Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine
An early interest in model aircraft leads Alex Florov toward careers in industrial design and pipemaking.
If Alex Florov had been a professional boxer, he could be compared to Muhammad Ali. That’s not to say that Florov is the greatest pipemaker of all time—who could make such a claim? However, Florov’s pipes are as graceful as Ali’s boxing skills. As Ali easily glided around the boxing ring mesmerizing opponents and spectators with his genius, so Florov uses his immense talent and patience to carefully make his handheld chisels breathe life into inanimate objects. They exhibit smooth, flowing lines that seemingly give Florov’s creations lives of their own—making Florov a sort of Geppetto of briar. And his skills have drawn tremendous praise from pipemakers and collectors alike—all waiting to once again witness his immense talent. Like anyone who is said to possess a gift, however, Florov wasn’t born able to craft beautiful smoking pipes. It took years for him to develop as an artisan—a path he started when he was approximately six years old and drawn to modeling aircraft.
Born in Moscow in 1969, Florov became interested in aviation at a very early age, thanks to the occupations of his paternal grandfather, mother and father—all of whom were aircraft engineers. The young Florov began modeling like almost every other kid—buying plastic model kits and assembling them on the kitchen table. However, Florov soon grew bored with those kits and began designing and building models of his own. Building 1:48 scale models and concentrating on giving them very fine detail, Florov became a prominent member of the Scale Historical Miniatures Society in Moscow, creating a name for himself among collectors who commissioned him to make models for them for the first time.
“That became my second occupation back in Russia,” Florov says inside the workshop located in the basement of his suburban Chicago home. “I had a lot of commissions to make special models for pilots who wanted to remember the planes they had flown in combat. And I learned about aviation history because I would make the model and then become interested in that plane’s history.”
While Florov learned aviation history, his highly detailed model building gave him a keen eye and helped him develop the steady hand required to work in the smallest dimensions. Impressed by his obvious talent, a furniture restorer hired Florov to work on high-end and antique furniture restorations. Florov did more than simply sand and re-stain furniture—he often had to re-create missing parts and match his repairs so that no one could tell that repair work had been done. Through modeling and furniture restoration, Florov had developed sophisticated skills with woodworking tools, yet his chief desire was to become a doctor. He traded in his chisels in the hope of learning how to wield scalpels with equal precision.
While at medical school, Florov met Vera Slonim, a young woman with dreams of becoming a dentist. The two quickly fell in love. In 1990, Vera’s family, who had relatives living in the Chicago area, decided to leave Russia for the United States. Undaunted that his love had moved half a world away, Florov made plans to follow Vera, ending his pursuit of a medical career.
“When I came to the U.S., in 1992 I had to wait for two months until I could get the right clearance to work,” Florov explains. “I wanted to be a legal immigrant so I made sure I did everything according to the rules. When I was finally cleared to work, I decided that I would use my talent for woodworking and modeling to find a job. My first job in the U.S. was as a cabinet maker. That was more table-saw work than real woodworking. Then I attended a modeling hobby show in Chicago and I met a Russian who worked at the well-known hobby modeling company Revell-Monogram. They had no openings at the company, but he had a friend who had gone to start his own company. I spent five years working there making plastic model kits—mostly cars—and I learned a lot. Then I found a job at a major toy developing company; here I designed a lot of flying toys and my name appeared on a few patents. After that, I started working for an industrial design company making models of laptops, phones and even aircraft seats.”
Thirteen years passed as Alex and Vera settled into a life in the Chicago area and began to raise a family. A pipe smoker since he was 16, Florov saved his money to establish a budget to buy tobacco, especially Virginia blends, and the occasional pipe. Florov admired the work of high-grade artisans such as Tonni Nielsen, Tom Eltang, Kent Rasmussen, Teddy Knudsen, Lars Ivarsson and many others, yet he could rarely afford their work. In 2004, Vera’s father, who was also a pipe smoker, visited, and Florov showed him websites containing images of all the pipes that Florov had admired.
