Demystifying the Bong, One Myth at a Time
Bongs, which you may also know by slang terms like bubbler, binger, or billy, are water pipes used to smoke cannabis.
They’ve been around for centuries. The word bong is said to have come from the Thai word “baung” for a bamboo tube used for smoking weed.
Today’s bongs look a lot more complicated than a simple bamboo tube, but they all come down to the same basic process.
Read on to learn more about how bongs work and why, contrary to lore, they aren’t actually any better for your lungs than other smoking methods.
Bongs come in all shapes and sizes. Some are very basic with just a bowl and chamber. Others are colorful, mouth-blown works of art.
At the end of the day, they all do basically the same thing: filter and cool the smoke that comes from the burning marijuana.
Bongs generally feature a small bowl that holds dried weed. When you light the weed it combusts. Meanwhile, as you inhale, the water in the bottom of the bong bubbles (or percolates, if you want to get technical). The smoke rises up through the water and then the chamber before entering your mouth and lungs.
If you’re looking for a smoother toke, a bong will give you just that compared to smoking weed rolled in paper.
As expected, the water in a bong eliminates the dry heat you get from a joint. The effect is often described as being cooler, creamy, and smooth rather than harsh.
This effect can be deceiving, though.
While the smoother smoke might feel better on your lungs, you’re still smoking. And that smoke is still filling up your lungs (we’ll spare the lecture on why this is all-around bad news for your health).
Sure, a small amount of the bad stuff might get filtered out. But it’s not enough to make much of a difference.
Yes, this means all those stories about bongs being the “safer” way to smoke are largely based on junk science.
So far, bong safety has been pretty low on the list of priorities when it comes to medical research. But as cannabis becomes legal in more areas, this could change.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health organizations, smoke is harmful to lung health regardless of what you’re smoking because of the carcinogens released from the combustion of materials.
Smoking marijuana, whether via doobie or bong, can harm lung tissues and cause scarring and damage to your small blood vessels.
The tendency to inhale deeply and hold your breath when smoking pot means you’re often exposed to more tar per breath. Plus, bongs are basically a way to get more smoke into your lungs while also making that smoke more pleasant to inhale.
All of these aspects make it easy to overdo it when using a bong.
One other risk to keep in mind is related to the use of plastic bongs. Plastics that contain chemicals like BPA and phthalates have been linked to adverse health effects, including cancer.
Bong health risks aside, depending on where you live and local laws, having a bong with marijuana in it or even just some residue could get you in legal hot water.
Research also shows that marijuana-only smokers have more healthcare visits related to respiratory conditions than nonsmokers, regardless of the method used to inhale the smoke.
How do those fancy bongs, with all their bells and whistles, actually work? Plus, find out whether they're actually easier on your lungs than a joint.
How Does A Bong Work And Should You Use One?
Despite its status as a cannabis culture icon that has been around in one form or another for hundreds of years, many people still ask us, “How does a bong work?”
In terms of understanding how it works, the bong is a bit like the internal combustion engine: lots of people use it frequently and depend on it to get them through their day, but few know what’s going on under the hood.
If you’ve been wondering “How does a bong work?” but have been too afraid to ask lest you raise the ire of your friends, rest easy, you’ve come to the right place. This is a safe space.
In this article, our experts at Honest Marijuana tell you everything you need to know about the bong so you can decide for yourself if you want to use one.
What Is A Bong?
A bong is basically a pipe for smoking dried and cured marijuana. It’s similar to a one-hitter but with more capacity and a special filter or two inherent in the design.
We’ll discuss what all of this means in more detail in the How Does A Bong Work section below. For now, it’s enough to know that, next to the joint and the brownie, the bong is one of the most popular ways to consume cannabis.
Bongs — a.k.a. water pipe, bing, billy, binger, bubbler, and hookah — are usually made of glass and come in a pretty standard shape.
But the more creative cannaseurs among us have gone so far as to make their bongs out of novel materials like wood, plastic, ceramic, fruit (yes, fruit), and diamond-encrusted gold.
Some even go the DIY route and make their own homemade bongs — that look nothing like regular bongs — out of mannequins, plastic building blocks, and candy.
So when we talk about the question, “How does a bong work?” we’re describing the process as it occurs in a professionally designed, store-bought glass bong, not an apple bong you built in a pinch because you left your real bong at home.
The History Of The Bong
The modern-day bong is a roundabout descendant of the water pipe that smokers in China and India still use today to enjoy cannabis and tobacco.
The definitive lineage of what we now call the bong is lost to the pot haze of time — mostly because the stoners of yore were high all the time and didn’t keep very good records — but some experts believe that the bong was first used in and around what is now Russia (perhaps by the Mongols).
The practice of using a bong to smoke weed traveled along the Silk Road through Persia and into China during the 14th century, where it quickly supplanted weed tea as the most popular method of consuming cannabis.
From China and the Hindu Kush region of Asia, the practice of smoking marijuana through a bong spread south into Indochina (modern-day Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam).
