The Puffco Plus vape pen. (Ben Livingston, The Cannabist)

Puffco Plus a model of good taste for vape pen evolution (review)

Brooklyn company wins over this vape pen pessimist with a small design shift in the heating element that results in a big change in flavor

I’m a vape pen skeptic. Say it’s new and unique and, first thing, I check Alibaba and FuckCombustion to mosey the path laid down by earlier non-believers. I have fundamental concerns about inhaling overseas factory flotsam, but I also feel like pot pen purchasers face a barrage of marketing speak that under-educates, at best. Generic importers benefit from that confusion, which can feel frustrating for consumers who are trying to learn but maybe have minimal time to check Snopes on everybody.

It’s like they keep selling you Coke or Pepsi, and you’re bombarded with ads on the radio, TV, web sites — even Hulu Plus is force-feeding you fifteen-second slo-mo video of kids hopped up on the liquid crack. And you just want to scream, “It’s all the same sugar water, people! With or without the de-cocainized coca!” And then you realize that everyone is staring at you, and also why you’re not invited to many parties any more.

Incremental improvements

But there exist a few people who are actually improving the vape pen, believe it or not.

Case in point: the new Puffco Plus oil pen, from Brooklyn-based Puffco. Vape pens that use metal coils, wicks, ceramic donuts or rods typically have some point where wires run through the bowl which, if not perfectly sealed, may allow oil to seep into spots where it starts to cause the pen to taste a little funky. The Puffco Plus embeds the heating element in the bottom of the ceramic bowl which, in theory, means the oil should only touch ceramic.

Talk about small leaps forward. See that heating wire in your vape pen atomizer? They moved that outside of the chamber. Certainly not a new idea in larger portable vapes, but atypical in a pen. It’s a great idea.

Ceramic “dart” creates convection heat

Heating from outside the chamber presents certain challenges. Stick your oil on a metal coil and it will boil almost as hot as the metal and pretty darn quick. Ceramic has lower thermal conductivity, and since the Puffco Plus has a large chamber, evenly heating that monster bowl is not easy.

To help, the mouthpiece includes a ceramic insert that looks like a round disc with a long stalactite sticking down from it. In an interview with The Cannabist, Puffco CEO Roger Volodarsky tells me this “dart” serves two main functions.

“When the dart is loaded inside the chamber, it helps keep the oil pressed against the ceramic,” says Volodarsky. “But also it provides direction for the air going through the chamber.”

The Puffco Plus takes advantage of hot air swirling over the oil, with the air path winding across the exterior of the ceramic bowl, through four small holes about halfway up the cylindrical chamber wall. The ceramic dart sends heat back down toward the oil. This convection (hot air) heat combines with the thermal conduction heat from the ceramic chamber to quickly and tastefully convert concentrates into cannabinoid-rich clouds.

Puffco Plus vape pen components
A closer look at the Puffco Plus components. (Ben Livingston, The Cannabist)

Small details, large bowl

Infrequently does an electronic vape pen impress, and this is one of those times. Most importantly, hash oil hits from the Puffco Plus taste marvelous. But I like many of the small details. It’s well-machined, sturdy, sleek and stylish. The ceramic dart insert also acts as an in-cap loading tool. The push button controller is a cloud, because why not? Click the cloud button four times to toggle between three temperature settings. Double-click the cloud button for 12-second continuous heating, called “sesh mode,” which is the best way to use the pen.

A positive for most oil dabbers, the Puffco Plus has a big bowl, and the bottom should always be covered with oil, which means this pen requires a healthy fill. Carrying a vape pen around or computing with it nearby, I’m inclined to reach for the sativa suck-stick fairly often because it’s just so ridiculously convenient, and damn that hash oil tastes so flowerfully fine. With such wonderful taste and a giant bowl, the Puffco Plus could easily eat through your monthly extracts allowance. But as long as you’ve got oil to load, sweet mercy will life taste good.

Hot and possibly messy

Despite the innovation — or perhaps because of it — the Puffco Plus has its imperfections. It gets noticeably hot which, thanks to the lovely flavor, I’m willing to overlook as a general life reminder to slow down. By design, the dart helps spread oil away from the middle of the chamber, up the outer walls and up the dart itself a little. This leaves the bottom of the chamber at risk of scorching in the center if you’re not vigilant about keeping it constantly covered. The quick-release threads make checking your oil easy, but they might unscrew in your pants pocket if you’re not careful.

My biggest complaint is the air flow path, which still allows oil to get into unwanted places. The four air holes in the ceramic chamber are pretty low, and the oil can seep through them, especially if you’re clumsy like me. That moves down the exterior walls and into a cavity below the chamber where oil can contact metal wire running between the heating element and a metal cap that conducts electricity from the battery. (Yes, I tore one open, breaking it in the process. Not recommended.)

Seepage may be inevitable in such a convection-conduction design — how can you bring air in without letting oil spill out? — but I would prefer it not contact interior components. Easier said than done, the air path could be modified so it’s completely separated from the interior components. Maybe make seepage a feature by adding a hash oil “spit valve” like on a trumpet or saxophone. (Gross as it sounds, you can thank me on the exhale when you’re e-nailing that oil spit in a few years.)

Puffco Plus is a win

But the pen still works great, and my air path criticism is tempered by my appreciation that people are putting real effort into improving the vape pen — and also that the hash oil hits keep tasting so damn fine. Design is an iterative process, and the Puffco Plus is a positive forward step in the evolution of cannabis consumer technology. Expect to see more externally-heated chamber designs on the vape pen market in the future.

Puffco is certainly looking toward that future. “How are these going to function for the next ten years?” asks Volodarsky. “These devices are gonna have to get smarter if they want to speak to the average user.”

I agree. And I hope the next version is closer to perfection, but for now, I’m quite happy with the Puffco Plus.

The Puffco Plus sells for $99 on the Puffco site.