“We were on the Internet looking at all these pipes,” Florov recalls. “I said to my father-in-law, ‘What I like I cannot afford and what I can afford I do not like.’ I don’t know why I didn’t think of it myself, but he asked me why I hadn’t thought about making pipes for myself.”
Vera’s father gave Florov a pipe made from fruit wood and challenged him to make some pipes. Florov did and then, like those days when he was a child moving from plastic kits to custom models, Florov sought another challenge, and he secured some briar from Pimo and Mark Tinskey.
“I used the Internet to understand exactly what I liked about pipes,” Florov explains. “Carving the wood was easy; the one thing I didn’t understand was the mouthpieces. I saw the premolded pieces that were available to me, but then I looked at what Bo Nordh, Teddy Knudsen and Kent Rasmussen were doing with their mouthpieces and I didn’t see those shapes there. Fortunately, I got lucky at the right moment.”
That luck came during a trip to Cigar King to buy some pipe tobacco, when several members of the Chicago Pipe Club were inside the store. Florov came into the shop smoking a pipe, and they asked him if he had ever heard about the club. He hadn’t, but he quickly joined his fellow pipe enthusiasts.
“That was an explosion for me—for information and everything,” Florov fondly recalls. “They adopted me as one of their own. Everybody helped right away, especially Rex Poggenphol, who introduced me to everybody who is anybody in the pipe world.”
With the connections that Poggenphol helped him make, Florov secured better briar from Tom Eltang and Romeo Briar. He made a few more pipes, each one a Florov interpretation of pipes he had admired on the Internet. And then he was ready for his first pipe show in Chicago in 2005.
“I remember going to my first show,” he comments, a broad smile creasing his mustached face. “It was like going to a different planet. Everybody is friendly and there was no competition between carvers. They all helped me a lot.”
One pipemaker in particular spent a lot of time with Florov at that show. Bo Nordh had made the trip from Sweden to attend his first Chicago pipe show. Frank Burla had introduced Nordh to Florov, and Nordh wheeled over to Florov’s table to examine his work and talk about pipemaking and design.
“He came to my table, examined my pipes and started giving me advice,” Florov recalls. “He gave me a lecture for two hours about how to make a mouthpiece. He made sketches and I still have all those sketches. I should frame them. From that time on, I just followed his numbers—the magic numbers.”
Nordh had unlocked for Florov the secret to handcrafting mouthpieces and the important aspects of their internal engineering. Other pipemakers shared other information, which Florov had already instinctively known—look around at what other pipemakers are doing, draw inspiration from them and realize that almost anything is possible.
A big collector of high-grade pipes, Florov likes to use them, not only as excellent smoking devices, but also to study and learn. In his collection are pipes from Radice, Tokutomi, Tonni Nielsen, Sixten Ivarsson, Peter Heeschen and many others. Florov describes himself as a sentimental collector—he likes to buy pipes from his friends.
“I’m very sentimental about pipes. When I smoke a Peter Heeschen pipe I can’t help but think about Peter. I remember our good time at the show, and I’m looking forward to the next show and I wonder what he’s doing. The same thing happens when I smoke Tonni’s pipes or when I smoke Toku’s pipes. That’s why I have pipes from other pipemakers. There is inspiration in there too. I smoke them and sometimes I see something that I like in somebody else’s pipe. I try to understand exactly why I like that pipe, and it’s usually because of the way the pipemaker created the pipes’ lines. I then try to incorporate it in my own way.”
Florov’s most recent inspiration came from watching Disney’s Oceans documentary late at night when he saw a Spanish Dancer swimming in the ocean. Florov admired Tokutomi’s interpretation of the Spanish Dancer .
