Glass Pipes – The Complete Guide To Glass Pipes and How to Use Them
What Is A Glass Pipe?
Pipes used for smoking are manufactured using a variety of materials, including glass, metal, corn cob and certain types of wood. However, ask any regular smoker and they will likely tell you that pipes made of glass are the only worthwhile kind.
Glass pipes come in different types and shapes. Each type is best suited for use with specific types and quantities of product. Each has distinctive advantages and benefits.
A Brief History of Glass Pipes
Pipes have been around in one form or another for thousands of years, smoking in general for even longer. Various ancient cultures have inhaled smoke in some form or another for a variety of reasons, often religious/spiritual, but sometimes also for social reasons and even for the promotion of health.
The smoking of various substances using the device we know today as a pipe is most closely associated with early North American indigenous cultures. Today’s pipes were originally modeled on these, although they have evolved a great deal over the centuries. Native American pipes were usually made of wood, clay, corn cob or animal antlers (elk, deer).
When pipe smoking began to take hold in European society as a form of recreation, the materials used to make them became more varied, but were, however, still mainly made from wood. As technology improved and new resources emerged over the centuries, pipe makers began using other materials to craft smoking pipes. Corn cob pops were popular in the 1800s because corn was cheap and relatively plentiful and corn cobs were otherwise waste material.
Although corn cob pipes are still around, they fell out of favor in the mainstream for pipes made with more modern materials, such as metal, which could withstand higher temperatures. The problem with metal pipes, though, is that although they can take the heat without getting damaged, they often get too hot to the touch. This limits their usefulness, particularly when it comes to any substance more exotic than ordinary tobacco.
Enter the glass pipe. It is difficult to nail down the exact origin of the glass pipe. Rather than being attributed to a particular person or company, it is more likely that the glass pipe merely evolved along with glassmaking technology and the art of glass blowing. Early glass pipes were as much works of art as they were devices for smoking (perhaps even more). They began to be produced during the era when glass blowing techniques were honed and perfected, largely over the last 50 years. Glass blowing artisans crafted glass pipes as another form of their art.
It didn’t take long for glass pipes to catch the attention of smokers. They were initially attractive to smokers for their artistic value, but smokers soon realized that smoking with a glass pipe produced flavor that was unmatched by any other material. In fact, it wasn’t really the flavor so much as the lack of flavor that smokers were lured in by. Pipes made of other materials contribute some type of subtle flavor to the product or substance being smoked, while glass pipes produced a pure, clean flavor void of any added taste from the pipe itself.
To illustrate this, think about drinking unoaked wine versus the more common oak barrel-aged wine. Oak-aged wine has a characteristic taste that is not present in unoaked wine. An even more accurate illustration is the difference between bottled beer and canned beer. Beer bottled in glass tastes different than beer that has been sealed inside an aluminum can.
Contemporary glass pipes are still hand blown and are as much works of art as they are functional pieces. They range in design from simple to complex, abstract to concrete, or made to resemble animals or other objects. They are beautiful to look at and amazing to use.
Types of Glass Pipes
Generally speaking, you can find approximately five different types of glass pipes: chillums (hand pipes), spoon pipes (so-named for their spoon-like shape), Sherlock pipes (you guessed it…. the stylized one with the curving, hook-shaped stem associated with Sherlock Holmes), bubblers and steamrollers. Each type has different advantages and contributes something unique to the smoking experience.
This type of basic pipe is shaped like a simple tube. Smoking with a chillum might be considered an updated but still somewhat primitive method of smoking as some early indigenous cultures did using hollow reeds. To use a chillum pipe, you simply pack dry herb into one end, light it and inhale from the other end. The experience is different from using other types of pipes, and the size of the chillum also makes a difference when it comes to temperature and the size of the hit. Due to their small size and simplicity of design, they are only able to take small amounts of dry herb. They also lack carburetors, a feature (as you’ll soon learn) that keeps the flavor of the smoke from going stale.
A spoon pipe is generally considered the next step up from the chillum. It is similar in shape and construction, except for having a “bowl” at one end, where you deposit whatever product you are using. Unlike chillums, spoon pipes have a carburetor, which is really just a small hole in the tube. Smoking a spoon pipe is slightly more complicated than smoking with a chillum. It involves covering the hole with your finger to draw air in through the bowl, and then uncovering the hole to inhale. The smoke remains fresh this way.
The iconic arched stem of this glass pipe style is highly recognizable by just about everyone as the type that fictional literary character Sherlock Holmes smoked. Hence its name. At the end of the stem is a bowl, which holds the product to to which heat is applied. The smoke then travels up the stem. Sometimes this type of pipe has a longer-than-typical stem and may be referred to as a Gandalf pipe, named for the fictional character created by J.R.R. Tolkien in the Lord of the Rings series. These cool glass pipes are sometimes designed with carburetors, but this is not a hard-and-fast rule.
Yes, there is a reason why this glass pipe style has been so-named, and it has to do with bubbles. This type of pipe is a hybrid of the glass pipe and the bong. It’s small like a pipe but uses water like a bong and is therefore these pipes sometimes referred to as glass water pipes. The water acts as a filter for the smoke, diffusing it and creating tiny bubbles. The result is a smoother flavor devoid of any of the substance’s harsher elements and tones. Bubblers can be used with cold (even icy) or hot water, and the water temperature has an effect on the flavor and the overall experience.
Of the five basic glass pipe styles, the steamroller is the most complex and complicated to use. Steamrollers consist of a tube with a bowl on one end. There is an opening at each end of the pipe, with the one nearest the bowl serving as a carburetor. Some styles have an extra chamber that “rolls” the smoke to cool it further. Either way, the steamroller delivers a powerful, fast hit that will “steamroll” the user if he’s unprepared for it. Because of this, steamrollers are not recommended for first-time or less-experienced users, and they definitely take some practice to use.
What to Look for in Good Glass Pipes
With so much to choose from in the glass pipe world, it helps to know what kinds of things to look for when choosing one. There are a number of different factors to consider, but these are the most important:
Glass pipes are not made from the same kind of glass that drinking glasses or even windows are made of. They are typically made from some type of scientific, lab-quality glass, often borosilicate. This type has been specifically engineered to withstand high temperatures and stand up to a variety of substances and chemicals without affecting the quality of the glass or its surface.
When you are shopping for a glass pipe, check what kind of glass it’s made of. The keywords to watch for are “borosilicate glass,” “lab-quality glass” or “scientific glass.” If you don’t see these phrases in the product description, it may be safe to assume that the pipe is made from some other type of glass (especially if the price seems to be lower-than-average). Just because it’s not made from a high-quality glass doesn’t mean it’s a bad purchase. It just means that, likely, your pipe won’t last as long, will be more breakable and may be more prone to overheating.
Additionally, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to purchase a cheap glass pipe, particularly if you are just starting out with smoking. Trying out a less expensive model will help give you a good feel for pipe style without sinking a lot of money into it. Later, when you better know your own preferences, you can upgrade to one with better quality glass.
As we’ve already noted, different types of glass smoking pipes are more suitable for certain types of product and for certain personal preferences (i.e. hot smoke VS cool smoke). Bowl type is also a big deal with a lot of smokers, so get to know the various bowl types. Always choose your style based on the product(s) you like best and other personal preferences.
Not all brands are created equal. Brand matters, even more than price in some cases (just because a device has a high price tag doesn’t necessarily mean it is better in quality). We’ll talk more about glass pipe brands in the next section.
If you're looking to purchase one of the many glass pipes on the market, read this complete guide first. We reveal the top 10 glass pipes and where to buy.