Molding the Future of Cigars

A small company in Pennsylvania plays a major role in the cigar-making process
| By Gregory Mottola | From Dennis Haysbert, Nov/Dec 2006
Molding the Future of Cigars

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.

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.

The cigar world, steeped in tradition, was a tough sell for Herbst. "The industry was so old-fashioned and set in their ways, that no one wanted to use a different material," he recalls, puffing on one of his ever-present Arturo Fuente 8-5-8s. But once people began to see the consistency of each mold, the absence of wear and tear, and the ease of creating unorthodox shapes, some grudgingly conceded to the notion that change might be good.

Fan and customer Carlos Fuente Jr. (second from left) looks over a selection of molds at BLH Industries with founder Barry Herbst (far left), machinist Jamie Stanton and vice president Kay Herbst.

Herbst's first major order was from Consolidated Cigar Corp. (now part of Altadis U.S.A. Inc.), which ordered 50 molds in 1989. Consolidated soon placed a second order for 200 more, and today the company is one of Herbst's biggest customers.

"We have converted to all plastic molds," says Jose Seijas, the general manager and vice president of Tabacalera de Garcia Ltd. in the Dominican Republic, Altadis U.S.A.'s largest cigar factory. "I look at any change in cigar making with a careful eye, but we have always been willing to try new things with potential."

In the early 1990s, at one of Cigar Aficionado's Big Smokes, Herbst approached Carlos Fuente Jr., president of Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia., and showed him a sample of his molds, which Fuente carefully inspected.

"How many kids do you have, Barry?" Fuente asked. "Because you are going to need someone to pass all your wealth down to." A few days later, Fuente ordered 50 molds, and he has been buying from BLH ever since.

"General Cigar was the last company I had to solicit," says Herbst. "After General, they all started coming to me." Today, production at BLH is a brisk 11,000 to 16,000 molds per year.

One notable patriarch who remains unconvinced and absolutely refuses to switch to plastic is Rolando Reyes Sr., founder of Puros Indios Cigars. Trained in Cuba, he is a master of uncommon shapes such as the diadema, and will not craft his cigars with a plastic mold. When he rolls a cigar himself, Reyes doesn't use any mold at all, but if his cigar rollers need a mold to make a shape, he lets them use only wooden ones.

"He is totally against plastic molds," says Carlos Diez, Reyes' grandson and vice president of Puros Indios, which is headquartered in Miami. "The way he sees it, he learned in Cuba and they used wood, and he's not changing his tradition for anyone."

Camacho Cigars, another Miami company that makes cigars by hand in Honduras, is another operation not sold on polyethylene.

"One of the reasons we didn't make the switch was because my factory guys were intimidated, I think. Fear of change," says Christian Eiroa, president of the company. "Another reason is because the plastic molds don't have the give that the wood molds do. If the mold is too rigid, the cigars will be packed too tight and they won't draw. I just didn't want to push it on them." Eiroa added that if he saw a strong enough justification, he'd consider making the change.

Ironically, when wooden molds were first introduced, they were considered cutting-edge technology and were greeted with the same skepticism as plastic molds are now. True disciples of the handmade method formed the bunch and then wrapped it in a piece of paper, squeezing the bunch into its shape. To these artisans of the 1800s, a cigar that was formed in a wooden mold was not truly handmade.

New York City labor union leader Sam Gompers also opposed the advent of the cigar mold around the time of the Civil War. He was convinced that molds would render a cigar too easy and inexpensive to make, not only putting the skilled veteran cigarmaker out of work, but lowering the wages of cigarmakers across the industry. In 1869, Gompers supported a strike against the scandalous molds and lost. He later mused in a memoir: "From that time I began to realize the futility of opposing progress."

The cigar boom of the mid to late 1990s was a period when America's demand for cigars was at a near frenzy. Those who were not yet smoking during the boom have certainly heard retailers and manufacturers reminisce about the period in almost messianic terms, when premium cigar sales in the United States nearly quadrupled between 1992 and 1997. People speak often about the increased amounts of tobacco it took to supply such a boom, but few realize that the demand for so many more millions of cigars also required tremendous numbers of cigar molds on the factory floor delivered in record time.

"If it wasn't for Barry, there would've been no cigar boom," says Fuente Jr., who maintains that only an operation with BLH's turnaround speed could have supported the extreme demand for cigar molds. During the boom, BLH was putting out 1,000 molds per week—light years ahead of a wood mold operation. (In the company's first five years of business, before its machines were computerized, all plastic molds were created from manual machines, making it very difficult to fulfill increasing orders. One thousand plastic molds before computerization would have taken months to produce.) In Herbst's and Fuente's estimation, it would have been mathematically impossible for any wood mold operation to even remotely have kept up with the demand for cigars during the boom.

BLH is primarily a husband-and-wife team. Kay Herbst, vice president of the company, takes many of the orders herself, does the company books and orders raw materials. The shop itself is small and simple: two CNC machines sit among piles of stock polyethylene and stacks of finished molds. There are a few well-lit workbenches and plenty of room to walk. One of BLH's old manual machines broods in a far corner—it looks as archaic as it probably is, yet it maintains a certain dignity.

Along with a few machinists and a few shop hands, this modest operation manages to provide almost every major cigar company today with molds. Most of the perfecto shapes that are found in the market took their form in one of the company's plastic molds. More unique varieties like the La Flor Dominicana Chisel, La Aurora Preferidos and Arturo Fuente Hemingway are part of BLH's portfolio, but the company also produces molds for Padrón Cigar Inc.'s regular line, as well as for the majority of General Cigar Co. and Altadis U.S.A. products.

BLH has become such a name in the industry that, according to Herbst, he has even been approached by representatives from Cuba, promising to make all transactions in cold cash. (Herbst refused.) He's waiting out the end of the U.S. embargo against Cuba with the same bated breath as everyone else, and has a strong suspicion that if sanctions were lifted, it would probably mean business would double overnight. And perhaps bring an increase in competition.

For now, BLH has little. Herbst insists that he was the industry innovator, and his list of clients suggests that this is true, but in either case BLH still owns the lion's share of the plastic cigar mold business.

"I've been very lucky so far in that respect," says Herbst.

Herbst believes that plastic molds have displaced wood in most cigar factories. If he's correct, then where does that leave the future of the wooden mold? A good number of them still come out of a factory in Tampa, Florida, called Justo Fulgueiras & Son Manufacturing Co., located in Ybor City. The family-run company has been making wood molds for almost 100 years, but in 1995 incorporated plastic into its production line. Today, the plastic molds account for most of its output. According to general manager David Lay, Justo Fulgueiras produces 4,000 to 5,000 molds a year, only 500 of which are wood. "Wood molds go mostly to the smaller factories," says Lay.

The initial sticker shock of a plastic mold could be a deterrent to those smaller factories. Plastic molds can cost twice as much as wooden ones, as the raw materials for plastic molds cost more than wood, although the man-hours required to assemble, glue and care for the wooden molds are greater.

Despite the growing appeal of plastic molds, Lay believes that the need for traditional molds will never die. "I think that wood molds will always be around," he says.

Herbst continues to push the technological envelope. He is working on a patented mold design called the Single Press Mold. If successful, it will eliminate the need to rotate a cigar within the mold's slot, cutting pressing time in half, says Herbst. He's been told that such an undertaking is simply not possible, but he claims he's almost there. Time will tell.

As for wooden molds, strangely enough, many can be found right in Abbottstown. The area is known for its wonderful antiquing, and even has a little cigar-making history of its own. Any of the town's stone-and-mortar antique shops are bound to have one.