The Ultimate Hookah Guide v1.0

Table of Contents: (use ctrl+f to find the appropriate section for you!)
  1. What is hookah
  2. Where do I start
  3. In-depth Explanations
     3a. Hookah
     3b. Tobacco
     3c. Coals
     3d. Bowls
     3e. Hoses
     3f. Misc accessories
  4. Cleaning your hookah
  5. Health
  6. Misc.
     6a. Vendors
     6b. Do nots/ General tips
     6c. Starbuzz Controversy
  7. Acknowledgements

Version History:

Version 1.0
The original guide.
Version 1.1
Coming soon - Pictures & more

Hi and welcome to the world of hookah! I’ll be your guide to getting started.

1. What is hookah

A hookah is a smoking apparatus. It is not a bong. It has a rich culture and history, much of which originated in the Middle East. A hookah is used to smoke a special kind of tobacco called “shisha” here in the U.S., but goes by several other terms abroad. Hookah smoking is much more different from cigarettes and other similar forms, in that the smoke is much cooler and more flavorful. Here is a basic diagram to get started

Bowl - This is where you will be placing your shisha. There are several types of bowls, the most common being an Egyptian style. Unless otherwise stated, most shishas should be placed in this bowl “light and fluffy”.

Bowl grommet - This is a rubber piece used to make the seal between your bowl and your stem airtight. The grommet goes on the top of your stem. It is a small rubber piece. There are at least 3 popular styles of grommet, mod, mya, and egyptian.

Ashtray - This is where the ash from your coals will go. It also serves a secondary purpose of catching your coals should they fall off. This is not 100% foolproof, and great care should be taken when your coals are on the bowl.

Stem - This is the heart and soul of the hookah. The stem is what the smoke will travel down, and also houses the purge valve and hose port. There is much variance in stems which we will explain later.

Purge Valve (One way valve) - The purge valve is used to purge stale or harsh smoke from the base of your hookah. A steel ball is housed within the purge. When you blow into your hose, the ball will rise and allow smoke to be cleared out. However, when smoking, the ball will stay in place, ensuring a tight seal. Purge valves vary in their effectiveness, this will be explained later when we discuss common chamber and traditional chamber hookahs.

Hose grommet (Hose port) - The hose grommet is similar to the bowl grommet. It ensures a tight seal between your hose and the hose port. There are a few styles of hose ports and some hookahs may have multiple hose ports.

Base grommet - This is a grommet used to maintain a seal between your stem and the base. The only hookahs that don’t use these will be threaded (meaning the stem screws on) or they will be pieces of shit.

Hose - This is what you will use to smoke! Hoses vary GREATLY in style and function, but the main point is there are non washable and washable hoses. Non Washable hoses contain a metal coil to maintain their shape, which means if you wash them, they will rust. You do not want this. Generally speaking, once a non washable hose has notable flavor ghosting and/or rust, it’s time to toss it for a new one. Washable hoses use alternative means to maintain their shape, and as such, allow you to wash the inside out when it gets dirty. These also do not last forever, but does increase their lifespan.

Base - This is what your stem will be placed on. Bases vary in style and shape, and not all bases fit all stems, so it’s best to research your dimensions before purchasing one. The base will be filled with water, which when used, will cool the smoke.

2. Where do I start

It’s not as hard as you think! The basic items you will need are the hookah (with all the parts), coals, and shisha.

How to setup your hookah:

Disclaimer: HOOKAH IS A LEARNED ART. The advice here will be helpful in guiding you, but in the end, practice and patience is what will work best. Different things work for different people.

1.         FIll the base with water so that it reaches ½ inch to an inch above the stem. A lower water level will produce less bubbles, but may yield a hotter smoke. A higher water level will produce a bit more noise, and also runs the risk of getting water in your hose (a HUGE NONO for non washable hoses.) It may take practice to find the sweet spot. The easiest way to know before-hand is to just take a draw from your hose and see how much resistance you get. That way, you don’t have to change your water level with the coals lit.

