I spend a lot of time talking about the minute details of smoking hookah, but sometimes you just need a little advice to start you off. So, here is our guide for setting up your hookah and preparing for a great session because the best smoke starts with the first step.
What pieces and element make up a hookah?
- Tobacco Bowl
If you’re missing one of these then you’re pretty much out of luck. Make sure to check that you have each one before you start lighting your coals or you may find yourself in a hot spot. There are some exceptions to this rule like some of the high end glass hookahs, but if you own one of those I assume you don’t need a basic guide like this one.
The first step for any session should be a thorough cleaning. Unless you are just finishing another session, scrub and rinse your hookah by following our guide for cleaning. Even a brand new hookah should be cleaned to make sure that there is no residual filth or oil from the manufacturing process. If you have washable hoses then clean them out and give them time to dry, but remember that the average hose is made from leather and metal that will rust and rot if exposed to water. Never wash a hose unless you are 100% sure that it is made to be washable.
Fill the Vase With Water
- The water level should be just a little over the bottom of the down stem. I find that a full inch of water over the bottom of the stem is enough, but some people like a little more for that rumbling smoke.
- You can add ice for a cooler smoke, but it reduces flavor. This is a great option for the summer.
- Never ad milk or dairy to your vase. It adds nothing to the smoke and will only cause problems. These problems can include a rotten milk smell in your hookah, ruined hoses, mold and foaming in the vase. No fun. Not worth it.
Place the Grommet on the Stem
The grommets are essential to the function of a hookah as they keep everything airtight. If the rig has a leak then fresh air will get into you smoke and make it thin. Modern style silicone grommets offer the best seal, but traditionalists enjoy either a tougher rubber grommet, wet paper or cloth and even athletic tape. The paper, cloth and tape let you custom fit the seal to your bowl, stem and vase or a perfect seal.
Place Stem In The Vase And The Tray On The Hookah
Getting the vase and stem together should require a little oomph, but you should not have a difficult time. If it’s too hard then you have an improperly sized grommet. Do not brace the vase against something and force the stem down or you will crack the glass and ruin your day. The tray sits on top of the stem and catches falling ash/charcoal, supports the wind cover, gives you a place to ash your coals and can hold your tongs. Make sure that the tray is in place before the bowl goes on because most trays can’t fit over a bowl.
Put The Hose In The Hose Port
- Insert the hose grommet into the port and follow it with the short end of the hose.
- Some hookahs have more than one hose port. If some of the hose ports are not being used they will need to be plugged with a rubber stopper, available at most shops. Many modern style hookahs have autoseal ports which make stoppers unnecessary.
Pack the bowl with tobacco
This is the most important step to ensure a smooth smoking experience:
- First, mix your tobacco thoroughly. You want each and every bit of the hookah tobacco going into the bowl to be evenly coated in flavoring and molasses. The liquid settles out in storage ad you could end up with a dry and heat sensitive session.
- How tightly you pack the tobacco depends heavily on the style of bowl and type of tobacco you are using. As a general rule of thumb it’s best to fluff up the tobacco and drop it loosely into the bowl then press lightly.
- Maintain at least 2 millimeters of distance between the top of the shisha and the bottom of the foil. This stops the tobacco to sticking to the foil when is burned which may add an off flavor to your smoke hurt your lungs and ruin your session.
Place the Aluminum Foil onto the Bowl
- Take a square of foil large enough to cover the top of the bowl and give you about two inches of coverage beyond that. It will form a good seal and grip the bowl tightly to avoid sagging.
- The top of the foil should be taught and tight like a drum.
- For a typical Egyptian bowl just start with a circle around the edge of the bowl and spiral inward.
- Funnel style bowls benefit greatly from 3 concentric rings of holes. One around the edge, one around the spire and one between those two.
- The more holes you put doesn’t necessarily mean more smoke. It just means more air flow and more direct heat form the coals reaching the tobacco. You have to strike a balance between the holes, coal, and type of tobacco to get the optimal amount and thickness of smoke.
- Be careful not to shred the foil. Using something with a sharp point to poke holes will help avoid this.
Light coals and put them on the bowl
- For quick light coal users: typically you’ll be lighting this coal with a lighter or match. Start by using the tongs to hold the coal, preferably somewhere far away from any other people or anything flammable. Sparks are going to fly. If you’re indoors, stand near a window or go outside. Light the coal with your lighter of choice by holding the flame to one corner of the coal. Wait for the coal to start sparkling and emitting smoke and pull the flame away. Remember that this is very much an exothermic reaction, so don’t get your hands too close. Allow the coal to finish sparking and smoking. The entire coal should be glowing orange. If it isn’t, blow on the coal until the still blackened parts have all turned orange.
NEVER light the coal on top of the bowl. This will cause accelerant particles to get into the bowl and change the flavor of the tobacco.
- For natural coal users (ex. compressed coconut Coco Nara coals): light your coals on the stove (or on fire) until they are completely orange. Flip them while on the stove (or on fire) as necessary to ensure that the entire coal is glowing orange all the way around. Blow as necessary to ensure the coal lights properly. Do not light natural coals on a glass top stove as there is a high risk of cracking and marking the glass. Most people prefer a coil stove but a gas range stove works just as well with a little finesse.
- Read the Hookah Coals Guide for more information on coals if you want more detailed instructions.
Smoke The Hookah
- Allow the bowl to heat up naturally. Trying to kick start the hookah by taking hard pulls will only increase the chance of burning the tobacco and could cause lightheadedness.
- A wind cover may be used to heat the bowl up more evenly and trap the heat where you need it, but make sure you don’t let it overheat.
- Take slow and well spaced out draws from the hookah. It’s not a race, so sit back and relax.
Hookah Heat Management
Read our complete article on Hookah Heat Management for some great tips, tricks and guides that will help you achieve the perfect session.
That’s about it. Hookah takes time to prepare properly and is not a hobby for those in a rush, but the rewards are very much worth the effort. At this point you just need to let the smoke swirl around you as friends share stories and you relax into the moment. Happy smoking, my friends.