Understanding Dab Rigs

Published on November 6, 2015, By Gooey Rabinski

Concentrates Delivery Methods Marijuana Knowledge Base

Fueled by the popularity of concentrates like BHO, CO2 oil, live resin, and even rosin, dabbing has become a popular form of cannabis consumption for millions of Americans. Dabbing is especially appealing to those who desire to avoid smoking to instead vaporize their cannabis concentrates and patients in need of quick onset of relief from nausea or pain.

Dab rigs, sometimes called “oil rigs,” are simply specialized glass bongs designed for vaporizing concentrates like BHO. But they aren’t for the risk-aversive: A torch is required. This is due to the high temperatures required to vaporize a small dab of concentrate (about one-third the size of a pea) in these special devices. The heat isn’t applied to the dab, however, but rather to a small bowl or plate on which the dab, via a special tool called a dabber, is quickly touched to instantly create a cannabinoid and terpene-rich vapor that is inhaled.

Dabbing

There are many ways to dab and many forms of dab rigs, the special bongs designed to accommodate this special form of vaporization. This article will consider old school skillets (mostly out of fashion today), specialized glass bongs, and the sometimes exotic nails that perform the rapid heating of the concentrate to create vapor.

The most simple way to dab, albeit not with a formal dab rig, is a charcoal disk or ceramic plate capable of being heated to the appropriate temperature (600-700 degrees F, or 316-371 C). Once to temp, the concentrate dab can be touched to the surface while an eager patient awaits, poised with a glass straw to gobble up the potent cloud of white vapor (a plastic throwaway from a fast food soda is a major faux pas). This is a technique used for thousands of years by primitive cultures to vaporize hash, kief, and even raw flowers.

dabbing with torch

Vape pens, all the rage among fans of the kind herb, especially in legal states, are also beginning to get into the dabbing game. One model features a special attachment that can achieve the temperatures necessary to vaporize popular concentrates. The vape pen is simply pre-heated and touched to a sample of concentrate on a temperature-resistant surface, upon which it is inhaled through the pen.

Accurate temperatures are necessary to achieve the desired results when dabbing; guesswork isn’t recommended. Those who dab on a regular basis should purchase a temp gun. Such a device allows a precise measure of the temperature and readiness of the dabbing surface, greatly improving the likelihood of potent, quality vapor hits and no loss of medicinal value.

Skillets

Skillets are flat plates that may or may not be part of a glass bong or vapor-channeling unit that are designed to be heated for the dabbing of concentrates. Skillets are no longer popular among dabbers and concentrate connoisseurs, having been replaced by more formal dab rigs, typically midsize water bongs that are outfitted with nails. While some companies continue to sell skillets and consumers continue to buy them in small numbers, most dab rigs are comprised of a water bong, a fitted nail, and possibly an accessory like a vapor curve (a glass elbow joint designed to improve vapor cooling and airflow within the rig).

Small skillet plates can also be attached to conventional water bongs cum dab rigs as an attachment to a vapor curve. The vapor curve, which is sometimes designed like an old school goose neck kitchen faucet, is poised directly above the small metal plate. As with any dab rig, the plate is then heated to the appropriate temperature and a dabbing tool is used to briefly touch the concentrate to the hot surface, with the vapor being pulled into the vapor curve above and traveling through the water bong as the patient inhales.

Nails

A nail is simply a small bowl-like heating surface, sometimes screened, that protrudes from a dab rig and is hyper-heated in preparation for being dabbed with concentrate. Nails must be made from materials that can tolerate the rapid heating and cooling necessary to properly vaporize a wide range of concentrates. These materials include titanium, glass, quartz, and ceramic.

Titanium and quartz are generally believed to be the highest quality for use as a dab platform; each can tolerate greater temperature extremes than glass or ceramic. Each material provides a different sets of pros and cons and a distinct physical appearance. Picky dab rig owners may prefer the crystal elegance of quartz, while many find the matte white of ceramic nails to be appealing. Others are dedicated to titanium and will never try anything else.  

It should be noted that both good and bad examples of nails made with each of these materials can be purchased. Dabbers should always try to ensure the purity and quality of anything they are going to repeatedly heat to nearly 700 degrees and have their face near. 