2.         Get your shisha tobacco ready, stir or mix as needed to distribute the juices. Lightly pack the bowl by laying the shisha in, so air can easily flow through. When placing the tobacco, most shisha will smoke best if light and fluffy. Fill slightly under the rim (or to the rim) of the bowl. After that, apply your foil tightly around the top, so it’s very tight. Now, using any small sharp object (pushpin, toothpick, etc), poke several holes around the top of your bowl. Some are huge believers in a set hole pattern, however you choose to do it is up to you.

After you poke your holes, blow through the bottom of the bowl. If you have good airflow, this shows that the holes aren’t clogged. If you are using a phunnel or vortex style bowl, your pattern may vary so as to not poke holes over the center of the bowl where the spire (the big hole) is located.

3.         Onto the coals! If you are using quicklights, the best thing to do is use halves! Use a screwdriver or something similar, chisel a line down the center of the coal. Then, place the screwdriver edge in the middle of a coal, and pound the top with a hammer (or something similar.) More often than not, this will produce two fairly even halves. If you are using natural coals, typically you will be using 2 (no splitting required.)  Lighting quicklights is fairly straightforward, you will hold the quicklight in your tongs and apply a flame from a lighter. This should start the coal (you will see sparks), and it will slowly be entirely lit. You will know it’s done when the coal is entirely red (DO NOT USE BEFORE THEN.)  Natural coals are lit using a coil burner. If your oven has one, that will work, but it’s recommended you buy a single coil just for your coals, as extended coal lighting can damage the burner over time. These can typically be bought at your local drugstore or retail store for fairly cheap (15 dollars~). The amount of coals required for a bowl can vary, but a general rule is 2 quicklight halves or 2 natural coals.

4.         After your coals are cooked, and ready to go, you’ll want to place them on the sides of the bowl, NOT in the middle.

And there you have it! Throughout your session you may choose to ash your coals or rotate them, this is best left to experimenting. Different people prefer different things. If you feel you have more smoke left in the bowl, feel free to throw another round of coals on.

3. In-depth Explanations

3a. Hookahs

Hookahs come in all different sizes and styles. Which one is right for you will be your own little journey! Basic styles are as follows:

Chinese - Chinese pipes are typically the cheapest pipes you can find. They are often frowned upon in the hookah community, as they are mass produced and often constructed with lower quality materials. A chinese pipe is a fine starting point for a new user, but in time you will find that a new hookah may be necessary. Out of any type of hookah, chinese pipes have the most varied selection. The most popular brand of chinese hookahs is Mya. Compared to others, Mya’s are well constructed and made to last.

Pros - Cheap, widely available (in local shops)

Cons - Rusts easily, sometimes fragile, tacky in appearance

'vendetta_revived', on 07 Dec 2011 - 17:32, said:

“Quality pipes will never have a dragon coming out of the stem.”

Turkish -  Hand made, fine etchings on the hookah, typically require MALE style bowls to use (most are female), and lack a purge valve. They are sought after because they are aesthetically pleasing, and provide a good amount of restriction on the draw. Elmas is a popular brand of this type.

Pros - High quality, beautiful, restriction (personal preference)

Cons - Pricey, Hard to find, restriction (personal preference), no purge, male style bowl required

Syrian - Syrian hookahs are similar to Turkish in that they also have fine etchings, which make them aesthetically pleasing. Beyond that, they are normal in that they have a purge and can use normal style bowls. They also have some restriction, though this can vary from stem to stem.  Compared to an Egyptian pipe, they will be a lot “slimmer” overall, with a stem more narrow in design. Nour and El Nawras are popular brands.

Pros - Cheap(ER) than Turkish, aesthetically pleasing, restriction, high quality

Cons - Still can be pricey, hard to find (syrian conflict), restriction (personal preference)

Egyptian - Egyptian hookahs are one of the more common hookahs in the community, and are generally of higher quality. KM and Magdy Zian are two of the top brands, but there are many more (some may not even list a brand.) Egyptians are handmade in egypt, which means they may have a few aesthetic flaws, but this means every hookah is unique. They will last a lifetime if cared for properly. They can be distinguished by their very easy draw, and wide angled hose ports.

