By John P. Seiler

For 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 tobacco:
1. Aging,
2. Stoving/steaming,
3. Pressing.

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 question.

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” onward.

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 through.
• 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 time period.

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 nicotine.

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 hardware.

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 results.
[Note: The author can be reached at seilerjp@verizon.net. 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 )