Published: 05 June 2013
My attraction for classic English pipes is such that I've developed a focus that only London made pipes from the 1930s through the 1970s interest me, and even more specifically really only four makes. I mentioned in my interview with Chris Asteriou that he was one of only two contemporary pipe makers who made pipes I could see myself owning. I have yet to get one of Chris' pipes, but I do keep an eye on smokingpipes to see if one of his shows up that I can't live without.
The other contemporary pipe maker that interests me I do own a pipe from. It's quite the anachronism on my rack, being a pipe that looks almost like a pipe S. Bang or Tom Eltang could have produced. It's a short Danish style apple with an oval shank and Lovat bit. The grain of this pipe is mind blowing. The cut of the stem supernatural. The shaping machine-like. It's the finest smoking and looking pipe I've ever had my hands on. It's just on some other kind of level from any pipe I've experienced. Pipes like that get your attention, and I've been waiting for the right pipe from this maker ever since I acquired the first one.
That maker is Alexander Ponomarchuk, who you can find on his website
or on Facebook
. Alexander is just a little bit younger than I am at 41, married in 1997 and has three children with his lovely wife Elena. They live in the Ukraine and run a small advertising agency and print magazine for their livelihood.
Alexander first began making pipes in 2002 and for the last few years has an annual output of 40-50 pipes a year. His prop airplane shank stamp reflects his love of flying, and his original shape is called the Aviator. Alexander is a pilot who retired from aviation after 3600 flight hours.
The thing that interests me the most about Alexander is the style he's developing. It's so easy to generalize, and you could categorize Alexander with the other Ukraine and Russian pipe makers and miss his uniqueness. His membership in the emerging “Russian school” of pipe makers begins and ends with his nationality. You can see evidence of Alexander's influence in his pipes, but the thing that makes them stand out are the things he does that don't come from his influences.
I think Alexander is still off the radar of most collectors, and the lucky ones that are buying his pipes today might find later on that they got an awful lot of pipe for their money. I certainly feel that way about my Ponomarchuk. I paid Castello Sea Rock money for a pipe that I could honestly see selling for closer to a grand, which is why I've been kind of in a hurry to add another before I can't afford his work any more.
In any event, we've established that I think a lot of Alexander's pipes and I am thrilled to be hosting Alexander Ponomarchuk in this second Cake and Dottle Interview.
Cake and Dottle: Give me a brief history on your aviation background. Was flying something you dreamed about as a child?
Alexander Ponomarchuk: My uncle was a pilot and when he visited on holiday I listened to his stories with great interest. I dreamed ceaselessly about it. He worked in the north of Russia (Yakutia). After school I went to flight college and became an MI-8 helicopter pilot. By the way, the Ukraine is Sikorsky's homeland (the father of helicopters).
I worked in Northern Russia like my uncle, but Northern Russia is huge therefore my uncle worked the taiga (*editor's note: taiga is boreal forest, think Canada) where the trees are 40m high, and I was up around the Arctic ocean, in the tundra. We transported hunters, fishermen, geologists and people who mined diamonds. I retired at 27 years of age because I had 3600 flight hours.
C&D: When you began making pipes was it just you alone in the workshop or did you gain experience working with another pipe maker?
Alexander: I started doing pipes alone. I had no workshop. My wife allowed me to use one room for my experiments. When I felt that this craft was pleasant to me, I started creating a workshop out of my apartment.
All my life I liked to work with wood and when I returned to the Ukraine I continued to be fond of this hobby. Through time I decided to try to make a pipe, but the result wasn't pleasant and I continued to train persistently. I looked at certain maker's pipes on the internet and I longed to make pipes like these. In search of a chemical composition stain like Tom Eltang uses I spent 3 or 4 years, but the secret of magnificent "gold contrast" is not only in these substances, but also in the processing method. Antonio Stradivari looked for the perfect varnish for many years, and I for many years have tried to perfect the formula of my finish.
My first virtual teacher I can call Claudio Cavicchi because I could find detailed photos of his process of production of a pipe. I am grateful to this master for the help. On my site there is a "Pipe making" section that I hope my photos will also help somebody.
