So What are Bongs, Exactly? A History Guide from Cannsy

From Thailand to Ethiopia to America, bongs have made their mark on the world. Often considered works of art, the extensive selection of pieces available cater to both novice and connoisseur smokers. This extensive guide to bongs introduces readers to the varied designs and accessories on the market as well as the benefits, best practices and safety tips for using the device.

What are Bongs?

A bong is a water-filtered smoking device that produces smoother, cooler, cleaner "milk." By filtering the smoke from dried herbs through water, heavy residue particles and water-dissolving molecules do not enter the respiratory system. Although they are available in an endless array of sizes, shapes and styles, bongs have three distinguishing features in their construction.

Water Chamber: The bottom of the bong consists of a bulbous chamber that holds water, which functions to filter and cool the smoke so that it feels smoother on the throat and lungs when inhaling.

Tube: Once the smoke passes through the water chamber, it flows upward into a long-neck vertical tube and out through the mouthpiece. While tubes are often straight, bongs are also created with elaborate chambers that further filter the smoke and provide artistic beauty to the piece.

Downstem: This diagonal stem protrudes from a small hole in the tube. The bottom of the stem rests in the water chamber while the top flares into a bowl to hold dried herbs. Its purpose is to draw the air and smoke into the water as the user inhales, which creates bubbles. When the downstem is stationary, it is accompanied by a carb, a small hole above the water line that is covered by the thumb and then released when the user is ready to clear the tube. When using a slider downstem, the smoker pulls the stem out instead. Depending on the preferences of the user, the bowl on top of the stem can be small or large and is often decorative.

Bongs are similar in function and construction to hookahs, which are also based on water filtration, but they are smaller and do not have hoses. While any vessel that is air and water tight can technically be transformed into a bong, most pieces are made from acrylic, glass, wood or ceramic.

The Cultural Evolution of Bongs


Bongs have a rich history that flourished amongst ancient cultures in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Historians disagree on where the water pipe actually originated since variations on ceremonial, recreational and medicinal smoking exist in many societies. 

Archeological excavations in Africa have upturned 13th-century earth pipes made of horns, bamboo, gourds and earthenware. An underground duct connected the buried chamber to a mouthpiece. Earth pipes have also been found in Central Asia. During the 16th century, hookahs popped up in Persian cultures while the popular bamboo bong spread from Thailand to China. Amongst the nobility, the Thai baung was often made from bronze and adorned with inscriptions and jewels.

Through travel and trade, bongs spread throughout Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries before making their way to America. These Victorian water pipes were often made of ceramic and elaborately decorated. The glassblowing arts movement in the late 1970s led to one of the first patents for the glass bong being filed in the U.S. Glassblowing artists became entrepreneurs as demand for their intricate artwork grew, particularly in the 21st century.

Today, bongs are mostly made from hand-blown glass that usually changes colors. However, translucent acrylics, wooden tubes and detailed ceramic versions are readily available on the market. They range in size from portable mini bongs to massive water pipes that stand 15-feet tall. The least expensive models are smaller and plainer. Prices increase based on the thickness of the glass, the styling of the artwork and the intricacy of the accessories.

The Various Kinds of Bongs

The size, shape and height affects the way a bong pulls the smoke through the water chamber and into the tube. The diameter of the downstem and bowl also determine the flow of air and smoke. The most popular versions include: 

Percolator Bongs

The percolator bong incorporates a suspended glass filter into the water chamber that breaks up and spreads out the bubbles evenly by circulating the smoke through the water. This process creates smaller bubbles that are more efficient at filtering toxic substances and cooling the smoke. Even though there is more drag when milking, the inhalation is smoother. More holes and smaller slits in the perc provide better diffusion yet increase drag. Some pieces add an additional perc sub-chamber in the tube, providing additional benefits but requiring a harder pull.

There are several types of percolators:
  • The diffuser incorporates slits into the downstem. 
  • The tree uses downward facing "arms" that create flow paths in the water. Drag decreases with more arms. Artistic adaptations include twisting branches and angled arms. 
  • The spiral perc coils its way up from the water chamber through the tube. Smoke is diffused through tree arms on the bottom and small holes or slits throughout the cylinder. This design forms the basis for the double helix and the glycerin-filled wraps that can be frozen. 
  • The disk-shaped dome perc pushes the smoke to the bottom of the water chamber before pulling it upward through holes. The honeycomb design includes dozens of tiny holes to produce small bubbles. A showerhead is a horizontal tube with slits or holes along the sides. 

Bubbler Bongs


The handheld bubbler is a hybrid of a bong and pipe. This lighter-weight, more portable version is horizontal like a pipe instead of vertical and features a drop-down water chamber that filters and cools the smoke. The glass piece produces a smoother, lighter drag although it is easier to inhale water if the user pulls too hard. The long neck ends in a small hole at the mouthpiece and a carb replaces the slider stem. Due to their design, bubblers are more challenging to clean.

