Shatter Vs. Wax: What’s the Difference?



What is the difference between wax and shatter? Is one or the other more potent? Is either better?

While the potency of wax and shatter is similar (it depends on the starting material), the physical difference between the two has remained a mystery… until now. Extract artist Reme Kilam and HIGH TIMES Cannabis Science Editor Sirius J teamed up to bridge the gap between wax and shatter. Check out our findings.

There are a number of variables one can manipulate that will affect the texture of hash oil. Physical agitation, temperature changes and moisture can all cause a translucent oil to change into an opaque wax. The agitation causes the THCA, which is a solid, to precipitate from the rest of the oil and crystallize. While wax and budder don’t contain perfect THCA crystals, the analogy applies. The change from translucent to opaque is the hash oil changing from a single-phase substance (transparent extracts) to a multiphasic, amorphous substance (wax and budder).

This is some pretty hefty materials science jargon. So, we’ll break it down for you to understand the difference.

The Hard Candy Analogy

A great analogy for the process of making hash oil is making hard candy. If done correctly, the sugar will dry as it cools and turn into what’s technically a glass. If the process is disturbed or the candy gets affected during transport and storage, crystals can form in the hard candy. Once crystals form, the candy isn’t hard candy anymore. It becomes opaque, has a weak, irregular structure and goes bad more quickly.

Why do the crystals form? If you stir the solution while it is cooking or setting, some of the sugar molecules will bump into each other and crystallize, becoming a half gooey, half crunchy mess, instead of a clean translucent hard candy. A bubble, a notch in the container or any irregularity can cause nucleation of the sugar molecules around a nucleation point. The sugar than crystallizes outwardly from there and from any nucleation point.

This process is analogous to the transformation of shatter into wax. In shatter, the cannabinoids (in their natural acid forms), terpenes and waxes are all mixed together in one phase and in a way that allows light to pass through the molecular structure, just like hard candy. When it becomes wax or budder, the cannabinoids crystallize around each other and separate from the terpenes and waxes. This mixture of phases does not allow light to pass through and can have anything from a dry crumbly texture to a peanut butter consistency

Shatter, Pull-and-Snap, and Sap

Hash oil is a solution of various compounds found in the cannabis plant and many things can affect how its extract will turn out. As long as all the components of an extract are still in a single, homogeneous phase, the extract will be transparent. The different components will dictate whether the extract is hard, moldable or sappy.

What temperatures your product has been exposed to before and during extraction will affect the consistency. Have you ever tried decarboxylating your oil to put in edibles? If you have, you are aware that after all the heat, your once rock-hard shatter is now permanently sappy no matter what you do to it. This is because THC, unlike THCA, is an oil at room temperature, not a solid. An extract with decarboxylated THC will be sappier and the same goes for extracts with high CBD.

Terpenes also play a role in the relative stability of an end product. Because terpenes act as solvents, the higher the percentage of terpenes present, the more liquid-like the end product will turn out. This is best exemplified in fresh frozen or live-resin runs, which tend to come out on the sappy side. Since the plant has not been dried or cured prior to extraction, less terpenes have had the chance to evaporate, and therefore the end product has an overall higher terpene content versus the same material that had been dried and cured.

Water can get picked up during a butane run, so extracts on fresh plant material will contain residual amounts of water, making it sappier. One way to mitigate moisture content in fresh frozen runs would be to do them under sub-zero conditions.

Crumble, Wax and Budder

An extract that you can’t see through is different on a microscopic level than a transparent one. If you can’t see through it, that means the THCA and other solids have separated from the other components that are liquid, like terpenes. When light passes between two mediums of different densities, it gets refracted; multiphasic, amorphous solids are generally not transparent. Same goes for hash oil.

Once the extract is purged of the butane, you’ll generally have a shatter-like oil. Agitating the oil makes this into a wax, and agitation can come in a few different ways. Some people choose to raise their temperatures under vacuum (from 90°-110° or even 120°+) once they have achieved clean translucent oil. Some people choose to whip their oil and put it back under vacuum at the same temperature. And some just whip it and leave it alone. Any agitation will turn it into a non-transparent extract.

The consistency of the original shatter or sap will dictate the consistency of the wax or budder than forms from it. Sappier extracts will turn into a peanut butter goop, while harder shatters will become wax or crumble.

Accidental Waxing and Auto-Buddering

Besides the obvious visual and textural differences, the cause of hash oil “waxing-up” can generate some heavy debate. Many extractors know how to produce a wax-like product instead of translucent oil, but the actual reason their product changes into an opaque wax often is not considered. Contrary to popular belief, even if a product has been de-waxed or winterized, a wax-like texture can still be achieved whether or not waxes or lipids are present.

Auto-buddering can happen for many reasons after the blasting process. If too much moisture gets introduced, either during the extraction or because of the humidity in the starting material, the water that is left over in the product when under vacuum can kick start the process of nucleation, leading to a budder or wax.

It is also possible that the molecules were physically agitated earlier in the process, when the collection tank was scraped. If not careful, this scraping action can serve the same function as whipping the oil (physical agitation), ultimately waxing-up the end product. The same thing can be said about adding too much heat accidentally. When molecules are heated, they tend to move around more energetically, and because of this energetic movement in conjunction with vigorous bubbling under vacuum, the oil once again is agitated to the point of nucleation.

Sometimes translucent oil will wax-up after being stored over a period of time. In this circumstance, the agitation is occurring either because of residual solvent trying to evaporate or because of terpenes trying to evaporate.

Shatter is slightly unstable and tends to degrade into budder over time. The THCA molecules tend to crystallize by coming together, but the viscous nature of the oil slows this down. Still, it eventually happens to a lot of shatter at room temperature or higher.

Refrigeration is key for preserving extracts, but it needs to be done right. Improper handling upon thawing can lead to the introduction of moisture and quick degradation of all your product.

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