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What is dabbing and how do you dab?

What is dabbing and how do you dab?

A well-rolled joint that pulls just right, a pan of strong, delicious brownies, or a locomotive bong hit that leaves you coughing your way to euphoria — there are all types of ways to consume cannabis but in recent years, dabbing has taken the scene by storm.

But what exactly is dabbing and why should you check it out (or steer clear)?

Check out our handy guide to dabbing and decide for yourself if you want to book a ticket.

Dabbing cannabis shatter
Dabbing cannabis shatter. (Roxana Gonzalez Leyva/123rf)

First things first. What is dabbing?

Simply put, a dab is a highly concentrated dose of cannabis extract (“cannabis concentrate”) that you heat up and inhale. Because it’s a concentrate, it typically has a far-higher percentage of THC than the average cannabis flower, or nearly any other form of cannabis — typically between 70-90%.

Extract concentrates like shatter or wax are made by using a solvent to extract the cannabinoids from the cannabis flower. This can be done through the use of butane, hexane, and other hydrocarbons, or through the use of CO2. Shatter has a consistency like peanut brittle or glass, while wax more closely resembles….wax.  

Solventless extracts, include rosin, a golden substance similar to tree sap that’s made by applying heat and pressure to cannabis flower and or trim (you can even make it with a hair straightener) or hashish, which is made from the THC-rich trichome crystals on the cannabis plant (also known as kief). With hash, the kief is pressed into a brown or golden block which can have a consistency like a soft ginger snap. 

Usually it only takes a small amount, a dab if you will, hence the name.

Why is dabbing better than smoking cannabis flower?

When it comes to cannabis, it’s best not to think of things in a black or white “better or worse” fashion. Everyone is unique and how their body reacts to cannabis can be radically different from someone else using the exact same dose. 

Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, there are some reasons why dabbing could be preferred to smoking. 

Depending on the concentrate you use, dabbing can actually allow you to get the full flavor profile of the cannabis, due to the fact that it is heated at a lower temperature than when smoking, and less of the terpenoids and flavonoids are lost in the process.  Not all concentrates contain the full terpene and flavonoid profile of a cannabis strain, however.

Cannabis live resin
Cannabis live resin concentrate. (Roxana Gonzalez Leyva/123rf)

And while dabbing can pack a heavy punch, for people who do not like the harshness of smoking, it could be a better alternative, due to the far lower levels of tar and other combusted organic particles.

Now, this is where it gets tricky. 

Considering that most of today’s cannabis ranges from about 10-30% THC and concentrates can contain upwards of 90% THC, the high can be very powerful — even for a seasoned cannabis user. When dabbing, don’t approach it like a joint or a bong, start slow, try just one very small dab, and wait and see how you feel. Picture about half the size of a tic tac or a grain of rice. Worst case, you can also have another dab 15-20 minutes after if that first one doesn’t get you there. 

Now, while this is reason for caution, it’s also one of the things that make dabbing — and Brylcreem — great, just a dab’ll do you. For heavy recreational cannabis users with near equestrian levels of tolerance, a dab can be the most reliable way to still get a strong high.

Why is smoking better than dabbing?

When you have one or more people ingesting highly potent cannabis, bringing a blowtorch and white-hot glass accessories into the mix could be a recipe for accidents. 

Dabbing safely requires being cautious and responsible, which can be a bit trickier once you’re feeling the effects of that 90% THC shatter. You can make things a good bit safer by purchasing an electric nail or “e-nail” which uses electricity to provide heat — without the use of any sort of flame. A more holistic option is to use an electric dab rig, which uses ceramic or quartz heating coils to allow the user to dab without any fire at all. 

This is arguably another drawback of dabbing: it requires a fair amount of accessories, and while it can easily be shared in a session with friends, packing a glass rig, dab torch, and nail might not be the easiest proposition for a quick afternoon jaunt to the beach. 

That said, after your first or second time, you should have it mastered. 

There is also some concern about the dangers of ingesting concentrations of questionable origin, which may have a number of contaminants. According to an article published in 2017 in Cureus, “dabs that are homemade or obtained from an unreliable source may be prone to containing residual solvent (i.e. butane, pesticides, or other contaminants).”