“I had only seen photos of the Spanish Dancer at the bottom of the sea, but then the documentary showed it swimming,” Florov explains. “It swims almost vertically and it’s incredible to see, so then I thought about how I can transfer that movement into the wood—the grain, the shape, the position of the bowl, shank and mouthpiece to create the perfect version of Spanish Dancer of my own. I’m still working on the sketching and developing of that shape.”This gets to the core of Florov’s design esthetic and why his pipes are so interesting to see—he brings movement and life into inanimate objects.
“What I’m trying to do is an old modeler’s dream,” he says. “A scale modeler tries to make the world in miniature. I’m trying to transfer something that moves into the wood so that it maintains the same dynamic and ideas and that people will recognize what it is. I want to inject aesthetic value and practical use all in one thing. That’s why I am so drawn to Oriental cultures because they inject everything with animation. Everything has a soul. I call pipemaking a functional art. You consume tobacco from it so it’s a form of pleasure, but it’s also a form of art.”
Florov cites his Calla Lily shape as his first attempt to breathe life into briar. It’s a shape he continues to improve on. Florov draws inspiration from anything he sees in nature, which is why he very rarely uses anything other than a natural material on his pipes.
“I don’t use acrylics,” he states. “They’re not nature, they’re chemistry. I also don’t use metal. I have only made one pipe that had a silver ring on it, and that ring was supplied by a close friend who ordered the pipe from me. I can’t say that I don’t like metal, it’s just that I don’t understand it.”
A part-time pipemaker, Florov’s primary job remains in the industrial design modeling field. He finds time to make pipes during the evenings and on weekends during the summer. In the winter, he follows another passion—downhill skiing. An avid skier who likes to race downhill, Florov plans on securing a ski instruction certificate by the 2011-2012 skiing season. Still, while he may spend part of his free time on the slopes, he still finds a day or two to make pipes in the winter. Currently, he crafts 45 to 55 pipes a year, and he believes that being a part-time pipemaker is a boon to his creativity.
“It’s beneficial because I’m not thinking about making my next mortgage payment,” Florov explains. “I can concentrate on making the perfect shape and finish, rather than paying a bill. Basically I’m self-sufficient with my hobby, because I spend a lot of money on pipes and tobaccos. In order to keep my family budget untouched, I make pipes.
“Another good thing about being a part-time carver is that I have more freedom to make something that I find pleasing. I do have mostly commissions but I can make a pipe that I like and not have to worry about a paycheck. I’m OK if I don’t sell that pipe. It’s no big deal. I can just smoke it myself.”
While Florov works a full-time job, his thoughts are never too far from making pipes.
“I draw pipes during lunch time on tissue paper. I prefer tissue paper because then I can overlay those layers and I can develop a shape through several drawings. Then I cut out what I finalize and bring them home. I save the cutout then trace it right on the block. Some people actually like to own the paper pieces that inspired the pipes I made for them, so I also give them the papers if they like.”
One of Florov’s most challenging projects—one for which he spent quite a few lunch hours drawing sketches—was a commissioned Egyptian-themed set. The customer asked Florov to make a set of pipes that would represent different aspects of Egyptian history, culture, religion and archaeology. Intrigued by the challenge, Florov accepted.
“It all began with a conversation with a friend of mine,” Florov explains. “He asked me if I could make him an Egyptian set since I already made a Ramses and a Sphinx shape. The challenge would be to create two more shapes that would complement the other two, because the Ramses and Sphinx are two completely different levels of pipe. Sphinx is a beautiful shape but it looks simpler than a Ramses.”
Florov began sketching the project in October 2009. By January 2010, he finished the first pipe, a Ramses. He then completed the Sphinx. Through his sketches, he kept working on variations of his floating blowfish design, which became the Nefertiti.
“I had the King and Queen and I had the Sphinx, but I needed one more shape to round out the series,” he explains. “I bought a lot of books on Egyptian archaeology and history, which inspired me to create the Scarab. I then took some ideas from the books I had pored over to sketch a concept for the box the set came in. A friend of Adam Davidson’s completed the box using all-natural materials.”