C&D: When I look at your work I see a balance of original ideas and Danish influence. The stem on my Ponomarchuk apple is decidedly Stanwell-esque. I'm not a Danish pipe collector, so I'm not familiar with which artists have made which contributions to Stanwell design over the years. I've looked at some Eltang and S. Bang pipes and thought perhaps I saw a little of your influence there. Exactly which pipe artisans served as your influence and what is it about their work that you found so compelling?
I was subject to the influence of the Danish style, but tried not to do exact copies, and to think out something original.
I can name some masters whose pipes I admired – Bo Nordh, Kent Rasmussen, Tom Eltang, S.Bang, Former, Jess Chonowitsch.
But more than the others I considered the pipes of Eltang because I wanted to repeat his "Gold contrast". I spent more than 3 years searching for a formula. I can't say that my contrast is as magnificent, but I satisfied my desire.
C&D: Let's talk about the Aviator. Obviously this shape belongs to the bulldog/Rhodesian family of shapes, but to my eye it derives no influence outside of that. I see nothing English, Italian or Danish about this shape, in fact, to my eye this is the strongest original shape I've seen in my pipe smoking years. It's the first shape of yours that anyone can look at and know that it could only be Ponomarchuk and no one else. Did this shape just appear out of a block you were working on one day, or was there an evolution toward the trademark lines of the Aviator?
Alexander: The Aviator is the influence of Larry Roush's style. I find many pipes of this master attractive and interesting. It took a long time to come up with this shape. I sketched many different options but I didn't try them in briar at first. In the course of my work I began to see more clearly the contours of its future shape. The first Aviator differed from the present shape. There was a form evolution. I still haven't done this form with sandblasting. I hope to soon finish modernization of a sanding cabinet and try a new finish for this shape.
C&D: Russia is the new Denmark, or more specifically, there are a lot of Russian and Ukrainian pipe makers that have become globally popular the last couple of years. When I first started paying attention to pipes from the East I just saw a lot of Danish influence, but as time has passed I've seen a unique style coalesce from the pipes of Russia and the Ukraine. This is something that is still evolving, but if I had to define it now I'd classify it as rooted in the English school with a Danish shaping influence and an emerging Eastern originality. I'm sure you don't appreciate being generalized like that, especially considering that before much longer pipe smokers in the West will be talking about the "Russian" school. Is it aggravating to be lumped together with other artists due to geography, or do you feel that pipe makers from Russia and the Ukraine share common influences and design goals?
Alexander: While it's early to speak about the Russian or Ukrainian school, in recent years there have arisen some very gifted pipe makers from this region. If you look at their early pipes, it is possible to see the influence of the Danes, but what they do now is unique. I won't name names so as not to offend anyone, but I can already tell those that will come to be called the founders of the Russian or Ukrainian school. I can see that makers from other countries have already started borrowing style and engineering elements from these makers. I am glad for them and I wish them new victories and prosperity!
I always watch for your new pipes hoping you'll have made a shape I like. Recently I was stunned by pipe #1612, a variation of the bent brandy. Like the Aviator there are monumentally original concepts in this pipe. It's a new shape. I think of it as the "hooded cobra". What a fantastic showcase for the straight grain and birdseye of that piece of briar. It's really impressive Alexander.
Alexander: Thanks Michael for the kind words!
You are absolutely right – this form allows me to show the grain of the briar in the best possible way. I very much love dark contrast (like Eltang) on "bird's eye", but not so much on direct fibers (flame and straight), therefore I wanted to unite the light and dark finish harmoniously. This shape is new to me also and will develop. The new option – a combination of the smooth finish and sandblasting is now almost ready. (editor's note: as of this publication it has already been produced)
C&D: Your method of rustication produces a result unlike any other pipe maker. I always look at your rusticated pipes and think of swirling air, or mist rising from a boiling pot. Is it time consuming? How do you feel about rustication vs. sandblast? I've only seen a couple of your pipes with a blast finish.
I don't know who the first thought up this method of rustication, but the first time I saw it was Sergey Aylarov, though his method and mine have differences. This process is not labor-consuming and is simple to execute. The most labor-intensive and difficult process for me is a sandblast because as I spoke earlier, I didn't finish modernization of a sandblast cabinet yet. I hope soon to finish this process and to start doing more relief and beautiful blasts.
C&D: What is your favorite shape to make and why?
