The Burning Question: Burn Issues in Cigars
by Walt White
Revised Friday, November 25, 2011
Premium cigars are a work of art. A hand-rolled cigar goes through many processes and many people will be involved in producing the fine smoke that you and I will eventually enjoy. Of course, not every cigar will attain to the perfection that was intended by the team of people who produced it. The goal of this article is to try and help those who, like myself, want to know the reason for many common burn issues. Issues such as tunneling, canoeing, runners, and the many other issues we face from time to time.
Below: An excellent burn with a consistent ash and thin black burn line
Imagine yourself leaving work after a very long and stressful day. As you make your way home, you start thinking about a particular cigar you had your eye on over the last few days. This cigar may have been a gift by a dear friend, or even something you picked up on a whim. The closer you get to home the more your curiosity climbs until you finally decide that tonight you are going to light up that cigar and let your stress melt away.
As you walk through the door, there is complete
silence. The kids are spending the night at a relative’s
house and your significant other isn’t due home for a few
more hours. You decide to take advantage of the quiet time
and retrieve that special cigar.
As you nestle back into your smoking spot you begin to toast the foot of your cigar. Slowly the foot turns dark and smoke begins to float off of the burning end. After a few gentle puffs, your cigar is glowing cherry red and your stress begins to disappear.
The situation described above is a rarity for me, but I look forward to every chance I get to enjoy a fine cigar in a quiet and peaceful environment. A great smoke allows me to relax enough to forget about the stresses of the day and to enjoy some quality “me time.”
While I am enjoying my quiet time with my cigar, I often get caught up in the way the cigar is burning. Lately I have been fascinated by the way my cigar burns and often wonder what makes my cigar burn even and under control sometimes, while at other times I experience a bad burning cigar.
As with any great hobby, I often find myself reading everything I can get my hands on, but when it comes to finding information on why my cigar is behaving the way it is, I am shocked at how difficult it is to find a specific reason for any given burn problem.
What does a bad burn look like and how do I avoid it?
Proper Lighting Technique
A bad burn has many different characteristics, the most common being a minor variation in the burn line. This generic form of a bad burn is characterized by a variation in the burn line of more than three eighths (3/8) of an inch. This specific figure is used because an absolute perfect burn is an incredibly rare find in a hand rolled organic product such as a cigar. Often times a variation of under three eighths of an inch will correct itself and become more even over a short period of time.
Below: Avoid burn issues by properly lighting your cigar
A bad burn line is likely caused by rushing through the initial lighting stages. The most critical part of cigar smoking is touching your preferred flame to the bare foot of your cigar for the first time.
Many times, an uneven burn can be avoided by simply taking care while toasting the foot of your cigar. To obtain a proper toast, hold your cigar between your thumb and middle finger while keeping the palm of your hand at a forty five degree angle to the floor. With your opposite hand, ignite your lighter and slowly bring the flame closer to the foot of the cigar. As you slowly move the flame closer to the foot, watch for any discoloration or smoke coming from the foot of the cigar. Once the foot of the cigar begins to emit a small amount of smoke, stop moving the flame towards your cigar. Usually, the flame tip will be just touching the foot or a slight distance away from the foot. Once the flame is at the correct distance from the foot, slowly begin rotating the cigar between your thumb and middle finger. This will help you to avoid overheating a single spot of the foot. (You may alternately choose to move the flame in a circular motion around the foot of the cigar.) As you rotate the cigar slowly, move the lighter with a minor wrist movement to evenly darken the foot of your cigar. You will know to extinguish your flame when the foot of the cigar is uniformly darkened and you have a thin glowing burn-ring around foot portion of the wrapper.
Now that the cigar is properly toasted, place the head of the cigar in your mouth and repeat the toasting process as you take gentle puffs. Be sure to rotate the cigar in your mouth as you puff; this will help with an even light. When you feel that the cigar is evenly lit remove if from your mouth and gently blow on the foot to see if you do, in fact, have an even burn around the rim of the foot. If the cigar is not evenly lit, place it back in your mouth and repeat the lighting process until you are satisfied with the burn. By taking the time to properly light your cigar you will greatly reduce the chances of encountering more severe burn issues.
