Glass pipes combine form with function to create pieces that are both useful and beautiful. They are available in countless styles and colors, from extremely simple to wildly imaginative, and allow users a wide range of smoking experiences. Simple hand pipes are little more than glass tubes. At the other end of the spectrum, bubblers with double or even triple chambers approach engineering marvels with helical smoke chambers and ice reservoirs for cooling the smoke.
Far more complex than windowpane glass, glass pipes are constructed with artistic skill and precise chemical formulas that result in colors and designs once thought impossible from glass. They are available in every color imaginable, and some even change colors as they are used. Some are cut and polished from larger pieces of glass, like gemstones, while others are woven together from delicate strands as fine as blades of grass.
What are glass pipes, anyways?
A glass pipe is used to smoking tobacco or cannabis. Unlike wood or clay, glass pipes impart no competing flavors to the smoking experience. Pipes of porous clays or combustible woods were once valued precisely for the additional tastes they added to the smoke, but the gradual cultivation of newer, more complex varieties of cannabis and tobacco blends have resulted in an overwhelming preference for glass pipes that isolate the flavors of the smoke and provide a purer smoking experience.
Some glass pipes are produced by blowing the glass into a large bubble, applying a regular, hexagonal pattern of clear glass, and then collapsing the bubble back down into its compact form. Glass created with this design is known as honeycomb glass.Glass pipes are also unique. Unlike mass-manufactured clay pipes, a glass pipe is produced by an artisan, and no two are exactly alike. The majority of these pipes are hand blown. Some are produced entirely by hand. Others are spun on a glass lathes, similar to wood-working lathes, so that the artisan can create larger pieces.
Patterns can also be created by blowing bubbles of colored glass into larger melds of clear glass, or by weaving heated strands of glass together in a manner similar to that used when weaving baskets. Hot glass is sometimes rolled in a powder of crushed, colored glass. The powdered glass layer is then thoroughly melted into the whole. This process is repeated multiple times, adding successive layers of color to the piece.
After the resulting piece is annealed, intricate patterns are etched into the glass pipe with a sandblaster. The etching reveals the underlying colors, and the color revealed depends on the depth of the etching. This type of glass is called Graal glass. Sometimes the crushed, colored glass is mixed into the inside of entirely molten glass to suspend tiny flecks of color within the finished piece. This technique is known as fritting.
A better-known method of producing color-changing glass pipes is the fuming process. In this process, glassblowers pass gold, silver, cobalt or other metal vapors directly through the glass as it is worked. Tiny amounts of the metal are trapped in the glass as it cools. They give a very faint tint to the glass. When the pipe is used, resins and tars begin to coat the inner surface of the glass. This coating creates a dark background against which the trapped metal shows up vividly.
Iridescent, dichroic coatings are created on glass through the vapor-phase deposition of quartz or metal oxides. The materials are vaporized with an electron beam inside a vacuum chamber while a slight charge is applied to the glass pipe. The vapors are drawn to the charged surface of the pipe and condense on it like water droplets on the outside of a cold glass on a hot summer day. Unlike the water droplets, however, this condensate is crystalline and extremely thin. A single layer will only be about three millionths of an inch thick.
In addition to the visible color, the dichroic layers also have unique reflective colors. The iridescent property is caused by the shifting of colors as the glass pipe is viewed from different viewing angles or under different lighting. Skilled artists can even create images on the glass by using lasers to etch the dichroic surfaces. When coated with a layer of clear glass, the etching is magnified into a clearly visible image.
Silver fuming produces a slight yellow tint that turns blue as the glass pipe is used. Gold fuming produces a slightly pinkish tint that turns gold as the pipe is used. Gold fuming can also produce other color changes. Cobalt fuming produces a deep blue color.
Glass pipes are not always produced by working with molten glass. Large chunks of cold glass are sometimes cut and polished with a lapidary wheel to produce a faceted glass pipe. This is similar to the way gemstones are cut and polished.