Alexander: Favorite form – billiards. It simple and laconic but behind this simplicity are many nuances. When I do billiards I take a rest and I rejoice. Still I love the Aviator because it has a unique charm and is very pleasant in the hand. Sometimes I use it as an anti-stress device.
C&D: Your style becomes more and more original seemingly every month. As each pipe you make becomes more and more unmistakably Ponomarchuk, are there any traditional shapes that you will continue to revisit and make? What about this shape(s) makes you want to keep going back to it?
Alexander: It is interesting to me to look for new shapes. I never know what pipe I will do next. Most often the shape is dictated by the briar, but sometimes I sketch it first and then select the block. I set out to do nothing that is specifically recognizable, but there can be in my vision elements of a form that someone can trace to the original. I will tell you honestly that seldom are the pipes I make satisfying to me. In the course of work I admire any pipe while it is "without clothes", but after the finishing and photographing I look at the screen of the computer and I think that I could have made it better. Sometimes I remake a pipe, but it is rare.
The most repeated shape is the Aviator because I get the most orders for them.
C&D: Which aspect of pipe making do you enjoy most, and which do you enjoy the least?
Alexander: I love that part of work when I feel like a sculptor or artist i.e. when I shape the briar. It has soul and character. It lives. I like to work with ebonite the least.
C&D: It seems to me given your answers that one of the things that drives you is the realization of the unknown. Will there ever be a Ponomarchuk shape catalog, or once you've done a shape a handful of times do you feel like you explored that avenue enough and now it's time to move on? Are there any shapes that you foresee yourself always making?
I don't love catalogs. If there is a catalog it means that there is no creativity and there is only a business. It isn't bad for factories but for me it is a deadlock. It is very boring to do one model of a pipe 20 times in a row. I try to live in one afternoon – today I want to do billiards and tomorrow – freehand. I do few pipes to order because it is a creativity framework. Sometimes it harms business, but the work brings me more pleasure when I do what I want to do at the moment.
C&D: In the short term, what are your creative design goals for the next year or so? Five years from now how is a Ponomarchuk pipe going to differ from the Ponomarchuk pipe you make today?
Alexander: In creative work it is impossible to predict the future. Tonight's dream of a new pipe can tomorrow night be something different. I can precisely tell only that I will develop sandblasting and to continue experiments with contrast finishing.
C&D: Looking back over the past year or two you've managed to get your hands on some insanely great briar. Seriously Alexander, the nicest straight grains I've seen anywhere the last year have been Ponomarchuk pipes. Has it just been good luck on your part sourcing superior grained blocks, or have you bought a lot of briar that the rest of us will never see?
Alexander: Earlier I said to myself: "I will buy expensive briar when my pipes become expensive", but now I say: "I will buy the most expensive briar even if it isn't favorable, but my pipes will be expensive". I understand that the price of a pipe depends not only on the briar, but this component is very important. I consider the supplier of the briar the coauthor and when I take the block I feel the heat of his hands. The briar – wonderful creation of nature, sometimes travels through the whole world, being handed over from whoever harvested it to the seller then to me. The seller of my pipes is also coauthor. If he gives a good price that means I have the opportunity to be engaged in creativity. I wish all of my coauthors prosperity and I hope for continued cooperation.
I want to thank Alexander for spending this time with us. There is something eminently satisfying about seeing someone who is walking the right path in life and seeing the rewards that come with it. Alexander has a beautiful family, a successful livelihood, creative satisfaction and most of all happiness in abundance, and he deserves every bit of it. He's a wonderful man.
What is it about Alexander's pipes that make me stray so far out of my comfort zone? They hit every one of my benchmarks: superior briar, properly drilled; comfortable stem and button; fantastic shaping; finishes that make you stop to look at them. My Ponomarchuk makes most of the pipes on my rack seem like basket pipes. I find Alexander's work compelling in a way that probably only my Haymarket era Loewes excite me. I only wish I would have discovered him earlier in my collecting life when I had more money to spend on pipes, but I have a feeling that one or two more might find their way to my rack anyway.
I've smoked a pipe or two in my day, and my collecting phases have run the gamut from the various schools of pipemaking. I'd put Alexander's work against anyone, and if he's doing this after only a decade of making pipes, just imagine what he's got in store for us. I think very highly of Alexander Ponomarchuk and the pipes he makes.