Pros - Affordable, VERY smooth draw, handmade, quality

Cons - Still not the cheapest, draw is a turnoff to some, sloppily made in some cases

Glass?! - Glass hookahs are a more modern rendition of a hookah. Typically the entire hookah is made out of glass. The quality of these can vary GREATLY, so be careful before buying and check forums for reviews when possible.

Pros - Aesthetics, the rest can vary by brand

Cons - Typically VERY expensive, may use proprietary parts

3b. Tobacco (Shisha)

There are a GREAT number of shisha tobaccos out there, and as such, I will only be able to touch on the major brands. Google and hookah forums are your friend when trying to determine what fits best for you. Unless otherwise stated, all shisha should be packed light and fluffy. All ratings are subjective, based off of user input; these should only be used as general guidelines. Your mileage may vary. USERNOTE: When first diving into shisha, you should research a flavor before ordering. A common misconception is Double Apple tobacco is an apple tobacco, but this is not the case. DA is traditionally an anise flavor (similar to black liquorice.)

Al Fakher - Al Fakher is a more traditional tobacco. It can come in both dyed and non-dyed varieties, which does not affect the smoke quality. The flavor names are not fancy and just describe the flavor as is. It is cheaper than most, and provides a quality smoke. The shisha is not particularly juicy.

Clouds - 3/5
Buzz - 3/5

Nakhla - Nakhla is probably the most traditional of any tobacco, and is the most popular around the world. It comes it both dyed and undyed varieties. The flavor names describe the flavor as is. This is typically the cheapest shisha you will find on the market. This is the least juicy shisha to my knowledge.

Clouds - 4/5
Buzz - 4/5

Starbuzz - Starbuzz is one of the most popular brands in the U.S. It is not uncommon for your first hookah experience to involve Starbuzz. They have a great many flavors, and can be credited with bringing “modern” shisha to the forefront. Their tobacco is dyed, and many flavors have names that may leave you guessing as to the flavor (Code 69, anyone?). In cases like these, it’s best to google to find a description of the flavor. The shisha is usually very juicy with a medium cut. Many people will outgrow this brand after a while as they tend to have a chemical after taste compared to other brands, but this should not dissuade you when first breaking into hookah.

Clouds - 3/5
Buzz - 1/5

Fantasia - Fantasia is a modern tobacco. Their shisha is EXTREMELY juicy. They have many flavors based off of alcoholic drinks. This is a good brand to try when first starting out.

Clouds - 4/5
Buzz - 1/5

Fumari - Fumari is a modern tobacco. Their shisha is juicy, and they have very spot on flavors. It is more of a premium tobacco considering it’s price, but still has many avid consumers.

Clouds - 4/5
Buzz - 1/5

Tangiers - Tangiers is a tobacco in a category all it’s own. It is praised among many elitist hookah goers as the end all of shisha. It is a very fine cut tobacco, undyed, with a great number of flavors. It takes special preparation as opposed to most tobaccos (this will be gone over later). It is also unique in that it is one of the only tobaccos requiring a DENSE pack.

Clouds - 5/5
Buzz -  Lucid Line: 3/5 , Noir Line: 5/5

Desi Murli - is a very traditional tobacco. Undyed and unwashed, it is one of the heaviest smokes you can get from a hookah. It has a VERY strong buzz which should be treated with caution by newcomers. It tastes strongly of tobacco, with the “flavor” being more of an undertone than anything. There are multiple ways to prepare this, but one of the suggested methods ¼ a teaspoon of glycerine and honey mixed with a bowls worth of tobacco. Since this is a traditional tobacco, do not expect as large clouds as you get with other brands.

Clouds - 2/5
Buzz - 5/5

And remember, just because a tobacco is NOT listed here does not mean it’s bad. I’m just attempting to cover the basics.

3c. Coals

And here we come to coals! a very important part to your bowl. I’m going to cover the two most basic kinds, instant light coals and natural coals.

