“Hey HMJ, shatter vs. wax—what’s the deal?” We get asked that question, in one form or another, at least twenty times a day via face-to-face conversations, email, fax (yes, fax), text message, IM, and every other form of conventional and electronic communication you can think of. It’s become so ubiquitous, it recently topped the list of most-common questions (right above the long-time king, “Who are the Grateful Dead and why are they following me?”). To answer that question—shatter vs. wax, not the omnipresence of Jerry Garcia and his cohorts, we’ve put together this article that outlines the difference between cannabis concentrates and talks about why they are so great. But before we can talk about the present, we need to talk about the past and how marijuana consumption morphed into what it is today. Let’s start with smoking.
Smoking marijuana has been around for a long time. It’s an age-old, tried-and-trusted method that probably originated soon after the caveman figured out he could make fire. In fact, after consuming some prehistoric bud, I wouldn’t be surprised if some mile-high caveman had the bright idea to invent the wheel (we’ve all had those strokes of “genius”, right?) because he needed a faster way to make his munchie runs. But what about eating marijuana?
Ingesting marijuana like food (oregano?) may have been the way cannabis was originally discovered. We don’t know for sure if it was ingested or smoked first, but we do know that cannabis was already in use in China between 10,000 and 2,000 B.C. It’s not hard to imagine an ancient Chinese emperor plucking the leaves off a cannabis plant to steep as a tea for the psychoactive and medicinal benefits it holds. In fact, weed tea has been, and still is, a common cannabis staple in many east and southeast Asian countries. Though weed tea never really caught on in the United States, in modern times (a.k.a. the early 20th century), we damn near perfected the development of the pot brownie. You’re welcome world!
So smoking and ingesting have been the primary means of marijuana consumption since the very beginning. Now, though, a new method of consumption is gaining in popularity: dabbing. It’s in dabbing that we first encounter the questions surrounding shatter vs. wax. But before we get to that, let’s delve into dabbing so we know what this method of getting high is all about.
What Is Dabbing?
Dabbing is the process of heating butane hash oil, or BHO (we’ll get to that in a minute), using a special rig (a bong equipped for the purpose also known as an oil rig), and then inhaling the resultant vapor. So yeah, you could say it’s kind of like smoking, but that would be like saying that a Boeing 747 is kind of like the Wright Brother’s first plane. Sure, they both fly, but that’s where the similarities end. Dabbing gets its name from the tiny dabs of concentrate (BHO or otherwise) that are used in combination with the oil rig to get high.
That’s dabbing in a nutshell. But let’s take a moment to touch on what makes dabbing so special…and so controversial: butane hash oil.
- Concentrates – 80% or more THC
- Regular herb – Between 15 and 20% on average
That’s a huge difference! Concentrates are three to four times more potent than regular buds that are smoked or ingested. Think about how high you got last time you smoked your favorite strain of Girl Scout Cookies. Now multiply that high by four and you can quickly see why the difference in potency is so important. In fact, the extreme potency was the reason this new process was given the name dabbing…because just a dab’ll do ya.
So we mentioned the fact that butane hash oil is a concentrate with a pretty powerful kick. But what, exactly, are concentrates and how do they get to be so awesome? We’ll answer that in the next section.
What Are Concentrates
Now that we’ve talked about the process of dabbing in general, we can get down to the specifics of the concentrates dabbing uses. Concentrates are just what their name implies: concentrated versions of the original marijuana buds. Through a process called solvent extraction, the trichomes and other chemical goodies that make up the psychoactive and medicinal components of the cannabis plant are stripped from the plant matter. When the stripping process has run its full course, all that’s left are the cannabinoids (THC, CBD, CBN, etc.), the terpenes, and the flavonoids. This is the concentrate that makes dabbing so great.
Solvent extraction can be performed using a number of different chemicals such as isopropyl alcohol, chloroform, and carbon dioxide (just to name a few). But, by far, the most common solvent used to make concentrates is butane. When butane is used, the final product is called butane hash oil or BHO. In the next section, we’ll talk about this most common of concentrates, and get intimate with the two forms mentioned in the title: shatter and wax.
Butane Hash Oil (BHO)
The most common way to get the concentrates we’ve been speaking of is through butane extraction. At its most basic, this extraction method forces butane through cannabis plant material to “pull off” the essential oils (made up of cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids). These oils, known as butane hash oil (BHO), are collected, the butane is allowed to evaporate, and you’re left with a highly-concentrated substance that, when vaporized, results in what some call, an instant high. This high is also reported to be more powerful (much more powerful) and last longer than the conventional, herb-induced high.