When he had finished the set in October 2010, Florov felt a mixture of both pride and relief at his accomplishment. Florov knew that making the set that met his demanding criteria would be challenging; he never dreamed just how difficult it would be.
“There were a lot of struggles to design the new shapes—finding the blocks for them; matching the colors and the grains because they all had to have the same colors and the same grain intensity. The other challenge was how to make it look Egyptian beyond the names of the pipes. Gold was out of the question. I searched for material that goes through Egyptian history. I realized the blue lapis lazuli was what I liked most. I started looking for real stone and I didn’t find any big pieces, but I was lucky enough to find a nice stone material based from real blue lapis lazuli and it had some gold lines in it. That blue material has yellow metal inside and it looks absolutely gorgeous. I never knew it would be that much of a struggle when I started. When I finished I told the guy who ordered it that if he wanted another one to please wait five years. That’s probably the shortest amount of time I will allow between sets if I ever make another one. It sucked everything out of me. It was a very big but exciting challenge, but I also got inspiration for other pipes that I may make in the future.”
While full-time job responsibilities, the expectations of raising a family and the demands of finding the perfect blocks from which to turn his sketches into three-dimensional smoking pipes take Florov considerable time, the actual method he has chosen to carve his pipes is time-consuming as well. Just as he did when restoring and repairing antique furniture, Florov uses hand chisels to do most of the fine-detail carving—on both the briar and the mouthpiece—which gives him a higher level of precision. Florov does only the rough shaping on a disc sander before sitting down at his workbench with dozens of chisels of various lengths and widths and shapes to tediously chip away at the wood, revealing his ultimate design. Florov estimates that it takes him approximately 15 hours to carve a classic pipe and as many as 75 hours for more intricate shapes.
“Shaping is probably the most fun,” Florov explains. “Chisels are the best tools to use because they provide more precision, especially on ebonite. I keep my tools very sharp so that I can cut across the grain without hurting the briar. Another nice benefit of using chisels is that you see the grain right away. The tool is polished, so when you cut away with the chisel the surface of the wood is kind of polished, whereas with a sander it’s always a matte surface. Chisels also allow you to easily create concave lines, which you cannot do with sanding discs. I don’t know why more people don’t use them. In other forms of woodworking they all use chisels.”
Like many pipemakers, once the shape of the pipe has been finished, Florov considers the pipe completed, except for the tedium of sanding and staining, which he estimates takes up to 50 percent of the time he spends on every pipe.
“I’d like to have a jar full of trained termites to take care of that for me,” he jokes. “The more elaborate the shape, the more sanding required. For the past 10 years, I trained myself to do some tedious stuff at work, so it’s not such a big deal now. I just do it with a movie on in the background. I then realize that I spent three hours after the movie is over.”
Bamboo is Florov’s favorite material with which to adorn a pipe. He also likes to use horn from bulls and water buffalo, a cellulose material and pre-embargo ivory—natural elements that bond well with Florov’s natural aesthetic. One item he is interested in using is albatross bone. So far, he’s been unable to locate any, so he attempts to use wood or ivory to imitate it. “It just interests me,” he says.
While he was only a pipe smoker and collector, Florov noticed that the pipes he would buy had different smoking characteristics. He wondered why this was so—they were, after all, made from the same wood and the same materials.
“Once I started making pipes I began to discover the difference,” he explains. “For me, a pipe starts with its engineering, and the way the inside of the mouthpiece is designed makes all the difference. The most important aspect to all my pipes is that they must pass a pipe cleaner completely through the pipe. No matter how intricate its design, the pipe must be smokeable.”
When he first started making his own mouthpieces after his conversation with Nordh, Florov developed a system of manufacture for himself that he has continuously tweaked as he improves his skill and the time it takes to complete a mouthpiece.
