I like cigars, and I like pipe tobacco, but I can't see myself making it more than a once a week or possibly even more infrequent hobby. However, it's a waste for me to buy two ounces of pipe tobacco or a few cigars and let them sit in the fridge. I wanted a humidor, but I didn't quite want a huge box. The bigger the box, the harder the element has to work to keep things moist. So I knew I wanted a closed system in smaller but reliable format. I also am cheap.
What do you need to build a humidor? Some kind of containment for humidity, something to humidify, and some tobacco. Otherwise it's just a box of wet air. In our case we're going to use a sponge, a salt shaker, a flip top jar and the only thing we can't source from household goods - polyethylene glycol ("PG"). Buy the last one from a cigar shop. Total cost for one jarmidor should be about $10 total, not including the PG.
Take your salt shaker and take the label off. The salt shaker should be glass and barrel shaped. Too narrow an opening really defeats the purpose. Lay it on top of the sponge and get a general idea of the size you want to deal with. If you're feeling ballsy you can freehand cut the sponge, but I prefer to work from templates. In my case, the template is the lid. Lay the lid on top of the sponge, and this gives you a good width to cut. Cut yourself a brick of sponge that fills the shaker without needing to be forced in. It also should come up to the top of the shaker and the general idea is that a sponge is a wick. It's going to wick water out of suspension with the PG, and it's going to wick water out of the air before it condenses in your tobacco.
The next step is to clean the sponges you've cut. Mine were rank with plastic smell. I can't describe it beyond the idea that it was something in the sponges themselves which stank after I cut them. Since I bought sponges without soap in them, I was at a loss to what this was. Point being, how the sponges smell is how the humidor is going to smell. If your sponges are disgusting, your humidor is going to be disgusting. If your sponges don't smell, well, that's a bonus for you since your humidor is going to be odorless. Cigarfags will notice that this doesn't include cedar. The Spanish cedar is different from the American cedar in the sense that it is not aromatic. Spanish cedar is like spongy wood. It's one more layer of protection against condensation. But since we're using PG and not distilled water in a cup, we don't have to worry about it either.
Finally, the jar. Pick a jar attractive to you but can also seal. I use generic jars with a flip top lid suitable for storing spices in or pasta or whatever have you. Since they're designed to keep moisture out, they also keep moisture in, which is what we want. Some people argue for "conditioning" their humidor by putting the element in there for three weeks. This is fine, but we are using glass and not cedar. Also these kind of jars will hold a good amount of tobacco products, but they also are about 1/4th the size of a "standard" (50 stick) humidor. As such you're only worried about the air in the humidor and these should hit their stride in about three days. Remember, there's no real hard and fast rule here. You can buy a hygrometer for measuring the relative humidity but in a completely sealed environment mostly occupied by tobacco, it should be pretty close anyway. Or, think of it this way, the idea is that if the tobacco is already close to 70% RH, the humidification element shouldn't need to do a whole lot to catch up. The easiest way to test this was a build one and put some cheaper (pipe) tobacco in there and try it after a week. If you let tobacco sit out a week, it's going to be paper dry and burn fiercely. If you humidify it, it should smolder properly, or so the theory goes...
ONE WEEK LATER...
The edges of it got a bit dry, but I chalk this up to stabilization of the jar rather than any mysterious force. Pipe tobacco is notoriously "wet", so I expected the edges to dry out a bit to go down to 70% RH. For all intents and purposes, a jar of this size with this much poly glycol should be stable within three days. Since the pipe stuff seems like it's there - just a touch sticky - it's OK. The cigars needed to go the opposite direction since they had been in the fridge. They needed to come up to the right humidity. You know it's the right humidity in there when the cigars are springy without being brittle. Since I have a hand-rolled one (I haven't tried yet), this was my barometer cigar, and he's fine.
The only way to find out though, is to smoke it.
I have a churchwarden made from meerschaum which I use as a tasting pipe since the meerschaum won't absorb the tobacco oil like briar pipes do. While I could thoroughly clean the briars by soaking them in alcohol and rubbing them in salt, if you use a clay pipe the smoke is a bit hotter but the flavor doesn't absorb.
So what are we looking for anyway? The tobacco has to have enough humidity that you get lemon-water in the bowl. This is where briars get "smoked in" - the combination of ash and water dropped from the cooking tobacco works it's way into the body of the pipe through absorption. You let a pipe "rest" between smokes and especially before cleaning so it has a chance to do this. After the pipe cools it won't absorb much more so you clean it then.
The second requirement is that it tastes good. Why risk jaw cancer if it doesn't taste good? Pipe smoke is a lot like the hookah smoke where if you don't overdo it (looking at cigarette smokers) you're not in a risk group. If you're like me and you smoke once a weekend, you're definitely not in the risk group. Or look at it this way - you're in the same risk group as alcohol consumption. But back to the topic of taste, I have some golden cavendish (think of this as unflavored - or cigar flavor), and some Afternoon Delight (house blend). There's blends and there's casings. Casings are things like fruit rollups that fell on the floor. They're not tobacco but rather flavor it. Generally if it's "aromatic", it's got casings, but if it's nonaromatic, it's simply blends of tobacco. This isn't a hard and fast rule. Do keep in mind that tobacco with casing tends to be "wet" (over 70% RH) while tobacco without casings tends to be dry (under 70% RH).
The test here was to take the Afternoon Delight, pack a reasonable bowl, and see how it was after a week in the jarmidor. If I had let it sit out, it would have been dry and terrible. On the other hand, if it gets much above 70% RH, you can't taste anything because it's soup. This was one of the problems I had when I got it, and I had no idea why it sucked. My process to pack a pipe is to fill the bowl with tobacco and smash it down. Repeat two or three times until the draw is constricted but not impossible. Try to keep it uniform. Then sprinkle a bit on top and don't pack it down as much, which gives you something to light. Hold a lighter over the whole thing and puff until you have an even burn. Tada, you win at pipe lighting.
To taste the stuff, try waiting until combustion and condensation leave some juice in the bowl (like a hookah), or you can draw very slowly. The tip of your tongue generally only gets "hot" flavors, but the middle of your tongue is where the actual tasting goes on. As such, unlike a cigar, try moving the end of the stem to the middle of your tongue and then drawing. Notice that drawing isn't inhaling, inhaling is a quick trip to vomittown on the puke express. Also lung cancer. In my case when I did the middle-of-the-tongue trick, I got brown sugar, molasses, and ginger bread. Good stuff.
I would say the jarmidor is working great.