Dabbing 101: What Is a Dab and How Do You Use It?

Dabbing 101: What Is a Dab and How Do You Use It?

The world of dabs can be intimidating and confusing for beginners, with all the hype, terminology, and necessary equipment seeming to set a high bar reserved for the most experienced users. This beginner’s guide to dabs will answer all of your questions, from what is a dab to how to dab and — most importantly — is dabbing right for you?

What Is a Dab?

A dab is a potent, THC-forward cannabis concentrate like wax or shatter. Concentrates are made by extracting THC and other cannabinoids from flower using a variety of solvents, producing a sticky residue that varies in form depending on the method of extraction and the solvents used. The term dab has come to refer to all concentrates in a colloquial sense — because you only need a small dab to feel the effects.

Why Dab?

Dabbing offers a number of distinct benefits over other
methods of consuming cannabis. Since dabs are the concentrated resin of the cannabis plant, they’re more potent than flower or edibles. Many people also find that they deliver a purer flavor than other methods of consuming cannabis and really let the flavor profiles of different strains shine. 

Additionally, dabbing vaporizes the cannabis concentrate at a lower temperature than burning it, which may be preferable to health-conscious consumers who prefer not to smoke. If you find that trying to inhale a pre-roll is a bit harsh for your sensitive pharynx and lungs, you’ll find that dabbing is a smooth, cool draw that tends to be much less irritating than smoke.

Types of Dabs

Wax, budder, shatter, honeycomb, sugar — so many different types of concentrate! Here’s a quick guide to the most common types of dabs on the market, how they’re made and what you should know about them.

  • Wax/budder is one of the most common forms of concentrate. It’s generally a BHO concentrate that has the consistency of soft wax or hard butter, ranging from crumbly to smooth. Its biggest advantage is that it’s moldable, making it easier to manipulate and dose for dabbing. 

  • Shatter is often regarded as the purest form of concentrate. It has the consistency of glass or hard candy and is brittle enough to break like glass, hence the moniker “shatter.” This tendency makes it a bit trickier to dose, so it’s generally a better product for more experienced dabbers. 

  • Honeycomb has the appearance of an actual honeycomb, but the texture of it can vary from crumbly to smooth and waxy. 

  • Sugar, sometimes called oil or sugar oil, is a honey-colored concentrate that has started to crystallize. 

  • Live resin is concentrate that’s made from living rather than dried plants. It’s prized for the richer terpene profile and tastes the closest to the original plant.

What’s a Dab Rig and Other Equipment Questions

When you smoke bud, all you need is a bowl (or some papers) and a source of fire. Dabbing is a bit more complicated. In addition, a few other pieces of gear will help you get the most satisfactory experience — and make your life a little easier.

The Dab Rig

A dab rig looks an awful lot like a bong, which isn’t really surprising since it essentially is a water pipe with one small difference. At the business end of a bong, you’ll find a bowl which you fill with herb. A dab rig consists of three basic parts: the mouthpiece, the chamber and the dab nail. 

Like bongs, dab rigs come in many shapes and sizes, so finding one that suits you is largely a matter of preference.

Dab Nail or Banger

Unlike the bowl of a bong, dab rigs feature a dab nail, which fits into or over the joint. It consists of a long neck and a flat platform or trough. To use the dab rig, you insert the nail, heat it to a high temperature, and then deposit your chosen concentrate on the heated platform to inhale it. Because they have to stand up to repeated heating, nails are generally made of either ceramic, quartz or titanium. 

Dab Torch

You’re not going to get the heat you need from your trusty Bic lighter. You’ll need a small, handheld butane torch to heat your dab nail to the right temperature for dabbing. If the thought of applying a blowtorch to something anywhere near your face is anxiety producing, there are also e-nails available that don’t require an outside source of heat, but they can be a bit pricey.


Dab Tool

The fourth essential tool you’ll need for dabbing is unimaginatively called a dab tool. They come in many shapes, sizes and configurations, but at their most basic, they’re a little spoon or hook used to scoop up the concentrate and apply it to the heated dab nail. 

There are many other accessories that you can add to your dab rig to customize your experience, including infrared thermometers and carb hoods, but the above-mentioned four are the essentials. 

Dab Pens

If all that feels a bit complex, there are now
dab pens, which make the whole experience considerably simpler. They’re sort of a cross between vape pens and dab rigs, giving you the portability of vaping and the customization and user experience of dabbing. They’re typically more expensive than vape pens that use cartridges, but give you considerably more flexibility.

