The first experience I ever had dabbing was in 2012, and like many first-time concentrate users, I was intimidated. When you’re used to smoking flower, a torch and rig just seems a bit intense. Like many first-timers, I didn’t know about low-temp dabbing and in hindsight, it was recklessly hot. That first hit was followed by a dramatic fit of coughing, but the results were unmistakable. The flavor was unlike any cannabis experience I had ever had, and the high was fantastic.  As my personal interest in cannabis concentrates grew, so did the tech supporting this new facet of cannabis culture. Today we have a myriad of products available to scratch the itch that first dab entranced me with, including a spectrum of devices from basic torch and glass setups, to fully digital models with all the latest and greatest bells and whistles for the sophisticated canna-seur.  The question we’ll be diving into today surrounds the old vs the new debate: can this new wave of electronic dab rigs (also known as e-Rigs) stand up to the established traditional dab rigs?

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The Basics: What is a Dab Rig?

a multi-colored dab rig with a clear banger, in a cloud of smoke At its most basic, the essential elements of concentrate consumption really only require a couple things — a hot surface to vaporize the extract and a way to inhale the resulting vapor. In its most ugly and simplistic iteration, early concentrate pioneers would “hot knife” their creations (please don’t do this), which would involve heating two butter knives, sandwiching a glob of hash between the blades and frantically inhaling the ensuing vapor. As rudimentary as this method is, the general principles hold true. Today, we use far more safe, precise, and quality materials and methods, but the essentials are the same. Traditional dab setups start with a basic heated receptacle, or nail. These heat points come in a variety of shapes, but were originally called “nails” because of the shape of the first iteration, a thin rising cylinder capped with a flat disc resembling a construction nail.  These nails are usually accompanied by a “dome” that is placed around the nail after initial heating to direct the vapor into the piece, rather than allowing it to dissipate into the open air. Dab nails are heated by a handheld butane torch until the desired temperature is achieved (in the widest possible range terms, from 300°F to 800°F). The torch is set aside, a small scoop of concentrate is placed on the surface, and as the solid changes to a gas, the vapor is drawn through the piece and into the lungs. 

a clear banger on a pink dab rig Bangers are a lot more common than the old school nail these days.
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Today, bucket shaped “bangers” are a much more common heat point than the classic nails, as the shape is far superior as it has more surface area and better heat retention. Though the actual shape has evolved, the term “nail” is often used to describe any heated point on a rig setup.  A carb cap is also an essential tool for bangers that acts as the dome does, guiding the stream of vapor into the piece. At its most basic, it's a directional cap that allows the user to adjust the flow of fresh air into the vaporization chamber to fit their own personal preferences.

Traditional Rig vs E-Rig

Many concentrate purists will maintain that traditional torch and glass setups are the only way to get a true dabbing experience, but a new class of e-rigs have come along that puts that argument to test. 

High Five duo with a purple light, “At Temp” displayed on the screen High Five Duo e-Rig
An e-rig performs basically the same, operationally, as its traditional counterpart, except the heat comes from an internal (and in a few cases external) electric coil that brings the nail up to optimal temperature, which is in itself wildly subjective. The nail is the heart and soul of any dab rig, the point where that delightfully aromatic concentrate takes flight, and remains to be the biggest point of contention in any debate surrounding dab tech. How quickly the nail heats, how accurately the temperature is held, and the flavor imparted (or lack thereof) by the nail are all major factors in choosing which rig is right for you. In general, lower temperature dabs make for a smaller hit, but a much more flavorful and nuanced one, as the terpenes of the concentrate tend to be better retained in the lower range. High temp dabs will offer the consumer a more voluminous hit, but tends to minimize the flavor and finer aspects of the high, as less of the vaporized terpene content makes it to the user due to the relatively low evaporation rate of the essential oils. High temperature dabs can also be more irritating to the user’s respiratory system, resulting in a more harsh experience.

