A Conversation with Artisan Pipe Carver J. Mouton

J. Mouton is an artisan pipe maker from Gueydan, Louisiana. His fascination with pipes and tobacco brought him to the hobby around 2016. The established artist and craftsman he was, Mouton would soon be honing his skills as a pipe maker, making his first pipe in the summer of 2018.

Looking through Mouton’s pipes, you find most any popular shape in the modern artisan’s catalog. From traditional staples like Billiards, Bulldogs, and Lovats, to the most popular contemporary designs: Blowfish, Elephant’s Foots, Shields, etc. And of course Pokers, a stand-out shape of Mouton’s.


Poker w/ fossilized mammoth tooth

In his roughly four years of pipemaking, Mouton has conjured a style all his own. Even the most traditional shape, such as a straight Billiard, will have a Mouton resonance. His signature is often telltale in the bands and ferrules crafted from stone, horn, wood, fossil etc. But also comes through holistically—an aesthetic individuality born of each subtlety and detail taken together.

 

Billiard w/ desert ironwood

A fulltime pipe maker, J Mouton keeps busy on commissions and making pipes for TobaccoPipes.com and Cup o Joes, so we are quite thankful he took the time to chat about his pipemaking journey.

 

Mouton painting - Forest Path oil on canvas

Email: [email protected]
Instagram: j.mouton_pipes
Facebook: J Mouton Pipes
Vero: Search j.mouton_pipe


I’d like to start before pipes were in the picture. It seems it all started with an early exposure to craftsmanship in general from your father. I'm interested to hear a bit about the pre-pipemaker background. 

So, my dad was a master carpenter. Basically from the time I could walk and follow him around I was in the shop with him, bothering him more than anything I’m sure. My earliest memories are in his cabinet shop, from building cabinets, to boats, to houses—everything. Then basically at fourteen I started working summers with him and when I graduated high school I started technical college and I'd work after school with him. I went to a technical college to be an electrician, after that I didn’t wanna be an electrician. I wanted to be a carpenter, so I did that for a long time, up until thirty-four I wanna say.

I had some other jobs too. I had a tattoo shop, I was also a truck driver, heavy-haul off-road equipment, but when I was doing that I was still doing construction work. That was a 24 hour on call sort of thing, I was young enough to double up.

So then what did bring it around to pipes? 

I have a spinal condition that got bad enough to where I couldn’t do the construction or drive anymore, so I started managing an E-cigarette place, a little brick-n-mortar, and I always wanted to smoke pipes. Right next door to us was a—we call it a Shop Right—it’s like a gas station and tobacco mixed-up place. I pulled in there and asked them if they had some pipes and I bought a corn cob pipe and a briar pipe—a Dr. Grabow—and two pouches of tobacco, and did what everyone else does nowadays to learn how to do something. I went to Youtube and found YTPC, the YouTube Pipe Community, and started getting involved in that.

The pipe community is so generous and a guy by the name of Todd Elmore sent me tobacco to try. I was new to it so I didn’t have this big tobacco cellar with all kinds of good stuff in it. So, I made him a pipe tamper, a really nice pipe tamper, and I sent it to him and he was blown away by it and he said, “what are you doing making pipe tampers? You should make pipes.”

That's kind of how it started. And then I made a few more tampers for some people and started selling a few tampers and everytime I sent someone a tamper they were like, “hey, make a pipe, make a pipe, make a pipe…” you know? So then I made a pipe. I gave the first pipe away and then the second pipe I sold. It just took off from there.

The short story of it is the YouTube Pipe Community made me as a pipe carver.

Right, once everyone was giving you that feedback it became, alright I guess I have to now, right? And you had this prior experience with the lathe and even working with the hard rubbers like ebonite, right? 

Yeah, that came from duck calls. So, my dad was a call-maker, he’s in some books and stuff. I would make calls with him, he taught me that on the lathe. The reed for the call we would make out of ACE hard rubber combs, hair combs, which is vulcanite.

