There’s never been a better time to be a Roll Your Own (RYO) enthusiast than today. There are more brands, sizes, styles, and flavors of papers than ever. But which one is the right choice for you?
We are going to break down every aspect of rolling papers here to help you answer that question. Fortunately, the research you will have to do to answer your question completely will mean smoking a lot, so it should be a fun journey.
As with anything, a little knowledge about where we’ve come from can help put where you are going into perspective.
Rolling papers need tobacco
The invention of the rolling paper dates back nearly 5 centuries to a little village in Spain. But did you know the Roll Your Own (RYO) industry (including papers) wouldn’t be here without the Americas?
Intriguing, yes? Like any other damn wonderful thing in life, it gets even better the more you know about it. And rolling papers exist because of tobacco. And tobacco exists because of America.
North America is the only place that tobacco grew. The indigenous plant has reportedly been on the continent for 10,000 years. Native Americans have used tobacco as a sacrament for centuries. 9-out-10 Canadians who buy rolling paper still do so for tobacco.
But tobacco didn’t reach Europe until Columbus accidentally found himself in North America. A couple of his crew mates were reportedly schooled on smoking in what is believed to be present day Cuba, and one of those sailors, Rodrigo de Jerez, brought the habit back home.
Of course Jerez was reported to the Spanish Inquisition and jailed for seven years when people saw smoke coming out of his mouth and nose, but he served history, becoming the world’s first persecuted smoker. Ironically, by the time he was freed, smoking was all the rage in Spain.
So, a brisk tobacco trade started in Spain, creating America’s first cash crop. The trade remained almost exclusive to Spain too throughout the 16th Century, but eventually was traded from there to other European countries and England.
History of rolling papers
While still scarce, tobacco was hoarded in one central location, Seville, Spain, by King Philip III. This would become the birthplace of the modern rolled cigarette.
As with any other exotic New World commodity, tobacco was primarily enjoyed by the wealthy. In the beginning, they smoked their double Castro-sized cigars which were whole tobacco leaves, dried, rolled and bound with string. The blunt ends of these stogies were thrown to the ground after becoming too difficult to smoke.
Peasants who could not afford these big boys collected the trashed ends, broke the remaining tobacco up, and rolled them into newspaper. But newsprint had problems of its own in the 16th century, including arsenic and other toxic chemicals.
Working class folk began to inhale the smoke to savor the effects of tobacco, more quickly. This habit caught on and helped birth the first rolled cigarettes.
Rolling papers are born
Because of the harsh nature of newsprint and the need for paper devoted to smoking, Spanish merchants began selling sheets of unprinted paper to be used with tobacco.
Eventually, one small factory in Alcoy, Spain, which had been making specialized packing paper, began production of paper specifically for cigarettes. Hundreds of years later, this factory still has roots in Alcoy and still produces some of the most popular rolling papers today including RAW, Elements, Juicy Jays and DLX.
Rolling papers have been produced with consistent methods since their start in the 1600s. There have been improvements here and there brought about by the expansion of the trade and growth of additional factories throughout Europe, but the process is still pretty much the same.
Rolling paper sizes
Anyone who has been to a head shop knows there are a wide range of rolling paper sizes. But where do they come from? Which size is best? The answer, of course, depends on personal preference and experience.
The popular size rolling papers purchased today have their roots in Spanish rolling paper history. Consumer preference, in the beginning, liked the 78mm x 44mm size most. This size is sometimes referred to as “Spanish Size” today.
Of course, King James I and his successors saw tobacco as another way to further their interests, and levied heavy taxes on tobacco. People subsequently rolled smaller cigarettes, and across most of Europe this meant smaller papers, 70mm x 38mm size, also referred to as “Single Wide” (or Standard Size) today.
Now, the British thought of the Spanish Size papers as holding 25 percent more tobacco than the Standard Size, and thus referred to these rolling papers as 1-¼ (1.25), which is how the most popular size paper got its moniker (this is the same methodology for 1.5 papers, etc.).
Kings are created, not born
As the Industrial Revolution took over the world’s manufacturing, cigarettes became mass produced. Most machine-rolled cigarettes were either the standard 70mm or 78mm sizes. This changed in the 1950s once doctors got involved and urged the use of plastic filters to curb organic smoke in an effort to reduce toxins.
Filters were added to the standard cigarette sizes and consumers didn’t like losing tobacco for the filter. So, cigarette companies created an 84mm size to accommodate a filter and give consumers as much tobacco as before filters. The King of England was seen smoking the new longer cigarette and thus, “King Size,” was born.