In some cases, even after great care is taken to properly light your cigar, you will still develop burn problems with your cigar. One example of this would be an erratic burn due to wind. In most cases this is caused by smoking outdoors in windy conditions. As you puff on your cigar, wind blows along one side which will cause increased combustion.
Another form of burn variation can be caused by uneven humidity throughout the cigar. Often times this happens when a naked cigar (one without cellophane) is placed directly against another surface that is moist or has increased humidity. As the wrapper comes into contact with this surface it acts much like sponge, pulling the extra moisture from the surface and wicking it into the inner tobaccos. When this cigar is lit, the more humid (i.e., moist) side of the cigar burns much slower than the dryer side. This causes a burn variation much like one caused by wind.
In some cases a burn problem can be the direct result of poor rolling. This type of problem is most common when cigars are rolled by apprentice rollers. These rollers may sometimes roll the tobacco too loose, or too tight which will not only cause draw problems, but a variation in combustion. If this type of burn problem is suspected, pay close attention to the draw. If the draws seems to vary from tight to loose, or vice versa, the tobacco could be rolled poorly and result in uneven combustion.
These types of burn problems, can sometimes be corrected by "touching up" the burn. Touching up a cigar is much like the initial toasting, but you only want to light the slow burning side of the cigar. If you take your time and avoid over puffing while touching up the burn, the slow burning side will begin to burn slightly faster. Over time, this can greatly increase the chances of the slow burning side catching up with the fast side, thus correcting your burn problem. If you have a tight draw and/or a plugged cigar, you can often use cigar draw correction tools to restore a good draw.
At this point you should feel confident in your ability to distinguish a good burn from a problematic one. In addition, you should feel comfortable in your ability to properly light a cigar and correct some of the more common burn problems.
More Serious Burn Problems
On occasion you may find yourself in a bit of a predicament due to a bad burn turning severe. Some of these severe burn problems can be prevented if caught early, but to catch one early, you must first understand what to look for and how to correct what you see.
Of the severe burn problems, the most common is probably what is referred to as a “canoe” or described as “canoeing.” This type of burn problem is when the burn line of your cigar gets out of control and burns deep into one side of the body. As shown in the photo below, you can see that it appears as though the cigar was split in half across the diameter, and only allowed to burn on one side.
Below: A developing “canoe”
A canoe can sometimes be caught early by paying attention to the appearance of the burn line. A proper burn line should be thin and even all the way around the circumference of the cigar. An early sign of the canoe is a burn line that becomes irregular and wide on one part of the cigar. This generally means that the cigar is heating up unevenly and there is a chance that one side will begin to combust at a faster rate. When this faster combustion occurs, the binder and wrapper will begin to burn away on the hotter side while the burn remains slow on the opposing side.
To prevent a canoe in this type of situation, try slowing down your rate of smoking. Take extra care to puff lightly and less frequently. Doing this will allow the over-heated side of the cigar to cool which will, in turn, allow the burn to even up across the foot of the cigar. If the correction is slow going, you may want to consider touching up one side (as described previously) to accelerate the slower burning side of the cigar.
If you find yourself victim to a canoe, which is too far gone to correct by slowing down your rate of smoking, you can set the cigar down and allow it to go out. Once the cigar is cooled and completely unlit, use a guillotine style cutter to clip the foot of the cigar so that you have an even starting point once again. Once clipped, place the cigar in your mouth and gently exhale through the cigar to help exhaust any foul chemical flavors that may be lingering due to partially combusted tobacco. After purging, begin the toasting and lighting process once again so that you may continue to enjoy your fine cigar.
When tunneling occurs it can best be described as though a fuse was lit down the center of your cigar, burning away the core and leaving the exterior intact. The filler (or core) of your cigar is slowly burned from the inside out. As this tunneling occurs, the ash within the center falls out leaving what appears to be a hole or void within the body of your cigar.
