When it comes to weed consumption, bongs and dab rigs are two staples of today's cannabis scene. And while there are many similarities between the two devices, there are also a number of very important differences that dictate compatibility with flower or concentrates.
To break it down: Generally, bongs are designed for smoking flower, using a simple water filtration system to cool and filter the smoke before inhalation. A dab rig uses the same core water filtration concept as a bong, but the two also utilize completely different components when it comes time for consumption. While a bong is equipped with a bowl that holds flower, a dab rig will sport a banger or nail, which is designed specifically for vaporizing super-potent cannabis concentrates.
This guide will help you with what you need to know about bongs and dab rigs, including a primer on how each works, the key similarities and differences, how to select the right gear for your cannabis consumption needs, as well as the history and cultural impact of these iconic forms of paraphernalia.
Bongs vs. dab rigs: How they work
A bong typically consists of a removable bowl, a downstem that extends into a water chamber, a neck through which the smoke travels through, and a mouthpiece, from which the consumer inhales the smoke.
The physics of a bong are relatively simple. You pack the bowl with cannabis flower, then ignite it while pulling steadily through the mouthpiece. The smoke travels from the bowl down into the water, where it bubbles its way up into the neck. When you remove the bowl, the smoke rushes out of the neck, through the mouthpiece, and into your lungs.
The key component to the entire bong experience is the bubbling action. When the smoke passes through the water, two things happen. First, the temperature of the smoke drops, making it cooler before inhalation. Second, heavier particles are pulled out of the smoke, resulting in cleaner and smoother smoke.
The dab rig operates very similarly. In fact, you can think of a dab rig as an extension of the bong, adapted specifically for concentrates.
On today's market you can find several different variations of a dab rig. But the basic rig looks a lot like a bong. The key difference is that the bowl has been replaced by a banger or nail. And instead of packing a bowl with flower, you drop a dab of concentrate onto a heated nail.
To use a dab rig, begin by heating the nail to super-high temperatures, typically until the nail or banger is red hot. Once the temperature cools down, you then place a small amount of concentrate onto the nail or banger while pulling through the mouthpiece. In many cases, you'll also place a dome over the nail to trap the vaporized concentrate. As with a bong, the vapor then travels down and through the water chamber before being cleared through the mouthpiece.
The process of dabbing also requires different heating sources than a conventional bong. When smoking a bong, all you need is a match, lighter, or hemp wick. But to heat a nail to the temperatures required to vaporize concentrates, you need either a blowtorch or an e-nail, which electronically heats the nail to the desired temperature.
Key similarities and differences
- Bongs and dab rigs rely on water filtration to cool and filter the smoke or vapor.
- Both are primarily made out of glass and include various attachments.
- Both regularly include “ice catches” where you can add a block of ice to further cool your smoke or vapor.
- Bongs are for consuming cannabis flower, while dab rigs are for consuming concentrates.
- Most bongs require only a removable bowl, while most dab rigs require a nail or banger as well as a cap or dome.
- To use a bong, you ignite cannabis flowers using flame from a match, lighter, or hemp wick. To use a dab rig, you vaporize concentrates using a blowtorch or e-nail.
Selecting the right gear
The first thing you need to consider is what type of cannabis product you're going to be consuming. Bongs are for flower; dab rigs are for concentrates.
From there, it's all about matching your gear to your preferences, needs, and style. Here are some key factors to consider when selecting a bong or dab rig:
Bongs range from smaller pieces including the closely related handheld “bubbler” to massive, tabletop-only multi-chambered pieces. Be sure you match the size of your piece to your smoking preferences.
Dab rigs are similar to bongs in this regard, although the largest component that will vary in terms of sheer size is the core water pipe. As with bongs, these range from very simple, purely functional pieces to much larger, more complex, hand-blown pieces with multiple chambers, percolators, and other accessories.
If you know you will only be smoking at home, a standard glass piece will serve you best. But if you want to smoke a bong out of the house you can buy smaller, portable bongs and travel cases designed for smoking on the go.
There's not a lot of flexibility when it comes to the mobility of your dab rig. An all-out dab rig is pretty much for tabletop use only. But if you want to consume concentrates out of the house, go with a vape pen, which uses a small chamber of cannabis oil attached to a battery-fueled heating element.
Quality of smoke or vapor
If you want your bong to deliver even cooler, smoother smoke, opt for a bong with an ice catch. This accessory lets you drop ice cubes into the neck of the bong to cool the smoke before inhalation.
Dabbing is all about temperature. You always need to heat your nail up to temperatures that can effectively vaporize concentrates, giving the user more control over the experience. Lower temperatures produce a smoother and tastier vapor, while higher temperatures produce a harder-hitting vapor. High-temperature dabs — 340-700 degrees Fahrenheit, or 170- 370 degrees Celsius — will scorch your concentrates, giving the dab an astringent and harsh flavor. On the other hand, low temperatures dabs — below 340 degrees Fahrenheit, or 170 degrees Celsius — do not fully vaporize the entire dab, producing a more flavorful hit and leaving behind a small puddle of oil.
If you really want to dial in your dabbing temperatures, an e-nail might be the best route, as it lets you set a precise temperature. On the other hand, if you don't need that level of precision, you can always stick with a blowtorch and set a timer to optimize your hit.