It’s from this region that the pipe we call a bong probably got its name (one of the only good things to come out of the Vietnam War). The Thai word “baung” refers to a round bamboo tube carved into a pipe for the sole purpose of smoking weed.
It’s not hard to imagine American troops in the late 1960s and early 1970s bringing back stories of their marijuana experiences, along with the simple design for a water pipe made out of bamboo (the baung).
From there, cannaseurs Americanized the Thai word into “bong” and began building their water pipes out of glass instead of bamboo (thanks, Bob Snodgrass!).
Since then, bong manufacturers have improved on the original design by including carb holes, larger water chambers, removable bowls and downstems, and even percolators to further filter the pot smoke.
With that in mind, let’s examine the parts of a bong more closely.
The Parts Of A Bong
All bongs, no matter how fancy, are built around the same four components:
The bowl of the bong is, as the name suggests, a deep bowl-shaped piece in which you pack your bud for eventual incineration (a.k.a. decarboxylation).
The downstem is a small tube that connects the bowl with the main body of the bong itself (the base). Depending on the design, the bowl and the downstem can be one piece or two.
The base is the bottom of the bong that holds the water. Bong designers can form the base into many different shapes depending on the visual effect they want to create. The most common bases are straight, beaker, and round.
The tube extends up from the base and terminates in the mouthpiece. It’s through the tube that you inhale the filtered smoke.
Some bongs also contain a carb hole (short for carburetor hole) that allows fresh air to flow into the pipe, making it easier to inhale the contents. Carburetors are not necessary to the design of the bong, but many feel that carburetor bongs produce a much more intense hit.
Carb holes are either situated on the tube (you cover it with your finger) or in the base itself as part of the downstem/bowl interface. If you have a removable downstem, you can use it as a carb hole by pulling it out after burning your ganja.
Another common addition to the simple base-and-tube bong described above (be it straight, beaker, or round) is the percolator.
The percolator (shown up-close below) is a piece of glass that dissipates the smoke before it passes through the water and causes a bubbling effect in the bong. Spreading the smoke out in that way helps to filter it better and cool it faster.
The percolator can be at the bottom of the bong (a single-chamber percolator), in another chamber (a multi-chamber percolator), or both (a multi-chamber, multi percolator).
Because of the complexity of this type of bong, they can be difficult to clean, not to mention more expensive.
How Does A Bong Work?
Now that you’re familiar with the history and parts of the modern-day bong, we’ll turn our attention to the question, “How does a bong work?”
The process of smoking a bong starts at the bowl-end of the bong itself. But the mechanics of the bong actually start at the opposite end — the mouthpiece.
When you place the mouthpiece over or in your mouth and gently and slowly start to inhale, you create a vacuum in the tube between your mouth and the water (like trying to suck the water through a straw).
Then, when you apply a flame to the ganja in the bowl, the resultant smoke flows through the downstem and into the base at the bottom of the bong.
It’s at this point in the process that the real magic of the bong occurs.
Water is relatively heavy when compared to smoke (which is why smoke will rise and water will stay put). So because you are trying to suck the contents of the base through the tube, the smoke will rise (or “percolate”) through the water into the tube.
This percolation has a two-fold effect: it filters and cools the marijuana smoke.
As the smoke passes through the water in the base, the water acts as a net or filter that removes and traps undesirable particles such as ash and tar.
Because the cannabinoids and terpenes in marijuana are not water-soluble, the vast majority of them will percolate through the water into the tube.
In regard to the cooling effect, most flames can burn at several thousand degrees Fahrenheit. Thankfully, the smoke produced when your cannabis burns is nowhere near that hot, but it can still be several hundred degrees Fahrenheit if you were to inhale it directly into your lungs.
The marvelous thing about the bong is that the water in the base (which can be hot or cold) will cool the smoke significantly. Cooler smoke is much easier to inhale and makes for a more enjoyable pot-smoking experience.
Once you’ve got enough filtered and cooled smoke in the tube, you can release the carb hole (or withdraw the bowl/downstem combo) and inhale the contents into your lungs for recreational or medicinal effects.
That’s one hit. Replace the stem, pass it to the next person (if you’re toking in a group), and do it again.
That’s how a bong works in a nutshell.
Should You Use A Bong?
The second most common question we get asked here at Honest Marijuana is, “Should I use/try (insert marijuana consumption method here)?”
The straight answer is, “Yes!”
If you can handle the expense of buying a bong, the time necessary to maintain it, and the steps necessary to make it work, you really can’t go wrong using a bong.
If you’re a little leery about buying your own, ask a friend if you can try theirs (you can grease the wheel by offering to bring the weed and share the hits).
If you enjoy using your friend’s bong, you can buy your own for personal use. If you don’t enjoy using a bong, you can always rely on one of the many cannabis consumption alternatives, like joints, edibles, tinctures, and oils.
Even though it’s been around for a long time, many people still ask, “How does a bong work?” In this article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know.