How to Choose the Best Lighter Don't find yourself with an unreliable light

We’ll leave it to you decide whether or not you should carry a lighter, a question we’ve addressed elsewhere. Assuming that you carry one already, or have for whatever reason resolved to start carrying one, let’s get down to brass tacks about which lighter should a man carry.

  • If you are going to carry a lighter, either for personal use or for occasions of opportunity, carry the best one you can comfortably afford to lose. If you are not already long accustomed to having a lighter in your pocket, there’s a good chance you’ll quickly lose the first one you start carrying.
  • As with watches, there’s no need to spend more than is necessary to have a lighter that works well and functions reliably. Zippo is to lighters what Timex is to watches, and a man never goes wrong with either brand so long as he sticks to traditional models. A sturdy, conventional, everyday-use Timex wristwatch should not cost more than $50; a sturdy, conventional, every-day use Zippo: $15. Unless you intend to go significantly upmarket, stick with Zippos, which have a lifetime replace/repair guarantee.
  • If you take seriously your accessorizing – so much so that you switch watches and even your pens to match your look du jour – then why not have a small collection of quality accessory-lighters from which to choose? But then again, if you’re both a smoker and the kind of man who coordinates pens and watches with his ensemble, you probably didn’t to be told this. On the other hand, just as simpler men with fewer pretensions have a watch, so too do some men prefer to have a lighter. There’s something admirable and perhaps even honorable about this.

 

S T Dupont in lacquer

ST Dupont in blue Chinese lacquer: $1300.

  • If you’re leaning towards something slim and classy, then designer-brand butane lighters are more elegant than lighters which use fluid.
  • A specific advantage of better butane lighters is they generally allow the user to adjust the height of the flame.
  • If you’re in formal attire and will be sparking-up at a posh event or venue, be it out on the veranda or in the cigar bar, a classy but not blingy butane lighter is the lighter to brandish. If it’s black-tie, a heritage-collection Ronson or ST Dupont butane lighter is a sensational functional accessory.
  • If you’re looking specifically for an all-terrain, hard-wearing “survival” lighter rather than something elegant for the lobby bar, clubroom, or waistcoat pocket, you might still end up with either a Zippo or a Bic disposable. The survival lighter is a topic in its own right, and I agree with the counsel from the folks at Survival-Mastery. Whichever you choose, stay clear of lighters with fussy parts and complicated components. Never buy a lighter (or anything else) described as “tactical.” If the best value-proposition marketing could come up with was that it’s “tactical,” it’s probably not worth having.

In days past, I’d have explained that soft-flame butane lighters are best for indoor use and fluid lighters are more appropriate for outdoor use, but for two reasons this no longer holds. First, those of us who smoke are now limited to smoking outdoors, and so the finer points of this rationale no longer apply in quite the same way. Second, a “torch” lighter is better wherever your flame is in competition with the wind — more about this below.

Soft-flame vs Torch: Cigarettes, Cigars, and Cappuccinos

Note that while traditional “soft-flame” (normal-flame) lighters can be used to light cigars, a cigar lighter is a specific kind of tool in its own right. Torch, jet, or turbo lighters (they’re the same thing) are the preferred lighters for cigars, which smoke best when they’ve been toasted, scorched, and coaxed into burning true. Torch lighters deliver an intense hi-temperature jet of flame, and for that reason are well-suited to outdoor and off-grid activities — and, by the way, to caramelizing sugar on the foam of cappuccinos and lattes.  Whereas a Zippo is relatively “windproof” by virtue of its design, the flame and flame-delivery system of a turbo lighter is much more element-resistant. If you’re a sportsman or keep a bug-out bag, go turbo. Just remember that torch lighters are unloved by the TSA, and are not permitted in either carry-on or checked baggage. Bear in mind that turbo/jet/torch lighters do expend fuel at a higher rate than soft-flame gas lighters.