Butane is not the only solvent you can use to produce a concentrate. It is one of the more widely-used solvents because it does a good job at pulling out all the important chemicals from the cannabis plant. That said, butane can be very dangerous to use because it is highly-flammable. That’s why we don’t recommend using butane extraction at home to make your own concentrate. There are much safer ways to produce a concentrate (like ice-water extraction) than to risk life and limb trying to emulate the professionals and their professional-level equipment.
On top of that, there’s the toxicity of butane to consider. Butane is a toxic substance and trace amounts (we’re talking molecules here) can be left behind in the concentrate. Small amounts of butane probably won’t hurt you much, if at all. Disposable lighters, for example, use butane, and you’re likely inhaling some molecules when you light your joint, your bong, or even your cigarette. Over time, though, those butane molecules that you inhale could have a cumulative effect on your body. If you want to give dabbing a try, and are concerned about the effects butane may have on your health, we suggest using a concentrate that is produced using non-toxic methods.
Getting back to butane hash oil, BHO is the term we use to refer to ALL concentrates that have been produced through butane extraction–it’s the umbrella term for shatter vs wax vs everything else. We could get really specific and refer to the products as BHO shatter or BHO wax. This would help us distinguish between concentrates produced by different methods, but it has a tendency to become a mouthful after a while. If you’re looking for a concentrate produced by a specific method, just ask the budtender at your local dispensary.
Underneath BHO, then, are the different forms the concentrate can take like budder, honeycomb, and crumble. So if you list the terms we’ve talked about from most general to most specific, it would look like this:
- Concentrate (general term for solvent-extracted oil)
- Butane hash oil (refers to the method by which it was produced)
- Budder, wax, crumble, shatter (refers to the appearance of the final product)
At the moment, our favorite concentrates are shatters and waxes. Let’s look at each individually.
Shatter is a translucent–sometimes transparent–concentrate that looks an awful lot like rock candy or a Jolly Rancher. Just like other concentrates produced using butane, it is produced by forcing the chemical through cannabis material to produce an amber liquid like the one shown below.
Left to “cool”, this amber liquid solidifies into shatter which often has the consistency of thin peanut brittle.
Shatter’s transparent quality results from the temperatures used during the extraction and finishing process (as well as other variables) and can only be described by some pretty heavy chemical jargon. To put it in simpler terms, think about the molecules in the BHO (that amber liquid) as Lego blocks. In shatter, they’re all stacked nice and neat, one on top of the other, like you had just built a wall. This molecular alignment allows light to pass through and gives the shatter it’s brittle format.
Like shatter, wax is a BHO concentrate that has the consistency of coconut oil and looks, for lack of a better description, like ear wax. Like shatter, wax starts off as the amber liquid that results from butane extraction.
Whether by accident or by design, the extracted oil is agitated or heated differently to produce an opaque material that can range in consistency from peanut butter to the aforementioned ear wax to honeycomb.
Avoiding all the technical chemistry jargon, let’s go back to the Lego block analogy. While the Lego blocks in shatter are stacked neatly in rows (like a block wall), the Lego blocks in wax are a jumbled mess (like you’ve just dumped them out into a pile). Because the Lego blocks are going every which way and have no semblance of organization, wax is opaque and has that coconut oil consistency. Granted, both of these descriptions are overly-simplified–I certainly wouldn’t use them on a chemistry test–but they can help you visualize what’s going on at the molecular level.
So What’s The Difference Between Shatter vs Wax?
Nothing really. Both shatter and wax are BHO concentrates that have roughly the same THC potency. They’re both used in dabbing. And they both provide a more powerful, longer-lasting high. The only real difference is in their appearance. This appearance is merely a product of how the concentrate is produced.
That said, there are some use and storage differences that need to be considered:
- Shatter can be more difficult to produce (it’s very finicky).
- Wax can be easier to produce (you don’t have to be as careful).
- Shatter is more stable and tends to last longer.
- Wax is less stable and tends to degrade faster.
- Shatter can be harder to handle, measure, and use because of its brittle nature.
- Wax is usually easier to handle, measure, and use because of its coconut oil consistency.
Which Do You Choose: Shatter vs Wax?
The best way to answer the shatter vs wax question is to try them both for yourself. I mean, really, how can you go wrong? It’s marijuana after all. Plus you can use it as an excuse to “consume” more of your favorite strains (we can’t even say smoke now, can we). Call it a science experiment. “Leave me alone, Ma! I’m doing science…by the way, do we have any Twinkies?” I wonder if you could get a grant for something like that (without the Twinkies, of course)?
So whether you buy it or produce it yourself, concentrates (like shatter and wax) can be an interesting addition to your marijuana arsenal. Yeah, you’ll need some new equipment and you’ll need to learn how to use it, but that’s half the fun.