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Titanium nails, among the most expensive, are also the toughest. Their greatest benefit — aside from the smokin’ hot sexy good looks that titanium brings nearly any object — is being nearly impervious to breaking. Spun out dabbers who accidentally drop a titanium nail should worry for their floor tiles, not the nail. Likewise, the greatest weakness of ceramic, quartz, and especially glass nails is their frailty; they more easily chip, crack, and shatter when dropped on a hard surface.

The first generation of nails debuted in California around 2010, produced by glass blowers, and featured transparent domes designed to capture the vapor and deliver it to a consumer upon inhale. As the craft evolved, domeless nails were introduced. This gave owners of conventional water bongs the ability to simply modify their cherished — and often custom — glass to accept a nail in standard sizes, like 14 and 18 mm (readers should always ensure that a nail or other accessory will fit their particular bong). Some experts claim that quartz is slightly superior to titanium for conveying flavors, but stress that it must be dialed into the right temperature to achieve this.

E-nails

E-nails are simply electronic nails that can be plugged in and adjusted for temperature, no fuss, no muss. They feature a coiled heating element attached to a power supply with a digital readout that plugs into the wall. Like desktop vaporizers, e-nails need only be plugged in, turned on, and adjusted for temperature to deliver prize winning dab hits.

While by far the most expensive type of nail, e-nails can be used with nearly any type of dab rig (again, ensure proper size of all dab rig elements). E-nails provide several benefits. First, an e-nail doesn’t require a blow torch. While one can possibly imagine an octogenarian neighbor or relative with arthritis or cancer indulging in concentrates for flavor and potency, it is difficult to imagine someone’s grandmother — or a very sick patient — torching a quartz nail until it is glowing red hot in preparation for some CO2 oil or live resin.

The simple fact that e-nails require no torch makes them significantly safer than their manually heated cousins. E-nails are especially functional at parties, where the nail is always ready for another dab. Those lacking these devices must continually fire up the torch, frightening the cat and threatening those ugly yellow drapes with a visit from the local fire department. The convenience and safety of e-nails is difficult to deny, despite their sometimes exorbitant prices. DIYers have the option of building their own e-nail, a common practice upon potheads and patients with electrical and engineering skills.

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An e-nail can also be dialed into an exact temperature, just like many desktop vaporizers. This serves to most accurately activate the cannabinoids within the concentrate. Temps that are too high — something that’s easy to do with a blow torch, especially for newbies — result in the destruction of cannabinoids and can tarnish flavor. While very popular among young dabbers, especially on the West Coast and in Colorado, average tokers will probably want to save their pennies for an e-nail for convenience, safety, and the best quality and potency possible from their expensive grams of BHO and CO2 oil.

Accessories

Conventional water bongs can not only be converted into dab rigs with the addition of nothing more than a nail or banger (and maybe a couple of adapter pieces), but there’s plenty of accessories for those who wish to jazz up their rig or perfect the art of vaporizing concentrates.

Vapor curves, dabbers, and carb caps, made from borosilicate glass, titanium, and other heat-resistant substances, are among the slick accessories one can purchase to further enjoy and make even more convenient the experience of vaporizing concentrates with a dab rig. While some prefer to reappropriate kitchen utensils or garage tools for a dabber, others take a classier approach and purchase dedicated tools designed specifically for safety, balance, and heat endurance.

The Long Exhale

Those seeking to add some variety to their consumption of cannabinoids and terpenes should seriously consider dabbing. With nothing more than a modest water bong, a quartz, titanium, or ceramic nail, and possibly a few glass pieces, consumers can begin indulging in powerful hits of their favorite concentrates like BHO and rosin. Those who prefer not to play with a blow torch can opt for an e-nail to achieve the perfect temperature for their particular nail material and concentrate.

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While the element of a blow torch will inevitably relegate dabbing to a world of mostly youthful recreational users, e-nails provide an opportunity, albeit a costly one, to engage in dabbing with no hassle or guesswork, even for newbies. With such a wide variety of nail brands, designs, and materials available from reputable companies and glass blowers, dabbing debutantes can collect these important dabbing instruments, experiment to no end, and swap with their friends. Only these aren’t baseball cards, but rather part of a special bong that, when combined with increasingly popular concentrates, could couchlock the toughest of athletes.

Photo credit: Mat Lee, Dabberworld.com, YouTube

This post was originally published on November 6, 2015, it was updated on October 5, 2017.

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