No Matter Which Way You Slice it

pipe tobacco review Ten to MidnightWe’re getting ready to head out to Chicago for the show, but a customer made an observation earlier today which made me think that this topic would be a good one for Talking Tobacco, so I’m going to address the different cuts used in pipe tobaccos.

The main reason there are different cuts is because certain tobaccos naturally burn fast or slow, so sometimes, to get the burn you’re looking for the tobaccos might need to be cut larger or smaller to achieve to desired result, but there’s more to it than that. One of the best examples I can give is my Hearth & Home Signature Series Larry’s Blend. I made this for a gentleman who really loves Latakia, so I wanted to extract as much of the flavor as possible. Instead of using a ribbon cut, which is what is most commonly used, I used a granulated cut (fine particles) so the Latakia would burn more completely, releasing more flavor, and also burning more easily, as Latakia burns quite slowly. The only problem with this cut is that, if you pack it a little too tight, the draw will be too firm. To avoid that problem, I made sure that the rest of the tobaccos were ribbon cut, which are harder to pack too tightly.

Ribbon is the most common cut used today, but ribbon-cut tobaccos vary in width, from about 1/16″ to as wide as 1/4″. Anything approaching 3/16″ would be considered wide-cut, even though it’s technically a ribbon. Those wider cuts, if cut again to pieces about as long as they are wide are referred to a flake-cut, which is entirely different than flake tobacco. Some of my blends use flake-cut, and those are the ones that people often describe as looking like fish food. This cut is normally used on very thin leaves, because a ribbon-cut with thin leaves would burn really fast and hot. Larger pieces burn more slowly, and this comes into play for other blends.

When I developed H&H Signature’s LJ Heart Virginia, I wanted it to be an “introductory” Virginia/Perique blend. The problem with Virginias for the uninitiated is that, due to the higher sugar content, they can burn hot if smoked too fast, and newer pipe smokers have a hard time puffing slowly. So the answer was to use a chunky wide-cut Virginia, which would slow down combustion to avoid overheating.

Flakes, cakes, broken flake, plugs and Cavendish cuts are all rather similar, and in some cases, they can be identical. If you make a plug with whole leaf and then slice it, it’s a flake. If you crumble the flakes apart, it’s a broken flake (sometimes referred to as ready-rubbed). If you make a plug out of cut leaf, it’s a crumble cake, whether you cut it into slices or not. The one that’s a bit of a head-scratcher is the Cavendish-cut. Some Cavendishes are made by pressing flavored or sweetened whole-leaf into bricks which are kept under pressure for some time. After that, it’s sliced and rubbed out, so a Cavendish prepared in this way is pretty much the same as a broken flake. But some Cavendishes are made by pressing flavored tobaccos together and slicing them almost immediately, so the slices fall apart quickly, without rubbing or tumbling. To carry it even further, some Cavendishes aren’t even pressed at all; they’re just flavored pre-cut tobacco.

Tobacco that’s twisted is a rope, usually sold in solid lengths, but some companies will slice ropes into coins. A spun-cut or roll-cut looks like a rope, but it’s made by using what’s looks like a gigantic version of a hand-cigarette rolling machine. This form is almost always sliced into coins before packaging. In either case, the sliced versions are usually called coins.

All of these compressed tobaccos are made that way for a few reasons. First, the pressure marries and matures the tobaccos, Secondly, if there’s a top-dressing used, it helps to embed the flavoring into the leaf. But, to me, the greatest benefit of any pressed tobacco is that it allows the user to prepare the tobacco to suit their needs. For those who tend to smoke hot, leaving the tobacco in larger pieces will serve to slow the burn resulting in a cooler smoke. For those with good cadence, rubbing the tobacco out completely will help to coax more flavor from the blend. With flakes and sliced crumble cakes, you can cut the tobacco into small cubes, like a prepared cube-cut, which allows you to gravity feed the tobacco while keeping the burn nice and slow.

To sum up, thin cuts are best for slow-burning tobaccos (like Latakia and Burley). Larger cuts work well for tobaccos that can burn hot (like thin-leaf Virginias), and compressed cuts are best for people who tend to smoke hot. Of course, there’s a lot more to it than this, but I can only go so far before my fingers cramp up, but if you have questions, leave a comment.

About Russ

Russ Ouellette is the blender/creator of the Hearth & Home series of tobaccos for in Bethlehem, PA. He has been a pipe smoker and blender for over 30 years, and enjoys feedback from the pipe smoking public. You can reach Russ at or by calling 1-800-494-9144.