The big lighter debate. When you are active on social media, and specifically in cigar Facebook groups you will see a discussion on lighters sooner or later. There will be snobs talking bad about simple soft-flame lighters such as Djeep and Bic. Snobs saying that true cigar smokers don’t use those lighters as they are not butane. To tackle the subject once and for all, Ministry of Cigars dives into the subject and this article is the result.
During those big lighter debates, there’s always someone who starts about matches “as those are used from before lighters”. Now that comment is understandable, as matches seem to be more basic than lighters. Yet even in the 1600s people converted flint pistols to lighters. Matches didn’t exist back then. Even modern lighters are younger than matches, although not by much. In 1823 a German chemist, Johann Wolfgang Dobereiner, created the first lighter. The “Dobereiner’s Lamp” It worked by a reaction of hydrogen to a platinum sponge, which gave off a large amount of heat.
The first modern match is the invention of John Walker from the United Kingdom. His matches were not reliable and in 1831 the French chemist Charles Sauria created matches that use white phosphorus. Those often would ignite even when you didn’t want them to. White phosphorus is highly toxic, European and the American Government forced manufacturers to switch to a nontoxic chemical in the early 1900s.
Lighters are older than matches. But matches are a perfectly acceptable way to light a cigar. Light the match and let the chemicals in the tip burn off. Then slowly light your cigars. When you do that, no funky smell of flavor is absorbed by your cigar. The downside of matches is that its hard to use in less than perfect conditions. They are hard to use outdoors or in environments with airflow and draft.
The most iconic lighter in the world is Zippo. Thousands of different styles and designs have been made in the nine decades since their introduction including military versions for specific regiments. In 2012, Zippo celebrated the 500th million units produced. The lighters are still an American made product. Zippo’s are indestructible and work in any condition. The issue however is the lighter fluid. It isn’t neutral and leaves a flavor if you light a cigar with it. That flavor isn’t a bonus for the majority of the cigar smokers. Therefore we advise not to use a Zippo for your cigars. If you love the design of a Zippo, there are solutions though. Remove the insert and replace it with a butane insert designed to fit into a Zippo casing.
There are no jet-flame/torch lighters that use lighter fluid. Those gasoline-fueled lighters only exist in soft flame versions. And that is possibly the reason why some people think that all soft-flame lighters, including the cheap Bic and other cheap brands, are not butane lighters. Yet most soft-flame lighters are butane filled.
A lot of people think that only jet-flame lighters are butane lighters. But that’s not the case. Butane is a gas used for the flame. Both soft flame and jet-flame lighters use butane as the source of the fire. Jet-flames are also known as torches or windproof lighters. Most butane for lighters is a combination of normal butane, isobutane, and propane with some amount of air. These three gasses have different characteristics and a combination of them makes the perfect lighter fluid. Affordable, clean, and absolutely tasteless.
The best of the three gasses is propane. Propane provides the highest vapor pressure and therefore the best cold-weather performance. And while that’s a good thing, pure propane requires a much heavier canister to safely withstand that high pressure. This is why lightweight canisters often use a mix of propane and either butane or isobutane.
Isobutane is the next best thing to propane. Isobutane shares the same molecular formula as normal butane (but the shape of its molecule makes isobutane far superior in terms of vapor pressure. High vapor pressure translates to better performance. Isobutane is also a more expensive fuel to source and process than butane, so you’ll usually find it in the higher-quality canisters.
Butane lands at the bottom of the heap. It is the cheapest and poorest-performing fuel on the list. It delivers the lowest pressure and therefore the worst stove performance in many conditions. The extremely cheap butane canisters from dollar value stores use 100% butane instead of the higher quality mixtures. If you live in a place where it’s warm all year long, 100% butane is no issue but in any other condition, use the mixture.
Jet Flame vs Soft flame
So now it’s clear in the big lighter debate that both jet-flames and soft-flames can be butane lighters. Let’s explore the differences between the torches and soft-flames.
The most obvious difference is the shape of the flame. A torch has a highly compressed beam. Some lighters are equipped with two, three, four, or even five jets to create a bigger flame. The upside for this highly compressed flame is that it’s almost windproof and very concentrated. A soft-flame is wider and is more prone to be influenced by draft. The jet flame is perfect for outdoor use, an environment where lighting a cigar with a soft-flame can be difficult.
Another huge difference is impossible to see yet quite obvious. It’s the temperature. A torch lighter can reach up to 1600 degrees Celsius (2900 degrees Fahrenheit). Enough to melt metal or even vaporize many organic materials. The high temperature makes it possible to caramelize the sugar in dishes such as creme brûlée. But that also means that it’s easy to overheat a cigar when you hold the flame to close to the tobacco. Most cigar smokers do that. It chars tobacco. Torch lighters with two or more jets are overkill in our opinion.
