A cigarette is usually defined as smokable tobacco wrapped within a paper wrapper. At one time, every cigarette smoker knew the skill of hand-rolling shredded tobacco into a slip of paper, using his or her fingertips. Cigarettes were as thick as desired, often tapered, and as long as the available scrap of paper might allow.

With the invention of automated cigarette rolling machines during the mid-to-late nineteenth century, cigarettes acquired a set of specific dimensions. As the need to hand-roll a cigarette vanished, the notion that a cigarette should be instantly available to light became the norm.

Today, home rollers of cigarettes generally use an injection device to stuff the tobacco into a ready-made tube that is already tipped with a cigarette filter. And the tubes themselves are offered in milder or stronger versions, as well as in menthol.

1. Cigarette Tobaccos

There are only a handful of general types of tobacco that are used in most cigarettes, even though a cigarette can be made from any of the 3000 varieties of smoking tobacco, as well as Nicotiana rustica varieties.

Flue-cured or Bright Tobacco: The generic term, “bright tobacco” refers to any flue-cured tobacco. Flue-cured Virginia tobacco is usually the primary component of a cigarette blend. Since leaf harvested off different stalk positions flue-cures from brighter (at the base of the plant stalk) to darker and redder going up the stalk, flue-cured leaf is available in a range of shades. Typical ranges are from a light lemon yellow color to “red” Virginia. While the brighter (lower) leaf presents a lighter though sweeter edge, the redder leaf offers a richer aroma and a higher nicotine content. Flue-cured leaf from Canada is generally milder and lighter in color, though not as flavorful, as that from the US. This difference is mostly due to the use of milder strains of Virginia tobacco that were specifically developed in Canada.

Burley: This is a specific class of tobacco with a relatively high nicotine content, and a more alkaline smoke than flue-cured. Burley is always air-cured. It lacks the sugars of flue-cured tobacco. It is known for increasing the “throat impact” of a cigarette blend, as well as for being able to better absorb any casing solution applied to the tobacco. Burley is often the second ingredient, by weight, in an American cigarette blend, though some Canadian brands have no burley. There are nonetheless Canadian varieties of burley (e.g. Harrow Velvet) that are generally milder and lighter in color than most US burley varieties.

Maryland: Maryland class tobacco (for example, MD 609) may be substituted for some or all of the burley in a blend recipe, providing a similar nicotine concentration (higher than that of flue-cured Virginia), while not contributing a distinctive burley taste. For cased cigarette blends, Maryland tobacco has a greater tendency to hold on to the casing than does burley.

Oriental: This is a large group of milder, sun-cured tobaccos from the regions of the former Ottoman Empire. These are sometimes referred to simply as “Turkish”. As a group, they are low in nicotine, relatively sweet, and often mildly floral in aroma. In typical American cigarette blends, an Oriental makes up around 10% of the tobacco. Camel cigarettes traditionally contained Samsun as their Oriental component, while others use or used the milder, Basma types. including Xanthi and Izmir. Prilep is a unique, sweet, Basma-like leaf developed in Prilep, Northern Macedonia.

Perique: A small portion of deep brown, pressure-cured perique will nudge up the apparent strength of a cigarette. It does this by raising the pH (reducing the acidity) of the smoke. At least one commercial cigarette brand adds perique to their blend.

Rustica: Nicotiana rustica is a different species than common smoking tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum). It tends to be harsher and generally a lot higher in nicotine. Commercial cigarette blends with rustica are not uncommon in Russia and Eastern Europe.

2. Cigarette Types

American Cigarettes: All American type cigarettes contain flue-cured tobacco as their primary tobacco ingredient. Flue-cured Virginias range from 30% to about 80%. Most also contain burley at about a third or less, with the strongest cigarettes containing the most burley. Forty or higher percent is not unusual. The burley may be subjected to toasting, a process that lightly caramelizes some of the scant sugars of burley, but decreases its harshness. The third ingredient frequently found in American cigarettes is one of the Orientals.
A typical recipe might be:

  • 60% - Flue-cured Virginia
  • 30% - Burley
  • 10% - Oriental

It’s worth noting that American brand cigarettes have swept away many traditional, regional and national brands of cigarettes throughout the world. But often, these “American brands” are manufactured outside of the US, using ingredients from other sources, and in some cases, scarcely resemble their American prototypes. (Over 50% of cigarette smokers in Mexico say that they regularly smoke American brands.)

