Image: Bryan Menegus/Gizmodo

In spite of aggressively lame marketing, obnoxious YouTube evangelists, and unsteady legal status, vaping is here to stay. Studies haven’t yet determined the long-term impacts of inhaling plumes of flavor, but it’s likely less damaging to healthy lung function than traditional cigarettes.

Teens think it’s cool. Adults—like yours truly—by and large don’t, but it can be a more effective nicotine cessation tool than patches, gums, lozenges, trying very hard, eating sunflower seeds, or whatever other method your weird uncle claims to have used to quit back in ‘86.

As anyone who’s walked into one of those brick-and-mortar vaping specialty shops can attest, eliquid (also known as the equally terrible “juice”) can be remarkably expensive. Vapers usually have more than one flavor on hand, as taste buds get accustomed to most juices after a while (what’s called “vaper’s tongue.”) While the juice might last a while, two bottles of the stuff can easily run $50.

Luckily, the ingredients in vape juice are cheap and easily attained, and DIY communities have worked to create hundreds of recipes that can be made for pennies by anyone willing to engage in a little trial and error.

Ingredients

Every eliquid is made of three base ingredients: vegetable glycerin (VG), propylene glycol (PG), and concentrated flavors, all of which are probably in things you already use. Optionally but frequently, the fourth ingredient is nicotine.

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Product images: Amazon unless otherwise noted

Vegetable glycerin is colorless, odorless, extremely thick, slightly sweet, and costs around $20 per gallon. It’s made by hydrolyzing oils derived from—you guessed it—vegetables, and in all likeliness if you check your bathroom, it’s in the fine print of your toothpaste and shampoo. Where vaping is concerned, VG is the ingredient responsible for producing the big vapory “clouds” the guy in your office insists aren’t obnoxious. The majority of commercially-available flavors mix at 70-percent VG or higher, so you’ll need a fair bit of the stuff.

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The other main component—propylene glycol—is just as colorless, odorless, sweet, and cheap, but a hell of a lot thinner. It produces a slight harshness in the throat that helps vaping mimic traditional smoking, and can also be a base for the third ingredient: flavoring.

Thanks to their innate nature, and their uses in labs, it’s trivial to procure highly purfied versions of VG and PG. As you’re smoking them you want that.

The flavorings are where novices (like me) can easily get tripped up. While many online vape shops will gladly sell any passing rube a small bottle labeled as “strawberry cheesecake” or “fruited luups,” chances are it will taste gross and artificial. I am the embarrassed owner of many such bottles.

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Many of the best and most widely used flavorings come from companies which have no intentional connection to vaping whatsoever: companies like LorAnn and Capella—which started off making baking extracts and coffee flavorings, respectively. When purchasing flavor concentrates it’s important to avoid oil-based extracts or ones containing diacetyl. I cannot stress enough how much you should not smoke these things. Stick to PG-based flavors only.

Image: myfreedomsmokes

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The huge benefit of mixing your own juice to quit smoking traditional cigarettes is the ability to taper the amount of nicotine at your own pace. (Commercial eliquid tends to come only in 0, 3, 6, and sometimes 12 mg/ml.) Unfortunately, concentrated nicotine isn’t something you’ll be able to grab from Amazon or a pharmacy. Mine came from an online storefront called VapeWild; online forums, in their infinite wisdom, recommend Wizard Labs and eCig Express. I can’t vouch for any of them, nor do I have the equipment or inclination to test nicotine purity in my limited free time.

Do your research on applicable purchasing laws and age restrictions (it varies by state and region), be safe if you plan to make eliquid with nicotine in it (more on that later), and always store it out of reach of children or pets. Make sure you dilute nicotine concentrate down with PG or VG, and clearly label the new concentration level.

Tools

There are few pieces of equipment necessary to turn your vaping ingredients into a usable solution. Be warned: individually they’re all innocuous; together your living space will start to resemble a low-budget remake of Breaking Bad. Friends and loved ones will have questions.

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Blunt-tip syringes

You’re going to be measuring out various fluids in small, milliliter increments, so look for a multi-pack that has 10, 5, 3, and 1ml sizes, especially if you plan to include nicotine. You will not be able to gauge the difference between .1 and .4ml on a massive syringe. Nicotine poisoning sucks. You’ve been warned.