The temperature of a soft-flame lighter is approximately half that of a torch. About 800 degrees Celsius or 1500 degrees Fahrenheit. With that temperature, it’s less likely to burn or char the tobacco and influencing the flavor of the cigar. These soft-flames include the cheap Bic lighters, but also expensive brands such as Dupont. In our opinion, soft-flame lighters are the way to go when conditions allow. And yes, those soft-flame lighters include all butane-filled soft-flame lighters. It doesn’t matter if its an $800 Dupont or a $2 Bic. Don’t ever say that ‘a real cigar smoker doesn’t use a Bic’ as some people comment on social media. Real cigar smokers do, as real cigar smokers know that a Bic is a perfectly acceptable means of lighting a cigar.
Other types of lighters
In the recent few years, two new types of lighters emerged. Plasma lighters, also known as electric arc lighters. Since those are completely useless when it comes to cigars we will ignore these. And then there are electric lighters. Even though most are designed for cigarettes, they can be used for small cigars as well. There is one electric lighter on the market which is catering cigars. It fits cigars up to ring 62.
Electric lighters are based upon the old car lighters. A coil is heated. These lighter use USB rechargeable batteries. Once the coil is glowing, just hold it against your cigar and puff. The cigar with light evenly. And while this has some advantages, we also see issues. The advantages are an evenly lit cigar. The ignition temperature is even lower than with a soft-flame. The temperature of an electric lighter is 400 degrees Celsius or 750 degrees Fahrenheit. A lower temperature has a positive effect, as it preserves more of the natural flavors of the cigar.
But the big disadvantage comes when the cigar is burning unevenly. Or when the cigar dies. To relight a cigar with an electric lighter you need to clean the ash off. That’s way more work than just relighting your cigar with either a match or a butane lighter. We could not find instructional videos on how to correct an uneven burn with an electric lighter.
Candles and cedar spills
Candles are not suitable to light a cigar. For the exact same reason why lighter fluid-based lighters are not suitable. The wax or paraffine in the candles is not odor-free and flavor-free. These smells and flavors are drawn into the smoke channels of the cigar, tainting the whole experience.
Some cigar smokers swear by cedar spills. A cedar spill is a slender piece of cedarwood. Spanish cedar, just like the wood of a good quality humidor and the cedar sheets between two layers of cigars in cigar boxes. You can light these spills with any type of flame, as the spills don’t absorb flavor from candles of lighter fluid. Lighting a cigar with a cedar spill is a slow process, just like lighting a cigar with matches. The temperature of a flame from a cedar spill is around 600 degrees Celsius. That’s the same as a match or even a candle. The downside of a cedar spill is the same as those of matchsticks and soft-flames. In less than perfect conditions, the flame will die or behave so erratic due to airflow that lighting a cigar is extremely difficult. But when the conditions are perfect, it adds to the experience. It’s almost hypnotical. It’s very relaxing, elegant, and sophisticated.
Traveling with lighters
Another question that pops up regularly in the big lighter debate is the one about flying with lighters. Torches are prohibited. Both in carry-on as in checked luggage. Now, many people will respond that they never experience issues, but compare it to speeding. Everybody speeds, most of the time you get away without a fine. It’s still breaking the law. So if you tug your expensive torch in your luggage and you are unlucky you’ll find a nice confiscation note in your suitcase. Or custom forces you to dispose of the lighter before you board. Painful. We had $50 torches taken from our suitcase by TSA.
Soft-flame lighters are allowed in most cases. Both in carry-on as in checked luggage. The lighters in checked bags need to be empty though. Matches are prohibited in checked baggage but it’s fine to bring one book of safety matches in your carry-on.
There are approved containers available. It’s allowed to store a torch in such a container in a checked bag. There is also another solution to bring a torch on a plane. The cigar traveller tool turns a simple refillable Bic lighter into a torch. It’s easy to assemble and disassemble before and after your flight, so you can light your cigar immediately after clearing customs and immigration.
To conclude the big lighter debate: We prefer a butane soft flame when possible. A lower burning temperature without the chance of charring the cigar. But when we smoke outside, a single torch is the weapon of choice. Multiple torches are overkill in our book, although we admit, we sometimes use a double torch from the goody bag of Cohiba Atmosphere Kuala Lumpur. Zippos and other fluid-based lighters are out of the question.
As for the electric lighter, we have never used one. We have not even seen a cigar smoker use one. It could be a great tool, but relighting is an issue and requires added tools. Therefore it will not be our first choice. Our first choice now is a $12 lighter from a famous Chinese webshop that has both a soft-flame option and a torch option. But we are open to trying new lighters anytime. As men, we always look for the latest gadgets to test.
Header photo credit Mohd Jon Ramlan