Mini Bongs

The mini bong is popular for the same reasons as the bubbler: it is portable, easy to hold and light weight. It is also lower in price. Ranging between 6 and 10 inches, most rely on a carb system. The drawbacks of the small bong include a greater chance of inhaling water, thinner glass that is easier to break and tighter crevices that are more difficult to clean.

Scientific Bongs

The sleek scientific bong is made from laboratory-grade borosilicate glass, which is stronger and heat resistant. Usually sporting a clean, transparent look, scientific bongs range from simple straight tubes with beaker bottoms to intricate designs featuring bent mouthpieces, fancy percolators and ash catchers. These high-end pieces are prized for producing a smooth drag and thick milk. Scientific bongs are also available in vapor versions for smoking concentrates. 

Homemade Bongs

Bong users are creative in their tactics for making homemade water pipes. Most are constructed from plastic or glass bottles although fruits and vegetables, such as apples, bell peppers and coconuts, are used to provide extra flavor. The gravity bong consists of a plastic jug with punctured holes on the bottom that is submerged in a bucket of water. While lighting the herb, the user slowly raises the jug, using gravity to displace the water with smoke. Once the water is drained, the jug is pushed back into the bucket, rapidly forcing the smoke out through the mouthpiece. A variation on this is the waterfall bong, which simply allows the water to drain out from holes in the bottom.

Dabbing Bongs or Dab Rigs

There are two methods for medicating using the oils and concentrates from flowers. Since these doses are sold at dispensaries in the form of waxes, butters and shatters, they must be melted in order to be smoked. While the structure of a dabbing bong is basically the same as a traditional bong, the downstem differs drastically.

Instead of a bowl, the top of the downstem on a dab rig incorporates a heating element that vaporizes the concentrate. It can either be a skillet or a nail that is made of glass, titanium or quartz, which is contained inside an open-top glass dome that catches vapor splashes. The design of the dome can be plain or an intricate piece of art.

The function of a Recycler Rig is to filter the smoke through water twice. The piece contains a tube that allows the smoke and water to travel together toward the mouthpiece before the water circles back to the reservoir. The design produces a cooler, fresher, more flavorful taste since the percolated bubbles pop closer to the mouth.

Who Would Want a Bong?


Due to their intricate nature and larger size, bongs are typically more expensive than other smoking devices. Owners are often drawn to the beauty of the artwork. As collectors, they are willing to spend hundreds of dollars on unique, highly technical devices. Since many people believe their pieces are a reflection of their personalities, selecting a bong is a deeply personal choice. Some owners even give their pieces names.

Bongs are usually bought by experienced users who want smoother smoking sessions. Many owners strongly believe that their bongs enhance the potency of dried herbs and conserve the amount consumed. Medicinal users may also benefit from the cleaner filtered smoke.

Those new to water pipes often start with acrylic or wooden versions because of the affordable prices and durability. These pieces are harder to clean than glass, quickly absorb resin odors and ultimately influence the taste of the herbs. Most have carbs to support the stationary downstems that are made from plastic or metal and sealed with rubber grommets. It is common for experienced bong users to upgrade to a quality glass piece.