The pipes constructed with these different types of glass fall into five basic shapes.
Chillums, or hand pipes, are the most basic shape of glass pipe available. They are small, simple glass tubes. Users pack smoking material into the end, apply flame and inhale. This simplicity, however, has drawbacks. There is no carburetor, so the smoke is not easily cleared, and they are suitable only for small amounts of tobacco or herb blends.
Spoon pipes are slightly more sophisticated than chillums because they possess a carburetor. After it is produced, smoke becomes stale in a matter of seconds. Carburetors on a glass pipe, much like the carburetor on early automobiles, allow additional air to be drawn in. On a spoon pipe, the carburetor is a simple hole. When the hole is covered with a finger or thumb, incoming air is drawn through the bowl and burning material. This draws smoke into the glass pipe. When the hole is uncovered, air enters through the carburetor because it is the path of least resistance. This allows all of the smoke in the pipe to be rapidly inhaled. Smokers generally agree that glass pipes with carburetors produce fresher smoke than those without them.
Steamrollers have bowls or glass on glass fittings on one side of the pipe. Both ends of the pipe are open, and the open end near the bowl functions as the carburetor. Some steamrollers have chambers between the bowl and the mouthpiece that allow smoke to be “rolled” to enhance cooling. Steamrollers have a reputation for hard, hot, rips but with practice they are wonderful smoking pipes. Steamrollers are not recommended for novice smokers.
Sherlock or Gandalf pipes
Sherlock or Gandalf pipes are named after the iconic pipes smoked by those literary figures. The classic Sherlock pipe has a large bowl with a gracefully arching stem. The bottom of the bowl is often flattened to allow the pipe to stand freely when not being held.
Gandalf pipes are similar, except that the stem is highly elongated. Both of these pipes may or may not have a carburetor. Like the chillums, spoon pipes and steamrollers, these pipes produce an unfiltered smoke that can taste harsh because of the included tars and resins.
The harsh taste of the tars and resins is filtered out through the use of bubbler pipes. Bubblers, or water pipes, diffuse the smoke through water before it is inhaled. This removes tar and resin and causes the smoke to taste smoother. The chamber is sometimes filled with hot water, but cold water is the standard. Hot water adds water vapor to the smoke and opens up airways to facilitate smoking. Cold water cools the smoke and creates a fresher, crisper taste. Some bubblers even go so far as to use ice. The intensely cold smoke produced in an ice-catcher bubbler is denser than smoke produced from simply cold water. When it is held in the lungs, it warms and expands.
The history of glass pipes
Natural glass, such as that produced by volcanoes or when lightning strikes sand, was known from very early times, but manufactured glass didn’t appear until around 1500 BC. The Babylonians were being overrun by the Kassites, the Rigveda was being written in the Indian subcontinent, bronze helmets were first being used in Crete, and the pharaohs of the New Kingdom were reuniting Egypt and creating glass.
During this period, glassmaking was limited to colored glass jewelry and very small containers. Glass was considered incredibly valuable, and it was extremely difficult to make with the crude materials and equipment available.
The blowpipe, an essential piece of technology for blowing glass, was not invented until around 30 BC, and glass suddenly became easier and cheaper to produce. The Portland vase, one of the most valuable glass art objects in the world, was likely produced in Rome within 100 years of this time.
The earliest use of a glass pipe is unknown, but it is unlikely to have been prior to the invention of the blowpipe. Glass could only be produced by casting prior to this time, and it seems doubtful that something as delicate as a glass pipe could be constructed in this manner.
Is a glass pipe right for you?
Glass pipes are used by smokers who want a pure taste from their cannabis or tobacco. Because the glass is non-porous and non-combustible, it adds nothing to the smoke.
