Stash those Stogies in a Pocket Humidor

This prize-winning design can’t fail to impress cigar lovers. 

A few years ago, I built a large humidor on commission that accommodated about 150 cigars. Besides something of a cigar aficionado, my client is also a businessman who travels a lot. So he asked me to come up with a version of a pocket humidor that could hold four cigars as well as the cutter and a small humidifier unit – and it all had to be small enough to fit inside a jacket pocket. 

Well, this was a challenge! But accepting the challenge paid off. Much to my surprise, the finished version of my pocket humidor won second prize for design in the 1999 Durham Wood Show woodworking competition.

This project is a great way to use up small pieces of figured wood that are too nice to throw out, but too small for most other projects. It’s practical to build two humidors at a time. While writing this article, I made four humidors: two of walnut and two of curly soft maple. The veneers are padauk, curly aniegre and pomele bosse. 

The humidifier units are factory-made of stainless steel, and the cigar cutters are available at better cigar shops. Both the cigar cutter and humidifier unit are held in place with sliding wooden retainers that allow for easy removal. The stainless steel tabs fixed to the retainers come with the humidifier units. The springs that operate these retainers are the ones found in ordinary click pens. If a spring should ever get lost, it can be easily replaced.


Begin by milling up stock wide enough for two humidors, leaving plenty of material for saw cuts and cleanup. Cut the pieces slightly longer than finished size as well.

I make some test cuts to check the accuracy of the joint, and then check the angle of the miters by lining up the parts with a square. Using the type of miter jig shown in Fig. 1 allows me to make small adjustments to the tilt of the blade, ensuring a perfect joint. After cutting one end on all the parts, I clamp a stop to the jig and cut the other end, ensuring exact length of all parts (Fig. 1). I hold a block of scrap wood against the part as I feed it into the blade to reduce tearout. 

For cutting the spline slots, I install a blade with a 1/8" kerf that I had ground to produce a square cut. I move the fence over to the left side of the blade and set the machine for a 45° cut. Once again I hold a scrap piece of wood against the back of the part to prevent tearing out (Fig. 2).

Machine material for the splines to half the width of the parts being glued up, because each joint will have two splines. Because we are actually making two humidors at once, we can use a different type of wood for the splines of each humid­or. The splines are sliced off with the crosscut (grain across the width of the spline). To do this, I clamp a scrap piece of wood at the back of the jig to ensure a clean cut, and hold the splines with a stick to keep them − and my fingers − away from the blade (Fig. 3).

Dry-fit the joints. There should be almost no clearance around the splines, but they should go together without force. Fig. 4 shows the humidors in clamps.

The small sheets that make up the tops and bottoms of the humidors are made from glued-up veneer − each one consisting of three pieces of veneer for a finished thickness of just over 1/16". The grain of the two outside sheets runs the long way, but the grain of the core piece runs across the width, as in plywood. I usually cut the sheets about an inch oversized, which allows for final trimming and any shift that might occur in the press. For a press, I just used some high-grade plywood held together with clamps and cawls that are slightly rounded on one side (Fig. 5). With the rounded sides facing each other, I know that if the ends come together, then there’s good pressure in the center. To make your own gluing cawls, just mill a piece of wood to uniform thickness, bend it with a clamp and use it for drawing a slightly curved line onto your stock. An excellent wood choice is elm.

Before you start gluing up the plywood sheets, make sure you have everything you need ready. This has to be done as quickly as possible so the glue is still wet when it goes into the press. Ordinary wood glue thinned with a bit of water works fine. Spread it with a small roller over some card stock, and use a fresh piece of card for each one. Place aluminium foil between the individual sheets to keep them from sticking together.

When gluing veneer, the glue-to-wood ratio is high, so very little air can actually get into the press to dry the glue. So after the sheets set up for a few hours, take them out and place them in another press to air-dry thoroughly (Fig. 6). Not much pressure is needed here − just enough to prevent the sheets from twisting out of shape. You’ll want to cut the small spacer strips to uniform thickness to ensure even pressure; ½" particleboard works well.