What’s worth more? The King or the Queen?
Now, it should be noted there is more than one “King Size” rolling paper today. In 1984, a 100mm long rolling paper was created to market to female smokers who preferred this longer size. Originally, this was referred to by Rizla as “Queen Size.”
Not to be outdone in confusing pot smokers, another company launched a 110mm size incorrectly calling it, “King Size.” The King of England-preferred 84mm size are correctly called King Size. But, of course, the new incorrect “King Size” has caught on in Europe and so refuses to go away. This new “King Size” is 110mm x 52mm.
This wasn’t confusing pot smokers enough, though, so yet another, slimmer 110mm x 44mm King Size called, you guessed it, “King Size Slim” has also gained in popularity. Now everyone is nice and confused about King Size in general... until now!
Book em Danno!
In the early 18th century, people bought large sheets of cigarette paper and folded it neatly to be pocket sized. The creases created by the folds became the preferred standard size for cigarette papers. Tearing the perfect size, though, would be frustrating at best, and wasteful at worst. I guess sharp scissors weren’t a thing back then.
It was a priest, Father Jaime Villanueva of Spain, who is credited with creating the first booklet of rolling papers in 1765. He brought his idea to the paper makers in Alcoy, and it became standard practice to have papers all cut to the exact same size, placed inside a pocket booklet where they were easy to retrieve one at a time. Far easier than Cut Your Own.
Interwoven sheets of rolling papers that pop out like tissues one after the other are credited to Zig Zag who developed the process in 1895. The name of the company references the way the papers are stacked.
How are cigarette rolling papers made?
Rolling papers, like most papers, are created from plant fibers, which bind together strongly in very thin layers. Worldwide, the most common form of cigarette paper is made from wood fiber, the same thing used to make writing paper. But RYO has many nonwood fibers used.
Wood fiber rolling papers
Wood fibers burn quickly, more quickly than plant fibers (called “rag fibers”). It is the material used in manufactured cigarette production worldwide. Wood fiber rolling paper has been chemically bleached if it is white. Most RYO aficionados like more control of their smoking experience than that, so they use artisan papers.
Natural fiber rolling papers
Most artisan rolling papers are created to burn more slowly which is why they use nonwood plant fibers like flax, hemp, sisal, rice straw and esparto. A slurry composed of these fibers is pressed into transparently thin sheets, dried, cut to size, and packed into booklets.
There are some different processes depending on the nature of the paper. Watermarking and built-in roach clips, for example, have their own processes after the paper is made.
Hemp rolling papers
Yes, hemp is a nonwood natural plant fiber included in the previous paragraph, but deserves a paragraph of its own. Hemp has become extremely popular in smoke circles for obvious reasons. Its natural flavor blends well with the natural flavor of burning herb. It burns more slowly than rice paper. It has good grip so it’s easy to roll.
Gold rolling papers
Confectioners have used edible gold and other metals in fine dining for years without incident. Similarly, gold rolling papers are created in much the same process, although the metal is bound to a slow-burning interior paper (usually rice).
There are no known reports that investigate how safe smoking metal particles is. Theoretically, you are only smoking what’s inside what’s rolled, though, not the paper (especially when the paper burns slow and produces very little ash).
Clear rolling papers
Clear rolling papers are composed primarily of natural plant cellulose with a bit of glycerine and a little water. Everything is natural, organic, biodegradable and doesn’t require and seam glue to hold its shape.
Rolling paper glue
You have two, no wait! Three choices. First choice, no glue. Just tear the edge of the paper where a glue strip would be before you lick it, then the fibers exposed in the tear will grip better than glue according to many purists. You can also choose glue made from either cellulose sugar or natural gum.
The sugar glue used to hold RYO shape is glycerol based. Glycerol is a natural polyol compound used in food as a sweetener and humectant as well as in some pharmaceuticals. It’s used by RAW, Juicy Jays and Elements among others.
There are also papers that use Arabic Gum, which is a natural polysaccharide made from a hardened tree sap of the acacia tree. It’s used for medicinal purposes, in soft drinks, and as a natural binding agent with no nutritional value, making it nondigestible, noncaloric and nonfat.
Flavored rolling papers
The first flavoring agents were added in 1906 by Rizla. They created the first menthols as well as strawberry flavored papers. Over the next 100-plus years, flavoring agents have advanced considerably.