They are also prized for their artistic designs. Glass can be clown into truly fantastical shapes, and smokers often purchase designs that have a special meaning for them. Dragons, unicorns or serpents are common fantasy motifs. Mushrooms, animals, trees or flowers speak to naturalists. Beautiful colors, patterns or curved forms draw artistic smokers. If someone wanted the shapes, glass pipes could even be blown into complex gears or engineering designs.
Glass pipes eliminate the need for the paper used to roll traditional cigarettes. They provide not only purer flavor, but also smoke that is free from whatever toxins burning paper, which is made from wood, brings to the smoking experience. They could be said to be healthier than conventional rolled smoking products.
Glass pipes are also great for germaphobes. Because the glass is non-porous, it has no cavities where bacteria could gain a foothold. It is also easy to clean.
Pros and cons
The pros of glass for the construction of smoking devices are numerous and have been touched upon in other sections. Glass adds nothing to the flavor of the tobacco or cannabis being smoked. It is non-porous and cleans easily. It contains no small openings to house bacteria. It is extremely workable and can be shaped into almost any design or color imaginable.
The only real con of glass construction is that glass is breakable. While some glass is certainly fragile, glass used for most pipe construction is not. It is annealed after shaping, and annealing strengthens the glass considerably.
As glass is shaped, internal stresses develop. These stresses are not visible to the naked eye, but they can cause the cooled glass to crack or even shatter when exposed to a minor temperature change or a small mechanical shock. Craftsmen place worked glass into a special kiln known as a lehr to remove these stresses.
In the lehr, the glass is heated just to the temperature where it is soft enough for thermal stresses to be relaxed but still hard enough to resist deformation. This temperature is known as the annealing point. The glass is allowed to remain at the annealing point, often with a coating of soot, until the temperature of the piece is uniform and all stresses have been relaxed. It is then allowed to cool to room temperature at a rate determined by the thickness of the piece and the heat capacity, thermal conductivity, and coefficient of thermal expansion of the specific glass used.
Borosilicate glass is formed from molten silica and boron trioxide, and it has a very low coefficient of thermal expansion. It can withstand significant thermal stresses. In addition to glass pipes, borosilicate glass is used for laboratory glassware and kitchen bakeware and is often sold under the trade names Kimax or Pyrex.
Smoke becomes stale if it is left in the pipe for more than a few seconds, and the freshest smoke is always the most enjoyable. In a large glass chamber, it is easy to see the color of the smoke degrade from white to yellow or even brown as it becomes stale. Stale smoke will taste harsh. For this reason, it is best to carefully consider the size of the carburetor when buying a glass pipe. The smaller the carburetor, the more difficult it can be to clear the smoke.
Smaller pipes generally produce fresher tasting smoke simply because they can be cleared more quickly, and the smoke doesn’t have time to become stale. When using a bubbler, however, larger pipes are desirable because the filtration water will stay cold longer. Filtering smoke through cold water results in a fresh taste, so this is also an important consideration.
Small glass pipes require more frequent cleaning than large ones. They have smaller surface areas, so tar and resin create a thicker coating in a shorter amount of time. When using a bubbler, however, keep in mind that an absolutely clean pipe will result in unsightly scum formation on the surface of the filtration water. The tar and resin have a difficult time finding purchase on an absolutely clean glass surface. If they cannot accumulate on the glass, they accumulate on the surface of the water.
Glass pipes need to be cleaned periodically. If not, several things will happen. First, accumulating tars and resins will quickly begin to affect the taste of the smoke. Second, after they accumulate, these deposits can inhibit the airflow through the pipe. Finally, the pipe will become unattractive and less hygienic.
Color-changing pipes, with fumed gold or silver, may look prettier after some light use, but even they should not be used to the point of bad-tasting smoke. It is also much easier and faster to clean a lightly used pipe than one with heavy resin buildup.
There are two basic methods to clean glass pipes. The first method involves boiling the pipe in a large pot. When done correctly, boiling is harmless to a glass pipe. It allows resin to be removed from places that simply can’t be accessed with a brush or pipe cleaner. When done incorrectly, the results can be tragic! Never drop a glass pipe into boiling water. Even though the pipe has been annealed, the sudden thermal shock may be too much for it.
