Are Dabs Smoke or Vapor?
Dabs can seem confusing: the rig looks like a bong but the resulting cloud doesn’t seem or smell like smoke. So what exactly is it? A surprising number of dabbers don’t know whether dabs are smoke or vapor—and while the answer isn’t exactly straightforward, the science is.
The fact is that dabs can really be either smoke, vapor, or a combination of the two. It all depends on what temperature the concentrate is hit at and how exactly the heat is applied. There are three means of heat transfer when it comes to concentrates: combustion, which produces smoke, and the vapor-producing methods of convection and conduction.
Since it’s a heating method popularly used in vape pens (including dry herb vapes like the Magic Flight Launch Box) and tabletop vapes, let’s get convection out of the way. (And though it produces vapor, it’s not how a dab nail works.) Convection involves the vaporizing of concentrates or dry matter with the use of heated air, which passes through the material in order to heat it up. Like other means of creating vapor, convection usually requires heating around the 300-450 degree Fahrenheit range, as you might see marked on the bottom of an adjustable heat vape pen.
Because what’s being vaporized doesn’t touch the heating element, the indirect heating of convection makes it a relatively slow process. While not necessarily a problem for someone just looking to use a vape, this slowness does not lend itself well to dabbing.
When it comes to dabbing there’s one way to nearly guarantee that you’re getting a vapor hit: staying within the aforementioned range of vaporization, which is referred to as a low-temperature dab. The perfect temperature for a low-temp dab is around the 300-450 degrees Fahrenheit, although some argue that it only extends to 400 degrees. It’s different for every setup and nail, so it’s important to use either trial-and-error or a laser temperature gun to determine when you’re hitting it at the range where there is no combustion going on. (If you don’t have a means of measuring the exact temperature, a general rule of thumb is to let the nail cool down enough until you can put your hand comfortably over—not on—the piece. Then it’s ready to dab.)
This type of vaporization is called conduction, where a solid heated surface (titanium, quartz, ceramic, glass and so forth) is transferring its heat to the concentrate. When you heat up a banger or a regular dab nail you’re prepping the surface to heat the concentrate for you instead of depending on an isolated heat source as is the case with convection. When done right, this process leads to a vapor-filled dab and very little to no combustion.
Proponents of low-temperature dabbing also say that the practice yields a better flavor and prevents needlessly burning off concentrate that doesn’t get incorporated into the dab. And, of course, avoiding burning concentrate preserves the quality of the nail being used (and makes cleaning your dab rig a less-frequent necessity). Using a carb cap is also a common practice for low-temperature vapor-seekers in order to build up a big cloud by restricting airflow and maintaining a steady temperature.
But when it comes down to it some people just swear by high-temperature dabs, which involve heating the dab nail up to a red-hot glow with a propane or butane torch and then dabbing the concentrate somewhere around the 800 degree Fahrenheit mark. While this can produce an intense dab, it can also affect the flavor of the concentrate as the result of the breakdown of the compounds in a process called combustion. Basically, at that temperature, the concentrate is likely to burn and create smoke. This is far from what most dabbers are going for; otherwise why not just smoke a bong and avoid having to deal with a banger crusted with molten concentrate? And who wants a mouthful of singed smoke? Full combustion is certainly not the ideal dab and it’s presumably not what even high-temperature aficionados are gunning for. If you hop down to around 500-600 degrees Fahrenheit it’s possible to have a high-temp hybrid smoke-vapor cloud, where you have mainly vapor but still run the risk of introducing unwanted, combusted contaminants.
Trial and Error: It All Depends
It’s all about playing around—a few misfires won’t do you much harm but it’s worth putting in the effort to find the right temperature to get the maximum amount of vapor in your dab.
And so the answer to the age-old question of whether dabs are vapor or smoke is that it depends entirely on how the dab rig is used. If you’re looking for a true, full-vapor dab, there’s no denying that you have to stick within the 300-450 degree Fahrenheit temperature range. If you don’t mind a little combustion, though, feel free to explore the higher temperatures. The perfect dab temperature for you can be found.