Cigar Box Wood

Condensed and otherwise modified from

C.H. Pearson’s “How Cigar Box Wood is Secured”

in American Forestry magazine, December 1915.

© Tony Hyman, All rights reserved

Uploaded May 26, 2012

Polished May 29, 2012

Photo added June 28, 2012

Modified May 8, 2013


    Want to win a bar bet? 

    If you do, ask anyone what wood is used to pack fine cuban cigars. Without hesitation, everyone, including people who make and pack cigars, will answer “cedar. Everyone knows that.”

    Except, that’s not correct. 

    Everyone “knows” Cuban and clear Havana cigars are best packed in odiferous cedar. The literature abounds with references to cedar boxes, cedar shelves, cedar trays, cedar humidors and cedar everything else.  Alas, all this cedar is but one more of the great myths which surround Cuban cigars.  Botanists know there is no such thing as Spanish Cedar.  It’s a lovely name, but botanically the wood so lovingly smelled by smokers isn’t cedar. It is mahogany. 

    Because this variety of mahogany smells somewhat like true cedar, early Spanish explorers called this aromatic broad leaf cedro, and the name stuck. 

    According to American Forestry, the leading magazine for wood-planters and cutters in the early 20th century:


“There is perhaps no tropical wood better known than the so-called Spanish cedar of the West Indies and the Spanish Main.  It is often referred to as cigar-box cedar, because the bulk of this wood is used for making cigar boxes…[but] the term cedar as used has no botanical significance and is, therefore, too confusing to be applied to a wood that belongs to the mahogany family of plants.”

    American Forestry contends the name “Spanish cedar” is a trade name for the woods of many distinct kinds of forest trees, both conifers and broad-leafs. Chief among the latter are ten or more species of cedrela, the most important of which is the cigar-box wood tree, Cedrela odorata, at left.

    The generic term cedrela was the original common name of the mahogany tree. The specific name odorata was given to this particular species because the tree’s leaves and small twigs contain minute oil glands which, when crushed, give off a fragrance detectable for a considerable distance. For 150 years or more, these leaves and twigs have been distilled into commercial cedrelawood oil, which, in dilute form, is sprayed on inferior (cheaper) woods when used to make cigar boxes, giving them that distinct cedar aroma.

    According to American Forestry, during the Golden Age of cigars, cigar-box mahogany trees enjoyed a wide geographical range including the Caribbean, Mexico and South America, more than any other tree species. This most common non-cedar variety of “Spanish cedar” can grow 125 feet tall, and trees have been found with a 9 foot diameter, measured 10 feet above the forest floor.

    As it comes on the market, cedrela odorata mahogany known as “Spanish cedar”  has cinnamon-brown heartwood free from sap. It is an easy wood to work with, moderately lightweight, soft, strong, very durable, splits easily, takes a high polish, and shrinks and warps very little.  The wood contains a semi-resinous juice which preserves it from the attack of fungi, ants  and boring insects, important given the semi-moist nature of the vegetable matter packed in cigar boxes. 

    It is described by wood experts as ‘incomparably better than any other [softwood] for making cigar boxes.”  Cuban wood, like Cuban tobacco, is considered the best, but between 1860 and 1900 all the largest easiest-to-harvest trees on the island had been felled.

    By 1915 all the odorata timber along the larger rivers was gone leaving only trees far removed from wide deep water-ways, the only means for inexpensively transporting the logs to the shipping ports. Expenses rose. By World War One (the end of the Golden Age of Cigars), cigar box wood cost more than ever before; so did logging permits, transportation and labor. Rising prices in the lumber yard were inevitable. Packing cheap cigars in tin cans and cardboard became increasingly important in the 1920s; makers of moderate price (10¢ and less) sought other woods  to replace “Spanish cedar” in the market place.

    Forecasters, writing a decade before the crash of the cigar market in the great depression of the 1930s, believed the demand for cigar box wood would continue, and encouraged development of new sources of “Spanish cedar” supply.

    Fortunately, odorata can be successfully farmed from seed or cuttings and requires little or no care. From an early age trees produce prodigious amounts of seed and new trees spring up naturally. These quick growing trees have attained a height of 50-60 feet and a diameter of 1 to 2 feet when only 16 years old.

    Cedrela is still used today to box high end cigars, but during most of the 1900s, domestic box users had three choices when ordering a wooden box: “Spanish cedar,” “Spanish cedar 1/32 of an inch veneer” or some cheap soft wood. Since the 1920s, California redwood has become popular for domestic boite nature boxes because it’s color and grain look like mahogany/cedar, it’s bug-resistant capabilities are equal or superior, and a spray of Cedrela Oil takes care of the rest.

    HINT: If you want to collect the fruits of your wager from the bar-stool cognoscenti who confidently answered “cedar,” you better carry this article or the December 1915 issue of American Forestry with you

    If a “Spanish cedar” cedrela odorata mahogany tree was grown in swampland or other perennially very moist areas, the bug-defending sap became visible as small spots in the wood, and would be rejected by boxmakers.

   A century ago the world renown Partagas shaved a little off the cost of this SBN Assortment box by using the less costly spotted wood for the box bottom where it wouldn’t detract from the more attractive wood until the cigars were smoked.


When is “cedar” not cedar?