How Do Bongs Work? [Fully Explained for the Novice]

A bong is a water pipe popularly used to consume marijuana. Proponents of the device say it provides a smoother hit and allows for a higher degree of intoxication. Opponents point out that a bong isn’t any better for the lungs than other smoking methods.

It is an implementation with a long history. Today’s bongs are complicated pieces, but they ultimately perform the same function as their ancient counterparts. This article provides an outline of how bongs work and highlights their benefits and drawbacks.

What Is a Bong?

It is a device designed to filter and cool the smoke that comes from the combusted cannabis. You can find a variety of bong types on the market. These range from basic bongs with a chamber and bowl to aesthetic masterpieces. It is a common method of consuming dried marijuana flower. However, you can use it for various herbs.

The variety of bongs on the market range from basic bongs with a chamber and bowl to aesthetic masterpieces.

Bongs tend to have a small bowl that holds the cannabis and a section for holding water. When lit, the marijuana combusts. As the user inhales, the water in the bong percolates. This causes the smoke to rise through the water and bong chamber. Eventually, it reaches the mouthpiece, where the user inhales the smoke.

In the modern era, most bongs are made from glass. However, you can buy ones made from wood, plastic, and bamboo. Also known as a water pipe, the bong is now front and center of cannabis culture. Some users even give their bongs names! It is also possible to purchase bongs encrusted with precious gems like rubies and metals like gold.

While the bong is often associated with the counterculture era, it has been around for a very long time.

A Brief History of Bongs

The word ‘bong’ comes from the Thai word, baung. This term relates to a cylindrical wooden pipe or tube made from bamboo. It can also refer to the bong used for smoking marijuana.

There is evidence of bong usage from approximately 2,400 years ago. Archaeologists found gold bongs in a Russian kurgan. They believe that Scythian tribal leaders used the gold bongs to smoke opium and cannabis. The historian Herodotus has also written about marijuana use amongst the Scythians of that era.


Water pipe usage spread to China during the late Ming Dynasty in the 1500s. Along with tobacco, the device traveled along the legendary Silk road via Persia. There is a suggestion that Empress Dowager Cixi used the water pipe. However, its usage was typically associated with commoners.

During the Qing Dynasty, farmers and villagers tended to use a bamboo bong. Meanwhile, Chinese merchants were more likely to use a more sophisticated metal version.

Modern-day usage spiked in the 1960s during the ‘Hippy Era.’ Bob Snodgrass, an American glassblower, became famous for creating the contemporary water pipe. His pieces laid the foundation for the glass bongs that populate the market today.

The Anatomy of a Bong

Regardless of the cost of the piece, a bong usually consists of the following five parts.

1 – Tube

This the chamber which fills with smoke once it is filtered through the water. It ends in the mouthpiece, which is where users inhale the smoke.

2 – Bowl

Users load cannabis flower in the bowl and combust the dried material. Most bong designs allow you to remove the bowl, which enables its use as a slide carb.

3 – Base

This is the bottom of the bong and represents an opportunity for designers to put their mark on a piece. It is common for bong creators to use a beaker or bubble shape to make the water chamber.

4 – Carb

This is an abbreviation of ‘carburetor.’ It is the hole that permits you to clear smoke from the device by inhaling.

5 – Downstem

This small tube lets the smoke make the journey from the bowl to the base. From there, the smoke percolates through the water.

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How Does a Bong Work?

From a user’s perspective, there isn’t much of a mystery involved. Here’s how to use a bong:

  • Place enough water in the bong to completely submerge the downstem.
  • Add the dried flower to the bowl. Don’t pack it too tightly, or else you won’t combust all of it.
  • Put your mouth on the mouthpiece, light the flower, and start inhaling the smoke.

Soon, the chamber will become filled with white smoke. Release the carb, and inhale what remains in the chamber before exhaling.

The Science of Bong Usage

As for how a bong works, it all relates to some basic physics principles. When you light the material, it combusts. The heat from the flame breaks down the cannabis’ chemical bonds, changing the particles into a gas. This gas appears in smoke form. The bong filters the unwanted particles, ensuring the user only inhales certain elements of the smoke.