The blue pinprick of Hades-like heat from a torch lighter is too much for cigarettes, however: the needle of flame can slice into and burn the cigarette paper before you’ve lit the tobacco. If you are using your lighter mainly to light cigarettes, stick with a soft-flame device unless you’re an outdoor sportsman and/or expect to be confronting windy conditions. Though experts disagree, it is my experience that the flame from a turbo lighter is less than ideal for lighting pipe tobacco.

Smoke-signals: What Does Your Lighter Say About You?

Cigarette smoking is a filthy, disgusting habit, which is why I limit myself to no more than one pack of cigarettes per day — Nat Sherman’s in this hemisphere and Double Happiness (hongshuangxi 红双喜) when in Shanghai. Whether those who look upon me with contempt think even less of me when I spark-up with a two buck Bic rather than a $20 dollar Zippo, I do not know. It could go either way.

Bic Mini with case: $10 Else Peretti for Tiffany's: $350, $125

SHELL GAME: The Bic Mini with a shell case ($10), and the Else Peretti for Tiffany’s in sterling silver ($350) and black lacquer ($125).

Whatever else the smoke-signal means, a pricey lighter suggests that one has a strong attachment to smoking; and independent of other considerations, this isn’t a good message to broadcast. One charm of the disposable lighter is that it leaves as an open-question the extent and status of one’s addiction: someone planning on quitting, or who smokes occasionally only, wouldn’t likely invest in an expensive lighter. It’s much more difficult to downplay one’s habit or to fib about the strength of it if one has a designer flamethrower.

Here, though, is what you should avoid:

 

Avoid sarcastic Zippos and other kitsch flamethrowers

Don’t choose a lighter with text. An attractive quality lighter is itself the statement. Your lighter shouldn’t literally make one.

  • Do not carry or use in public cheap, disposable, or freebie lighters, especially those with convenience store logos or other promotion decals.
  • Unless the lighter was a gift, or has acquired sentimental meaning, avoid carrying anything tacky. Unless you’re going for kitsch and know how to do kitsch right, keep it conventional.
  • There is nothing interesting or witty about a lighter that looks like a handgun. If you insist on having one, don’t take it out of the house.
  • The mini-tool/lighter combo might seem like a swell idea, but it isn’t. The USB/lighter combo is an offense both to data and to fire, and is an abomination.
  • Bic makes and has for a long time made reliable, well-functioning disposable lighters. Bic is as downmarket as you want to go, and here’s the good news: the sturdy reliable classic Bic plastic disposable is at the moment enjoying some retro-cool cachet. There are some surprisingly handsome slipcases/shells available for both standard-sized Bics and Bic minis. I had one in brown faux leather, and because of the $9 shell (Bic’s “Hidez” line), my $2.50 Bic was regularly mistaken for a Bottega Veneta.

Since lighting-up attracts mainly negative attention, is smoker-disapproval mitigated if the smoker is using an attractive lighter? When a man’s lighter suggests that he enjoys a generous discretionary income, or indicates that he is style-conscious and detail-oriented, does that redeem him at all for being a cigarette smoker?

Dunhill lighters: $750 – $1000. James Bond had ’em. Designed to leave you shaken and stirred (fashionbeans.com).

The answer is: It does. At least a little bit.

How Much Should I Spend On A Lighter?

This invites the question How much should I spend on a lighter?, and I’ve hinted at some answers already. As with all “How much should I spend?” questions, answers here are circumscribed by how much you have to spend on the thing in question. Given that a cigarette (or cigar) lighter is connected to a bad habit and is therefore guilty by association, spending an outrageous sum on one is perhaps silly. What counts as “outrageous” is of course relative, but I think any figure in excess of $1200 is offensive. For fewer than $500 one can find pre-owned and “vintage” Dunhill butane lighters, while the bottom of the price range for new S T Dupont soft-flame lighters starts just above $200. Prices for both Colibri and Xikar soft-flame lighters start at around $60. Tiffany’s Elsa Peretti “Bean” lighter in black lacquer is $125, in sterling silver $350. If you’re buying online, we recommend shopping with lighterusa. At very least browse their wares — their selection is thrillingly comprehensive and their prices are exceptional.

