When venturing into a newly discovered world of glass pipes, one would immediately recognize the diversified quantity of glass pipes. Everything from dry pipes to bubblers, sherlocks to steamrollers. But what about the quality of these pipes? You can look at a bubbler and conclude that, water is held below the bowl, therefore it is a bubbler. But, how can you tell where a glass piece was made and what it’s made from? Whether it is borosilicate glass or made from softer, cheaper glass rods?
I was young, and my first glass pipe was this thick yellow piece, adorned with glass bubbles around the entire pipe. It may have been double-blown or even triple-blown. It was my favorite bowl, until it was confiscated. I went up to the smoke shop the next day and picked out the coolest pipe I saw. Before I know it I had my own personal collection of glass.
In the world of glass bowls and bongs, there are two competing sides. In the red corner you have imported, production pipes and in the blue corner you have American-made, custom glass pipes. There are several reasons a buyer would choose one side over the other. For instance, the number one argument would be to save more money on the pipe; getting more of the stuff you’re putting in the pipe, right? While it is true that locally made glass could be a little bit more expensive, there are several points to debate.
Soft Glass (Imported Glass Pipes)
Before you began making a glass pipe you need to have the right materials to do so. There are mainly two different types of glass used. Soft glass or soda-lime glass accounts for 90% of manufactured glass. It is prepared by melting raw materials such as, sodium carbonate (baking soda), lime, dolomite, silicone dioxide (silica), aluminum oxide and trace amounts of other fining agents. Soft glass is useful for bead making, but does not react well to temperature changes, which can cause cracking.
“Soft glass is used for bead making, but does not react well to temperature changes, which can cause cracking”
Borosilicate glass or Boro for short is mainly formed of silica and boron trioxide. This type of glass has to be heated up to a much higher temperature during the flame working process. Requiring more expensive torches and larger tanks of oxygen instead of air. The higher melting point results in very low coefficients of thermal expansion. As a result, borosilicate glass has the well-deserved reputation of being the more resilient type of glass.
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Imported glass pipes are shipped in from China and the Middle-East in a production style operation. The quality of the material used in these environments is almost always the cheaper option, which is the soda-lime glass. These production style pipes are shipped via cargo with only two holes blown. This gives the illusion that the bowl is really an artsy glass bead for a necklace and not a pipe. The bowl hole is later drilled out, which compromises the structure of the already weak glass pipe. When glass is heated, it causes expansion and contraction. The dust and glass chips from the drilling process are left for the un-suspecting buyer to inhale when taking their first hit.
A poor annealing process also affects the integrity of the glass. Annealing is a process of slowly cooling glass to relieve internal stress after it was formed. This is usually carried out in a temperature-controlled kiln. This is the most important part of the pipe making process. A product that has not been annealed properly is liable to crack or shatter when subjected to small temperature changes.
“A product that has not been annealed properly is liable to crack or shatter”
These production style pipes that you find at most smoke shops, and almost all gas stations, are destined to be ravaged. Not only is your bowl targeted by quality, but your health as well. Certain imported production style bowls and bongs get their color from paint. Not crushed glass frit like domestic pipes. One bong I purchased in particular from a local smoke shop had a green, yellow, and red Rasta colored design. When it came time to wash it with rubbing alcohol and salt, all the color ran out with the cleaner. Certain shops that deal with imported products do receive them at a tempting cost. This usually means more profit for the shop given the inflated standard of a pipe; regardless of labor costs.
Domestic glass pipes are hand-made products by local glass blowers whose passion drives them to add exciting new developments to the flourishing counter culture. Whereas, competitors oversees are simply cloning popular techniques in order to supply the ever-expanding demand. Production style pipes do exist locally, but are done with techniques acquired by skill and proper materials.
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The local standard for a pipe almost always consists of boro glass. With local artists venturing into the world of glass and using the worthy canvas to expand creativity and innovation, you end up with more of a unique, distinctive product. Domestic glass is usually cleaned, the holes are always blown versus drilled, and they last much longer. Certain shops create a nice profit margin for purchasing imported glass. The mark-up on locally made art can be high too. It really all depends on the shop.
Another question worth asking is, who is getting money in their pocket for the product you purchased? Is it the company overseas in another country or the small businesses and independent artists locally?