Cutting and Lighting

Mastering a few simple but invaluable techniques for cutting and lighting
| By The Editors | From Denzel Washington, Jan/Feb 98

Last issue we inaugurated our Cigar 101 series with a rundown of the myriad shapes, shades and sizes that make up the world of cigars. The next step on the road to aficionado status? Mastering a few simple but invaluable techniques for cutting and lighting.

Preparing to smoke a cigar can be a wonderful experience in itself. You will be spending quality time with a quality product, and it will be to your benefit to reflect upon its creation before lighting up. Unlike cigarettes, you do not simply pull out a cigar, light the tip and start puffing. First of all, almost every premium cigar has a closed head that must be cut before you can begin to smoke. Also, you would do well to use something other than a paper match for your source of ignition. There are several ways to cut a cigar, the best being what suits the individual. However, there is only one way to effectively light a cigar.


Watch the actors in old movies and you'll see that there are a host of ways to open the closed end of a cigar before smoking it. Some characters used a pocket knife to cut a neat V-shaped notch. Others used horseshoe nails as piercers. Certain film stars in tough-guy roles bit off the end and spat it out. Some people today still use these methods but, for the most part, cutting cigars has become a bit less colorful, and a bit more elegant.

The better the cigars you smoke, the more attention you'll want to pay to the cut. A bad cut will ruin a cigar.

The object of the cut is to create an ample, smooth opening for smoking without damaging the cigar's structure. With most cigars, this means cutting away part of the cap or flag leaf that closes the cigar, while leaving some of it glued around the end to keep the filler leaves together. If you are making a wedge cut or a bull's-eye cut, it means not penetrating too deeply into the cigar. You want to create a large, exposed surface of cleanly cut filler leaves that will allow equal draw from the core and the rim of the cigar.

On most cigars, you'll want to make the cut about one-sixteenth of an inch (about two millimeters) from the end. When you aren't carrying a precision measuring device, you can simply look for the shoulder--the place where the curved end of the cigar starts to straighten out--and make your cut there.

Another alternative is to make a V-shaped wedge cut in the end of the cigar. This style of cut exposes a lot of surface area and makes it easy to draw smoke through the cigar. Unfortunately, the draw is sometimes too good, and the cigar will smoke too hot. Wedge cuts are a particularly bad idea for people who tend to chew their cigars. If they chomp down hard enough while the wedge is horizontal, the opening may collapse and tear the structure of the cigar, closing off the draw.

Cutting Tools

There are a number of devices that will help you cut your cigar in a single, swift motion that minimizes the chances of tearing the wrapper. Many aficionados have several cutters, from compact wafer-thin cutters that nestle in a pocket to more massive cutters that are less likely to be misplaced.

Suggested strategy: buy yourself your first cutter and drop gift hints for the rest. Engraved initials make sure that valuable cutters find their way back to you after they have been borrowed.

Of course, you already have a set of cutters: your teeth. But there are a few drawbacks to the biting method. First, it's hard to see what you're doing. Second, your teeth aren't as sharp as a cutter's razor blade. And third, you end up with an unsightly wad of tobacco in your mouth.

Knives, on the other hand, are easy to keep sharp. But it takes great skill and very steady eyes and hands to cut cigars properly with a knife. If you do choose this method, you'll want to avoid cleansing your pocketknife with oils, which may pollute your cigar.

Piercers, sometimes called lances, are intriguing, but hard to use. If a cigar is pierced too deeply, a tunnel may form that causes the center of the cigar to burn too hot. Moreover, the area opened by piercing has two drawbacks: 1) the smoker may not get the even draw that would give him or her the full benefit of all the different leaves blended into the bunch in the cigar; 2) since tars and nicotine tend to accumulate at the openings that channel the smoke, the small hole produced by a piercer will likely concentrate these nasty substances even further, sending more of them into the smoker's mouth and air passages.

Double- and single-bladed cutters, scissors and desk-top devices are designed to make a cut across the end of the cigar. These are generally the best options.

When you are using a single-bladed cutter, the cigar should be placed against the far side of the opening--away from the blade--and the blade brought down to touch the cigar before you make the cutting stroke. This keeps the cigar properly positioned, and prevents motion that might lead to tearing or to the cut happening in the wrong place. Once the cigar is in position, cut boldly, using swift, even pressure. A true aficionado cuts like a surgeon: quickly and confidently.

