Hookahs, or water pipes, are traditional Middle Eastern smoking devices that have become popular across the globe. Taking a casual drag of hookah is one thing, but what if you want to set up your own hookah? If you’re lost and looking for a little bit of help, you’ve come to the right place.
Setting up the Pipe
1. Clean the hookah. Wash the hookah with water and a soft brush before using it for the first time, and whenever it gets dirty. Disconnect all parts first, and wash every one except the hoses; assume these are not water-safe unless labeled otherwise. Wipe it dry with a towel and leave it to air dry before you continue.
- Cleaning after every session is ideal, but definitely clean whenever you see residue on the vase, or when the smoke doesn’t taste right.
- A long, thin brush helps you reach inside long parts. You might find good brushes at stores that sell hookahs.
2. Pour cold water into the vase. This is the large glass container at the base of the hookah. Fill it enough to cover 1 inch (2.5 cm) of the metal stem, or slightly more. Leaving space for air is important to dilute the smoke and make it easy to draw on the hose. If you have a mini hookah, you may only be able to cover ½ inch (1.25cm) of the stem to leave room for air and avoid soaking the hoses.
- The stem is the metal tip at the bottom of the central hookah shaft. Slot the shaft on top of the vase to see how far down the stem goes.
- The water doesn’t filter out nicotine and other chemicals nearly as much as most smokers believe. Adding more water won’t make the hookah safer.
3. Add ice (optional). Although hookah smoke, properly drawn, is not harsh at all, a nice cool temperature will make it even more pleasurable. You may need to pour out some of the water to adjust it to the correct level, as described above.
4. Insert the hookah shaft into the glass base. Lower the shaft into the base, so the stem enters the water. There should be a silicone or rubber piece that fits around the top of the base to make it airtight. If the fit isn’t airtight, the smoke will be thin and difficult to pull.
- If the rubber piece won’t fit, wet it with a little water or a drop of dish soap.
5. Connect the hoses. The hoses slot into holes on the side of the shaft. Just like the base, these holes should be airtight fits. Some hookahs seal the hole if there is no hose attached. On other models, you’ll need to attach all the hoses even if you’re smoking alone.
- Double check your water levels before connecting. If the water levels are too near your hose connections, the water could ruin your hoses.
6. Check the air flow. Place your hand on top of the hookah stem to block air from entering the hookah. Try to inhale through a hose. If you can get any air, one of the connections is not airtight. Check them all for tight fits and rubber or silicone seals.
- If you’re missing a seal, look for “hookah grommets” to find a replacement. Tightly wrapped athletic tape can make a temporarily, mostly airtight seal.
7. Position the metal tray on top of the hookah shaft. This tray catches hot embers and excess tobacco if and when they fall.
Smoking the Hookah
1. Stir the shisha. Shisha is just tobacco packed in liquids that add flavor and thick smoke. These liquids tend to settle to the bottom, so give it a quick stir to spread them around.
- For your first time smoking a hookah, consider using tobacco-free hookah molasses to practice the setup. Tobacco can be very harsh if you make a mistake.
- Shisha comes in many different flavors, which significantly change the experience. Sample several to see what you like as a novice hookah smoker.
2. Break up the shisha and place it in the bowl. Fluff up pieces of shisha and drop them in the bowl. Press lightly down to make a flat layer without compacting the tobacco. It should stay fairly loose so air can easily flow through it. Fill the bowl nearly to the top, but leave at least 2mm (3/32 inches) of space above the tobacco so it doesn’t burn.
3. Cover with heavy-duty foil. Lay a piece of heavy-duty foil over the bowl, stretching it taut. Crimp it around the edges to secure.
- If you only have standard duty foil, use two layers.
- You can use a charcoal screen sold for this purpose instead, but most users prefer the foil
4. Place the bowl on top of the hookah shaft. This should fit securely into another rubber piece, for an airtight fit.
5. Poke several holes through the foil. Using a toothpick or paper clip, poke about 12–15 holes through the foil surface. Test air flow by drawing on the hose as you do this. If you have trouble pulling air, add more holes.
- Some people like to poke all the way through the shisha to provide channels for heat and air.
6. Light two or three coals. There are two types of coals used for hookah. Follow these instructions depending on which one you have:
- Quick light coals: Hold with tongs over a nonflammable area. Light with a lighter or match until it stops smoking, then wait 10–30 seconds until covered in light gray ash and glowing orange. These are convenient, but give a worse, shorter smoke. Some people even get headaches from smoking them.
- Natural coals: Heat directly in a stove flame or on an electric burner, but never where ash could fall into the gas line or on a glass stove. The coal is ready once glowing orange, usually after 8–12 minutes.
7. Transfer the coals to the foil. Place the coals evenly ringing the edge of the foil, or even slightly overhanging the edge. A common mistake is to pile the coals in the center, which can easily char the shisha and create harsh, short-lived smoke.
- Many smokers prefer to let the shisha warm up for 3–5 minutes before they start smoking. This lets you smoke with gentle breaths, enhancing the flavor.
8. Inhale. Once the bowl is warm — or right away, if you’re impatient — inhale through one of the hoses. Your breath pulls air past the coals, causing them to heat up. If you pull too hard, the air will get hot enough to char the shisha, and you’ll cough on a lungful of bad-tasting smoke. Pull with short, normal breaths. Smoke at a relaxed rate, pausing to give the shisha time to cool down.
- If no smoke appears in the vase, inhale in a series of short, sharp puffs to light the tobacco.