Pros and Cons of Bongs Compared to Other Smoking Devices

  • Bongs produce a cooler, milder, richer smoke than other devices. 
  • Users also report that bongs intensify the experience of smoking because the inhalation rips are bigger and quicker due to the smoke being condensed. 
  • While many users argue that bongs enhance the herb’s potency, an often-cited study by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies suggests that water filters out more THC than other devices. However, other studies have found that most active chemicals in the hemp plant do not bind to water. A 1970s study at the University of Athens Medical School in Greece found that the compounds responsible for producing catatonia and suppressing spontaneous motor activity are filtered out, which may impact the therapeutic effects of herbal medicines. 
  • The MAPS Water Pipe and Vaporizer Study also implies that bongs filter out more tar than some devices although not as much as other methods. The water traps heavier and water-soluble particles that are harmful to the respiratory system, including cytotoxins that attack immune cells. This is an important discovery for patients who have immunodeficiency disorders, such as AIDS/HIV. 
  • The smoke that accumulates in the tube turns stale in seconds. Stale smoke is harsher on the lungs and often causes coughing. 
  • Due to their funky shapes and sizes, top-heavy bongs easily tip over, spilling foul-smelling dirty water that is difficult to clean up. 
  • Even when they are made from thick glass, bongs are easy to break, so they require more care and consideration than other devices. 
  • Since they get dirty quickly, bongs require frequent cleanings. 
  • Bongs are designed as showpieces, so they are not easy to travel with or conceal at home. Mini bongs and collapsible bongs are the exception to this general rule. 
Best Practices for Using a Bong
  • When making a purchase, most stores prefer customers to refer to bongs as water pipes. It is common for shop owners to ask customers to leave when they use the wrong terminology. 
  • There are many factors to consider when buying a bong besides the design. Closely examine the position and size of the downstem, which should not touch the bottom of the water chamber. Inspect the glass for defects and hairline cracks, particularly near joints and spirals. 
  • Thoroughly clean a bong once it is brought home. Sales of expensive pieces are slow, which means items sitting on shelves for months accumulate dust and absorb incense particles. 
  • Bigger isn't always better. Large bongs with fancy accessories and complex designs have a greater chance of breaking and create more pull on the drag, which makes it more difficult to clear the tube. 
  • Although bongs do not have to be cleaned after every session, most users prefer smoking with fresh, clean water. Stale water greatly reduces the aromatics of the herb. Fill the water chamber until it covers the bottom hole of the downstem. When the chamber is too full, water can shoot up the downstem to drench the herb or blast up the tube into the user's mouth.
  • Do not blow down into the tube of a bong. This forces the water out of the carb and up the downstem, soaking the herb or blowing it out of the bowl. 
  • While bongs were originally intended to hold water, users have experimented with adding a variety of liquids to the bottom chamber in an effort to influence the flavor of the smoke. Sugary juices and carbonated sodas attract bugs and stick to the sides, making it harder to clean the bong. THC is absorbed by fats and alcohol, so it is best to avoid using dairy products and alcoholic beverages. Flavored sugar-free water, herbal teas and citric juices are preferred. The acids produced by orange peels not only enhance flavor but also keep the bong cleaner longer. 
  • Bongs can be enhanced with a variety of accessories, including ice catchers, diffusers and percolators. An ash catcher that attaches to the downstem captures debris so that the water does not get dirty as quickly. Ice catcher notches are built into the tube for suspending ice over the water to produce a cooler smoke. 
  • To use a bong, tightly pack the herbs into the bowl and place your lips inside the top of the tube, forming a tight seal. If there is a carb, cover it with your thumb. Slowly light the corner of the bowl and inhale gradually until the water begins to bubble and the tube fills with smoke. When enough milk has accumulated, uncover the carb or pull out the sliding downstem while rapidly sucking in. If smoke remains, then trap it by covering the mouthpiece with your hand until you are ready to clear it completely.

How to Clean a Bong

Bongs require a great deal of attention and care to prevent hard water stains and strong odors. The more kinks and twists the bong has, the more difficult it is to clean. After each smoking session, remove all attachments and then rinse under warm water. Dry them as thoroughly as possible, using a Q-tip or pipe cleaner to remove stubborn residue. Carefully tip the bong over to empty the ice and water and then dry the bong with a soft cloth. Gently place the bong and accessories in a padded storage case.

For a deeper cleaning, fill the water chamber with hot tap water and then add Epsom salt. Cover the downstem hole and mouthpiece and then gently shake the bong horizontally and vertically. Most of the resin buildup occurs near the downstem, so the solution may need to soak for a few minutes. Empty the bong, refill the chamber with isopropyl alcohol and then repeat shaking. Scrubbing the bong with scented dish soap can zap any remaining odors. Thoroughly rinse off all cleaners with warm water.

To clean clogged accessories, place the pieces in individual zipper storage bags filled with isopropyl alcohol and salt. Shake the plastic bag until the solution turns brown. Rinse with warm water and use a pipe cleaner to clear remaining residue. For more information on exactly how to clean a bong, click the link to the left. 

Risks and Safety Tips for Using a Bong

  • Make sure your bong has a safe home. Although most bongs are thick and durable, they tip over easily. Stagnate, dirty water in the chamber produces a strong, foul odor that is difficult to remove from carpet and furniture. Glass bongs can also shatter when dropped on wood or concrete floors. 
  • Purchase a padded bong bag to securely store glass pieces.
  • Gently drop ice cubes into the tube to avoid cracking the glass or chipping the ice notches. 
  • Disregard any advice that advocates drinking bong water. 
  • Do not use toxic cleaners. 
  • Do not replace water with flammable alcoholic beverages or poisonous liquids, such as isopropyl alcohol. 
  • Exhaling into the tube blows water into the stem and soaks the medicine. 
  • A glass bong that has been chilled in the fridge can easily crack when subjected to a flame.
  • Adding hot water to the chamber creates a harsher smoking experience due to the steam. 
  • Bongs are designed to generate more smoke. Beginners must be careful in their consumption, inhaling slowly at first until they are able to accurately gauge how much of the chamber they can clear. Stale smoke often induces coughing, which may lead to nausea and a headache.
  • Homemade bongs can be dangerous if the materials used are toxic, flammable or meltable. 

Many people who make the switch to bongs are often satisfied with the smoother flow, speedier results and cleaner herbs. Before buying a bong, spend some serious time looking at the various versions available on the market. In the shop, hold several models, testing the weight and height to ensure they are a good fit. For more information about bongs, browse the Cannsy Education Center.

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