One day I’ll work-out an original algorithm for a plausible watch-to-lighter spend-ratio. It will be normative and slightly arbitrary, but the logarithm on which it will be based will not be devoid of rationale. It will look something like this:

If you have spent not more than $100 for your watch, then don’t spend more than $25 for a lighter.

  • Up to $500 for your watch, not more than $100 for a lighter.
  • Up to $1000 for your watch, not more than $250 for a lighter.
  • Up to $2500 for your watch, not more than $500 for a lighter.
  • Up to and over $5000 for your watch, no more than $1200 for a lighter.

Lighters As Gifts

Not all men will appreciate equally the gift of a quality lighter, but few men will be heartbroken to receive one. If you are gifting a lighter to a smoker – and have no qualms about facilitating a bad habit – then apply a variation of the above algorithm in this way: if you could afford to give a man a $100 watch, a $50 lighter is a fine gift; a $500 watch, a $250 lighter. But if you’d give a man a $1000 watch, you do very well by him with the gift of a $500 lighter. Why? Because a man who buys himself a $1000 watch shouldn’t spend more than $250 on his lighter. If he’s got a watch in that league already, then an upgrade to a $500 lighter is thrilling. If he doesn’t already have a $1000 timepiece, give him the damned watch.

Choose differently if you’re buying for a non-smoking outdoorsman, or for a non-smoking homebody, and never give a non-smoker a desktop or table lighter. Decorative and antique tabletop lighters can be beautiful, but they are hardly practical: if you’ve ever tried to light a birthday cake with a half-inch flame projecting from the center of a four-pound marble cube, you know what I mean. Choose something modern, elegant, and designed for home candles, the stove, and the fireplace, and do not choose a pocket-lighter such as those featured in this article.

Elyse Walker "Hunting Season" ($350)

“Hunting Season” table lighter by Forward/Elyse Walker ($350) in genuine lizard. This piece of animal-skin sculpture might make a fine paperweight, but is unlikely to be practical for anything except lighting cigarettes and enraging your pals from PETA. Try and light a room full of tea candles with something like this. A lighter that needs to go to the cobbler for cleaning might not be a wise investment.

One word further, and a final consideration. I’ve insisted that a man shouldn’t carry a lighter he can’t afford to lose. This maxim is implied by and reflected in the heuristic algorithm above. But to give away one’s lighter can be a great joy, especially when the recipient isn’t expecting a gift and the giver can bear comfortably the replacement-cost. I hasten to add that this is also a fine strategy for making a powerful impression. If sparks are flying, and a prospective new flame whose cigarette you’ve just lit says I love your lighter, consider giving it away. Never give anyone your lighter as a down-payment on anticipated-affection or as compensation for attentions-received, but only as a memento or forget-me-not.

Perhaps the beneficiary of your lighter is some poor chap who’s just bummed a light and looks as if he’s received too few good-turns in his life, someone who knows imperfectly the face of genuine and spontaneous benevolence. You’ll know who, and you’ll sense when. Giving your fellow man your $15 Zippo might make a bigger difference than you could imagine.

Carrying a no-frills brass Zippo in order to have something lovely and useful to give away might be one of the best reasons for having one.

THE BURN LIST: INCENDIARY ETIQUETTE

Candles: Birthday candles excepted, it is a breach of etiquette for patrons to light or relight the candles at one’s table in a restaurant or cafe. I’ve done so in the past, but wouldn’t do so in the future. Offer your lighter to service staff if they don’t have one to hand.

Confidential papers: I’ve seen people burn receipts and notes and other risky ephemera in ashtrays, and it’s never bothered me personally, but it’s neither decorous nor safe to incinerate documents in public — and it looks downright sketchy. 

Fireworks: Don’t be the guy to detonate recreational ordnance. Loan your lighter, but don’t light the fuse.