A fairly well-accepted origin story for the term “dab” is that it was inspired by the jingle for Brylcreem. The hair product advertisement included the line “a little dab will do you.” As a concentrate, a dab is more potent than the source material (cannabis buds or trim) and, as a result, users requires less (just a few dabs) to achieve the effect they seek.

To use dabs, consumers place them on a surface hot enough to vaporize the active ingredients, which they then inhale. Many use a dab rig, which is a form of a water pipe (bong). However, instead of a bowl to pack ground cannabis buds in, dab rigs have a heatable surface with an air passage known as a nail (which references an older practice of using nails or butter knives as the heated surface). The nail is heated by either a hand-held torch or electric heating element. A common practice when using a torch is to overheat the nail and then let it cool slightly before applying the dab with a long slender tool known as a dabber. An advantage of electronic nails is the ability to more accurately regulate the temperature. The temperature of the heated surface has a substantial impact on the experience, as a hotter surface vaporizes the product faster and provides a more intense high, while a lower temperature allows for a longer draw time and a milder experience. Sometimes, a cover known as a dab cap is placed over the vaporizing dab to restrict airflow and retard the fumes from escaping. Finally, the vapors are inhaled in a similar fashion to a traditional bong hit.

Thinking about getting some dabbing gear? Check out The Best Gear for Dabbing: An Excerpt from Beyond Buds.)

Key Factors of Dabs

Two key factors of dabs are their purity and their ability to vaporize quickly. Cannabis flowers and leaves contain a fair amount of plant matter that does not contribute to the desired effect. Dabs concentrate the active ingredients by removing them from the plant matter with a solvent or by physical separation and heat. They also offer a higher potency and faster vaporization than most traditional hashes, which don’t include plant material either.

While early dabs were often made with low-grade starting material and dangerous methods that resulted in questionable residues, today’s dab enthusiasts can select products made from top-quality buds using commercial-grade equipment under exacting specifications. To make solvent-based dabs today, a solvent such as ethanol, carbon dioxide, or butane is first introduced to the original cannabis plant material. The active ingredients dissolve into the solvent, which carries them away from the unwanted plant material. The solvent is then removed from the resulting solution. Depending on the specific technique used, the concentrate may undergo further purification and processing. Once such procedure is known as winterizing, in which the solution is mixed with ethanol, frozen, and filtered before the ethanol is evaporated off.

Solvent-less concentrates, known as rosin, are made using physical separation and heat instead of a solvent. Buds, water hash, or kief are placed under heat and pressure against parchment paper. The glands containing the active ingredients melt and stick to the paper, allowing the unwanted plant material to be removed. While early versions of this technique used hair straighteners, there are now advanced presses available with configurable pressure and temperature settings.

The Advantage of Dabbing

Dabs have certain advantages over conventional cannabis flower consumption that may better suit some consumers. As vapor is created instead of smoke, some may find dabs less irritating when inhaled, particularly with low-temperature nails. It also allows for more active ingredients to be consumed in less time, giving a more immediate response. As a much smaller quantity is needed for a similar effect, it can reduce bulk during transportation. A final, often-overlooked attractant of dabs is the opportunity to enjoy the rites and rituals—sometimes with flourish and rules approaching the complexity associated with tea ceremonies—that come with dabbing with friends.

There are also certain disadvantages to dabs that should be considered. Dab users tend to accelerate their tolerance faster than those who use lower-dosage consumption methods. Consumers should also perform their due diligence to find trustworthy sources, as the quality of dabs can vary greatly. Home gardeners, on the other hand, require additional equipment and expertise to manufacture their own dabs, or they must trust in (and pay the additional expense of) a processing facility to do it for them.

Dabs can be a good option for cannabis consumers seeking strong, fast-acting vaporization. They are both cleaner and safer than they once were, and they are becoming more mainstream as cannabis, in general, becomes more widely accepted. Dabbing culture continues to mature and develop just as the technologies used improves to safer, purer, and more consistent dabbing products.

(Not into dabbing but prefer vaping, check out Topstone Vaporizers Are Much More than a Cannabis Concentrate Accessory.)