“It’s taken me almost four years to learn how to craft a mouthpiece on the inside and the outside,” he comments. “I want a mouthpiece that is comfortable to hold in the mouth, yet is wide enough to allow the smoke to pass through. Those are two opposite sides of a dilemma. I strongly believe that it’s got to be a very comfortable thing because the piece goes into the mouth and connects you to the pipe. It creates that relationship.”
Florov describes himself as one of the few pipemakers who makes the button resemble the mouthpiece of a trumpet. From there, the draft hole seamlessly runs its course down to the tobacco chamber without any sharp angles to cause turbulence and stoke up the heat of the smoke.
“I polish my mouthpieces inside too,” he says. “While the drill may make the hole, it’s the pipemaker who finalizes it. If the transition is not right, it can affect the pipe’s smoke ability. That transition should be as smooth as glass to prevent turbulence.”
While the inside of the mouthpiece is polished to prevent turbulence, Florov also insures that the draft hole and tobacco chamber meet exactly at the bottom and center of the bowl. He also sands the inside of the shank to remove any splinters of wood that could cause turbulence, and he leaves the smallest of gaps between the mortise and tenon so that the expansion of the wood won’t push the tenon out of the mortise.
Florov grades his pipes using a very simple system—Elephant Grade (slonim in his native Russian) is the highest grade and includes a stamp of an elephant. The pipes are graded in descending order: A+, A, B and C. Beyond that, there is only Blast grade. He sometimes grades his blasts in A or B categories. “All of my B-graded sandblasted pipes are for my personal use or for very close friends.” Florov’s Blast grades start for approximately $550, and the most expensive pipe he has sold was $2,600.
“That was a very special piece of wood,” Florov says, describing the most expensive pipe he has made.
Florov’s standard nomenclature is: “Alex Florov,” “Handcrafted” and “USA,” followed by two numbers and a letter. The two numbers signify the year in which the pipe was made and the letter indicates the grade.
“I started to date my pipes three years ago just to keep track, especially when I only make a few of a particular shape,” Florov explains. “I just want to see how I’m progressing as a pipemaker. When I see an older pipe I see a lot of things that I would have done differently now that I know better.”
And though he’s already an accomplished pipemaker, Florov understands that there is always room for improvement.
“I’d like to continue to develop new and different shapes,” he comments. “I have two directions to go—crazy, sculptured artistic shapes, meant mainly for collectors, and I’d like to finesse my regular pipemaking. The beauty is in simplicity for any of the traditional classical shapes. It’s all about proportions, and those proportions are fractions of a millimeter, and it takes years to learn that. Then I’d like to improve on how I can combine all those branches together. I’d also like to explore new ways on how to make a pipe using a Danish approach. Discovering different ways of assembling things, working on the chemistry of the stains so that they can penetrate deeper and raise the grains better are things that I would like to accomplish. Develop new shades of stain. These are all areas that I would like to develop.”
Developing his artisanal talent—whether in model-making or in pipemaking—has been the one constant in Florov’s life. Starting from plastic modeling kits, he has turned a hobby into a profession, which has given him the opportunity to turn his passion for pipes and tobaccos into another career. Albeit part-time, that pipemaking career may very well be the more rewarding one for Florov, emotionally and spiritually.
“It’s fun to make pipes,” he enthuses. “It’s incredibly fun to work with wood that can be very temperamental. It’s always interesting to see what’s inside that briar even if it looks perfect from the outside. The other fun is to go to the shows and see your friends. Basically at Chicago, my average time to sleep is two or three hours each night. I don’t want to sleep! There’s too much fun going on. I now know almost all of the pipemakers in the world and it’s more than friendship. We exchange ideas all of the time. That’s what keeps me going—exchange ideas and continue our friendships. It’s hard to describe; it’s like the Energizer Bunny that keeps on going. We’re just trying to keep it going and soar to new heights.”
— Story by Stephen A. Ross, photo by Bobby Altman
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