Canadian Cigarettes: Traditionally, Canadian cigarettes are mostly, if not entirely composed of flue-cured Virginia tobacco, grown in Canada. Orientals may also appear, but burley is seldom found in the blends.

Western European Cigarettes: Many western European cigarettes are notably stronger than American cigarettes. Some may contain fire-cured tobacco. Dunhill’s most popular cigarette is 100% Virginia, while the now extinct Balkan Sobranie cigarettes contained a portion of Latakia.

Eastern European Cigarettes: Some of these are quite potent, due to their content of rustica tobacco. They may contain stronger Orientals, as well as one of the imponderable variety of so-called Hungarian tobaccos. Most contain some burley, and may be predominantly flue-cured Virginia.

Turkish Cigarettes: Pure Turkish cigarette may contain high proportions of Oriental tobacco. Some of their famous brands would use 100% of a single Turkish varietal.

3. Shredding

Most home-rollers of cigarettes tend to make up 20 or more cigarettes at a time. This places a time demand on tobacco shredding tasks. In addition, most prefer a fine or very fine tobacco shred, which is not practical using scissors, a knife or a chaveta. So some form of mechanical shredder is required. Given the demand that will be placed on a shredder, purchasing a purpose designed shredder is more cost effective than attempting to get by with a pasta shredder or paper shredder, neither of which are designed for the unique challenge of shredding whole leaf tobacco. One can certainly just allow tobacco leaf to go out of case, then shatter it into “flakes” with a food processor or similar kitchen tool, but you end up with random flake size, and an awful lot of dust (that used to be the fine quality tobacco leaf that you paid for).

Mechanical tobacco shredders come in two general categories: electric and hand-cranked. The latter can sometimes be fitted to a variable speed, hand-held drill to power it.

Electric shredders are the least hassle, though their switches etc. do eventually require replacement, either at the factory, or at home, with components purchased from the factory. Repair at home requires some skill with managing shaft bearings of different kinds, as well as wiring and other electrical matters. These shredders typically produce a shred of 0.8 mm width or somewhat finer. They typically shred faster than the user can stem leaf to feed into it.

The crank shredders come in “budget” and “heavy duty” models, with a shred width of 0.8 mm or a wide shred of 1.5 mm. They are designed to be clamped onto the edge of a table, counter or shelf for use.

WLT heavy-duty manual shredder. WLT heavy-duty manual shredder.

With all shredders, the leaf fed into them needs to be stemmed—the hard, central vein removed to within a couple of inches of the leaf tip. For Oriental leaf, their diminutive stems do not need to be removed prior to shredding. While the shredders can eat stems on occasion, it deposits sharpened chunks of stem into your shred, and significantly shortens the lifespan of the shredder (both blades and bearings).

Ideally, leaf to be stemmed and shredded is in low case (somewhat noisy, but does not crumble when handled). Drier leaf (out of case) will shatter while being stemmed, and while being shredded. Moister leaf may shred well, but will more rapidly gum up the cutting blades.

For all shredders, the mechanism should be turned in reverse after a shredding session, to remove some of the particulates that have adhered to the blades. Some users regularly finish up with a dose of vodka or beer into the cutters, to clean them. Instead, use hot water to clean the shredder cutters followed immediately by thoroughly drying the shredder using a hair dryer. An additional approach is to follow the tobacco shredding session with shredding some stiff, bright white paper—the color being useful in making sure all the paper is cleaned from the cutters prior to next use. [Heavily finished copy paper contains a coating of rolled clay that may come off in the cutters.]

4. Stuffing or Rolling

Hand rolling with individual cigarette papers is the same as it has been for the last 150 years or longer. The paper is held lengthwise between the fingers of both hands, with the gum up on the more distant side. A ‘U’ shaped trough is created, and held by the fingers of one hand, while the tobacco shred is piled and distributed along the trough. The gum edge should now be at the top, inside surface of the trough that faces you. It is licked, and the trough gently closed into a tight cylinder. This takes a bit of practice, though not much, If you are not concerned about having a perfectly cylindrical cigarette, one or both ends can be tapered, and glued that way with the gummed edge. Search the Web for “hand roll cigarette” for videos.

Cigarette Roller WLT PowerMatic 1-plus injector.