Now cut the bodies of the humidors into separate units on the table saw (Fig. 7). Clean up each saw cut with a tall fence on the router table and a straight cutter.

To make the rabbet cut that will receive the plywood top and bottom, set up a tracer pin assembly positioneddirectly over the cutter. The assembly is made of plywood, and the pin is a screw cut off with a hacksaw. I carefully position the pin over a small cutter, and when it is exactly dead center, I tighten the clamps and replace the small cutter with the ½" cutter for making the rabbet cuts (Fig. 8).

Set the cutter depth so the plywood sheets will end up just slightly below the surface. With this setup I have just enough room to tilt the humidor body upright, pass it under the tracer pin assembly, lay it down and machine out the rabbet joints (Fig. 9). Turn it over and repeat the process.

For cutting the plywood tops and bottoms to size, first stick a piece of hardboard onto the crosscut jig with double-sided tape and make a fresh cut. This cut will be the line to which you can trim the edges of the tops and bottoms. To prevent the parts from slipping, cut an adhesive sandpaper disc in half and stick it to the hardboard surface near the cutting edge. Mark the parts with a pencil and cut them to the marks, but leave them just a little oversized for now (Fig. 10). While cutting, remember to keep the blade set as low as possible and hold the part by pressing straight down. Do not tempt fate by applying pressure in the direction of the blade!

Match up the sheets with the humidor frames. By hand, round the corners off and sand the edges until each piece fits exactly into its rabbeted opening. 

Cut some ¾" plywood pieces that are just a bit smaller than the parts being glued, then glue and clamp. It is not necessary to apply great pressure.

When the glue has dried, sand both sides flush, and then separate the lid from the base at the table saw. Clean up the saw cut on the router as before, but this time bring the part to its final dimension. 

Magnet retainers

Fig. 11 shows the setup to cut cavities for the magnet retainers. The distance from the cutter to the stops must be carefully calculated and should be exactly the same on both sides of the table. The moveable stick must also be machined to precise specifications which will allow the humidor to move exactly 1". Use a 5/16" straight cutter at a depth of  5/16". Make the first cut and move the stick to the other side, repeating the process. After all the cavities are cut, move the fence slightly away from the cutter, repeat the process with all the cavities, and then move it toward the cutter and repeat again. The result should be a cavity that is exactly 3/8" wide. I do it this way because the initial cut is aggressive and can sometimes tear, or pull slightly to one side. This method takes a little longer, but helps avoid accidents.

Mill enough 3/8" x 3/8" stock for the magnet retainers, and some scrap stock to the same size for setups and test parts. Mark the stock for the magnet retainers, along with the positions of the magnet holes.

Set up a fence on the drill press and drill the holes for the magnets to a depth of 5/16". Then, without changing the setup, use a ¼" straight router cutter in the drill press to enter each hole again (Fig. 12). This will produce a hole with a nice flat bottom, and the material remaining at the bottom of the hole should be 1/16" thick. This means the magnets will be about 1/8" from each other, allowing for plenty of mutual attraction.

Check the depth of the hole by putting in a magnet. Then mill off the excess material above the magnet so you end up with a part that is 5/16" high. (This may sound obvious, but make sure you take the magnet out before feeding it into the planer.) 

You can now cut a small piece from the scrap stock to check the fit in one of the cavities.

Separate the individual retainers on the crosscut jig by cutting first to the pencil mark, and then against the stop (Fig. 13). The parts should be left just slightly longer than the cavities because they will be brought to finished size in the next step.

For rounding off the outsides of the retainers, I made a small jig to hold them against the router cutter. Fig. 14 shows the underside. The wooden clamp on the side of the jig has just enough spring in it to allow me to effectively hold the part, but also lets go so I can turn it around. I stuck some small pieces of sandpaper on the inside wall and on the wooden clamp to prevent the part from slipping forward while being machined. The screw acts as a stop, and is perfect for the micro-fine adjustment that will bring the part to its final length (Fig. 15). The rounded corner on the jig is what the bearing on the cutter will follow and therefore will determine the radius on the part. Each corner of the retainer is individually rounded off, so each one gets four cuts (Fig. 16). I have clamped a board across the router table with a ½" hole so I can work very close to the cutter.