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The Argument for Traditional Rigs

Many concentrate traditionalists will maintain that the only way to achieve optimal temperature and flavor is through the use of a torch and a quartz nail. 

a banger is heated up by blue fire from a torch Some people prefer the old school method of a torch and nail.
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There certainly was a time that the old method was more precise, and offered the user more control than their digital counterparts, but at current levels of technological evolution, a preference toward the manual option is more about the nostalgic feel than a superior overall experience.

Temperature Fluctuations

When electrically heated tech was in its infancy, the temperature fluctuations and glacial heating times rendered e-rigs inferior to their more traditional cousins in terms of control of the experience. However, through their progression, the digital technology achieves and holds its temperature far better than we primate descendants can possibly hope to with our handheld fire sticks. 

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Potentially the biggest factor in a preference toward the traditional, would be based on their capacity to be customized. A classic setup can be assembled in an infinite number of combinations, from nail shape and material, to the style of glass with its various recycling chambers, percolators and filtration processes. 

a quartz nail next to a large dab of cannabis concentrate Traditional dab rigs are way more customizable than e-rigs — at least for now.
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One can choose from the smallest, most simple variations, to extremely intricate designs to fit the user’s specific preferences. Many electric models now offer interchangeable atomizers or bowls (which function as the “nail” of an e-rig), that allow for more preferential control, but not nearly the range that can be found for traditional rigs

Heating Speed

The speed at which the nail is heated is another legitimate factor. Early e-rigs took much longer to reach optimal temperature than a torch based setup, though many modern models boast heat cycles very comparable to their manual counterparts (or faster), typically around 10-30 seconds. In fairness, traditional set ups do offer a wider range of achievable temperatures, as most electric models today still only have temperature variance offerings of roughly 400°F. Some units are more suited for billowy high temp dabs (the Kandypens Oura runs from 490°F to 800°F) while others are more focused on the terpene retaining qualities of low temp dabs (the High Five Duo runs from 350°F to 600°F). 

High Five duo e-rig at 370°F Low temp dabbing is around 350-450°F.
Some users that prefer an extremely wide variety of consumption styles could be left out in the cold when trying to meet all their needs with a single unit.

The Pros of E-Rigs

The benefits of e-rigs tend to be far more numerous and substantial than their predecessors. The ability to take your dab experience on the move remains to be one of the largest factors, as traditional glass setups are very fragile, and require a number of extra tools which make them less than ideal for a dabber on the go. The ability to travel with one’s rig is a huge advantage, as traditional setups tether the user to their at home setup, while e-rigs can be taken along on all manner of adventure — from park days and hikes, to tailgating, or simply a session at your buddy’s place. 

a group of friends talking and walking down the street Since dab rigs are pretty fragile, e-rigs are a great on-the-go option.
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The other major advantage to e-rigs is their ability to maintain a consistent temperature without the constant fluctuation of traditional setups. Analog rigs are relatively simple, and as such, are faced with a basic issue: when you put the flame to the nail, the temperature goes up, when you take it away, it starts to drop. It is nearly impossible to maintain a steady temperature when heating manually — the temperature of the nail is always rising or falling. Even if you are a virtuoso with that torch, hitting your optimal personal temperature and then applying your dab of choice while that temperature is maintained is very difficult. This issue is not found in e-rigs, as the electric coil heats to the set temperature and holds at that level with far less fluctuation than a flame based heating method. Many modern e-rigs feature a “sesh” mode as well, which holds the set temperature for a longer period of time allowing you to extend your session or pass the rig to a friend without needing a reheat cycle. Considering the heights that have been reached by today’s field of electronic options, very few reasons exist to choose traditional setups over e-rigs beyond price point, and personal preference toward the analog.

The Wrap Up

Ultimately, the choice between styles lies with the priorities and inclination of the user. Some folks prefer the old school, tactile feel of torching their nail, the customization possibilities offered from assembling your own piece, and the wide range of temperatures achievable by traditional setups. Some will relish the effortless mobility, consistent temp settings, and minimal required tools of modern e-rigs. It’s all about personal preference; there is no right and wrong in this game, only how you like to play it.