itself was almost secondary to my interest in the master who created it; their personality, their creative processes, what lines of thought resulted in the new treasure that I was smoking. While researching such information, I would stumble across the names of other carvers who were unknown to me, and, naturally, the next step involved searching out and obtaining pipes of these unknown masters, followed by more research.

Shortly after I became serious about high grade pipes, my personal preferences and way of looking at pipes were formed. I consider a pipe as one full and complete object. It’s not that I am (at all) indifferent on the matters of an intriguing line, or inspired aspect, indeed, some carvers display a near-genius with such things, they deserve appreciation, and many make a fine living of building a briar around a signature element. It’s just that my focus doesn’t lie within attempting to copy elements, but to understand whole compositions; trying to get myself to the place where I understand what a Master was thinking when he made a specific pipe. Sadly, such a process doesn’t benefit much from epiphanies, instant comprehension upon seeing a work for the first time. I’ve noticed that while my understanding of a particular question is developing, I have to return to a predecessor, which I’ve seen numerous times earlier, in order to discover yet another ‘new’, and hopefully advance a bit more. This process never truly ends. In a way, it is like reading Bible. You can’t read it once, cover to cover, and put it back on shelf. At a minimum, you need to return to specific chapters and passages, and what you wind up taking away isn’t the full wisdom contained within, but only ideas and examples you can comprehend at this particular moment. The greater the diligence of this study, the more becomes opened to you. Untold hundreds of pipes were acquired, smoked and researched in this manner. That was my pipe “school”.

Bear Graves: What is the origin/source of your briar, and, roughly, how long is it seasoned prior use?

Roman Kovalev: Addressing in reverse order: I had it in my head that I would be making pipes for quite a long time before I took the ‘plunge’. My first briar blocks were seasoned a full six years before I finally decided to make something. I make a pipe, or pipes, I rotate newer briar to the back. My stock comes from Mr. Mano’s briar. I have come to greatly appreciate his and his daughter Ilaria’s efforts in manually selecting blocks for me. I also work with strawberry wood. Strawberry wood is a member of the same family as briar (another kind of heather). It is a great material! From functionality point of view, I feel it concedes nothing to briar and, in some aspects, even beats it. Strawberry wood is 20-25% lighter than briar and pipe weight is not an unimportant factor. Strawberry absorbs moisture better than briar, requires less rest in between smokes, and its outstanding hard-to-softer wood ratios produce outstanding blasts. As an aside, I love blasts. I find the process to be a near-irresistible dialogue with the wood. Each and every block requires its own approach, you might say ‘A personal key’.

Bear Graves: When I first saw your sandblasts, I was blown away. Heck, I’m still blown away. I have never seen anything quite like them. To be honest, the closest patterns that I have seen in other pipes are actually rustications, with a bit of blasting as a topper.

Roman Kovalev: Oh, I have had some say that my blasts are impossible; they must have been prepped with chemicals and/or tools. I would like to underline once again, any blast/grain that you see on a Doctor’s Pipe is strictly created through the use of sand and air, I have no preliminary tool work or treatments. I have spent a great deal of time, both in the creation of a unique blaster and system, as well as on the pipes themselves, to obtain such deep and textured blasts. I always say to my critics – “my workshop is always open and I am always ready to show the process.” I would like to clear the air about any questions surrounding my sandblasting. May I?

Bear Graves: Yea Gods... please!

Roman Kovalev: The blasts you see on my pipes are absolutely distinct and based on a totally different technology than found in common blasting devices. At its foundation, my blaster works through a unique principal of mixing air and blasting agent. After a preface, I will describe the principles, without getting too deep in technical details. While I appreciate the beauty of deep, conventional blasts, far too often I have seen otherwise fine pipes look like they have been gnawed up, gouged. One of the main advantages of the system I created, and the equipment I built, is that the blast neither changes the actual shape of the pipe, nor its dimensions. I imagine, given your job, that you have noticed some super-deep blasts which resulted in a shank/stem junction where the mouthpiece wasn’t perfectly flush with the shank – the stem is actually slightly larger than the shank? As I said, ‘gnawed out’?

Bear Graves: I have, and it makes me a bit queasy to see all that hard work go into (essentially) lessening the ultimate outcome.

Roman Kovalev: My system allows deep blasting without suffering such an effect. Please take a glance at the pictures I sent, showing a shank before blasting and after. The pictures include caliper shots, as an additional assurance that the dimensions remained the same. I use/invented a system which works the year (soft) rings of a block without touching the hard rings. My blast depth is about 2.5 mm, but even at that depth of blast, my system continues to work selectively. In my sand tank, sand lies in state similar to water. I invented a method which renders sand into something close to a water state; basically, the sand turns to liquid. I call it Aeroblast. The media content, as measured at the nozzle, is negligibly low – it simply flows like water.

To create a context, a 5 kg load of blasting sand will allow my apparatus to work 4-5 hours, non-stop. Such a hellish working regime cannot be achieved with any, even the most expensive, conventional blasting apparatus. Referring back to the ‘if I need it, and it doesn’t exist, I will create it” part of my nature, I invented this technique and made my blaster from scratch – 100% hand made. I turned all the necessary parts on a lathe. I did all of the assembling and adjustment. There are three mechanisms in my blaster which, as far as I know, have no analogues at the time of this interview. The first is the unit responsible for creating the air-sand mixture, the second is the control unit which measures and adjusts the blasting agent content in the mixture. Anyone who works with blasters will tell you that simply getting sand out of a nozzle is hardly an event, but you can find yourself in a constant battle; always fighting between extremes of overly rich or drastically poor air-sand mixture. My technique/system creates a quality air-sand mixture 100% of time. The third unit is special nozzle. The blasting agent emerges as a cone shape, not a reverse-cone. I can change size/diameter of the working cone for different blasting regimes. For instance, if we have briar with very dense rings, I can make the working cone of .5mm and work without damaging nearby rings. That’s why I made my own blasting apparatus. I had many hours of consultation with specialists and I made a ton of mistakes, before I finally arrived at a solution that produced the results that I desired.