The article cited a study from 2015 in which the researchers tested 57 concentrate samples and found that 83.3% of them contained residual solvents, and pesticides were found in a third of the samples, the most common being paclobutrazol, a growth retardant and fungicide which is not registered with the Environmental Protection Agency for use on food crops. 

Meanwhile, a 2014 survey of 357 concentrate users found that using “dabs” created “no more problems or accidents than using flower cannabis.” The researchers did note that the respondents said that dabs “led to higher tolerance and withdrawal,” which they took to suggest that it could be more likely to “lead to symptoms of addiction or dependence.”

This is not to say that smoking flower is not without its risks and that cannabis flower cannot have dangerous pesticides and additives as well. If you are dabbing, your best bet is to purchase your concentrates from reputable companies and businesses with a reputation to protect — and to dab responsibly.

What do you need to dab?

Dabbing is not as complicated as some over-the-top setups might make it seem. Once you understand the basic build of a rig and the tools needed, it’s actually pretty simple. Sure, you can get a crazy rig with several levels of percolators, ash catchers, and smoke coolers, but it doesn’t need to be that complex. Here are the basic tools of the trade.

Though it may seem like a complicated operation, once you’ve got the basics down dabbing is pretty simple. 

Unless you use an electronic setup, your basic supplies for dabbing are a dab rig, a dab nail, a dab cap, and a blowtorch.

What is a dab rig?

Dab rigs can range from simple water pipes that look more or less like a glass bong to elaborate works of glass art that could set you back not a whole lot less than an engagement ring. 

The dab rig is basically the setup for holding the dab nail, and the device through which the vapor travels from the nail into your lungs. 

Other than the dab nail, a dab rig is much like a bong — there is typically a mouthpiece, a chamber you can fill with water and ice, and a stem.

bongs and dab rigs
A selection of glass bongs and dab rigs in a store. (Svetlana Day/123rf)

What is a dab nail?

The dab nail may confuse some people, but think of it as almost like the bowl on a bong. 

Unless you’re using an e-nail, the dab nail is the part of the rig that you heat up with the blow torch. Once you get it hot, you drop in a small dab of concentrate, where it burns and turns to vapor, and is sucked up into your lungs. 

Dab nails come in all shapes and sizes. They can be glass, quartz, titanium, and ceramic, among other materials.   

Possibly the most popular form of dab nail is what’s called a “banger.” Banger nails are flat-bottomed with a swan neck shape that brings it further away from your face. Quartz bangers are among the most popular and they are durable, easy to clean, and provide a tasty, clean hit. 

Ultimately, finding which dab nail is right for you could take a little trial and error.

What is a carb cap?

Once the concentrate is heated up in the nail, you won’t want the vapor escaping. A carb cap traps the vapor, allowing you to inhale at your own pace. 

Like with so much in the world of dabbing accessories, they can be extravagant or utilitarian, but ultimately they only have one very specific job to do.

Finally, once you have all your gear, you’re going to need a blow torch. You can get all types of small and discrete varieties, but the cannabis industry has also supplied no shortage of artfully-designed blowtorches if you please. 

How to dab 

You’ve got all your gear ready, you’ve cleared your schedule, and if you’ve got kids, there’s another responsible adult watching them. 

First things first, lay out all the gear you’ll need, ideally on a nice stable table or desk, on top of a silicone mat or a tray that won’t move or jostle around. 

Attach your dab nail to the dab. Take a small dabber (a thin, long steel tool that almost looks like something a dentist would have) and use it to form and pick up a small piece of concentrate, again, about half the size of a tic tac. 

Take your blow torch and heat the nail for 30-40 seconds, making sure not to heat the dab rig itself. Let the nail cool for about 15-30 seconds, place your mouth on the mouthpiece, place the dab in the nail and inhale slowly and steadily. 

You may need to move the dab around in the nail to make sure it evaporates. Use your carb cap and cover the nail, continuing to inhale.

Slowly exhale, kick back, relax, and wait and see how you feel. Remember, you want to start slow when it comes to dabbing, but once that first hit kicks, you’re probably not going to be moving too fast anyway.

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