3. Leaf Preparation for Cigars

a. Bringing into the case
Acquire a heavy plastic bag that is at least 24 inches wide. A gallon or 2-gallon Ziploc bag can do. At least an hour or two in advance of rolling, heavily mist one or several wrappers and binders with non-chlorinated water. The stems will absorb some of the moisture with adequate time, leaving the lamina (the part of the leaf that you will use) in medium to the high case.

Filler leaf can be stored in a low case, and always ready for cigar rolling. If it is too dry, then the day prior to rolling, lightly mist non-chlorinated water into the leaf’s storage bag, and re-close and clamp it. The added moisture will generally distribute among the leaves in the bag after 24 to 48 hours. Doing this on several different bags of filler that is too dry will give you a sense of how much to mist any particular bag of filler. You want it to be still somewhat noisy, but pliable enough not to crumble when handled or when the stem is removed.

b. Removing the stem (stemming)

For both wrapper and binder, the central vein, or leaf stem, must be removed prior to their use in binding or wrapping a cigar. The leaf should be in the case. It will crack and tear if too dry. The simplest and most reliable method of stemming that will not risk significant tearing of the wrapper or binder is to turn the leaf so that the tip is toward you, and the underside of the leaf (generally a lighter color than the upper surface, and always with more prominent or visible veins) facing upward. Fold the leaf in half along the stem. About one to two inches from the leaf tip, firmly grasp the folded leaf alongside that portion of the stem, and with the other hand, carefully tear away the stem, extending the tear toward the leaf tip. Once this is free, move the grasping fingers away from you, still alongside the stem, to the next pair of secondary veins, and with the other hand, grasp the now thicker stem, and carefully tear it from the lamina and secondary veins that you are holding. Slowly work your way toward the butt of the stem, grasping at each pair of secondary veins, to prevent them from ripping into the lamina.

Stemming a folded leaf.

You will see in videos every manner of “expert” stemming techniques that may include wrapping the leaf rapidly about the hand, as the stem magically comes away. With practice, this can work with some varieties of leaf in certain conditions of the case, but be warned that you may or may not be happy with the outcome. And you will save only about 10 seconds per leaf if it works.

The unused halves of the wrapper and binder should be promptly returned to their bag or container so that they don’t dry out.

For filler, not as much care is required, since a broad tear into the lamina is not a fatal flaw. For filler with full-length stems, the stemming technique is the same as for wrapper or binder, with the exception that it is usually more convenient in handling the filler leaves if you retain a segment of stem at the tip-usually slightly shorter than the proposed cigar-to keep the two halves joined, and to add a bit of rigidity to the final cigar. (Stem is lower in nicotine than the leaf lamina, but burns equally well.)

Some whole leaf filler is shipped partially stemmed, in a state known as “frog-legged.” The frog-legging is performed on the premises of the tobacco producer or fermenter. In the process, the thickest half or more of the stem is removed, leaving the thinnest portion of the stem joining the two leaf halves. (Leaf from some factories are frog-legged in a tidy fashion, but other factories may ship fairly sloppy frog-legged filler.)

Filler Leaf
A frog-legged filler leaf.

If the remaining stem of a frog-legged filler leaf is longer than the intended cigar, it is usually easier on the cutting blade (tuck cutter or cigar clipper) if it does not extend all the way into the head of the cigar. A shortened stem also eliminates the possibility of a stem protruding from a cigar head when it is opened for smoking. To shorten the stem of a frog-legged leaf, again fold the leaf so that the under surface is out, tear a small area of lamina where you want to snap the stem (this makes snapping it easier if the stem is tough), snap it, then work your way toward the thicker portion of the stem. This is usually a very quick process.

For stiff stems in frog-legged leaves, select a length of stem to preserve that does not curve toward the side. You want the stem remnant to be easily embedded within the bunched leaf, and not stick a sharp end sideways, toward the binder, where it can easily puncture a hole.

c. Cutting and Trimming

1) Filler
Depending on the nature and initial length of your filler leaf, it will likely need to be shortened in some manner. The simplest approach, if you are planning to quickly hand-bunch the filler randomly, is to align the tips in one hand (say, with them pointing upward), then tear the bottom to your desired length. The remaining leaf is then aligned with the tips, compressed, then torn again to the same length. Repeat for the length of the remaining leaves. This bunch is then well compressed with both hands, prior to rolling in the binder.

With the more complex, accordion method or tube method, the filler length is cut to an appropriate length using a chaveta. Some even use a ruler or template to measure the length to cut.

2) Binder
Most binders, after removing the stem, require no trimming. If the thick ends of the remaining secondary veins appear to pose a threat of puncturing the binder as it is wrapped, then use a chaveta to cut a thin arc along that inner edge of the binder leaf, removing all the thick vein ends in the process.

3) Wrapper
If, when the wrapper half-leaf is laid out flat, a crinkled or curly outer edge remains, then trim that away with a chaveta, so that the wrapper will lay well as it is wrapped. That issue aside, an untrimmed wrapper is somewhat more difficult to lay well on the cigar, because of the excess lamina on the back edge. The wrapper strip needs to be wide enough so that, given the ring gauge of the planned cigar, there will be at least a quarter to a half-inch overlap as the bunch is wrapped.

For a cylindrical cigar (so-called parejo or parallel), no arc is required in the wrapper. So it can be trimmed as a straight strip of the leaf. (With a large wrapper leaf, the leftover leaf may be adequate to wrap another cigar, though the secondary veins will be a bit thicker in the cutaway strip.) For making a triple cap, a flag can be left attached to the wrapper strip or can be cut separately. With a triple cap, the “third” cap is the circular disk that tops the head.

For a shaped cigar (e.g. torpedo), different portions of the wrapper may require a differing arc to be trimmed. If you are using a figurado mold to produce identical figurado cigars, you may want to make a paper template of the ‘S’ shaped wrapper, once you find just the right size and arcs.

Trimmed Wrapper Parejo
Wrapper trimmed with cap flag and 3rd cap for a parejo. [MarcL]
Trimmed Wrapper Figurado
Wrapper trimmed for a figurado. [MarcL]