This guide will tell you everything you need to take into consideration when buying a hookah. For a novice hookah smoker, it may be unclear how to choose the right hookah. There are many factors to take into consideration including the origin of the hookah, materials, height, multiple hose options, and price. This guide will also tell you what to look for when you're inspecting a hookah in person. All of this information is combined to help you make the most informed decision when you make your purchase.
Origin of the Hookah
Modern hookahs are typically manufactured in China by companies based in the United States and elsewhere. Traditional hookahs come from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, and other countries in the Middle East and along the Mediterranean. Modern hookahs are made on assembly lines with modern manufacturing techniques while most traditional hookahs are made by hand. Distinguishing a modern hookah from a traditional hookah is fairly easy to do. The distinguishable factors include construction, styling, and performance.
In general, modern hookahs are constructed with lighter weight material and no visible weld lines. They are commonly composed of threaded components that are screwed together, which can also be easily unscrewed to fit into carrying cases. Some of the higher end modern hookahs have better finish work than traditional hookahs, because they mix chromium into the final plating stage.
Traditional hookahs are generally larger and constructed with heavier metals. They also tend to use combinations of metals, such as stainless steel with copper and brass. Modern hookahs typically use mostly stainless steel and may mix in other elements for the finish. The best traditional hookahs use brass around critical points, such as the hose port and check valve. The major advantages of using brass in these points comes from the brazing process in which the brass combines with the steel. The brazing process adds a lot of strength to these weld points. The weld points are usually highly visible on traditional hookahs and some hookah buyers are surprised or disappointed to see a new hookah that appears so unfinished. However, other hookah buyers love this aspect to traditional hookahs; they feel like they own a unique hand-made antiquity.
Some modern hookahs have come out with improved designs. One of the innovations is an improved check valve system on multiple hose models. These check release valves are designed with ball bearings inside them. The result is a multiple hose hookah that can be smoked without the need to plug every hose that is not in use, a cumbersome issue with traditional hookahs and some modern hookahs still today. Many modern hookahs are screwed on at the vase. This makes it easy to pop your stem off to refill the vase with water and back on with an air-tight seal. The only drawback is that the metal threaded fittings can come off easily if they were applied to the glass with an inexpensive glue. However, this is not usually a problem with higher end modern hookahs.
The head or bowl on modern hookahs is generally made with ceramic rather than the clay that is used for traditional hookah bowls. The difference is that ceramic doesn't conduct heat as well, resulting in a lower quality smoking experience. Even distribution of heat means less burning of tobacco and less rearranging of coals. It also lengthens the duration of the smoking session, since the flavor doesn't get diminished by harsh smoke.
Modern hookahs encompass a range of products including animal hookahs, hookahs that have ceramic sculptures on them, inlaid cloisonne designs, and plain stainless steel models. Whatever the style might be, modern hookahs tend to have more current or futuristic designs on the stem and vase.
As the name implies, traditional hookahs appear more traditional. They have lines that suggest hundreds of years of history. Traditional hookahs do differ a bit from region to region and it is difficult to make all-inclusive remarks about their makeup. Whatever the region may be, there will most likely be patterns or designs unique to the history of that region incorporated into the design of the hookah.
Traditional hookah manufacturers have been honing their designs for many generations. In terms of performance, traditional hookahs tend to smoke better than modern hookahs. There are many exceptions, but traditional hookahs typically use one central tube that runs the full length of the stem. The hose and purge valve line are typically one tube as well. The tubing used in traditional hookahs tend to be wider gauge than what is used on modern hookahs. The result of this manufacturing means less restriction and easier smoke draw.
Some hookah connoisseurs argue that solid brass pipes are the best. They are the heaviest, most solid pipes, and last forever. While they do oxidize, they never corrode. The problem with brass pipes is that they require polishing on a regular basis to maintain their luster and shine. Other people prefer combinations of stainless steel with brass or copper. There are issues with stainless steel though. For one, there are few manufacturers out there that use good quality stainless steel. Usually, a low quality stainless steel is used then electroplated only on the exterior with nickel. The inside remains vulnerable to corrosion and rusting. Even highly regarded manufacturers produce hookahs in this way. Modern hookah manufacturers tend to be more thorough; most electroplate the interior and exterior.