Now return to the drill press and, using a fence and a stop, cut the screw holes. Without changing the setup, countersink the holes for the screw heads. Fig. 17 shows a magnet and two finished retainers.

Drill the pilot holes for the retainer screws (Fig. 18), and screw them into place. Don’t forget to orient the magnets so they will be pulling toward each other.

The installed retainers should be just slightly proud of the body, so when you sand the inside face of the lid and base, the retainers will be perfectly flush with the entire surface.

Making the lid insert

The material for the insert should be machined to  5/16" thick and, for now, left slightly wider than the opening in the lid. I like to leave them long enough to make two inserts from one piece. 

I made a jig for cutting the cavity for the cigar cutter by tracing around the cutter onto a piece of melamine, and then cutting out the hole. Hold the jig in place with double-sided tape (Fig. 19), then cut out the cavity with a plunge router. Make some test cuts in scrap wood and enlarge the jig as needed with a small drum sander on the drill press. You should end up with a cavity that fits the cigar cutter perfectly. Mark the position of the cutter onto the stock, clamp it to the table and cut the cavity.

With a ¾" Forstner bit, cut the holes that will later form the groove under the cigar cutter (Fig. 20).

Cut the inserts to length but slightly oversize.

Using the router table with a ½" straight cutter, cut the slots for the sliding retainers and the rabbets on the undersides of the slots. All of these cuts require separate setups (Fig. 21).

Fig. 22 shows the inserts and machined parts that will make up both the sliding retainers and the pieces that will close the now-open ends of the slots. The pieces machined to close the ends of the slots look the same as the sliding retainers but must be machined for an exact fit. The sliding retainers, on the other hand, should be cut slightly undersize to ensure they will move freely without binding.

Cut the pieces forming the ends of the slots to length, and drill holes for the springs (Fig. 23) before gluing the pieces into place (Fig. 24). 

Put some masking tape on the insert, mark the opening for the humidifier and cut it out with a scroll saw. Clean up the hole and bring it to finished size with a fine rasp. The material between the two holes under the cigar cutter can also be removed at this time. 

Sand the lid inserts to finished size, label them and test-fit into each unit.

Inside the humidor is a glue bead that will get in the way of the insert (Fig. 25). The easiest way to deal with this is to cut a 45° chamfer all around the underside of the insert. This will not be seen, and provides clearance for the glue bead (Fig. 26).

Installing the hinges

Fig. 27 shows the setup used for cutting the hinge mortises. The first cut is made with the part against the fence (this cuts the inside edge of the mortise). Then the spacer stick is placed against the fence and the second cut is made (cutting the outside edge of the mortise). The spacer stick must be machined to a dimension that will produce the best mortise for the hinges being used, and it will be necessary to cut some test mortises in scrap wood.

Test cuts will also help you determine the depth of cut. Cut two pieces, hold them together and slide a folded hinge into the space (Fig. 28). It should just go in with little very little pressure and no play. (It’s better to have it too loose than too tight, because you can always put some tape under the hinge leaf to raise it slightly.) When all is right, cut the mortises.

Use the hinges themselves to mark the positions of the screws and set up the drill press to drill pilot holes. Use a fence to ensure they will be uniform (Fig. 29). If the drill bit wanders, move it up into the chuck so that only a short length is exposed.

When the humidor is assembled, the lid should open just a little past the 45° point and then stop. This is because the lid is heavier than the base, and if the humidor is set down on a flat surface with the lid open, the weight of the lid would cause it to fall over backward. The best way (that I know of) to determine the angle is to make a dummy part (Fig. 30).

The setup used for cutting the chamfer at the back of the humidor is shown in Fig. 31, with the blade tilted to a 45° angle. The two halves of the dummy part are cut first, starting with a lighter setting than will likely be needed. When the hinge is installed we can then see exactly what the lid angle will be on the finished project. You may have to repeat this process a few times, taking progressively deeper cuts until you have the desired angle. When the setup is perfect, cut the humidor parts.