Although it is possible to hand-roll a cigarette with a separately inserted filter at the head, filter cigarettes are usually made using pre-manufactured “tubes” that already include a filter. A cigarette stuffer (entirely mechanical or an electrified one) pushes a pre-measured quantity of your shred into the foot end of the tube, and against the interior surface of the filter.

A third option is a sliding-mat or rolling mat type of manual cigarette roller (based on the Lieberman cigar rolling device). These can easily accommodate a separate filter, and use standard cigarette papers. They come in simple, cheap, plastic, all the way to elaborate, hand-crafted devices more suitable for a coffee table.

5. Approaches to Cigarette Blending

The exact blend of any particular cigarette brand is truly a moving target. Well recognized brands subtly alter their blend intentionally, from time to time. In addition, the crop years, sourcing of the leaf, location of the factory and other factors contribute to considerable variation geographically as well as over time. And similar variations will likewise influence your own blending results. While the massive scale of tobacco acquisition and use by a factory provides something of a buffer to noticeable change, the same is not the case for a home-roller, given the relatively minuscule scale of production by an individual roller.

Traditional European Style Cigarette blend from FmGrowit, of the Fair Trade Tobacco Forum and WLT.

  • 120 grams Bright Virginia
  • 40 grams Red Virginia
  • 40 grams Lemon Virginia
  • 90 grams Fire cured
  • 160 gams Maryland 609
  • A casing spray is often added.

Traditional American Style Cigarette blendfrom FmGrowit, of the Fair Trade Tobacco Forum and WLT.

  • 115 gams Bright Virginia
  • 115 gams Red Virginia
  • 160 grams Maryland
  • 90 grams Turkish
  • A casing spray is often added.

a. Strength
The apparent “strength” of a cigarette blend can be increased by a larger proportion of burley (or Maryland) leaf, and decreased by a larger proportion of flue-cured. Increasing the flue-cured component will increase tip-of-the-tongue bite. An Oriental component may also be used to decrease the apparent strength, while not having as much impact on tongue bite as flue-cured. Increasing the burley component will increase what is described as “throat hit”. Adding a bit of perique to the blend will notably increase nicotine absorption by the body, but make the smoke harsher in the throat and trachea. Fire-cured tobacco will contribute both strength and a smokiness. These are factors that a home-roller can adjust while attempting to identify an “ideal” blend for his or her taste.

b. Casings
WLT offers a number of different tobacco casings, shipped in a small spray bottle, for application to leaf after shredding. Each type is specifically crafted for use on particular categories of tobacco, such as air-cured, flue-cured and more general blends of leaf. After stemming and shredding, the casing is misted onto the shred, then allowed to dry-down to a moisture level suitable for use, prior to storing or rolling it.

c. Tubes
Tobacco stuffing tubes, usually with a filter already attached, typically come in boxes of 200 tubes, some with menthol added, each with differing tip color and decoration.

d. Selecting and using WLT cigarette blend kits
WLT offers a variety of “whole leaf blends” for cigarettes. They range from very full-bodied American cigarette styles, to milder ones, as well as a Virginia-forward blend. There are two Turkish-style blends, one of which mirrors some varietal blends manufactured in Turkey. A Balkan blend is also available.

If you want to see just how fine whole leaf tobacco can be, when made into home-rolled cigarettes, one or several of these blend kits will be a revelation. A one pound bag of a blend should be stemmed, shredded, then thoroughly mixed, prior to rolling. If casing is included, try it first on a small portion of the blended tobacco, to help you decide whether or not to use it on the remainder. One of the WLT Cigarette Blends Kits will yield approximately 2 cartons of cigarettes.

e. Storing Cigarette Tobacco
If you shred more cigarette tobacco than you plan to use immediately, it should be stored in a food-safe, vapor-proof container. Although polyethylene bags are not vapor-proof, using a “freezer” bag inside another “freezer” bag is reasonably effective. Single plastic bags can also be stored within a plastic tub with a good seal, or even in 5-gallon plastic buckets, with the lid snapped on.

Storing the tobacco in the bags in which the was received is a very good option to storing the tobacco, shredded or otherwise.

Shredded tobacco should not be stored in high case (anything near damp), or it will mold. If it is stored very dry, then mist it with non-chlorinated water, and allow it to relax, prior to use.