The water in a bong plays a crucial role. When smoke passes through the water, the process helps remove a significant amount of tar and ash. The water catches the tar and ash, but not the neutral compounds we want to inhale.

The water helps cool the smoke before it reaches the mouth and lungs.

Also, the water helps cool the smoke before it reaches the mouth and lungs. However, it is a balancing act. The cannabinoids and terpenes we want to inhale will only vaporize at certain temperatures. As such, we want to ensure they remain in the vapor stream. We achieve this by covering the downstem with water.

The popularity of bongs means there is plenty of information about them online. Unfortunately, much of it is false or misunderstood. Let’s analyze a few claims about bongs, and see what the evidence says.

Will a Bong Provide a More Intoxicating High Than a Joint?

The suggestion is that a bong gets people higher than joints or blunts. According to this theory, the chamber in a bong enables users to enjoy larger hits. Anecdotal reports also claim that intoxication from a bong happens quicker than with a joint.

However, while it makes sense, it isn’t backed by scientific research. This is mainly because hardly any studies on the subject exist. A study published by MAPS in 1996 tested how much THC came from different marijuana consumption methods. The researchers found that unfiltered joints provided more THC than water pipes.

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This finding would suggest that perhaps bong hits aren’t more potent. The reality is that a lack of data makes it challenging to draw any conclusions.

What a bong does offer is a smoother hit than a joint due to the cooler smoke. Bong users experience a less harsh feeling on the throat and lungs.

Does This Mean Bongs Are Better for My Lungs Than Joints?

In this case, a smoother hit doesn’t necessarily mean a healthier one. Bong users might get less irritation in their lungs, but they are still inhaling combusted material.

Smoking, in general, is harmful to the lungs. It doesn’t matter if the smoke comes from marijuana, tobacco, or anywhere else. The combusted material produces carcinogens that you inhale. While cannabis smoke is seemingly less damaging than its tobacco counterpart, it is deleterious to your health.

We can tell you that a glass bong is probably a better option than anything made from plastic. The plastic could contain harmful chemicals like phthalates and BPA.

Bongs are also extremely dirty. A case study published in Respirology Case Reports in 2018 looked at the link between bong use and lung infection. The researchers found that a man who used a bong developed a condition called necrotizing pneumonia. This condition results in the permanent death of lung tissue.

Should I Hold in the Smoke for a Better High?

According to this theory, holding in cannabis smoke provides a greater level of intoxication. This happens regardless of whether you use a bong or a joint. Those who engage in this practice say they feel a strong high.

However, this unusual feeling likely has little to do with THC consumption. Instead, it is down to an increased heart rate and lack of oxygen. A study published in Psychopharmacology (Berlin) in 1991 looked at this theory.

It seems as if there are no positive benefits associated with holding the smoke beyond a few seconds.

The researchers monitored the carbon monoxide levels of volunteers when they smoked cannabis. The volunteers held their breath after smoking cannabis for three different durations: 0 seconds, 10 seconds, and 30 seconds. Ultimately, the researchers found no difference between carbon monoxide levels when the subjects held the smoke in longer.

Indeed, holding marijuana smoke for too long has negative effects. You expose the lungs to the inhaled carcinogens for longer. It seems as if there are no positive benefits associated with holding the smoke beyond a few seconds.

Final Thoughts on How Bongs Work

The humble bong’s origins go back thousands of years. Members of ancient cultures used this device to help them enjoy substances such as opium and marijuana. The bong became more popular from the 1960s onwards. Today, the glass pieces created by master bong designers can sell for thousands of dollars.

One of the attractions of a bong is its ease of use. Simply add enough water to cover the downstem, pack the dried flower into the bowl, and light it. Then, stand by the mouthpiece and use it to inhale the smoke.

Although bong users say they enjoy a more intense high than when they try joints, there isn’t much scientific evidence. Also, don’t assume that bong use is healthier than a joint. You are still inhaling combusted marijuana material, which produces carcinogenic substances. Finally, research suggests that there is no benefit to holding in bong smoke for a long time. In reality, the practice could damage your lungs.

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