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Making The Cut: Cigar Cutters

Neil A. Grauer
From the Print Edition:
James Woods, May/Jun 97

(continued from page 1)

"It's interesting to see the different variations and styles," Wright says. "When you get into tabletop variations, where you have a whole piece devoted to not just the cutter but [also] a cigar holder, match holder and ashtray, that's a nice statement, because the themes of most of these companion sets are just typical slices of Victorian life. And a lot of them tend to be humorous themes. It's really fun."

Wright says that the museum has one such companion set that is approximately 12 inches high and 14 inches long, featuring a container that holds up to 20 cigars, a holder for a matchbox, a cigar cutter with an ashtray underneath it--all in brass--plus the figure of a man holding a candlestick. "It's just a nice Victorian piece, heavy into decoration on the sides."

Wright's advice for would-be collectors: "Go for variety. Look for condition. Any damage to the piece detracts from its future appreciation value. If it is gold, see that the gold is not worn down to the base metal. If it is tin, look to see that it has not been repaired. If it is wood, look to see that no part is broken.

"Make sure all the parts [of the cutter] are in place, that nothing's missing. If it has been painted, you want the paint to be in fine condition. If it has been repaired, pass it up. If it is metal and has been dropped, dented or banged around, you don't want it. It should be in fine working order."

"Don't Bite Me, Just Light Me, I've Got A Hole in My Head."

--Slogan for Caton Cigars, manufactured by Jacob F. Obrecht Tobacco Co., Baltimore, 1920s

With the arrival of machine-made cigars that were pre-perforated for the customer's convenience, cigar cutters became essential only for connoisseurs of the finer, handmade cigars. Baltimore, once home to nearly 60 cigar factories and dozens of tobacconists, had manufacturers and purveyors of both. At the city's century-old cigar store, Fader's, third-generation owner Ira B. "Bill" Fader Jr. has a few cigar cutter artifacts from the days when his grandfather Abraham had 80 employees hand-rolling cigars. One is an early 1900s combination match dispenser and cutter made of cast iron, with the Fader name prominently displayed on the lid. Push down the cutter arm and a wooden match pops up. Another is a cutter that sat by the cash register and could accommodate three different-sized cigars. Insert a cigar in the appropriate hole, depress a lever and the cigar is neatly clipped. The slogan this cutter sports is for the Fader-made Iraba, "the GOOD cigar." (The "Iraba" was named for Bill's father, Ira B. Sr.)

As does any full-service tobacco and cigar store, Fader's offers a wide variety of modern cutters. They range in price from $1.95 for the simplest plastic-and-steel, handheld guillotines to $53 for a stainless steel, German-made cigar scissors, $310 for a Macassar lacquered guillotine from S.T. Dupont of Paris and $380 for a circular, gold-plated cutter from Alfred Dunhill.

"[Gabriel Syme] took the cigar, clipped the end off with a cigar cutter out of his waistcoat pocket, put it in his mouth, lit it slowly, and let out a long cloud of smoke. It is not little to his credit that he performed these rites with so much composure."

--G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday

"In the art of smoking there is no harder trick to learn than cutting the tip of a cigar," contends Cuban-born writer G. Cabrera Infante, whose book Holy Smoke (Harper & Row, New York, 1985) is a 329-page compendium of historical, cinematic and literary lore about smoking and cigars that contains many of the quotations cited in this article.

In The Connoisseur's Book of the Cigar, Zino Davidoff observed diplomatically that no single method of cutting a cigar is preferable to another. One can pinch the cigar head, and if "the fingernail is long and sharp enough, a simple slit...can be made in the wrapper," he wrote. He advised that the "cut made with the nail should not be too wide or too deep," and suggested wetting the end of the cigar if it is a little dry in order to facilitate this method.

Coming to the apparently necessary defense of those whose use of a cigar cutter was considered effete, Davidoff wrote: "Despite the opinion of some, it is not shameful to use such an instrument, especially if it has been well-chosen. Ordinary cigar cutters, which make a round or beveled cut, are not to be condemned."

Sometimes, Davidoff warned, "you must watch that the cut is not made too deeply. Do not forget that the beveled cut produces more drawing surface than the superficial circle opening." Regardless of method, he wrote, the key was that the "opening should be small, reasonable, in proportion to the cigar, and made so that an appropriate amount of smoke will be produced. The opening ought to be clean."

Alfred Dunhill advised in The Gentle Art of Smoking that while there are many ways of piercing a cigar, much "depends on the condition of the cigar." He noted: "When handling mature cigars, some smokers crack open the end by squeezing it between the finger and thumb, but unless the cigar is in excellent condition and the butt perfectly made, this can be disastrous.

"Perhaps the most satisfactory method," Dunhill wrote, "is a clean-shaped cut made by a cigar cutter, because this ensures the removal of broken leaf and provides a passage for the smoke that does not concentrate all of it upon a small area of the tongue." He suggested that tapered cigars with a pointed head should be cut "with a straight cutter or turned against the blade of a sharp knife and cut straight across." In the end, Dunhill conceded, "Some experts like to prepare cigars of every shape in the same way."

The point, as Count Mippipopolous told Hemingway's hero Jake Barnes, is that after all is said, done and clipped, the cigar should "really draw."

Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore writer and author of Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber (University of Nebraska Press).


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