Choosing the right height for a hookah is for the most part a matter of preference. Experienced hookah smokers gravitate toward hookahs between 28 inches and 32 inches. This range of height is the happy medium of performance and ease of handling. However, someone that intends to camp or travel a lot might prefer a smaller hookah. Conversely, someone who intends to smoke on his outdoor patio, may want a really tall hookah that can be placed on the floor next to a high table.
Height does play some role in performance. A larger vase and stem will hold more smoke and produce more smoke upon inhaling. This doesn't mean that small hookahs don't smoke well. There are plenty of small hookahs that smoke extremely well.
Multiple Hose Options
Don't those four hose hookahs look amazing? They look like they would be perfect for a party. Despite the looks, multiple hose hookahs are not all they're cracked up to be. The more hoses, the more the performance goes down and the more cumbersome the hookah is to smoke. The reason they are so unmanageable is because every person that has a hose in hand has to plug their tip when they're not smoking. If one hose tip isn't plugged, the person who is smoking can't get enough suction to pull out the smoke.
Luckily, the multiple hose woes can be overcome. Most traditional multiple hose hookahs do come with rubber stoppers, which make it easy to convert back down to a one hose. You can also opt for a modern hookah with a built in check valve system, which is much more manageable. Furthermore, there is no denying the appeal of pulling out a two, three, or four hose hookah when entertaining big groups. They do bring excitement to the party.
The old adage, "You get what you pay for", is even true for the hookah industry. If you are buying a hookah in the U.S. that is under $30, chances are it's going to be pretty junky. If you spend over $100 on a hookah, chances are you're going to get something descent that will last you. That being said, many traditional style hookahs can be pretty pricey and fall short of expectations, which is mostly due to the visible weld lines and imperfect finishing work.
Popular name brand hookahs will always be 10 - 15% more than equally good hookahs that have no name recognition. Generally, this price hike is worth it to get a hookah you can be sure you'll be happy with.
Buying a Hookah in Person
It is extremely important that you know how to check a hookah before you purchase it, because no matter what country it comes from, there is a certain percentage of hookahs that are defective.
Start with the bowl on top. Inspect for chips and an ovular opening where it connects to your hookah. If the the opening of the bowl is ovular, it might not seal tightly when sitting on top of the hookah. Next, look for obstructions in the holes of the bowl. Sometimes, during the glazing process, the holes are covered up or clogged. You will also want to make sure that the bowl fits snugly. You should be able to jerk the hookah a little bit and not have any movement on the bowl. If it does seems to wobble a bit, try to turn it in a clockwise fashion as you push it down over the gasket.
Take the hose off and plug one end with your thumb as you blow through the other end. Listen carefully for any air leaks. If there are any air leaks, the hose has a hole in it. Now, unplug one end and point it at a bare patch of skin that is not on your face (you may get a chunk of rust right into your eye). You should feel a good amount of air coming out. If the amount of air coming out feels weak, the hose has obstructions.
Check the stem for breaks or damage by holding the stem up like a looking glass and pointing the opposite end toward the light.
Unscrew the check release valve to make sure it has a ball bearing.
To check the air flow of the rest of the hookah, make sure it is assembled with the stem, vase, vase gasket, hose, and hose gasket. You will need to remove the bowl and bowl gasket if it is on top of the stem. Use your hand or a piece of cloth to clog the top of the hookah stem. Suck through the hose and listen carefully for air leaks. You should not be able to take any air in. Common air leaks occur near the hose port around the weld lines. With the top of the hookah stem still clogged, blow into the hose. Air should be expelled out of the check release valve.
Make sure the vase is not wobbly and that the top opening is not ovular. Also, look for cracks and chips in the glass.
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