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Dropper bottles

These are what you’ll store batches in. Aim to make your batches the same volume as the bottle they’re being stored in, and buy a dark tinted glass variety if you can—air and light both degrade eliquid over time.

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Buy more than you think you’ll need.

A funnel and a graduated cylinder

Yes, you can just squirt your ingredient amounts directly into a dropper, but some of these things are extremely thick and difficult to pull into a syringe without considerable frustration. The graduated cylinder is a sanity purchase. The funnel will then help get batches into said bottles.

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“But I won the National Pouring-Stuff Championship!” you protest. That’s not a real contest and shush. Cleaning even a 10ml batch of viscous, sugary goop off the dining room table will ruin your afternoon. Flies will move into your apartment.

A small metal funnel costs, like, nothing.

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Nitrile gloves

Here’s where we talk about safety: handling concentrated nicotine can dangerous, or potentially deadly if ingested. At full concentration, a spill is probably going to lead to an ER visit, and diluted down in PG or VG it still might lead to a very uncomfortable evening. Symptoms of nicotine, which are especially pronounced and life-threatening in children, poisoning include:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Elevated heartrate
  • Dizziness
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of muscle control
  • Seizures

Shorts, t-shirts, flip flops and the like are also not recommended while handling nicotine. Better to be safe than sorry.

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Resealable plastic bags

After use, those syringes are going to be sticky. You can clean them, but VG residue is heartier than volume markings on cheap, plastic syringes and after a few washings you’re left with a clear tube which is of no use to anyone. Even if you clean them, there’s going to be some gooey residue, and yes, it will attract bugs. Store them in marked bags and thank me later.

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You made me buy all this stuff, so what do I do with it?

All that’s left now is to mix the stuff from part one using the other stuff from part two, which is dead simple and yet so, so easy to mess up. Why? Well, if you’re like me, you’ll grab a few flavors that sound appealing, and try to wing it. Do not do this. Like a novice cook trying to improvising soufflé, you will end up with the vape equivalent of a garbage omelette.

The best course of action for beginners is to find recipes—Reddit’s r/DIY_eJuice community has many—and follow them. These recipes will specify not only the amount of each ingredient but which source each flavor should come from. Once you’re feeling confident there are online calculators for making your own flavors, but we’re trying to save money here, remember?

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With all the ingredients painstakingly measured and decanted into a tiny dropper bottle, there’s only one step left: waiting. All those ingredients need time to get acquainted, so give that bottle a good shake and store it someplace dark and cool for two weeks, give or take. Some batches will take much less time, but generally, the more complex a recipe, the longer you ought to leave it to mature. (And make sure you label things appropriately. There are at least a half dozen tiny bottles in my apartment whose contents I cannot verify.)

Some hobbyists suggest speeding the process by putting your batch—uncovered—in a pot of simmering water for a few hours. Others suggest you can age the flavors more effectively by letting the juice “breath” with the cap off for a few hours before storage. My experience, and laziness, didn’t noticeably change much of anything. Just wait.

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Addendum: Can I make my own flavor concentrates?

Kind of. Experimentally, I tried to extract grapefruit and lemon peels into a citrusy flavor concentrate. Peels (piths removed) went into two containers, to unburden themselves of essential oils in a two-week bath of either VG or PG.

The VG batch came out much lighter and had an acrid, shoe-rubber taste for reasons unknown, while the PG batch was usable but unsatisfying. The tools for creating a “citrus” flavor aren’t in reach for hobbyists, so you’ll end up with “citrus peel”—which I’ll remind you, while fragrant, is the part of the fruit we don’t eat.

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Forearmed with a little knowledge, DIY vape juice can save tons of money long-term. But this is still a subculture that’s largely unregulated and relies heavily on online recommendations from anonymous enthusiasts. This guide may provide a framework for what to expect, but nothing takes the place of doing your homework and working safely.

Best of luck, and if vaping turns out to be ten times deadlier than smoking I proactively take zero responsibility for your (and my) bad decisions.