This type of burn problem is common for slow smokers. When
the cigar is left sitting in the ashtray, or not puffed
frequently enough, the burning foot of the cigar partially
goes out. As the outer part of the foot goes out first, the
filler is left smoldering. The smoldering filler slowly continues
to burn throughout the length of the body. As more infrequent
puffs are taken, the filler is kept lit while the binder
and wrapper remain cool and unburned. Finally, when the smoker
becomes bothered by the lack of smoke volume, the cigar gets
tapped on the ashtray and the burned away filler falls revealing
a tunnel throughout the core of the cigar.
Above: tunneling burns away the core of the cigar
Below: Cross section of a badly tunneling cigar when ash has been clipped away
A common sign of this type of problem is a gradual lack of smoke while puffing. In addition to the lack of smoke, the ash will cease to progress down the cigar. To remedy a tunnel, the easiest thing to do is immediately touch up the foot and begin to smoke at a slightly faster rate. A purge is also recommended at this point as the partially burnt tobacco may begin to leave an unenjoyable flavor on your palate.
Just like a canoe that is too far gone, you can allow the cigar to cool and go out, then clip and re-light the foot to resume your smoke.
“Coning” is the opposite of tunneling and presents itself as a sharp spike or peak protruding from the foot of the cigar. This is a burn problem that is common among those that enjoy smoking at an accelerated pace. As the cigar is puffed frequently, the dense filler begins to heat up and is not allowed adequate time to properly cool. As this happens, the binder and wrapper are burnt away by a sort of super heated bunch of filler. Because this mass of filler stays hot and burns slower than its surrounding tobacco, it remains on the foot and protrudes away from the binder and wrapper. Of course, tobacco that is course, dense, and full of resins (like ligero) will accentuate this problem since it does not burn as readily as other types of tobacco.
A common sign that coning may be occurring is a gradual harshness of the smoke. As the filler becomes overheated the tobacco surrounding it also becomes overly hot and has a tendency to produce hot and undesirable flavors.
Once it is determined that you are experiencing coning, it is recommended that the cigar be set down and allowed to cool for a few minutes. After the filler cools, smoking can resume, but be sure to resume at a much slower rate. This will allow the filler stay somewhat cool and catch up to the burn rate of the binder and wrapper.
Another way to help prevent coning is to allow the ash to remain on the foot of the cigar until it appears as though it is going to drop off. This will help to keep the foot cool by limiting airflow into the burning filler, which in turn slows down combustion.
Of all the serious burn problems, “runners” have the most potential to destroy a cigar in a matter of minutes. When a runner occurs there is a dramatic change in the burn line and generally appears to take off down one part of the cigar.
Below: a “Runner” creeps up the side of a cigar
In many cases, when a runner occurs it is due to a heavy vein in the wrapper. When this heavy vein begins to burn, it acts much like a fuse and begins to burn down the length of the cigar, destroying the wrapper as it burns. The best way to picture it would be to imagine unzipping your coat. As the zipper comes undone and travels down your coat, it moves in a predictable line and as it passes it opens the portion of the coat above it. In the case of the cigar the predicable path would be a heavy vein. As it burns down the vein, the wrapper pulls itself apart leaving a large hole where the binder will begin to show.
Often times people will categorize an off center tunnel as a runner. In this case, a tunnel begins to form off center and close to the wrapper of the cigar. As the tunnel worsens and the heat is increased, a hole will appear in your cigar, often times within an inch of the burn line [see article on The Mouse-Hole Burn]. At first glance this will appear as a small hole in the wrapper and will quickly progress into a much larger hole resulting in the same effect as a runner. You will be left with a large opening in the wrapper exposing the binder and filler.
If you find yourself victim to a runner caused by a tunnel, the best course of action would be to let the cigar cool, then clip and re-light the cigar as mentioned above. If your runner is caused by a vein the first thing to do is wet the tip of your finger and apply a small amount of saliva to the vein in question. This will help to slow the exaggerated burn and hopefully stop it in its tracks. If the added moisture does not help, look to see if the vein shows any signs of getting smaller or stopping, if this is the case continue smoking with hopes that the runner will stop before destroying too much of your cigar.
