This article is part one of a three-part series.
It’s common knowledge that many products and goods that Americans buy are made in China, India, or other countries with lower labor costs. While this often is seen in a negative light, there are some benefits. After all, Americans enjoy relatively low prices on a number of goods and products because of outsourcing. Unfortunately, some overseas manufacturers take many shortcuts to keep up with the ever-increasing demand for super-cheap products; in the end, this typically results in lower-quality products. This is evident with glass pipes that are coming to the U.S. from across the Pacific.
As Ohio’s oldest headshop and curator of functional glass pipes, we have acquired a wealth of knowledge and experience regarding varieties of glass pipes available in the market today. As far as quality goes, it can be divided into two categories: cheap imports and American-made. The purpose of this article is not to knock our local or national competitors or any headshops who primarily sell cheap imported glass. Rather, the purpose is to raise awareness about the importance of quality standards and the many significant differences between imported pipes and American-made pipes.
A quick disclaimer: not all imported pipes are junk. For example, Roor tubes, made in Germany, are some of the highest quality scientific glass pipes around. Roor is the glass company that originally adopted glass-on-glass joints, a technology borrowed from laboratory science. Glass gurus in Japan make an abundance of mind-blowing pointillism work (see here and here). Moreover, there are at least a few very skilled and knowledgeable glass artists in China. For the purpose of this article, ‘import’ or ‘imported pipe’ is referring to a pipe created in another country using cost-cutting manufacturing processes that take advantage of cheap labor.
Why Does Quality Matter?
The country of origin may not be a huge factor when shopping for a simple product like an HDMI cable, as long as it works, right? However, when shopping for a glass pipe, quality is more important. After all, we are talking about a smoking apparatus used to deliver some form of chemical into your body (whether it is tobacco, CBD, essential oils, etc.). This is something you are not only going to touch with your lips; you are going to put a flame to it, and inhale smoke through it. That is not something one would want to do through any inferior, chemically-dangerous chunk of glass.
American glass blowers who make pipes use pure borosilicate glass, which is referred to as ‘boro’. Borosilicate glass is the best pipe material because it has no toxins or other byproducts that could be released, under normal use. It is human-safe even when heated up repeatedly. Boro is also a very hard, durable glass, and is resistant to breaking from sudden temperature changes – as long as it is annealed properly. American glass blowers get their raw boro glass materials from reputable companies such as Simax, Schott, and Northstar.
Unfortunately, foreign manufacturers’ raw glass rods and tubing are not always pure borosilicate glass. In some cases, it is not even boro, but a type of glass known as ‘soft glass’, which is not preferred in glass pipes as it is much more fragile. Soft glass can work great when using molds to create a cast. It actually is a great cookie-cutter method of pumping out cheap pipes without having to teach glass blowers any difficult glassblowing techniques. Foreign manufacturers resort to cheap glass of dubious purity as a way of cutting corners to reduce production costs.
Colorful, patterned pipes are very appealing and increase the value of a pipe. To save money on these expensive color glass rods and tubing, foreign manufacturers will paint the interior of a transparent pipe – with paint. We have heard stories of customers tasting something funny whenever they light the piece. Turns out, they were probably inhaling fumes from burning paint. And even if the paint is not where it may heat up, such as the interior of a water pipe, we still don’t know what sort of paint was used by the manufacturer or if it is human-safe. Of course, no information is on a warning label. What is certain is that the paint will eventually wear off and potentially end up in the smoker’s mouth or lungs.
A very important step in making a quality glass pipe is called annealing. According to Wikipedia, ”Annealing occurs by the diffusion of atoms within a solid material, so that the material progresses towards its equilibrium state.” In laymen’s terms, heat causes the atoms and molecules to settle into a more natural re-alignment after the material has been shaped and formed. The result is a very solid material that will be way harder to break and more resistant to sudden temperature changes. When creating a glass pipe, this is usually the last step. The pipe is placed in a type of oven called a kiln and heated up, very gradually, to about 1,000 F°. Subsequently, it is cooled off to room temperature, also very gradually.
So why is this necessary? Prior to the annealing process, the glass is worked and shaped, and put under a torch flame repeatedly. Separate glass components may have been melted together creating a seal. All of these processes create what is called ‘residual stresses’ within the glass. The annealing process gets the glass hot enough to soften it and relieve any internal stresses, while remaining cool enough so that the glass does not begin to melt and lose its shape. This is a crucial step with glass blowing as it greatly increases the strength and durability of the glass. Residual stress in the glass will make it more fragile, possibly to the extent that the pipe will break at the slightest little tap. For a great example of residual stress (and an interesting application of it), check out this video of a popular magician’s prop, the bologna bottle.
Imported glass pipes are commonly not annealed at all, or at least not properly. Annealing ovens and kilns are very expensive, industrial-grade equipment and they take a lot of electricity to operate. For these reasons, many foreign manufacturers skip the annealing step altogether.
It is hard to tell if a pipe was annealed just by looking at it, your average smoker certainly would not notice it (until they drop it for the first time). Import manufacturers ask themselves, “Why spend the money, time, and effort to put each pipe through the annealing process, when they sell just as well without it?” Combine the lack of annealing and the use of very thin glass and you have yourself an incredibly fragile pipe.
Seriously, pick up an imported pipe and the first thing you will notice is how lightweight it is. Not only do they use cheap materials but also they try to use as little material as possible, resulting in thinner walls of glass in the pipe. Ultimately, what’s the point of saving a few bucks on a cheap imported pipe if it’s just going to break when someone sets it down on the counter too hard?.
End of Part 1
(This article is part one of a three-part series. Click here to continue to part 2.)