Lining the base

After machining the material that will make up the lining for inside the base, I use my other miter-cutting jig to cut the parts to fit inside. It’s a good idea to put masking tape on the part being cut to minimize tearout (Fig. 32).

Before we can install the lining, we have to deal with the glue bead just like we did with the lid insert – and the process here is the same. The top edges of the parts will also have to be rounded off with sandpaper prior to installation. Then the parts are glued and clamped into place (Fig. 33).

The cigar cradles

These cradles prevent the cigars from moving around and potentially becoming damaged.

Start by machining strips of material about ½" wide and ¼" thick. Using a ¾" Forstner bit and a fence on the drill press, hold the part firmly against the fence and cut out a half-circle, leaving about 1/16" of material at the bottom. Then by putting a pencil mark on the drill-press board, line up the half-circle you just made, and cut another one ¾" from the first (Fig. 34). Repeat until you have enough material for the cradles. 

A word of caution: My fingers are very close to the cutter, but I feel relatively safe because I am on the side of the cutter that is rotating away from the fence. Don’t ever put your fingers on the left side of the cutter with this type of setup. If you do not feel safe doing this, hold the part with a piece of scrap wood or cut out the cradles with a scroll saw.

Clean up the parts with a small drum sander in the drill press and some hand sanding. 

Glue them into place with a simple jig that is used to both position and center the cradles (Fig. 35).

The bottom parts of the cradles are very thin, and if moisture is introduced (in the form of glue) it can sometimes cause the wood to react. So to avoid movement, I use small sticks and rubber bands to hold the cradles down until they are dry (Fig. 36).

Final steps

It’s time to glue the lid insert into place, but first, mark the position of the screws for the steel tabs and drill the pilot holes. I cut some plywood pieces that are slightly smaller than the insert that are then held in place with some clamps.

Mark the position of the thumb push with masking tape, then sand it out with a small drum sander (Fig. 37).

Install the hinges and check the lid for fit. The two halves should come all the way together with only the force of the magnets, but will likely require a little sanding of the lining around the base.

With the humidor assembled, I scribe 1¼"-radius corners, then remove them with a sanding disc.

Round off the remaining corners on top and bottom using a 5/8" roundover bit at the router table. Sand them with an air-powered or electric orbital sander. The rounded corners I sand by hand, because the machine removes too much material and tends to leave flat spots. The project is now ready for finishing.


I decided to use a plain nitrocellulose lacquer as a sealer and top coat because it is easy to use and buffs to a high, mirror shine. First I sprayed them with three coats, let them dry and sanded with 320-grit paper. Then I gave them three more coats and this time let them dry for a full week. 

Working with lacquer can be a little tricky because it dries to the touch very quickly, but actually takes about three months to totally cure. And it is important not to put on too many coats because a too-thick finish can eventually develop cracks.

After a week, I sanded the humidors with 1500-grit automotive emery paper, using kerosene to lubricate and to prevent the paper from plugging up. 

To make polishing easier, I made a quick jig that allows me to use both hands on the drill while I buff (Fig. 38). This is clamped to the table and draped with a soft, clean rag (Fig. 39). I buffed them with an automotive polishing compound that does not contain wax. It’s not a good idea to use wax on lacquer until it is completely cured.

The very last step is to break the corners all around the opening. Because the humidors were closed during the finishing, they probably were sealed shut by the lacquer. Just go around the opening with a small blade like an X-acto knife before trying to pry the humidor open. Then, with some fine sandpaper put a small chamfer all around the edges of the lid and base. This chamfer, and the inside of the humidor, will remain unfinished.

Wolf Moehrle

Wolf Moehrle is an award-winning craftsman and custom furniture designer from Neustadt, Ontario. He has taught cabinet making at the same high school where he took woodshop. He is also a musician, and sometimes performs on weekends. 

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