In a previous article, I made an attempt to present a survey of the contemporary Russian and Ukrainian pipe scene (artrusses-eng.htm). This time, I’d like to share with you my personal experiences with the Russian and Ukrainian pipes I own.
Is doing business in Russia and Ukraine an ordeal ? Not really. Of course, e-mail communication with people who hardly speak any Western language, can be, at times, a bit awkward, especially when translation software is involved. So, in order to avoid Babylonian confusion, it suffices to express yourself in plain words and in simple sentences. Besides, several pipe makers and retailers I exchanged e-mails with, do master the English language. What about paying methods ? No need for roubles. All prices are charged in hard currencies, specifically in dollar or in euro. Though certain artisans and retailers do have a Paypal account, most of them don’t. Consequently, whether you’re asked to transfer money to a Russian account or to send a Western Union money order, you’ll have to pay the necessary fees. And how about the trustworthiness of the postal services ? Don’t worry, all my parcels were delivered safely. As for the time it takes them to arrive at destination, it’s hard to say : it’s my experience it can take from less than a week to up to a month. Last but not least, it is worth mentioning that systematically I was provided with a tracking number.
All the pipes I’ll review, have been purchased between April of 2010 and March of 2011. Since buying pipes from mostly rather unknown artisans whose work I never tried before, is a leap of faith, I decided to limit the risk. That’s why I focused on pipes in the $150 - $350 range. Obviously that decision ruled out the purchase of a Revyagin, but it didn’t prevent me at all from being presented with a wide choice of Russian and Ukrainian pipes. Here are the ones that ended up in my collection.
My very first Russian pipes were purchased from Cherepanov’s website (http://cherepanov-pipes.ru/). What seduced me was the attractive price/quality-ratio : in April of 2010, a Cherepanov pipe was typically priced in the €100 - €150 range. I bought a nose warmer apple and an elegant dublin variant. Of his own accord, Sergey proposed a discount and I ended up paypaling €240, shipping included, for both pipes. Later on that year, I purchased two more, a dublin lovat (€190) and a brandy apple (€170), from German dealer Martin Reck (http://www.martinrr).
When I unpacked the first parcel that arrived at my home, two things immediately grabbed my attention. On the one hand, it is obvious that both pipes are well grained and made from briar with hardly any visible flaws. The stain of the apple hides a few inconspicuous sand pits, while the wood of the dublin is remarkably pure. In this price range, this kind of grain and absence of visible flaws is quite exceptional. On the other hand, the finish of both stems can only be qualified as sub-standard. And I’m not referring to the obvious micro-scratches on the surface of the stems. For €110, one simply cannot expect high grade perfection. No, what really bothers me is the fact that under direct light the stems reveal an ocean of minuscule brownish spots. And this kind of unappetizing rubber isn’t acceptable in any price range. Period.
Both shapes are well proportioned and pleasing to the eye. The slender and sleek design of the 27g weighing dublin is original and refined. As for the nose warmer, its horn shank extension is well integrated in the composition and the unnoticeable transition between briar and horn is outstanding. The stain job and the finish on both pipes are more than decent. I especially like the satin and warm glow of the dublin. The bits still lack consistency : while the dublin is fitted with a comfortably thin bit of 3.45mm, the nose warmer has a rather clunky one at 4.45mm.
What about the internals ? Both pipes have a nice, open draw and the bits are drilled in a V-shape. The tenons are wide open, but their fit could be better : in the apple it’s on the loose side and in the dublin it’s a bit tight. The dublin presents a gimmick : the airway runs underneath the chamber while the air hole is drilled in the bottom of the heel. And it works. The smoking properties of both pipes are beyond reproach and their taste is satisfying.
What about the two pipes purchased three months later ? I can be brief : the progress that Cherepanov made in such a short time, is undeniable. The stems are perfectly black and polished to a high gloss, the sunny stain and the finish of the dublin lovat appealing, the fit of both tenons blameless. And no more clunky bits.
Sergey Cherepanov isn’t the greatest pipe maker in the world, but he sure is a capable one. He seems to have an innate sense of shape which allows him to carve beautiful pipes. Moreover, given the high percentage of well grained pipes he offers for sale, he seems perfectly able to read the quality briar he’s working with. Today a typical Cherepanov is priced at $350. Of course, in this niche of the market there are quite some alternatives. But if you want to give this artisan from Moscow a go, you probably won’t be disappointed.
I spotted Ponomarchuk’s website in 2008 and felt immediately seduced by his elegant rhodesians and beautiful rustications. Later on, I discovered several variations of this former pilot’s signature shape, the aviator, and I just knew I had to have one of those highly original, chubby, yet dynamic rhodesian nose warmers with a canted bowl. In the Autumn of 2010 the right one came along : cumberland stem, contrast stain, hefty but compact. I like to think of it as virile. And as the price of $250 was no deal breaker, I went for it without hesitation.
