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Molding the Future of Cigars

A small company in Pennsylvania plays a major role in the cigar-making process
Gregory Mottola
From the Print Edition:
Dennis Haysbert, Nov/Dec 2006

Just outside of Pennsylvania's historic Gettysburg battlefield, amid an endless landscape of cornfields and pastures, a small machining operation sits in a blue-collar, brick-and-mortar hamlet called Abbottstown. The exterior of the plant is unassuming, even quite forgettable. One would never guess that this modest company has been credited with significantly buttressing the legendary cigar boom of the 1990s, as well as revolutionizing the way cigars are made.

The company is BLH Industries Inc., and it produces precision-machined, plastic cigar molds, key components in the production of handmade cigars. BLH makes the molds so rapidly and so accurately that few cigar factories use anything else.

Every cigar enthusiast has seen the warm and rustic images of the cigarmaker at work, surrounded by uncut cigars, piles of tobacco and charming wooden cigar molds. Wood had been the material of choice since molds were first introduced about a century and a half ago, and wooden molds are still produced today.

Cigar molds play an integral part in making a cigar round. Once a cigarmaker has bunched together a selection of filler leaves, he then wraps the filler with a tobacco binder to form the cigar's core, known as the bunch. The maker then places the unfinished bunch in one of the 10 troughs within the bottom half of a cigar mold. The trough determines the shape of the cigar, keeping it round and uniform. When all the troughs are full, the upper half of the mold is placed firmly on top, compressing the cigars. The two pieces of the mold fit together perfectly and are secured by pegs. A collection of molds are typically stacked together and put beneath a clamp, screw or hydraulic press, which applies added pressure to them. The cigars generally sit in the molds for anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour before a worker removes the top halves and rotates the cigars within their slots. (Skipping this step can leave mold marks, seams, bumps or other imperfections that might show up on the finished cigars.) Then the top halves of the molds are put back on, and the pressing continues for another half hour to an hour or so. After the roller is confident that the bunches have taken shape, they are removed from the molds and given to a roller, who applies the wrapper leaf.

As pleasantly nostalgic as old-world wooden molds may seem, they are flawed in a number of ways. Warping, cracks, splintering and accumulation of tobacco gunk in the slots are common, and these imperfections will often tear the binder leaf when the bunches are rotated or removed, rendering the cigar damaged or sometimes unusable. Wooden molds also take a very long time to produce, as well as to repair. For much of the past 150 years, however, these pitfalls were accepted with resignation: the molds were an age-old part of cigar factories that went virtually unchanged until Barry Herbst, founder of BLH Industries, took an interest.

JUST ONE WORD: PLASTICS
It's the driving force of any engineer, or anyone with an engineer's mind—the desire to take an object or process that merely functions and make it work better. In the late 1980s, Herbst, an enthusiastic and prolific cigar smoker with a background in plastics engineering, sought to do both.

In an antique shop one day, Herbst came across a long retired wooden cigar mold. Intrigued by the design and materials, he wondered if he could improve upon them. Shortly after, Herbst drafted three prototypes of a cigar mold made of a high-density polyethylene, keeping durability in mind. What he created was a plastic mold with the strength of between 600,000 and 900,000 molecules per square inch of material—in layman's terms, that means the mold should still be around long after we've turned to dust.

Along with strength, Herbst hoped to add precision and consistency, so he turned to sheets of high-density polyethylene specially conditioned to never warp during machining. "There's a lot of energy in plastic, which is why it warps," says Herbst, who says his plastic "goes through a few special cycles to make sure that it maintains its integrity during machining."

That machining involves high-tech equipment. Computer Aided Design (CAD) software is used to create the cigar shapes, which can be quite elaborate. The plastic stock is cut into shear plastic slabs a little more than an inch thick and fed into a Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machine, which produces complex 3-D structures and contours with ease—perfect for making the curves on complex figurado cigars. The machine carves forms with precision down to one-hundred thousandth of an inch.

Machining one side of a mold takes about 20 to 30 minutes, but highly complex shapes can take up to an hour. Once complete, the rough edges are smoothed out by hand by a worker using a deburring tool, followed by a light passing of a torch. When both halves of the plastic mold are finished and fitted together, the end result is a dense, weighty unit that appears sleek and futuristic, evoking nothing of the old-world sentiments associated with cigar making. These sheer black slabs must've no doubt seemed alien at first in a cigar factory, even Kubrickian. An offense to the familiar, if not romanticized mise-en-scène.


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