The Importance of Temperature

One of the reasons that dabs deliver such a satisfying cannabis experience is that the terpenes and cannabinoids vaporize at lower temps, preserving their essential flavors, aromas and properties. Dabbing allows you to adjust the temperature you apply to your concentrates so that you can customize your experience by bringing out the specific qualities that you want to enjoy. While fine-tuning temperatures — and how it affects your personal experience of cannabis — are deep-dive topics, for now you should know that it’s possible to modify how you experience your high — or your pain relief — by adjusting the temperature of the dab nail. An e-nail, while expensive, can give you fine control over the surface temperature of the dab nail. Conversely, you can invest in an infrared thermometer to check the temperature of the nail head until you get more comfortable gauging the timing of heating and cooling yourself.

How To Smoke a Dab — Step-by-Step Guide

So you’ve picked out your concentrate and acquired the necessary equipment. Now what? Let’s walk through the process of setting up and smoking a dab, one step at a time.

Step One: Set Up Your Rig

First, do a quick safety check. Make sure that the area you’re working in is free of combustible materials and that you have everything you need nearby. Add water to the chamber, and check the level by blowing into the stem. You should be able to make the water bubble without effort. If the water splashes back into your mouth, empty a bit out. Now, insert the dab nail into the rig.

Step Two: Scoop Up Your Dab

Using the dab tool, scoop up a tiny (tiny!) amount of your chosen concentrate. Remember that concentrates are, well, concentrated. Depending on the strain, method and type, they may be as much as 99% THC, and since you’ll be inhaling them directly, you’ll get an intense, immediate effect. As with any new experience, it’s important to start low and go slow. Most experts recommend that you start with a bit of wax, shatter or other concentrate about the size of half a grain of rice. Keep that ready while you proceed to… 

Step Three: Heat the Nail

Turn on your butane torch and aim the flame toward — but not directly at — the head of the dab nail. Rather than keeping the blast of heat directed at one spot, keep the flame in motion around the edges of the nail. The exact amount of time to heat the nail is subjective — it depends a lot on the material and thickness of the nail. It will take at least 30 seconds and up to 60 seconds. If the nail starts glowing red hot, you can stop, though you don’t necessarily have to reach that temperature. Turn off the torch and put it down.

Step Four: Cool the Nail

A red-hot nail is way too hot for vaporizing concentrates. You’ll end up with bitterness and not a whole lot else. Instead, let the nail cool for at least 10 seconds, though many consumers wait 20 to 30 seconds. If you’re using an e-nail — or a thermometer — the folks at MiniNail have a
handy temperature chart you can experiment with when you’re fine-tuning your experience.

Step Five: Apply the Dab to the Nail

Use the dab tool to apply the concentrate to the nail. Touch it lightly to the outside edge of the nail and slowly swirl it around, letting it melt and coat the entire surface. 

At the same time, put your mouth to the mouthpiece and begin to smoothly draw air in through the bubbling water. You’ll be able to see the vapor rising through the stem of the rig. Keep inhaling until you can no longer see any vapor.

Step Six: Lather, Rinse, Repeat

If this is your first time dabbing, this may be a good time to stop, wait and assess your condition. Because the effects of dabbing are so immediate and intense, you’ll generally be able to judge pretty quickly whether you’ve reached your sweet spot or whether another hit will nudge you just a little closer. If that’s the case, you can go back to Step Two and repeat.

Step Seven: Clean Up

Finally, clean your dab tool and dab nail to avoid sticky residue buildup. Heat the dab tool in the flame of the blowtorch for about a second, then wipe it clean with a rag or alcohol wipe. You can clean the dab nail by heating it until all the residue is consumed. Alternatively, if you’re dabbing at low temperatures, you can wipe the inside of your banger with a cotton swab dipped in isopropyl alcohol and immediately wipe it dry with the other end of the swab.

Is Dabbing Right for You?

Ultimately, only you can tell if dabbing is right for you. These factors may help you make that decision.

  • Dabbing is faster and more intense than any other method of consumption. If you’re looking for immediate relief or a fast, intense high, dabbing is the best way to consume.
  • If you’re comfortable with using a variety of consumption methods and enjoy experimenting, you may find that doing a little dab is to your liking.
  • It’s generally a smoother inhale than smoking flower or vaping.

Dabbing may be especially useful for medical users who find that their tolerance to cannabis is making it harder to achieve the effects they need, or recreational users who are looking for a more intense experience than that offered by flower or traditional vaping. Since concentrates keep the characteristics of the strains from which they derive, you’ll find a wide variety of effects available through dabs. If you still have questions or just want a little help figuring out which products to try for your intended uses, talk with our trained budtenders, who are always happy to give you the benefit of their experience and expertise.

Deb Powers is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer who has been writing about cannabis and other wellness topics for nearly two decades. Her work has appeared in Civilized.Life and on a number of industry websites and publications.


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What Is Dabbing and How Do You Do It?

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