a long time now, the members of the Washington County Pipe Collectors’
Club (PA) have been talking about pressing pipe tobacco. Generally
speaking, there are three ways to improve the qualities of pipe
It has been well-documented that aging pipe tobacco improves the
taste of the tobacco and makes it generally smoother. Virginias
tend to age the best. Many people age their tobacco in the tin through
cellaring. In my case, I have tins of tobacco that have been aging
since the 1990s. Old tins of tobacco can command high prices at
pipe shows and on the internet today.
Stoving is a process by which tobaccos are heated at a proscribed
temperature and for a certain amount of time to improve the tobacco's
taste. Steaming has a similar effect. Stoving is used generally
on Virginias and tends to turn them from a brown to a black color.
Dark Star or McClelland’s #5105 are examples of stoved tobaccos.
The literature contains methods using ovens, microwaves and other
techniques for the home smoker to try.
Pressing is a method by which tobaccos are exposed to high pressures
to merge the flavors of the tobaccos. This is usually done in a
press. Some of the tobacco manufacturers have quite elaborate presses.
Perique tobacco is made through a pressing process by which hogsheads
of tobacco are pressed in casks for an extended amount of time.
Tobaccos such as McClelland’s Dark Star and their #5105 bulk
blend are made through stoving. Pressing is used to produce crumble
cakes and flakes.
There has been much written on how tobacco manufacturers and blenders
use these products commercially. Pressing pipe tobacco has long
been the province of the large tobacco manufacturers and blenders.
Some manufacturers have quite large presses, and their processes
are often closely guarded secrets. But what about the individual
pipe smoker? How can this smoker press tobacco, get good results,
and experiment? The intent of this article is to help answer this
Beginnings: Where to Get a Press and Forms.
Several years ago, an individual sold a rock maple square form with
a top piece and a bottom piece to press tobacco. I do not believe
this product is available at the present time. There are several
good You Tube videos of individuals pressing tobacco in such a "form"
and also using wax paper between C-clamps. Some examples include
using end pieces on a pipe between furniture clamps. These methods
provide some good but inconsistent results. I tried them all in
my quest. Our club has tried to get a member to make such a set
of forms and use a small screw press, but other commitments interfered
with the development of the system…So I “PRESSED”
Ok, I’m Cheap! I purchased a $79 6-ton press from Harbor Freight
(at the time of purchase, it was on sale with a $10 discount). I
finally got it together following the %$%^ Chinese instructions.
Moving the handle up and down causes the bottle jack cylinder to
go up against the head frame, resulting in the downward motion of
the ram. For a "mold," I cut a 3”-diameter cylinder
out of PVC plastic pipe and added two end pieces out of plastic
decking. The photo below shows the initial press.
I thought it would be a rather simple exercise. You put the tobacco
in the tube. You put the top piece over the tobacco and just pump
the handle. But how long and how hard do you press the tobacco?
I let it go for three days, constantly adding pressure. The results
were rather tragic. The ram on the press went through the plastic
top piece and melted it to the steel ram. I had to cut the top piece
off of the ram. The second photograph above shows the result of
the press. The dimple in the top is where the ram went through the
top piece. It was also hard to remove the pressed tobacco “hockey
puck” from the PVC pipe.
So after the first press, the lesson to learn was that a better
set of end pieces was needed and that a better design was needed
to make tobacco extraction from the mold easier. After scratching
my head, I came up with the following design:
• Slit the PVC pipe lengthwise once so that it can spread
and use hose clamps to secure the mold during pressing. After the
press, loosen the hose clamps and press the hockey puck of tobacco
• Secondly, use pipe floor stands of comparable diameter to
the PVC pipe mold as end pieces.
The setup would look like this:
(Note the nicks on the ram caused by removing the old plastic top-piece
that the ram had pierced and melted to it.) You may also have to
develop a method to center the bottom of the ram onto the top of
the top end-piece to ensure an even distribution of the pressure
across the entire surface area of the volume of tobacco.
I found that it was not necessary to have a hard bottom piece and
that you should use wax paper on the top and bottom to facilitate
tobacco removal and to isolate the metal top piece from contacting
the tobacco and perhaps affecting the flavor. In my opinion, there
should be no metal touching the tobacco, as it may tend to affect
the flavor of the resultant tobacco. I do not like any type of metallic
flavor to anything. The design shown below seemed to work pretty
well and shows the result after the tobacco is pressed. A plastic
bottom piece was used, and the anvils supplied with the press were
left in place during the pressing.
