Wicked Wizard Eliquid Trading addictions: the inside story of the e cig modding scene
Trading addictions: the inside story of the e cig modding scene
There is a rapidly growing subculture of e cigarette users across the globe who spend countless hours tricking out their hardware. Vape modding, as it's known, blends technical craftsmanship, engineering creativity and artistry into one -- and unbeknownst to most, it originated right here in the UK. Some do it to get better hits, while others do it to give their e cigs a unique look. The modders are also the staunchest of users, who credit vaping with allowing them to kick the tobacco habit. But as I found out, through the process of modding, these ex-smokers may have just traded one addiction for another.
A Lack Of Adequate Hardware
The typical "cig-a-like" form factor
When most people think of an e cigarette, they probably envision what is known as a "cig-a-like" -- essentially a skeuomorphic tube. In place of the filter is the inhaler and past that is the tank of e liquid, which contains the nicotine. Beyond that is an "atomizer," or heat source. Then comes the bulk of the device: the battery, which powers the atomizer. Finally, a cig-a-like ends with an LED, which mimics the glow of a cigarette ember. When a user activates the atomizer, it heats up the e liquid until it vaporizes.
That's why the action of using an e cigarette is called "vaping," because nothing is burnt; it's vaporized. Proponents of e cigarettes argue that because the nicotine is vaporized instead of burnt, as in a traditional cigarette, vaping is much healthier than traditional smoking. That's not something the World Health Organization agrees with, however, and it will probably be decades before the scientific consensus is clear on the issue. Until then, it remains a contentious issue between the organization and vapers, e cig makers and even some doctors who say vaping is preferable to smoking.
Still, the lack of agreement on any benefits e cigarettes have over traditional ones hasn't stopped the devices from flying off the shelves. But to hardcore vapers, the "cig-a-like" e cigarette form factor is an underpowered piece of kit. To them, it's an Atari when what you really need is a tricked-out, custom gaming PC. And indeed, just as serious gamers kicked off the PC modding scene in the '90s in response to a lack of hardware tailored to the community's needs, the same has happened in the vaping scene -- and it started in, of all places, Newark-on-Trent.
Building A Better E cigarette
The first version of the "Screwdriver" mod
When e cigs exploded onto the market in 2007, their users began to coalesce into online communities dedicated to the newly commercialized technology. One of the first major e cig communities to spring up was E cig-Reviews.com, run by London-based Scott Bonner. And it's on sites like his and other dedicated online forums like UKVaper.org that modding was born.
"Many people these days associate 'modding' and 'mod-makers' with the engineers that are manufacturing the high-quality devices that most of us currently enjoy vaping," says Bonner when we chat about the history of the craft. "But the very early modders were the regular cig-a-like users that were tinkering with their cartridges, experimenting with different wicking materials, removing parts of the atomizer, et cetera, and we would gather on the forum, swap ideas and share our findings."
But then the tinkering began to get more extreme. Instead of just fiddling with the internals of cig-a-likes, a pair of modders known online as Trog and Mrog took the then-radical step of completely replacing the body of a standard e cig. For what would come to be known as "The Screwdriver," the pair -- whose real names are Ted and Matt Rogers, a father-and-son team from Newark-on-Trent -- turned a small pocket torch into the atomizer and battery array.
"The Screwdriver created one hell of a buzz at the time, as it allowed the user to vape for hours at a time due to the torch body incorporating a far higher-capacity battery than any cig-a-like on the market," says Bonner.
"The Screwdriver created one hell of a buzz at the time."
"The first Screwdrivers were born out of simple need," says Matt "Mrog" Rogers, when I ask about the inspiration for what is widely considered to be the first true e cig body mod. "Having tried everything there was to try, all the products were found wanting in some way or the other. Being skilled at tinkering and designing, it was decided to make our own robust devices that were suitable for all-day, everyday use. We found a really strangely shaped flashlight that might make a good donor for the first Screwdrivers. After much tinkering and making of custom parts, the original flashlight housing was turned into an effective e cig. Physically it rather resembled a screwdriver, and so the name stuck."
Rogers says that after making their first mod, it soon hit them that there might be a lot of vapers who wanted a better e cig, too. And were they right. Once images of the Screwdriver hit vaping forums, nearly everyone wanted one. So they began to make them for sale -- and as a result, the first real "mod-maker" was born.
A Tale of Two Modders
Larry "LittleFeather" Ross' box mods
After the Screwdriver arrived on the scene, it quickly inspired others to try their hand at mod-making. One such vaper was Larry Ross, or "LittleFeather" as he's known in modding circles. For Ross, the Screwdriver's increased battery capacity wasn't enough. He wanted an e cig that didn't need its e liquid tank refilled so often. So just six months after he started vaping, Ross began making his own mods.
"I wanted to make something that had a more sizable footprint than the tubes mods that were commercially available at the time," says Ross. "So a box mod appeared to be the ticket for me."
Box mods are one of the many forms modded e cigs take -- but they are by far the most popular with e cig connoisseurs. That's because they have a larger, box-shaped body (many around the size of a first-generation iPod). This larger shell allows for not only a longer-lasting battery, but also a larger tank, capable of holding more e liquid.
"I like to use unusual and different materials for my enclosures, and there are always different types of adhesives and connection points to design," Ross says when he shows me images of two of his mods. One he calls the "Relic Diamonds" and the other the "BareBones Black & Blue." Ross' mods are examples of one of the most endearing aspects of vape modding. A modder's unique tastes in style -- and even their work environment -- are often imbued in every creation.