No regrets so far. Granted there’s room for improvement in the wax finish, since it tends to get a bit blotchy, and with its 61g, this aviator isn’t exactly light as a feather, but otherwise this is a pipe with a lot of character that tastes fine and that smokes effortlessly, provided I keep it in my hand. Beautifully shaped, nicely grained, well constructed. What else could I ask for ?
Last year, as soon as I had discovered Yuri Aksenov’s portfolio on the web (http:yakslon), I ordered two pipes : a bent bulldog finished with a very peculiar rustication technique and a specimen of one of Aksenov’s signature shapes he calls a fig. We agreed on a price, $330 for the lot, and Yuri asked me to be patient because his order book is well filled. About three months later, he sent me a couple of links to Picasa pages and asked me whether these pipes would do. Would they do? Hell yes.
These pipes are not perfect. The draft hole of the bulldog is drilled a tad high and I would have preferred the inner edges of the bits to be rounded off a bit more. And yet, I just love to smoke them. The reason is simple : they perform exceedingly well. They’re light on the teeth, their draw is exemplary, their bits comfortably thin and their taste utterly satisfying. I can understand the bulldog with its Dremel-carved patterns is a love or hate pipe. I for one love it. As for the Gotoh-inspired fig, I adore its elegant, fluid lines and its lightly rusticated surface.
At $165, what you get is a beautiful smoking machine with a high gloss stem, a distinctive finish, a chamfered tenon, a wide open air way. Who can beat this ? Aksenov pipes are bargains.
Now isn’t this a charming little pipe ? It’s nicely grained and to my eyes it has a kind of Italian flair to it. I bought it for $225 from an excellent retailer established in Kiev (http://gevorg.net/). With its 27g and its 3.6mm bit with a softly rounded button, it’s a joy to clench. The fit is beyond reproach and once again this is a Russian pipe with a perfect draw and well executed internals. And yet, at first it was a bit of a problem child. During the first half of the smoke, the pipe behaved as it should and delivered a very pleasant taste. However, the smoking pleasure was somewhat compromised during the second half, because the pipe tended to heat up in the area around the air hole. Fortunately, as soon as the tobacco chamber started to break in, the problem was solved.
I’m not the greatest fan of mirror-like finishes, so I’m perfectly happy with the pipe’s satin glow. Yet, it was quite an unpleasant surprise during the first smoke to notice my fingers were covered in a haze of orange-ish stain. It’s the second time in my 34 years career as a pipe smoker this happens to me. Mind you, it’s not as if the Aivazovsky has really lost loads of its stain and now has gone blotchy, but still, stains and finishes should be stable.
Frankly, I had never heard of Maxim Nazarenko before I discovered his work in the Armenian International Pipe Club-forum. What I saw impressed me, so when I found out that Ukrainian dealer Gevorg was selling several Nazarenko pipes, I didn’t hesitate. I chose this Ilsted-inspired bulldog and paid $225 for it.
Evidently, Nazarenko deserves to be better known. His bulldog exudes high grade class. Clean lines with well defined edges, a good sense of composition, attractive grain, excellent execution, fit and finish. And, last but not least, it smokes just as fine as it looks : at 33g, it’s light-weighted, it has a comfortable and well cut bit, it draws effortlessly and it provides me with a sweet taste.
In brief, this is an outstanding pipe. In this price range, it simply is an exceptional one.
Trying to purchase an Ailarov without exceeding the $350 upper limit of my self-imposed budget is not a sinecure. So I was more than pleased to be able to purchase from Gevorg a typical Ailarov apple variant for exactly $350. Of course, at this price one can’t expect to get a pipe with the stunning grain the Muscovite master is famous for. Still, the visual quality of the briar is more than respectable. And then there’s of course the appeal of the shape : elegant, understated, timeless. Classy.
When the pipe arrived, I was quite surprised by its appearance. Judging on the pictures on Gevorg’s website, I was expecting a stain in rather orangeish/reddish tones and a high gloss finish. In reality it proved to be a classic light walnut stain in a satin finish, reminding me of old English pipes.
This pipe certainly does not jeopardize the star status of Sergey Ailarov, for it is a superb smoking machine. I’m more than satisfied with the slender and thin bit, with the pipe’s natural respiration and with its pleasant taste. Though I smoke the apple a lot, the finish remains perfectly stable and a quick wipe with a polishing cloth immediately brings back the discrete shine.