This was the design of the system that was used. I should add that
there was no concern about a leakage of "juice" from the
pressing, as I decided to generally use dry tobaccos. The other
photograph shows another pressing. The dimple on the top was from
the indent in the top piece. Another way to get similar results
is by using a large, heavy-duty C-clamp shown in the following photograph:
However, it is hard to get reproducible results, and it is hard
to "center" the clamp on the top piece.
It was found that the press resulted in a much harder hockey-puck
type of cake than when using the C-clamp method. The C-clamp method
resulted in a puck that was more like a crumble cake, which fell
apart quickly. The two types can be seen in the following photograph
(the bottom dimple press was created in the high-pressure press):
Note that when you press tobacco, the volume is compressed. I have
found that the volume compresses to a ratio of 8-10 to 1. You can
either start by compressing the entire volume or compress, add,
compress, etc., etc. Generally, I do not add additional tobacco
once I start a press so as to only marry the flavors in the initial
volume of tobacco. That being said, you can get some interesting
results by layering the tobacco during single or multiple presses.
The questions arise as to how long to leave the tobacco in the press
and how to apply pressure. This is something you can only determine
through experimentation. Generally, I found that you apply a lot
of pressure initially and then just keep checking to see that the
pressure is maintained. I found that I got good results if I pressed
the tobacco over three days, keeping a constant pressure applied
after the initial pressing. You also got a harder pressed cake.
You can also keep increasing the pressure over time for the entire
Moist or Dry?
In my experiments, I always started with relatively dry tobaccos
to blend. I found that this did not produce any goop. I never used
aromatic tobaccos. In the case of where I used tobacco right from
the tin to the press, goo was produced.
You can either press specific types of tobaccos, established blends,
or blends of your own development. If pressing a newly created blend,
I would recommend designing and producing a small volume mold to
handle small quantities of tobacco. Although I would recommend the
same amount of time to press small volumes, it may be desirable
to press large volumes of tobacco for longer amounts of time.
I also found that you can get some very interesting results by layering
tobacco. If you take a nice Virginia (such as McClelland’s
5100) and press it with a layer of Stoved Virginia (McClelland’s
5105), you get a very interesting result. Of course, you could layer
various types of tobaccos and blends to your heart’s desire.
At a meeting of the Washington County, PA pipe club, seven members
were in attendance. We tried about 6 or 7 different pressings that
I had done in both crumble cakes and hard presses. We noted that,
after sitting a couple of days, the hard-pressed pucks easily broke
to provide tobacco to fill a pipe. Some of the crumble cakes had
either completely broken apart or came apart very easily.
There was general agreement that pressing the tobacco definitely
concentrated and enhanced the flavor of the tobacco and made it
much smoother. The best pucks were of a pressing of McClelland Deep
Hollow that went right from the tin to the press. It also was the
only one that provided some gook in the tubes, which had to be cleaned
before being re-used. The JB Hayes Toms Red and Black that was pressed
was excellent. The hit of the night was a pressing of a layer of
McC 5100 with a layer of JB Hayes English Rum on top. I passed out
samples to people at the NASPC show this year of pressed McClelland’s
#5100, Red Cake. People could not believe the result. Those who
tried smoking a sample agreed that it improved the tobacco.
Be careful. If you press tiny amounts of tobacco into individual
flakes, it tends to concentrate the flavor and the nicotine. I pressed
some Eastern Carolina Virginias into a tiny flake and smoked it
in a large-bowled pipe. It tasted quite good, but after about a
half hour, it kicked me in the behind. It had to be the concentrated
Another word of caution. Pressing tobacco can be habit forming.
If you develop a liking for pressing tobacco, you will find that
you may go through large volumes of tobacco, depending on the size
of the molds that you use. I would advise that several different
sizes can be produced based on the sizes of available PVC pipe and
EXPERIMENT! EXPERIMENT! EXPERIMENT! Try different types of tobaccos
and different blends. Adjust the process and try different pressures
and different amounts of time. Find a method you like and let us
know how your experiments turn out. Get a more heavy-duty press.
Harbor Freight makes 12, 20, and 50 Ton Shop Presses. Develop your
own method. I got good results just pressing a pound of English
Rum in one press between two large 1”-thick rock maple rectangular
pieces of wood.
That is the report on the results of the tobacco-pressing experiment.
It doesn't take a lot of $$ in equipment and yields very satisfactory
[Note: The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is
the author of the Emperor Leopaldo Saga, a series of short stories
that combine pipe smoking, pipe collecting, and science fiction,
which can be downloaded at http://mysite.verizon.net/seilerjp )