So you were used to working with that stem material.

Right, I knew how it would react and things like that. I mean, it’s nothing like shaping a stem but I had a familiarity with the materials.

Br’er Cutty & Billiard

So now you are a pipe maker and one thing that’s really cool about your pipes are these different series. How they’re all brought together with some thematic element. For starters we have the Br’er series, these are all pulled together by a similar rustication? 

Yes, the Br’er Series is my rusticated pipes, it’s kind of inspired by the Sea Rock type rustication. Mine is different though, it’s a three step process and is very detailed, especially when you hold one.

The name came from when I was a little boy, my brother would tell me stories of Br’er Rabbit, you know, the old songs of the south stories. Me and my brother are really close and I just didn’t know what else to call it so I called it that.

 

J. Mouton Pipe - Br'er Series Anse

Br’er Series Fat Egg w/ horn

 
I think it fits just right.

Yeah, kind of like a briar patch, it’s all tangled up, you know?

Bushido Poker & Tomato w/ horn

Yeah, exactly! So then we have the Bushido Series, which is very interesting. So, these are the pipes that incorporate bamboo and that comes from an interest you've had for a long time in Bushido, samurai code and lore, right?

Yes, when I was a little boy my dad would build me wooden katanas, I’d play in the yard and stuff. It’s not just samurai culture. I really respect Japanese culture. I love their take on art and how they’re really passionate about their heritage.

So yeah, the samurai seven codes, the Seven Virtues of Bushido. I read so many books on it I just felt the bamboo is Oriental, it seems kind of fitting.


J. Mouton Pipe - O Series Military Mount Poker w/ Sterling Silver

O Series Poker w/ sterling silver military mount

So then we have your O Series, and those are all made with Olive wood. Is there anything unique about that, smoking out of an Olive wood pipe?

It imparts a flavor in the break in period. It varies from block to block from what I understand. I don’t want to sound like I’m an expert on Olive wood because I’m not whatsoever. I just know that it is a heat friendly wood, it’s durable, and it has really interesting grain patterns.

I was looking for an alternative to briar…Briar pipes are the best, one hundred percent. They’re more durable, they're prettier to look at—probably the most beautiful wood on the planet, and they smoke really well. But it’s good to have an alternative, especially with the way that briar is now, it’s getting harder to get.

I did some morta stuff really early on, and had tons of burnouts and pipes splitting when people would smoke them, and that was in the first year of making pipes. And I just didn't feel comfortable putting a product out there that I couldn’t at least say you should have this thing for many years to come. And Olive wood was another kind of alternative to that.


J. Mouton Pipe - O Series Billiard

O Series Billiard w/ brass

I bought Olive wood probably 3 years ago and I didn’t make an Olive wood pipe until 2022. I just questioned other pipe makers who were using it, not that I was scared to use it or anything like that. I just never did and all of a sudden I was like, let me make one of these Olive wood pipes and just see. You never know how people will react to certain things. I knew people did like Olive wood but I think pipe makers have different people follow them, so I didn’t know what my clientele would think, you know?

Like some folks probably love their Olive wood pipes, so they have this pipe maker they love and that’s their niche. And you didn’t know how you venturing into Olive wood would be received.

Yes right, and I’m just trying to trickle them in, I can’t say how they’re doing yet, just trying to trickle them in, see how it goes. Test the waters I guess.


J. Mouton Pipe - Piezo Series Dublin with crazy lace agate

Piezo Series Dublin w/ crazy lace agate

Absolutely. So another series that really caught my eye, and it seems a lot of peoples’, is the Piezo Series. These are pipes fit with agate bands, right? 

Yes, yeah that's my top of the line pipe.

So tell me a bit about using the stone. It’s such a beautiful pay off but seems it might be a finicky process to get those bands right. 