Quick Lights - Quick light coals, are as named, iquick lighting. To light one, you simply hold a piece between your tongs (carefully), and use a lighter to get it going. It should start to spark a bit, eventually turning the entire coal red. DO NOT START SMOKING UNTIL THE ENTIRE COAL IS RED, this is key. There are several types of quick lights, the most often mentioned being Three Kings. There are other brands though, and you should find the one you enjoy most. That being said, quick lights tend to “taint” the bowl a bit, imparting an after taste. While they are good in a pinch, in time, most hookah goers move on to natural coals if possible.

Natural Coals - Natural coals are lit using a coil burner. You can either use the one on your oven, or if you have one, a single burner (which can be bought for cheap, highly recommended). It is warned that over time, lighting coals on a burner CAN ruin it, but the time it takes for this to happen can vary greatly. Natural coals are much preferred for their longer burning time, and tasteless heat. There are SEVERAL brands, but a few are Coconara, Chronic, and Gaia. As with quick lights, you should light a natural coal until it is ENTIRELY red, and then use it for smoking.

3d. Bowls

Bowls.  Bowls, everywhere. There are SO many styles, which one is for you? I’ll cover the most basic ones.

Egyptian/Mya bowl - These vary to some degree, but have the same basic idea. This is the bowl you will typically receive with your hookah. It can be glazed or unglazed (unglazed bowls can have flavor imparted to them more easily, which can be preferred). The holes are on the bottom of the bowl. These bowls typically work best with less juicy tobaccos, as the juice can drip down the bottom holes and create a mess. That being said, this is the oldest style of bowl and has worked for 100’s of years.

Vortex - Vortex bowls have a spire in the middle, around which the holes are placed. This gives you an advantage with juicier tobaccos, as it will have a trough for your juices to rest. Juices are a good thing to keep, they provide flavor and smoke. Vortexes do use an inferior material for conducting heat, so the bottom of your shisha may be left uncooked.

Phunnel - Phunnel bowls are similar to a vortex, but instead of a spire with holes around it, there is just one huge hole in the center of the spire. This is the preferred bowl by most of the hookah community, in part because it is almost required for Tangiers tobacco. Be careful, chinese phunnel bowls are of vastly lower quality compared to Tangiers or Crown phunnels.  These brands use a good material which conducts heat well, evenly cooking the shisha.

3e. Hoses

I’m going to cover 3 basic types of hoses - unwashable, washable, and disposable. All hoses can come in MANY different styles aesthetically, so I’m just going to explain the differences between the three.

Unwashable - Unwashable hoses are typically constructed with a metal coil inside. Because of this, you can’t wash or get water into the hose, or you run the risk of rust and inhaling that rust. Typically, when these hoses run their course, you’re just gonna have to throw them out. A good way to test whether or not your hose has a coil is to hold a magnet to it. If it sticks, theres a coil inside.

Washable - Washable hoses use other means to maintain their shape. This allows you to clean out the hose with water as you please. The most popular brands are nammor, narbish, and nogoom.

Disposable - Disposable hoses are a god send for most. They are very cheap, and will usually provide an amazing pull. They ARE washable, but if you have to toss them for whatever reason, it’s not as big a deal due to the price. These hoses are a favorite among the hookah community. The most popular brand is nuhose/ fancy hose.

3f. Misc accessories

There are a TON of accessories for your hookah, I would never have time to write down and explain each one, but most are self explanatory. Some of the more common ones you should take a look at though -

Windcovers - Windcovers are almost essential for heat management. A windcover is about equal to .5 coals in terms of how much more heat it applies to your hookah. It’s useful for getting the bowl hot at the beginning of the session, as well as getting some life out of those tiny coals at the end. Be aware, especially with Egyptian style hookahs, you may need a VERY LARGE windcover to fit over your bowl.

Coal carriers - Usually a little pan or basket for carrying your coals. Useful for natural coals when you light them in a location far away from your hookah.

Diffuser - Diffusers are either bought or homemade items that fit on the bottom of your stem. Their purpose is to diffuse the large bubbles your hookah makes into several small ones, which makes for a quieter smoke.

4. Cleaning your hookah

Cleaning your hookah is key to ensuring it has a long and happy life. While it would be BEST if you cleaned your hookah after every smoke, it’s understandable if you don’t have the time. Here’s a few easy ways to clean various parts.