Always cover the pipe completely with water. Tilt the pipe back and forth at an angle to remove any trapped air bubbles. Once the pipe is completely submerged and filled with water, heat the pot over a medium heat until the water is boiling. Continue to boil the pipe until the resin is removed.
After boiling, turn off the heat and allow the pot and pipe to cool down together. After 10 to 15 minutes, use some kitchen tongs to grip the pipe and shake it back and forth under the water. This motion will help wash out any clumps of resin. Dump the dirty water down the drain and refill the pot with warm water. This time, add some dish soap and gently scrub away and remaining resin depots with a brush and pipe cleaner.
It is advisable to use a pot that is not used for everyday cooking purposes because boiling a glass pipe can cause the removed resin to form a ring at the water surface in the pot, and this resin ring may be difficult to remove. The boiling water will also smell unpleasant, so it would be a good idea to turn on the exhaust fan above the stove before boiling.
The second, and arguably easier, method is to soak the pipe in 91 percent or higher alcohol with some added salt. Two parts of alcohol to one part of salt is a good mix. The alcohol dissolves the resin, and the salt, which will not all dissolve in 91 percent or higher alcohol, provides some abrasion that helps loosen resin as it dissolves.
It’s common to put this mixture in a large plastic bag and shake it vigorously to scrub the pipe with the salt crystals. If shaking alone will not work, use a Q-tip to scrub the pipe with the alcohol-salt mixture. After the pipe is clean, rinse it with clean alcohol and then with clean water.
It may not be desirable to always have a sparkling clean glass pipe, as noted with the fumed glass color-changers, but an even easier method is to simply always keep the pipe soaking in alcohol when not in use. If the resin buildup is not too severe, an overnight soaking in 91 percent or higher alcohol should dissolve the resin nicely. The pipe will always be clean and will only require a quick rinse prior to each use.
A glass pipe is strong, but it can be broken if mishandled. Bubblers are especially prone to breakage during the cleaning process. The most delicate piece of a bubbler is the bowl stem that is inserted into the filtration water. This is only a small piece of the overall bubbler, but breaking it effectively ruins the entire piece.
The safest way to store a glass pipe is in a case or soft cloth bag, but this really isn’t necessary under normal circumstances. These items are really only needed when traveling with the pipe.
The risks associated with a glass pipe, other than breakage from mishandling, are mainly associated with design. Bubblers are infamous for accidental spills. In every case, these spills are attributable to some form of what could politely be called user error. They sometimes make for funny stories, but bubbler water can have a nasty odor. It filters a lot of tar and resin from the smoke, and spilling it onto a carpet or area rug is no laughing matter.
Care must be taken not to cough when inhaling from a bubbler. With some bubbler designs, blowing instead of inhaling can ruin the bowl.
Drawing too strongly from a bubbler, especially short bubblers or bubblers with straight smoke chambers, carries the risk of drawing the filtration water into the mouth. For much the same reasons that spilling it on a carpet is a disaster, drawing filtration water into the mouth would be an extremely unpleasant situation.
In ancient times, glass was precious and owned only by pharaohs and royalty. Today, modern glass-working techniques create things as common as baking dishes and paperweights from glass. Exotic formulations and blowing methods create truly artistic pieces that are both functional and expressive. They are available in any color or color combination imaginable, and fumed glass even creates pipes that change colors when used.
Glass pipes range from simple chillums and hand pipes to intricate bubblers, and borosilicate formulas enable the glass to withstand the heat of burning tobacco or cannabis without being damaged. With normal use and care, these pipes can last a lifetime.
Glass pipes produce cleaner smoke than any other material, and they allow the smoker to see the smoke as it is pulled into and out of the pipe. There are no appreciable risks unique to glass.
Information and photos courtesy of David Matthews and Billowby.com