Yeah, I mean I’m not a jeweler, I’m just a Cajun down here on the bayou who’s trying to learn what a rock is, you know? There’s no method to it or anything like that. I’m just feeling my way through. I have learned a lot and I’m a lot better at it now but the thing with agates is, you can't really look at it with a jeweler’s loupe and say, well look, that piece is gonna be no good because it has a fracture in it. You have to start cutting this stuff before you find that fracture, because it’s not clear, it’s not like a diamond or an emerald or something, it has all these grains and patterns through it. Which to me is what makes it so amazing and so unique—but you just have to go with it, and you can be thirty minutes away from starting to polish one and find a fracture and you have to make a decision; is that fracture solid enough or not? And I have a way that I test them and see. Some of them look like fractures but they're actually quartz grains through it, so I have a little way to test it, make sure it’s gonna be rigid enough and structurally sound enough to put on a pipe. It’s fun.


Piezo Billiard w/ Guatemalan lace agate & matching tamper & stand

Is it kind of like cutting into briar, you can look at where you're coming from and have some sense of orientation but at some level it’s a surprise how the grain ends up?

Yeah, agates can surprise you quite a bit. The thing about pipe making for me is there are so many amazing carvers out there—I mean it’s a huge pond and I'm a little fish in it. And for me to find something that hasn’t been done yet or gives some uniqueness—I had never seen agates being used, so I just wanted to see if I could do it, and I pulled it off. Pretty much a lot of luck, because I don’t have the proper tooling to do it but eventually I'd like to buy some proper lapidary stuff to do it more efficiently.


J. Mouton Pipe - Fish with Desert Ironwood

Fish w/ Desert Ironwood

Yeah, I definitely see with your pipes, it’s little things, it can be the smallest flourish that brings out character and individuality. You know, there's the agate, or sometimes you use wood for the band—ironwood or oak burl—that contrasts with the briar. Very stylistically cohesive. So I wonder, is the process like, wow this is a beautiful mammoth tooth fragment, I can see it on a blasted Lovat with a black finish, and you have all that in your head before going into things? Or is it less systematic, more improvised?

It’s a little bit of both. I try to have a plan going into something. Especially with commissions because you have parameters.

I try to have some type of plan, and then, well with my art background, I still do oil paintings. Having something contrast and something solid in artwork is a necessity, you have to or else your painting or whatever just turns to mud basically. You want to have that as well with pipes. I mean, that’s why so many pipe makers use black stems. Not just because it looks good but because it builds that contrast. It's the same with tattoos, if you have no black in a tattoo whatsoever it’s just not solid. So, I try to have a plan but it doesn’t always go step by step, sometimes you see something and say, oh wait, if I did this, this would be a little better.


Early Morning Bayou Scene in oil

Right, these things can strike you as it all comes into being.

Yeah, and that’s just the goal for me; to make every pipe a little bit better than the last one if possible. So, I don’t know if there's a rhyme or reason to it all, but I try to have a direction, I’ll say that. Not necessarily a plan, but I try to have a direction to go in.

How do you feel your style or approach to pipe making has developed in, let's say the last few years?

Oh gosh—a lot. Yeah my first pipes, I was trying too much—trying to do too much. From my background with cabinets and everything, less is more, so I really try to scale down things and slow down.

What I started doing about a year and a half, maybe two years into pipe making—I started really studying other well known and really good carvers. I would pick a carver and study them religiously. Everything, I mean, I’d just look at every pipe that they would make or that I could find that they made and say, okay this is what he did here, why does that pipe look so good, what did he do? Oh, that stem is that length and that shank is that length and that's what made the proportions. What did they do with others? And then for instance, studying Chris Asteriou and going to Rainer Barbi, saying, what makes Rainer’s pipes Rainer’s pipes and what makes Chris’s pipes Chris’s pipes? And then, the Tom Eltangs and the Jeff Graciks, and you study all of these great carvers—Jared Coles—all of these guys. I could name for hours.