Function vs. style
If you're only in it for function, you can get very affordable, quality-made bongs. But if you also want to add some artistic flair, the sky's the limit, with high-end glass artists making custom pieces that can cost $100,000 and up.
In this regard, dab rigs parallel bongs. You can purchase much more affordable rigs that include only the bare essentials. Or you can opt for much larger, more complex artistic pieces with heftier price tags.
History and cultural impact of bongs and dab rigs
History of bongs
Bongs have a surprisingly long, rich, and complex history. In many ways, the history of the bong goes hand-in-hand with the history of marijuana consumption itself.
Etymologically speaking, the word “bong” has been linked to multiple linguistic cultures throughout Southeast Asia — regions in which the cannabis plant is indigenous and historically prominent. The modern term “bong” appears to be linked to the Thai word “baawng,” which describes a marijuana pipe or a hollow bamboo stalk, as well as the Hindi “bhāṅg” and the Sanskrit “bhaṅga,” both of which describe the cannabis plant.
Beyond the linguistic lineage of the word, there is a great deal of archaeological evidence demonstrating widespread use of bongs and bonglike pipes dating back hundreds and possibly thousands of years.
Some of the oldest evidence for the use of bonglike pipes comes from the Caucasus Mountain region, which straddles the border of Europe and Asia. In 2013, archaeologists excavating a 2,400-year-old Scythian burial mound in the region discovered golden bowls caked in cannabis and opium residue. In June 2019, the journal Science Advances published a study by researchers who found evidence of cannabis use in a 2,500-year-old cemetery in the Pamir Mountains in western China.
While these bowls clearly show that humans were developing cannabis-smoking technologies as long as 2,400 years ago, it is unclear whether these were proper water pipes. For indisputable evidence of water pipes specifically, the research points to Africa.
According to history scholar John Edward Philips, Ph.D, the conventional assumption that bongs were invented somewhere in Asia is incorrect. In a 1983 study published in the The Journal of African History, Philips argues that “by adding tube pipes to a water chamber, the San people ... of southern Africa found that they could cool the smoke from their pipes, and thus invented the peculiar 'dagga [cannabis] pipe' of southern Africa.” He also claims that this invention occurred at some point prior to the late 1500s, before the introduction of tobacco into the continent.
That timeline matches other evidence for the use of water pipes. For example, researchers have discovered elaborate water pipes in Persia dating back to at least the early 1600s. Similarly, water pipes were introduced to China in the late 16th century, coming from Persia along the Silk Road trading route.
From their earliest uses, bongs have been closely linked to artistic expression and an exuberant celebration of cannabis consumption and culture. Even the 2,400 year-old Scythian pipes — possibly an ancient precursor to water pipes — were made out of gold and etched with ornate illustrations.
Since at least the mid-1900s, there has been a strong tradition among artists and glassblowers of creating artistic, complex, custom pieces. The art book “This is a Pipe: The Evolution of the Glass Pipe and Its Artists”, co-authored by Nicholas Fahey and Brad Melshenker, offers perhaps the best example of this tradition. The book highlights some of the world's leading glass pipe makers, and shows incredibly complex, multi-chambered, specialty bongs that perfectly blend the functionality of a water pipe with the creativity of high art.
Putting it all together, it seems likely that while humans have smoked cannabis out of rudimentary pipes for thousands of years, the specific idea of using a water pipe probably showed up sometime in the early 1500s in Africa. The technology appears to have spread to Persia, and from there, to other parts of Asia. Either way, bongs have become a mainstay of cannabis culture, as people around the world have consistently used them to smoke cannabis. Today, it remains one of the core methods for consuming marijuana.
History of dab rigs
The history of dab rigs combines the long tradition of smoking out of bongs with the more recent emergence of highly potent cannabis concentrates.
From roughly the 1960s to the 1990s, people typically relied on so-called “knife hits” to smoke concentrates. After heating knives on a stovetop until they were glowing red, consumers would drop a small chunk of hash onto the knives and then inhale the vapors using a tube or soda bottle.
The brother-and-sister glassblowing duo Hashmasta Kut and Lucy Carson created the first iteration of the modern dab rig around 2006. Their piece used a titanium skillet and a glass arm, allowing consumers to heat the skillet, drop a hunk of concentrate onto it, and then inhale the vapor through the glass arm.
This invention paved the way for the glass dome and nail, which hit the scene a short time later. These innovations made it possible to vaporize concentrates more efficiently, and then to pull the vapor through a water pipe for a one-of-a-kind cannabis smoking experience, which quickly became known as dabbing.
From there, dabbing and the dab rig took off within the cannabis scene. “This is a Pipe” co-author Melshenker wrote: “flower pipes switched over to oil rigs in 2009-2010, and artists really stopped making flower pipes.”
Given its more recent history, and especially its explosion onto the cannabis scene within the past 10 years or so, dab rigs are much more embedded in mainstream contemporary culture, including music, visual art, the Internet, and electrical and digital technology.
In pop culture, the presence of dabbing, and by extension dab rigs, includes the “dab” dance move, the origins of which are highly disputed but which propelled the term “dab” into the mainstream lexicon; and YouTube and social media, where cannabis personalities such as CustomGrow420 and others regularly show themselves dabbing.
In the age of expanding legalization, concentrates have surged in popularity to become the number two most purchased type of cannabis product behind flower. That surge has also carried dab rigs — the traditional means of consuming concentrates — into mainstream cannabis culture.