Bowl - Bowls should be washed out thoroughly. Overtime, blackening may happen on the bowl, which is expected. If you really wish to try to keep it pristine clean, this is a method that works for some. Brew-rite coffee cleaner is going to be your friend. Boil your bowl in a shallow pan of water for a few minutes. Then add a tablespoon of the coffee cleaner, continue to boil, rinse it with hot water after you’re all done. Squeaky clean!

Stem - Your stem should have come with a brush. Otherwise, purchase one online, or make do with a pipe cleaner for now. First, rinse the inside of your stem with as hot a water as you can handle. Then use the brush to make sure all the gunk on the inside is out. Give it another rinse. If you can smell that something has ghosted your stem badly, I like to put some water in the stem with salt, sealing both ends with my hands, and shake it back and forth. Then give it another rinse.

Base - One of my favorite things for the base is DENTAL TABLETS. While you’re cleaning other parts, just throw a tablet in there. If you clean your base last, that should be enough time for it to have done it’s job, so all it will need is a rinse! There are also base brushes you can purchase if there is some scum on the sides that has trouble getting off. Again, if ghosting is relevant, just pour some salt in with the water and shake it up.

Hose - The easiest way to clean WASHABLE hoses is to pour water into the hose (holding one end up, so it doesn’t come out). After it’s about halfway through, just swish the water in the hose back and forth. When finished, pour the water out! There will be a lot of residual water in there still, so it’s best to leave the hose hung to dry in a place where a little leaking water won’t be a problem. The cleaning works a LOT better with lemon juice (in addition to the water).

5. Health

First off, any form of smoking is dangerous. It is foolish to think otherwise. Seriously consider the impact smoking could have on your health before taking it up.

That being said, there are a lot of “studies” out there claiming hookah is worse than cigarettes. This is usually supported by a “fact” that states “you inhale 100 times the volume of smoke in a single session as compared to a single cigarette.” This is misleading. While the VOLUME of the smoke is much higher, the COMPOSITION is different entirely. Shisha tobacco is typically made with 4-5 ingredients tops, compared to the hundreds found in cigarettes, several of which are known to cause cancer.

There are not a lot of conclusive studies done on the subject, so I cannot come right out and say hookah is healthy than cigarettes, but anecdotally, a lot of hookah goers will agree that it takes a lot less out of your body. You also don’t have to smell shitty all the time.

6. Misc.

6a. Vendors -

These are all quality vendors that have a rapport in the hookah community. Just because I left a vendor off here, DOES NOT MEAN IT’S BAD, I’m just listing the main vendors in the U.S.
In no order-,,,,,,,

6b. DO NOTS/General tips

Do not dry your shisha out with a paper towel. If your shisha is too juicy, you need a different bowl.
Do not expose your bowl to extreme heat changes, this may cause it to break (unless it’s a Crown bowl, those are immune.)
Do not put milk in the base, this does not give you clouds. It just makes a mess.
Do not store your shisha in the fridge, this can cause climate shock. It should be kept at the same temperature it’s going to be smoked in.

Ice in the base will cool your smoke, but it drowns out the flavor.

6c. Starbuzz - controversy

Starbuzz is a source of controversy for some. They are the “biggest” brand in the U.S. and have tried using this to their advantage in the past. At one point in time, they attempted to trademark several key flavor names for their own use (double apple, guava, etc.) This was a highly anti-competitive move, and as such, they have generated a lot of hate. Whether or not you choose to support them is certainly up to you, everyone tries Starbuzz at some point, this section was merely to explain why they are frowned upon.

7. Acknowledgements

There are countless people to recognize, but I’ll do my best!
Special thanks to hookahforum and /r/hookah!
In my quest for hookah knowledge, I was well guided from plenty of individuals from both places.
Also, thank you to
Fouda1122gbf at hookahforum for proofreading my guide.
Thanks to my lovely girlfriend for putting up with my habit and learning to pack Tangiers.
And thanks to everyone else, for making the hookah community what it is today!

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