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Trading addictions: the inside story of the e-cig modding scene

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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.

Gallery: Iterations of the Screwdriver mod | 8 Photos

"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.

Gallery: LittleFeather's box mods | 10 Photos

"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.

"I like to use unusual and different materials for my enclosures."

Ross, who's 63, creates his box mods on a vintage jeweler's bench tucked away in a small section of his humble garage. "Relic Diamonds" is a gold-studded art deco enclosure, while the "BareBones Black & Blue" resembles the body of a 1920s radio my grandma once owned. And while Ross knows his designs won't appeal to everyone, he's fine with that. "I find working on small-scale projects more enjoyable," he says. "At this time, I only make mods for friends and family as needed, but I'm always looking for new design ideas."

But, there are those in the vaper community who are on the opposite side of Ross' small and personalized approach to modding; ones that take their mods and commercialize them. Here again, the Screwdriver was the first, but others quickly followed. One such modder-for-profit is a man from Leicester known as Ishy, who makes the popular Gizmo mod -- a machined, anodized aluminum e-cig that, I soon found out, was designed with an Apple-like attention to detail.

A deconstructed "Gizmo" mod

Ishy, whose real name is Chris (he asked me to withhold his last name), is in his 60s and had been smoking for 45 years before trying his first cig-a-like. He liked the non-tobacco nicotine hit it gave him, but found its design lacking.

"I couldn't get over the fact that I'd got this great big long thing in my hand. I mean the thing was eight to 10 inches long and sticking out in front of me," says Chris of the cig-a-likes he tried. "And you know you're walking around with this sonic screwdriver and everybody's staring at you wondering what the hell you're doing with it. I thought, 'Well, I'd like something that's sort of a bit more compact.' I'm not the sort of person that likes to draw attention to myself."

Unable to find any mods that were both stylish and compact while still being able to hold more e-liquid and a larger battery, Chris decided to make his own with the help of his wife -- and the decades of knowledge he acquired from running a company that manufactures parts for F1 cars. Chris is one of the few modders, it's safe to say, who owns a full-blown CNC machine shop where he makes the Gizmo. It's a mod crafted with the precision of a Swiss watchmaker: one where the engineering of every individual component is just as important as the whole of the device.

Gallery: The Gizmo mod | 6 Photos

The body is manufactured from aircraft-grade aluminum, with the electrical components made of brass (unlike most other mods, which use stainless steel). And though brass is more expensive, he tells me it conducts electricity far better, which allows for more voltage to be delivered from the battery to the atomizer. This boosts the richness, thickness and general quality of the vapor you get from it.

As Chris explains how the refinement of the brass coil eliminates voltage drop and the importance of the thread pitch of the brass ring that screws into the e-liquid tank, I comment on the level of scrutiny he seems to undertake with his mod.

"I was a musician for 20 years and I suppose you could say that I'm creative and I have to create. I have to change; I have to perfect. I'm constantly refining, to the irritation of some people, but that's just the way I am," he says.

Modifying An Addiction

smoke!

[Credit: Flotografie/Flickr]

The way Chris describes every little detail reminds me of the phrasing other vapers have used. Vapers who say they are compelled to return to the forums each day to discuss not only the latest mods, but also the very experience of the act itself. That's not to mention discussing news of political or regulatory decisions that could affect their lifestyle. Indeed, for many in this world, the latter is a concern that is always close to mind. As one modder told me, "I mod because I want to know how to make my own gear should the World Health Organization try to get vaping banned worldwide."

For some, vaper modding is a hobby; a way of artistically expressing their creativity -- no different than a painter taking a brush to a canvas. For others, it's a business like any other, where profit is the end game. But to me -- a non-smoking, non-vaping outsider -- it seems there's a subset of the community where the very act of modding can signal a new obsession, a new addiction.

These are the vapers that not only fixate on their gear, but also fear the thing they've come to love might one day be taken away from them. The ones who worry about the WHO and the public perception of vaping. And for this small subset of vapers, I'm not sure the transference of a chemical addiction to a psychological one is that much healthier.

I ask Chris if he thinks I'm off the mark.

"I think the roots of all of this are in smoking."

"I think the roots of all of this are in smoking," he says. "These people were like me. They'd given up smoking and they'd smoked for years and it was so hard to give up smoking, and they become obsessed because it takes their minds off cigarettes. Some of them collect the things. They just buy them because they want them. It becomes a hobby to them. And that's fine; anything that keeps them off cigarettes is good."

Certainly that's something both vapers and the WHO can agree on.

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