Ivarsson Fish interpretation

Well, what I was hoping was that some of these guys' stuff would show up in my work. Not that you wanna copy people but you want these aspects that made them so good to start to pop up in your stuff. And I think that started to happen, I mean I think it’s inevitable when you study. And I still do that to this day. I’ll just find a new carver, somebody I hadn’t really known about yet and they'll blow me away and I’ll start looking at their stuff.

Right, I’m sure it’s kind of like being a musician, you don’t want to sound just like someone you look up to but you’re gonna find their influence in how you write and that’s just the natural progression of things, you find your individuality through different things coming together. I definitely see what you mean by coming into that less-is-more mentality. Like I said, sometimes it's just the small things with your pipes that give them that character. I’m looking now at the poker you made recently with the matching black palm inlays in the stem and bowl, and that’s just so cool.

Oh yeah, the elliptical? Yeah we used to do that on cabinets. I totally forgot about that stuff, and I was looking at some Cavicchi pipes, and I was like, wait, he does elliptical inlays on pipes? I wanna do one! It saves that beautiful piece of briar. I’m gonna probably start doing that more in the future.

J. Mouton Pipe - Poker with Black Palm Inlays

Poker w/ black palm inlays

There’s a lot of times you’re working on a pipe and are like, this thing’s gonna be phenomenal, and then you go from 220 grit to 320 and now you’ve opened up something [uncovered a flaw], which is a good thing because you wouldn’t have known it was there, but now you have an option. But it has to be in the right spot because you can’t just throw them anywhere. And worst case scenario you could always blast it, but the inlay’s a good option to have.

That’s interesting. I didn't even know of the utility of it, that there was this flaw there and now there’s the inlay.

Yup, the flaw’s not even there anymore because I drilled it out. The flaw doesn’t go all the way into the bowl or anything. If that was the case—if a pipe has a detrimental defect, it goes in the trash. But if it’s a superficial thing that you would usually blast, it's a great alternative to it.


Freehand Tomato w/ fossilized whale spine

Right. Because it’s TobaccoReviews, I should end with a question about the stuff going into the pipe. So, is there a pipe in your mouth in the workshop and what might be packed in it?

There’s always a pipe in my mouth in the workshop. It  might not be lit, they tend to go out a lot when you’re working, but yeah it’s more of a habit of having something in your mouth.

I’m a Virginia smoker, I like Virginias and VaPers. Every now and then I venture off into something else. Capstan Gold—that’s one of my go-tos—Escudo, those are my everyday blends, and I smoke Sam Gawith Full Virginia. Peter Heinrich—there’s a ton of them. But Capstan Gold is probably my number one blend.

I was told early on that if I ever started on Virginias, it would be hard to switch back to something else.

Yeah Virginias and VaPers are my favorites as well. I like English and other blends, but I don’t know, you can have all these straight Virginias and I’m just like, this straight Virginia’s so different from this straight Virginia and I love that.

And from year to year it can be a little different too. I don't dislike Latakia blends, I don’t like them real heavy on the Latakia. I’ll have a bowl every now and then, but it's usually a really mild one so yeah, 99.9% of the time if you come into my shop and I’m smoking a pipe, it’s gonna be a Virginina or VaPer.

 

Rhodesian w/ buffalo horn

[Wrapping up, Mouton left me with one last sentiment]

I love this whole experience, I feel blessed that this has been put in my life.

 


 

You can find J Mouton pipes on TobaccoPipes.com and CupoJoes.com. Also make sure to keep an eye out for his table at the upcoming West Coast Pipe Show.

For commissions and inquiries, you can get in touch with Mouton through email, Instagram or Facebook messenger, or VERO.

And of course, give him a follow on any of Mouton’s social media accounts to keep up on his pipemaking and his right hand man in the shop, Briar the Beagle.

 

Email:          [email protected]
Instagram:    j.mouton_pipes
Facebook:     J Mouton Pipes
Vero:           Search j.mouton_pipe
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