Weed 101: WTF Is a Dab Rig, and How Do You Use One?
Like cannabis concentrates? This guide will give you all the deets about dab rigs, including how to pick one out for yourself and how to properly use one.
Published on December 4, 2019

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Sometimes puffing a joint or hitting a bowl isn’t enough. Sometimes you need weapons-grade THC launched directly to the dome, and dabbing is the most efficient way to do that.

Granted, dabbing isn’t for everyone. If smoking weed is like sipping a beer, then dabbing marijuana extracts is like taking straight shots of Everclear. But some long-time tokers need higher doses of THC to get lit, and many medical patients find instant relief from migraines, abdominal pains, menstrual cramps, and nausea by taking a dab. (Or two. Or ten.)

Extracts like shatters, waxes, crumbles, live resins, sauces, and rosins are best consumed through a device called an “oil rig” or a “dab rig.” This is because most high-tech cannabis extracts are much more volatile and fragile than traditional concentrates like hashish or full-extract cannabis oil (FECO). You can twist extracts up into a blunt or cap them on a bowl of weed, but you won’t get the most out of your extracts by puffing on them under a flame. So, what exactly is a dab rig, and what do you need to know about the consumption device?


The Anatomy of a Dab Rig

While you can smoke dabbable extracts, consuming them through a dab rig will give you the most bang for your buck. Dab rigs are essentially water pipes fitted with a “nail” on the male stem, the part that slides into the female stem on a bong. In other words, a dab rig is just a bong that uses a nail instead of a bowl.

OK, so what’s a nail? A nail is usually made of titanium, ceramic, or quartz. It’s a heated platform where the dabber drops or twirls the cannabis concentrate onto the nail to vaporize or combust the extract. Once the dab hits the hot nail, simply inhale and hold on for the impending rollercoaster ride.

Nails often come with a “dome” or “carb cap.” This optional device is placed over the top of the nail to trap dab vapor from escaping, which means much, much bigger hits. 

A legit dab rig should always contain a base for holding water, and higher end rigs will contain multiple water chambers and percolators to keep the dab cool. You can dab without a rig, such as by using a specially-made glass straw. But since dabs are always incredibly hot, it’s a good idea to stick with a rig if you’re looking to give your lungs a break.

What Kind of Dab Rig Should You Go With?

Everyone has different needs and desires when it comes to what they require in a toking apparatus. Dab rigs come in all shapes, sizes, and functions, so here’s a cheat sheet on picking the best one for you.

If You’re an Out and Devoted Toker: 

Go with a full-on, two-foot-long-plus rig with multiple percolators and an ice chamber. You’ve got nothing to hide.

If You Want Portability: 

Consider a compact, electric rig like the Puffco Peak. These are the rigs mentioned above that come with built-in electric nails. They can be charged from a wall outlet.

If You’re On a Budget: 

Snag a basic dab rig that, at the very least, has a base for water filtration. Go with a ceramic or quartz nail; titanium nails can be fairly pricey. 

If You Plan to Be a Casual or Discreet Dabber: 

Skip a full rig and look into dab straws. These glass pipes require just a little heat at the tip, then you can dip the tip directly into your dab container to get a hit. Afterward, you can easily store the straw away from prying eyes.


How to Do a Dab: Step One, Heat the Nail

There are two ways to heat the nail on a dab rig. The first way is to use a butane or propane blowtorch. If going with a torch, keep in mind that propane burns a lot hotter than butane. If you’re going with propane, try to keep the tip of the flame along the uppermost rim of the nail, especially if it’s a ceramic nail (they’re kinda delicate and will eventually crack apart with time). 

You can heat the nail until it begins to turn red hot, but this is not necessary. You can test the nail’s relative heat by holding your hand an inch or two from the nail. Once it’s sufficiently heated, wait 10 seconds for the nail to cool just a bit — that is, if you want to enjoy the dab’s full flavor. If you’re less interested in flavors and more interested in getting higher than a kite, feel free to rip that sucker as soon as you take the torch off of it.

By the way, if you’re heating a nail with a flame, it must be a blowtorch of some type. Your typical Bic lighter won’t cut it.

The second way to heat a nail is with electricity. You’ll need to purchase an electronic nail, or e-nail, to do this. Electronic nails come with a few advantages over the blowtorch, namely that they’re safer than using torches, and you can also dial in specific temperatures for ultimate control over your dabbing experience. And note that some newer dab rigs come equipped with an electronic nail built-in. 

Finally, there are ways to dab without using a torch or e-nail, which you can read more about here.


Step Two: Drop the Extract

Next, you’ll need your extract and a “dab wand.” Although many head shops will sell “dab wands” made of glass or metal, any sturdy metallic stick (like a paper clip) will do. 

Once the nail is heated, pick up a small (or large) amount of extract with a “dab wand.” With your mouth on the inhaling end of the dab rig, place the extract onto the hot nail with the dab wand. Some people like to stir the dab in circle across the top of the nail, but this isn’t necessary. If the nail is hot enough, you should be able to simply hold the wand in place as the dab melts and vaporizes on the nail. Begin inhaling immediately.

Step Three: Clean the Nail

Neither scientists nor doctors know what the long-term effects of chronic dabbing are, but there is evidence that dabbing produces some toxins in small amounts (relative to, say, smoking tobacco, that is). Which is why you should always clean your nail after each dab. Failure to do otherwise will cause these toxic degradation products to build up on the nail, especially if you’re dabbing at lower temps and there are oils pooling on the nail.

Cleaning a nail is super easy, though. Take a cotton swab, cotton ball, or tissue, and wipe it along the nail while it’s still warm. If the nail has cooled, add a small amount of rubbing alcohol to eat through the sticky and chunky stuff. (Just be sure you either wipe the nail again or heat it gently, without a dab, to get rid of the rubbing alcohol.)

And there you have it, your crash course in getting wrecked on dabs. Just know that since dabbing is a relatively new phenomenon, and we don’t know what dabbing will do to people in the long-run (if there is anything detrimental), you’re all essentially guinea pigs for now. Have fun, play safe, and, as always: Start low, and go slow!

Follow Randy Robinson on Twitter

Randy Robinson
Based in Denver, Randy studied cannabinoid science while getting a degree in molecular biology at the University of Colorado. When not writing about cannabis, science, politics, or LGBT issues, they can be found exploring nature somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. Catch Randy on Twitter and Instagram @randieseljay
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