What Is Dabbing, and How Does One Do a Dab?
This ain't your grandpa's hash.
Published on January 5, 2023

Are you new to the weed scene? Do you keep hearing about this dabbing thing, but you’re stuck in 2015, and all you can imagine is some dance with two salutes?

For a quick summary, think of it like this: dabbing is to weed what straight shots of liquor are to alcohol. It’s a relatively new way to get lifted (though I’ll touch on why it’s not exactly a new thing later) on ultra-concentrated cannabis oils and waxes. Basically, you touch (dab) a small amount of concentrate on a nail — dabbing’s equivalent of a bowl — then draw in the vapors or smoke. 

That’s pretty much it.

If you’re looking to step-up your tolerance game, dabbing’s a great place to start. So, where to begin, precisely?

What, Exactly, Is a Dab?

Before plunging into the nuances of dabbing, let’s first start with some terminology.

Dabbing is a verb that denotes the act of doing a dab or taking a dab. A dab (singular ) either refers to the dabbable product (wax, oil, etc.) or to the act of dabbing.

Where does the word come from, though? Like most things with cannabis, much of this word’s origins remain steeped in folklore. On the surface, the term likely comes from an application of motor oil, also called a dab, though some folks would tie the word back to The Wizard of Oz (“…a little dab will do you”).

The Anatomy of Dabbing

All right, now for the fun part. To perform a dab, you’ll need a few things:

- The dabbable product (wax, oil, etc.)

- A rig (a.k.a. “oil rig” – get it? This is the device used to consume the dab)

- A nail (the heated element that combusts/vaporizes the dab)

- A wand (the instrument used to transfer the product to the nail)

- A dome or cap (not necessary, but incredibly helpful)

- Cotton swabs and rubbing alcohol (or some other weed-cleaning solvent)

Got everything? Good. Here’s how this works.

How to Take a Dab Hit, Step by Step:

1. Get the dab and set it aside.

2. Heat the nail: This will depend on what kind of nail/rig you have. Standalone nails are usually made of quartz, porcelain, or titanium. Regular butane lighters don’t generate enough heat to get these hot enough, so you’ll need a butane or propane torch to get it ready.

If you’re going the torch route, heat the top rim of the nail. Most folks wait until the nail starts to get red-hot, though OGs can intuit how long they need to keep the flame on. Then let the nail cool for a minute or so to avoid burning your throat when you take a hit.

Electronic rigs/nails (a.k.a. e-nails) don’t require a torch. To get these heated up, simply plug in (or charge up) the nail/rig, and once it hits the correct temperature, you’re ready to party.

3. Using a wand or some other short, sturdy stick, transfer the wax/oil to the heated nail. Some dabbers recommend stirring the wand while the dab bubbles turn to smoke/vapor. Really, though, stirring isn’t usually necessary. Just holding the wand to the nail as the dab sizzles should be fine.

4. Inhale. Rigs featuring bubble bases, percolators, and ice traps are highly recommended. Dabs are incredibly hot, even at the lowest temperature settings, so having some kind of water filtration is ideal. However, there are some rigs/dabbing devices that don’t use water filtration, and they’ll get you just as ripped.

5. You can cap your nail with a dome or cap while inhaling. The dome partially seals the top of the nail, which helps to keep it hot while minimizing lost vapor/smoke. Again, you don’t need a dome to properly dab, but if you’re going for maximum effort, then including a dome in your oil-rig arsenal is a must.

6. Clean the damn nail, you pothead! Using a cotton swab dipped in some kind of (safe) solvent, run the swab’s tip along the entirety of the nail’s business end. Dabbing will usually leave behind a residue, a pool of unspent oil, or — worse — burnt flaky crud. These waste byproducts are usually cannabinoids and other oil-based products that have decomposed or otherwise turned into toxic free-radicals due to high heat. Inhaling whatever is left behind may not kill you, but it’s generally considered unsafe and unhygienic.

7. Repeat. Y’know, if that’s your prerogative...

Hot Knifing: History’s First Dabs

If you’re an older individual, you’ve probably heard of (or performed) hot knifing. Hot knifing (a.k.a. a knife hit) is sort of like the proto-dab.

To hot knife, take two knives (usually butter knives). Typically, hash would be stuck to the end of one knife blade while the second knife blade is heated on a stove top. Once the second knife is hot, the ends are touched together, heating the hash and creating a thick wisp of smoke. “Kiss” the air above the two knife ends, and you’re hot knifing the weed.

A Word on Temperatures

You probably noticed I used the words smoke and vapor when referring to the inhalable smoke generated by dabbing. How hot your nail is when you dab determines whether you’re vaporizing or smoking (combusting) the concentrate. 

Vaporization occurs when the dab is heated enough to boil off its desired contents (cannabinoids, terpenes). Smoking occurs when the dab is so hot that everything in the dab is effectively burned. Both methods have their upsides and downsides.

Researchers (the rare few who study dabbing) recommend dabbing at the lowest possible heat setting. This is because there’s some suspicion that dabbing at high heats (read: combusting) can produce toxic byproducts, though the severity of that toxicity isn’t well known, since the long-term effects of dabbing haven’t really been studied.

Dabbing at lower heats also better preserves the terpenes, which could lead to a more well-rounded high. Besides, if the terps get burned at too high of a heat, you can’t really taste them.

Dabbing at higher temperatures will probably get you fucked up faster. Some dabbers prefer high heats just for this reason alone.

A Dab Will Do Ya!

So, there you have it. Keep in mind this guide is an incredibly basic overview of dabbing. Some steps may switch orders depending on your rig or dabbing device. For instance, with some electronic rigs, like the Puffco Peak, the dab goes into the nail before heating occurs. Still, (others, like dab straws) don’t use wands, since the straw itself is dipped directly into the dab.

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MERRY JANE is based in Los Angeles, California and is dedicated to elevating the discussion around cannabis culture.
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