We often get questions from customers about how to choose a waterpipe. Of course, given the breadth of options available this can be a rather difficult question to answer. We’d like to provide everyone with a simple introductory guide on how to select a waterpipe, whether it is your first or your 10th. We don’t intend our guide to be comprehensive, as we couldn’t possibly elucidate on every feature available with modern waterpipes. We also assume a small amount of basic knowledge about waterpipes on the part of the user. We will also skip discussion of the more minor features of waterpipes, such as icepokes. Luckily, this is the age of Google and you’ll quickly be able to find about any term with which you are unfamiliar.
First, a brief history of the waterpipe is needed to fully appreciate this remarkable device. Every day someone is coming out with a new advancement in material science or an innovative construction technique to improve your smoking experience. The best contemporary waterpipes become usable products only after many steps in a complex global supply and production chain. It wasn’t always so.
The earliest evidence for waterpipes comes from Africa in the 13th Century. Those early smokers used bamboo, animal horns, earthenware, and anything else available to construct downstems, chambers, and bowls. Although the materials have changed, the general concept has remained the same over all those centuries. So the next time you take a hit off your 4 percolator 20” borosilicate glass wonder, be sure to give a silent moment of thanks to your smoking forefathers.
Before we discuss how to choose your glass piece, we should identify why we use glass. There are other materials available, such as bamboo, ceramic, and acrylic. Bamboo and ceramic are specialty materials and outside the scope of our discussion.
Prior to the advent of glass, acrylic (a type of transparent plastic) was the material of choice to construct waterpipes. Why? It’s easy to build a waterpipe out of it, and it’s very cheap to make a waterpipe out of one. You can even construct your own plastic waterpipe with a handheld drill, some O-rings, and a few other odds and ends that can be scavenged around the house. It’s also portable and stands up well to abuse.
Although acrylic has many desirable traits, it also has serious drawbacks. For one, since the plastic material is porous it will absorb chemicals produced when smoking. Eventually this will lead to an odor and taste that is impossible to remove. The simple design of the acrylic pipe, although cheap, makes for poor airflow and filtering characteristics. More sophisticated designs would ameliorate the advantage of using acrylic. Acrylic is still very suitable for the very occasional user who doesn’t wish to spend much money. However, for regular users or those seeking the best possible smoking experience, it isn’t appropriate.
Glass is the material of choice for the modern waterpipe. It’s non-porous so it does not absorb odors. Although more fragile than acrylic, it can if properly cared for last many, many years. We occasionally talk to customers who have used the same glass waterpipe for 20 or more years.
That’s enough history and discussion of materials for now. What everyone wants to know is how to make sense of all the options available. There are 2 choices you should make so that you can narrow down your options.
- Do you want percolators or no percolators? A “perc” helps to diffuse and reduce heat, and also filters any adulterants in your product as it is smoked. The negative side is that it adds complication and expense, makes the pipe harder to clean, and makes it more difficult to inhale (“drag”)
- How big of a piece do you want? There are regular waterpipes, which are typically about 8” or taller, and what we’ll call mini waterpipes under about 8”. A larger waterpipe can accommodate more percolators and give you a bigger hit, but are obviously much less portable.
- What size joint do you want? The bigger the joint the more airflow you can get through the piece. As with any product though, there are tradeoffs. The bigger a joint, the fewer choices engineers have in designing your waterpipe. For example, you will never see a 29MM joint in a waterpipe 5” tall.
- Do you want a waterpipe designed for essential oils or herbal blends?
There are more options once you make your major decisions, and certain features that are typically available with each major choice. Here are major differences to expect once you’ve made your choice.
- If you choose a waterpipe with no integral percolators, it will typically be a very simple piece that requires a downstem. These usually come in a beaker or straight (martini) design. Beakers allow you to get a bigger hit, but straight pieces are typically more robust due to differing construction techniques. These pieces differ mainly in the size of glass tubing used and height.
2. The smallest waterpipes may have percolators in the form of a fixed (welded in) downstem and little else. However, these are almost always designed for oils so the lack of percolators is less of a concern.
3. Waterpipes designed for oils have much more freedom of design than pipes designed for herbal blends. Expect to see a greater variety of form factors than are possible with herbal blend waterpipes.
4. Waterpipes with multiple percs will typically be taller and more fragile than single or no perc waterpipes. This is changing as the most basic percolator, the multiarm tree, fades from use and is supplanted by more modern and compact designs.
Now you have to decide what type of perc(s) you want. The oldest and most basic type of perc is the multi-arm tree. Very simply, this is a series of glass tubes welded together at the top in a circumferential arrangement. They typically come in configurations of between 6 and 12 “arms” (single glass tubes), depending on the width of the waterpipe tubing. Although very effective at filtering and cooling gases, these percs are fragile, expensive, large, and greatly limit the choices available when designing a waterpipe. Early multi-perc waterpipes used several of these trees stacked vertically. It worked, but the percs made the waterpipes very large and they were also very sensitive to shattering.
The most modern technique of implementing a multi perc design is to use a smaller, simpler perc to filter and use the inherent design of the waterpipe to cool gases. These are often used in series in order to create a better filtering action. Examples of newer type percs are honeycomb, fritted, turbine, inline, and showerhead. There are many, many other types. What you choose will come down to personal preference, but ultimately most all of these innovations work pretty well and will get the job done.
We’ve created a flowchart to help you make your decision. We hope it helps rather than hinders you in picking a waterpipe.
We’ve put a lot of information out there about how to choose a waterpipe. We hope we’ve helped you to become more knowledgeable and make better purchasing decisions. If not, or if you have any questions, we’d love to hear from you.