Bear Graves: The folks who know me will tell you that I am never at a loss for words... but your expansion of your blasting process and machine is surely testing that. On to another question. Having looked at your pipes, it appears that ebonite/vulcanite/cumberland is your stem material of choice, and that you take the extra effort to turn your tenons, rather than use delrin. Is that accurate?

Roman Kovalev: For making stems I use German and Japanese ebonite as well as Cumberland. I don’t use delrin tenons because I do not like combined material stems. Using delrin tenons? Sure, it’s easier and faster, but a stem made in one piece is better and stronger, in my opinion. I make conical air draft, narrowing from 4.1 mm to 2.3mm at the bit, in mouthpiece. My mouthpieces are always polished, not only outside, but inside as well. Polished air drafts are critical to achieving a comfortable, cool and dry smoke. It also makes cleaning easier. The interior of my stems/bits feature a Y-groove, also polished. In my humble opinion, correct engineering in the stem is more important than in the stummel. Certainly, all engineering should be correct, but mistakes in stem engineering are definitely the worst of the two. I only use a lathe for making tenons. All other stem work being done either with hands or with a Dremel. I never use casted stem blanks, only rods of ebonite.

Bear Graves: We saw some accessorizing material that, while extremely beautiful, for the life of us, we can’t identify.

Roman Kovalev: Ah! Lately I was looking for something different, unique as an accessorizing material, and yet nothing I considered really spoke to me.

Bear Graves: Umm... so you created it?

Roman Kovalev: How did you guess? ;) Not long ago I became fond of making polymerized materials. It started from my forest walks with my daughter. I saw very beautiful, smaller green moss balls. They were so nicely textured, that I start thinking about how they could be used. I bought special equipment, such as an immensely powerful vacuum pump. It took what seemed like forever to choose a polymer that both pleased me, and was suitable for pipes. It had to be non-toxic, non-flammable and quite durable. I tried lots of polymers prior to finding the right one. I arrived at one that was being used for making sport airplane fuselages. It easily withstands 500 °C heat and it is two times stronger than steel. It fully beats acryl. The main disadvantage of acryl is weak heat resistance - melting. I also wanted to use a polymer to make calabash bowls, and acryl was immediately discarded as suitable material for the purpose. I use different media for polymerization - grass, moss, nuts, various seeds, for instance. The polymer I chose, however, has one big disadvantage for me – it very hard to work this material, but it gives advantages to smokers... it is also hard to scratch.

Bear Graves: Looking at the broadest spectrum of great pipemakers, either living or passed, whose work do you most admire?

Roman Kovalev: Pipe makers who have seriously influenced me? Actually, this is rather difficult question. I can’t say who seriously influenced me, much less how. I study the work of all the pipe carvers I can find. Some of them are interesting and close to my mentality. The human mind can make it a very complicated thing to obtain a simple answer. My mind is like a big ball of yarn, comprised of a myriad of smaller threads. When you pull at one strand, you never know how many others will appear on the surface. Certainly some of the pipes that I have studied contained a kind of revelation, bright and unforgettable. Several years ago, Eltang teamed with Gotoh to make marvelous calabashes with triangle boxwood caps. These pipes are still in my mind. Tokutomi’s Cavaliers and Blowfishes are also there, as well as the live, elegant and unrepeatable shapes of Shizuo Arita. Certainly I am impressed with some of the legendary Danes. I love Gracik’s works, his interpretations of Danish classics are amazingly nice and elegant.

Bear Graves: With your permission, I’d like to ask a few, non-pipe related questions.

Roman Kovalev: Of course.

Bear Graves: What are your favorite things to do, when away from work?

Roman Kovalev: One hobby of mine is making absinth. I have made it since 2007. I used to distill spirits from various fruits before prior to that, but in 2007 found an absinth recipe. From that time forward, I have been a passionate absinth maker. It’s very interesting to get various shades of taste, through making changes in the recipe. I have two distilleries. Needless to say, I made both of them by myself and they have served me well for years. One is being used to make aromatized spirits, another being used for absinth making only. I love absinthe so much that I made a special celebration series of pipes, dedicated to my first absinth distillation. The pipes were colored green and were accompanied with a small absinth bottle.

Bear Graves: If we could get a similar series here, I’d be the first to sign up! Do you have a favorite sports team?

Roman Kovalev: I am not a big sportsman. I play billiards. Generally I am playing pool, and, in former days, I spent a lot of times behind the table. I even met my beloved wife playing billiards. At the moment, due to my present work load, I am not paying same amount of attention to the game, but am still playing from time to time, nonetheless. My favorite form of billiards is snooker. I am not so much an avid player, but I have great fun following the competitions. I even record matches that I can’t see ‘live’, so that I can see them later.

Bear Graves: Dr. Kovalev, this has, without a doubt, been the most fascinating interview that I have had the privilege of undertaking, and an incredible pleasure.

Roman Kovalev: Please call me ‘Doc’, and I have found it to be enjoyable as well.


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