Today you can find rolling papers with all kinds of fruit flavors, alcohol tastes like tequila and rum, and food flavors like ice cream and cookie dough. There’s even talk of flavoring all sorts of things with hemp terpenes from classic strains, so your herb can always taste awesome.
There’s always debate among smokers as to whether to flavor or not. Purists will say that flavors take away from the natural tastes each herb offers. There’s also an argument that the less something is processed, the better it is for you, including rolling papers. But flavor fans will say that added taste improves the experience and even makes smoking more mellow.
Once again, whether to flavor or not is a matter of personal choice.
Spliffs, blunts and pre-rolled cones
The last type of RYO goodness are a good way to finish the “Ultimate Guide to Rolling Papers,” because they have made the most waves in the last decade or so. Spliffs, blunts and cones at least share cannabis in common, even if the way they are rolled are different. Spliffs and blunts, though, have tobacco mixed into the equation.
A good way to make a gram of expensive herb last is to mix it with about equal amount of smoking tobacco. Cannabis has a varying shape when being rolled due to how old it is, whether it was ground by machine or by hand, the strain of plant it comes from and more.
Tobacco which has been processed for smoking is in long and ribbon-like strands. These strands fill gaps between bud that not only makes a spliff smoke more evenly (as a rule), but it spreads the herb out.
Opening a cheap, sweet cigar to empty it out, just to fill it again with cannabis traditionally has nothing to do with rolling papers. But blunts don’t necessarily have to be tobacco wrapped any more with the advent of Blunt Wraps. These are essentially rolling papers, but created in such a way as to mimic the feel and experience of an actual blunt, but without tobacco.
Blunt wraps can be made much the same as standard papers; from a variety of materials in a variety of sizes with a variety of looks and flavors. Blunt wraps can be flavored like tobacco, like fruit, even like hemp.
Many blunt wraps are made of hemp and have added CBD too. Wraps are thicker than rolling papers to give the feel of leathery tobacco leaves.
One of the most popular selections in smoke shops today are pre-rolled cones. These beauties are usually made of natural hemp paper and are ready to be filled. This eliminates the need to roll your own fatty and eliminates excess gum and paper.
Pre-rolled cones also come with a crutch (a paper filter) installed, so filling is simple right out of the box. Just put ground herb in and tap it in a little tighter with a golf pencil or equivalent tool (some cones even come with tamping tools). Keep filling until full, then twist off the top.
Cones can come in a variety of lengths including “Challenge Size” for gargantuan smoke circles and Rastafarian weddings.
Crutches and Tips
When RYO smokers got tired of getting unsmoked herb in their mouth, someone who was thinking pretty clearly came up with the idea of using a rolling paper to create a paper filter (aka “crutch”). It would sit at the mouth end of a rolled joint to keep debris from hitting the tongue, yet not impede the smoke. Today, you can buy paper filters or still create your own.
An alternative to disposable paper filters is the reusable glass tip. It has the same function as a filter, to keep herb out of the mouth while allowing smoke through. Glass filters are heat resistant borosilicate (usually) which can be easily cleaned with isopropyl alcohol. Glass tips can also be reused numerous times.
It wouldn’t be an “Ultimate Guide to Rolling Papers” without mentioning the rolling machine. It was the creation of a hand roller that really made RYO become more popular.
The first rolling machine was created in 1880 for industrial purposes as part of a $75,000 competition. The winner, James Bonsack, created a machine that would roll 210 cigarettes a minute (or 20,000 in 10 hours).
The Bonsack Machine, as it became known, was quickly put to use by The American Tobacco Company, which was later split up to be R.J. Reynolds, Lorillard, Liggett & Meyers and the American Tobacco Company.
By 2006, industrial rolling machines could produce a mind-blowing 20,000 cigarettes per minute. Today, in addition to the high tech robotics that can roll millions of smokes per day, RYO people have options, too, with smaller manual hand rollers.
There are hand-crank rolling machines, electric rolling machines, manual rolling machines and rolling mats (just like sushi!).
Rolling machine come in standard lengths to match the standard size papers. Rolling papers can be used with a rolling machine as long it matches in size. There are also pre-rolled cigarette tubes that work with certain hand crank systems, drastically speeding up the process.
Wrap it up
Whether huddled together for a smoke sesh or choking one down solo, it’s good to know a little (or a lot) about the ubiquitous rolling paper. It has prehistoric roots as a paper of all sorts and still has an honored presence in any smoke circle.
Happy rolling and PPP!