It is often very difficult to tell if and when a runner will occur in a cigar. In fact, as I have been writing this article I have been smoking cigars with very large veins just so that I may possibly catch a picture of a runner in progress. I was unable to attain a picture of runner, which simply goes to show that, just because a cigar has large veins, there is no guarantee that they will cause burn problems.
At this juncture in the article you should now feel very comfortable diagnosing and dealing with burn problems ranging from simple to serious. The most important thing to remember when handling burn problems, regardless of their complexity, is to take your time in diagnosing and be patient when attempting to correct the issue at hand.
Nuisances While Smoking
Now that you have a grasp of what causes burn problems and how to correct them, I would like to briefly discuss a few burn nuisances. While these generally do not cause major problems, they can become increasingly irritating as they are experienced.
Below: A blistered wrapper
On occasion while smoking your cigar you may notice some bubbling or blistering at the burn line. While this generally does not lead to significant burn problems, it is an unattractive result of an over humidified cigar. When a cigar is over humidified the intense heat from the burning tobacco will sometimes flash boil the excess humidity residing in your cigar. As this water turns into vapor it expands causing the wrapper and binder to swell.
When the wrapper and binder begin to swell it causes a few different types of issues. The most common being small cracks in the wrapper due to the rapid expansion of the tobacco. This generally happens to tobacco that is fragile, such as a Cameroon wrapper leaf. When this type of expansion occurs in a wrapper that is a little tougher, such as Connecticut Shade, the leaf will expand but not crack. The result is minor bubbling or blistering of the tobacco.
The easiest way to correct a problem such as this is to slow down the rate at which you smoke. This will allow the excess moisture to turn to steam at a slower rate, which will ultimately cause the tobacco to swell slower.
Outside of cosmetic problems, an over humidified cigar can lead to your cigar being difficult to keep lit. For me personally, this is the most aggravating of the cigar nuisances. Due to the excess water residing in the cigar, the burn turns to a sort of smolder. This will lead to the tobacco constantly going out, especially if you slow your smoking rate to compensate for other problems such as cracking or blistering. There is nothing worse than having to relight a cigar every few minutes or sucking the life out of it, just to keep it lit. To correct this type of problem you must pay very close attention to the burn line. Try to find the proper rate of smoking so that your cigar will stay lit and not damage the wrapper as it burns.
To avoid overhumidified cigars the best thing to do is to keep a watchful eye on your humidor’s relative humidity level. By keeping your cigars at a constant relative humidity (%RH), in a range between 65–70%RH, you can solve many of these problems before they have a chance to develop.
Of course, it is possible that your cigar has been rolled with too much tobacco and has become tight or plugged, which will worsen the effects of excess humidity. In that case, you can often salvage a plugged or tight-drawing cigar by using a draw correction tool.
In the end, it may end up being less stressful and easier to simply pitch the cigar and grab a new one. However, the tips I have listed above may save you some aggravation and money by helping you to correct common burn issues and still enjoy your smoke.
Wrapping Things Up
First and foremost, I hope that you have enjoyed reading this article as much as I enjoyed writing it. The purpose of taking the time to create a list of burn problems and fixes was due to the lack of resources I have found on the topic.
As a fairly new cigar enthusiast, I often found myself in search of answers to these burning questions. My results were often found in brief “FAQ” (Frequently Asked Questions) articles written by cigar retailers who did not spend much time discussing the problems I was experiencing. After hours upon hours of reading and researching cigars, I finally feel comfortable with diagnosing and correcting problems as I experience them. It is my intention to help those that find themselves in similar situations.
About the Author
Walt White is one of the cofounders of the Stogie Review, a premiere cigar review blog. He can be found on any number of online cigar forums and is constantly pushing the limits of web technology.blog comments powered by Disqus