What is a Bong?

Bongs, which you may also know by slang terms like bubbler, binger, or billy, are water pipes used to smoke cannabis.

They’ve been around for centuries. The word bong is said to have come from the Thai word “baung” for a bamboo tube used for smoking weed.

Today’s bongs look a lot more complicated than a simple bamboo tube, but they all come down to the same basic process.

Read on to learn more about how bongs work and why, contrary to lore, they aren’t actually any better for your lungs than other smoking methods.

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 bong is basically a pipe for smoking dried and cured marijuana. It’s similar to a one-hitter but with more capacity and a special filter or two inherent in the design.

We’ll discuss what all of this means in more detail in the How Does A Bong Work section below. For now, it’s enough to know that, next to the joint and the brownie, the bong is one of the most popular ways to consume cannabis.

Bongs — a.k.a. water pipe, bing, billy, binger, bubbler, and hookah — are usually made of glass and come in a pretty standard shape.

But the more creative cannaseurs among us have gone so far as to make their bongs out of novel materials like wood, plastic, ceramic, fruit (yes, fruit), and diamond-encrusted gold.

Some even go the DIY route and make their own homemade bongs — that look nothing like regular bongs — out of mannequins, plastic building blocks, and candy.

So when we talk about the question, “How does a bong work?” we’re describing the process as it occurs in a professionally designed, store-bought glass bong, not an apple bong you built in a pinch because you left your real bong at home.


A Bong is commonly defined as a device, generally used for smoking cannabis, tobacco, or a myriad of other herbal substances, which uses water and/or ice as a filtration system. Some suggest that the word “Bong” is said to have derived from a Thai word, “Baung” which means a cylindrical, wooden water pipe. Others say the word may have come from an early water pipe discovery in Africa with the Bong’om tribe. Historically, it is generally accepted that the bong was first brought to the United States by US soldiers stationed overseas in the 1960’s. Since then, artisan glass blowers have made bongs into their own art form.

The modern-day bong is a roundabout descendant of the water pipe that smokers in China and India still use today to enjoy cannabis and tobacco.

The definitive lineage of what we now call the bong is lost to the pot haze of time — mostly because the stoners of yore were high all the time and didn’t keep very good records — but some experts believe that the bong was first used in and around what is now Russia (perhaps by the Mongols).

The practice of using a bong to smoke weed traveled along the Silk Road through Persia and into China during the 14th century, where it quickly supplanted weed tea as the most popular method of consuming cannabis.

From China and the Hindu Kush region of Asia, the practice of smoking marijuana through a bong spread south into Indochina (modern-day Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam).

It’s from this region that the pipe we call a bong probably got its name (one of the only good things to come out of the Vietnam War). The Thai word “baung” refers to a round bamboo tube carved into a pipe for the sole purpose of smoking weed.

It’s not hard to imagine American troops in the late 1960s and early 1970s bringing back stories of their marijuana experiences, along with the simple design for a water pipe made out of bamboo (the baung).

From there, cannaseurs Americanized the Thai word into “bong” and began building their water pipes out of glass instead of bamboo (thanks, Bob Snodgrass!).

Since then, bong manufacturers have improved on the original design by including carb holes, larger water chambers, removable bowls and downstems, and even percolators to further filter the pot smoke.

With that in mind, let’s examine the parts of a bong more closely.

How to Use a Bong

Bongs come in all shapes and sizes. Some are very basic with just a bowl and chamber. Others are colorful, mouth-blown works of art.

At the end of the day, they all do basically the same thing: filter and cool the smoke that comes from the burning marijuana.

Bongs generally feature a small bowl that holds dried weed. When you light the weed it combusts. Meanwhile, as you inhale, the water in the bottom of the bong bubbles (or percolates, if you want to get technical). The smoke rises up through the water and then the chamber before entering your mouth and lungs.

The basic concept of the bong is to cool the smoke being inhaled by passing it through one or several chambers filled with water or ice. The more contact the smoke has with the water, the cooler and smoother the smoke. Although these devices vary in size, shape, and complexity… the one thing they all have in common is delivering a pleasantly refreshing smoking experience.

A bong consists of 5 pieces:

  1. Tube and/or base – the long, straight tube is essentially what defines a bong. These can vary in sizes from 8” on up. The base is filled with a small amount of water.
  2. Downstem – a tube that slides into the side of the of the bong and into the water. These may also be slotted at the base to create more bubbles.
  3. “Carb” or carburetor (generally a pull or a slide) – a hole in the side of the base to create clean air flow and clear the tube. (Most times, this means simply lifting the bowl off of the downstem.)
  4. Bowl – placed at the opposite end of the downstem, this is where the herb is packed.
  5. Percolator – a filter that creates bubbles in the water when smoke is drawn through the tube.

Advantages of Bongs

There is no denying the distinctive sound of a bubbling bong, but there is science behind that beloved gurgle. Although the level of filtration acquired is debatable, studies are promising that passing smoke through water helps to filter some of the toxicants that may be inhaled while smoking. With other smaller devices, such pipes, cigarettes, or joints, the smoke is not filtered which allows small particles, toxicants, even burning embers to pass into the smoker’s mouth, esophagus, and lungs, potentially causing damage over time. Using a water pipe, as the smoker inhales, the smoke travels through the water trapping particulate matter, as well as, commingling with clean air and water vapor, which essentially expands the smoke. As more bubbles are created, the more the smoke expands, and the smoother and cooler the hit.

With this in mind, there are many different types of percolation filters found in bongs today which are engineered to provide better air flow and produce a better smoking experience. These are but a few of the most popular types of percolators:

  • Honeycomb – just like the name suggests, this filters the smoke and water through dozens of tiny holes.
  • Turbine – pulls smoke through 5-6 slots creating a cyclone effect in the water.
  • Hanging – a series of smaller tubes, hang in the center of the main tube to create more bubbles.
  • Inline – a small horizontal slotted tube near the bottom of the base
  • Fritted – finely porous glass filter, almost looks like fibers, creates the smallest bubbles, which creates the most filtration, but can also clog the easiest.

Disadvantages of Bongs

Materials (Can reference different types here)

Cleaning and Maintenance of Bongs

Maintaining a bong doesn’t require much more than adhering to a few best practices. 

  • Change the water after each use. 
  • Use filtered water to avoid water spots. 
  • Dump the ash from your bowl frequently to avoid pulling it through during use. This will also ensure you don’t get globs of resin in your bong. 
  • If you’re a heavy bong user, clean your bong as regularly as possible.