This is exactly the kind of high quality classic pipe you’ll never get tired of.
Take your time to browse through Savenko’s website (http://savenko.okis.ru/) and especially through his gallery (http://sava9/). Never a dull moment, guaranteed. Granted, he might not yet be the most accomplished pipe maker in the world, but this true champion of eclecticism will not leave you indifferent : classic shapes alternate with baroque compositions, traditional finishes and exotic rustications take turns, down-to-earth smoking tools are followed by highly decorative showpieces. A fascinating body of work, all the more so since Savenko has only been making pipes since 2009. And yet, this neophyte feels confident enough to carve calabashes. And I don’t mean calabash-like shapes. No, the gourd-style real deal, the kind of calabash Todd Johnson comments on in the following terms : This is an extremely advanced endeavor and requires a great deal of precision and control. Not for the faint of heart to be sure. So, when I discovered the pictures of this stately calabash for sale for a measly $210, I had mixed feelings : should I jump on what seemed like a beautiful bargain or should my skeptical nature prevail ? After my extremely disappointing experience with a Senatorov calabash, the last thing I needed was another affordable-calabash-from-an-inexperienced-carver-debacle. But, as you know, the heart has its reasons that reason ignores. I bought it anyway.
It’s an impressive pipe for sure. Faceted like a Greek column, the architectural character of this calabash is obvious. From its beautifully cut stem with its wide open bit that reminds me of Brian Ruthenberg’s work, to the finely rusticated top, from its polished internals to its impeccably mounted insert, this pipe clearly exudes the perfectionist disposition of its maker and must have required a massive number of working hours. That’s why it’s so surprising that the finish of the stem is spoiled by numerous minuscule brownish specks. It’s such a pity because otherwise this is a striking example of fine pipe art.
Believe me, if a pipe maker doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing, a calabash can easily become a pipe smoker’s nightmare with terrible drawing problems and excessive condensation that results in the dreaded gurgle. Judging on the smoking properties of this calabash, I can only come to the conclusion that, in spite of his relative lack of experience, Andrey Savenko is a gifted craftsman. The draw feels very natural, the smoke is cool and dry and when I take apart the pipe, there’s hardly a trace of condensation to be found. Hats off.
At $210, this is a giveaway. Today, you can get a Savenko for a song. I’m pretty certain this won’t last very long. You’ve been warned. Oh, and by the way, if you’re looking for an original tamper from a creative artisan, have a look at the ones Andrey is selling : http://23_29_189
Victor Yashtylov belongs to the triumvirate of Russian star carvers and consequently does not need an introduction. He carves with the same mastery exuberant freehands and elegant classic shapes. I went for a humble blasted pot.
Regretfully, these pictures don’t do justice to this little beauty. For starters, though not overly deep, the blast is much better defined than what the pics suggest. Furthermore, what seems to be a maximum black and white contrast, is in fact a subdued composition with soft tones : a dark brown stain with light brown accents, a brindle stem and a moose horn shank extension that has a profoundly appealing, rich, creamy, mat texture.
The pot was bought as an estate from Russian dealer Tabachok (http://www.tabachok.ru/) for €190. Doing business with Dmitry Gaev was a real pleasure : rapid and to-the-point e-mail replies in perfect English, a well organised procedure and, above all, a helpfulness that can only be described as exemplary. The pipe arrived in perfect condition, with hardly any external signs of use, but its internals could have been cleaned more thoroughly.
For my personal taste, at 4.2mm, the bit might have been a tad thinner. Having said this, I really like the way it’s cut with its wide open slit and its pleasantly rounded edges. A sensual treat for the tip of the tongue. For the rest, I can be brief : this is flawless, high precision workmanship. Yashtylov’s high grade smoking machine lives up to my expectations : good draw, fine taste. Not a prima donna. A trustworthy workhorse.
By the way, did you know Victor Yashtylov used to be a metalsmith ? So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this pipe maker also manufactures solid brass tampers. And boy does he know how to work metal ! Have a look at this wildly ornate, intricately decorated showpiece of superior craftsmanship and freely admit it : you’re in awe.
If you think this kind of tour de force must cost a little fortune, please reconsider : I bought it directly from Victor Yashtylov for $80.
Of course, drawing definitive and decisive conclusions from such a small sample of pipes would be out of order. And yet, it is difficult to deny that the Russian and Ukrainian artisans whose work I reviewed, do seem to share a series of common denominators. So here are a few tentative conclusions anyway :
At the end of this series of reviews, it has become crystal clear : the continuously growing number of gifted and able craftsmen in Russia and Ukraine is proof of the fact that these two nations have joined for good the fellowship of pipe producing countries. And it’s a new force to be reckoned with.