With single-bladed cutters it's important to make sure the compartment that sheaths the blade doesn't fill up with bits of tobacco. This will gum up the works and impede quick, clean cuts. All cutters should be kept as sharp as possible. Note that it is more difficult to sharpen some of the smaller, more intricate cutters.

The advantage of double-bladed cutters is that the cutting proceeds from both sides simultaneously. There is less chance that the cigar wrapper will be torn as it's pushed against a dull surface. Again, the technique is to rest the cigar against a blade before clicking the cutter shut.

Special cigar-cutting scissors can make extremely clean cuts and are an elegant accessory, but they must be wielded with some care. The fit and balance of cigar scissors is important and as unique to an individual as those of golf clubs. Try a pair out before investing in them. They should balance easily in one hand so that you'll be able to hold them steady through the cutting motion while you hold a cigar in the other hand. If the handles and blades don't balance with each other when you hold them, the scissors aren't for you. Also, if the hinge is placed so that you cannot move your fingers without stretching past your hand's normal span, then try another pair.

It's worth investing in a good cutter. Remember that a bad cut will ruin a good cigar, and it doesn't take a lot of ruined cigars to add up to the cost of even a very elegant cutter.


Lighting a cigar is not like lighting the tip of a cigarette or the wick of a candle--it takes longer. Light your cigar the same way you would toast a marshmallow over a campfire--keep the cigar above and near the flame, but don't let them touch. Burning a cigar directly in a flame makes it too hot. And, as with a marshmallow, you'll want to rotate the cigar so all parts of its tip are equally heated. Be patient, and keep at it until there's a glowing ring all the way around the cigar's tip. Once the cigar is lit, gently blow on the embers to create a smooth, completely rounded ash.

Then, raise the unlit end of the cigar to your mouth and take the first puff. The question is, which way to puff? Many aficionados blow the first puff out through the cigar in order to avoid unsavory flavors such as sulfur from matches or gasses from lighters. No one, of course, should ever apply more than one outward puff.

To Relight, or Not to Relight

Some purists think that it's shameful to ever have to relight a cigar. Realistically, even the best cigars will go out on those occasions when the conversation becomes so absorbing that you forget to take a puff for a couple of minutes. It's no worse to have to relight a cigar than it is to have to fish a bit of cork out of a fine glass of wine. It will generally take you less time to relight an already-warm cigar than it does to light one for the first time.

Do not, however, intentionally let your cigar die out and then relight it the next day. This will lead to stale, harsh flavors that will ruin your fine memories of the first few puffs.

If you have to relight a cigar several times, you may have a badly rolled cigar. Premium cigars are made by hand, not by machine, and they are made from organic materials that retain much of their natural, irregular structure and character. Despite dedicated quality control efforts, a substandard cigar occasionally makes its way to the market. Don't hesitate to bring a badly rolled cigar back to your tobacconist. Most will happily replace it.

Choosing Your Flame

Never light a cigar with a flame from a source that will alter the essence of your cigar. Using a candle, for example, is a temptingly theatrical gesture, but the burning candlewax can add an odd flavor to your cigar. So can the fluid from an isobutane cigarette lighter. Many smokers also object to the sulfur used in most match tips.

If you insist on using a candle or a fluid lighter, use it to light a strip of cedar, called a spill, and use that to light the cigar. If you insist on matches, try to get extra-long, wooden sulfurless ones. If you can't find them and are using regular, short matches, be prepared to use a number of them. Be sure to let the sulfur burn off before starting the lighting process and try lighting two at a time, so you get a broader flame.

Cigar lighters are the easiest way to get an even light. What makes a lighter a cigar lighter? A cigar lighter uses odorless gas, and often "fatter" flame, or even two adjacent flame sources, and adjustable flame heights.

Cigar lighters come in a wide range of designs and materials, so it will be easy to find one that's an appropriate accessory for your sense of style. Your first requirement should, of course, be performance. A good lighter, like a good pen, should fit your hand. The cap should open easily, and swing back so the whole flame is available for lighting. *