The burning of incense is a beautiful ritual that is used in many cultures of the world, and is something that can bring awareness, a feeling of wellness, and a connectedness to anyone who uses it.
The nature of Incense, its ethereal qualities, of this world but Otherworldy, here and yet gone, tangible and yet subtle, represents the great Mysteries of Life that most of us are seeking in our Spirituality. It is a way of gaining an understanding of these mysteries.
Incense is also a way to invite the divinity that is in all life into our Spiritual practice and Ceremonies.
In this workshop I will be explaining about a variety of different types of incense. I will describe how these incenses are made, and the types of ingredients required.
If you are keen to jump in and make your own 100% Natural Incense, then go to the section on Tibetan Style Incense where I explain the process in detail. This method can be used to make sticks, cones and coils.
Incense Sticks, the kind we are all familiar with, on a split bamboo core
These incense sticks are usually sold very cheap and have a strong scent. Here is a video of, most probably children, rolling these sticks very fast.
But they are far from natural. They often use glues and other ingredients that may be toxic when burned. And the scent comes from fragrance oils. Fragrance oils are blended synthetic aromatic compounds which are produced chemically. Their fragrance may invoke a memory of something natural, but they have no natural components themselves.
I must point out that there are some brands of incense on a stick that are natural, but you will pay a lot more for them. Like the Auroshikha brand of Natural Resin incense.
Making your own incense sticks using unscented blanks
One of the easiest ways to make your own incense is to purchase unscented incense and to apply your own scent. By doing this you can soak them in essential oils and create all-natural incense.
Essential oils may not be cheap, but the scent from the incense will carry the essence of the plants with it.
To help a small amount of essential oils go a long way it is best to fill a tube completely with incense blanks. The blanks will take up most of the space so you may only need 10-15mLs of essential oils to cover the incense.
The picture to the left will give you an idea of how you can do this.
Soak the incense blanks in your favourite essential oils for 12-24 hours. Then remove the sticks and let them dry in a well-ventilated area. You want them to dry slowly over a day or 2 so do not place them in the sun.
When burning this type of incense you will notice that the scent is not as strong as the cheaper incense, but it is 100% natural and will carry the health benefits of the essential oils.
Tibetan Style Incense Sticks
This method of making incense sticks is not only used by the Tibetans, many other countries and cultures make incense the same way, but it was the Tibetan style that I first discovered during my research.
This style of incense stick usually uses all natural ingredients, and may also be infused with essential oils. They do not have a bamboo core, the sticks are all incense. This type of incense stick can be made as thin as 1mm, but the thinner the stick, the finer the materials need to be. If the ingredients are too coarse the stick will easily break.
The ingredients required to make this type of incense include:
- Aromatic ingredients such as dried herbs, resins or aromatic wood powders
- A wood powder base such as Makko powder or Joss powder. We have a range of Wood Powders here.
- A binder such as Gum Arabic or Gum Tragacanth. We have these binders in the Resins & Gums section here.
- Essential oils if desired. We have a large range of Essential Oils here.
The proportions you use of each ingredient will depend on the aromatic ingredients you have chosen. If you are adding dried herbs that will burn well, then you will only need around 20-25% Makko powder. If you are using resins such as Frankincense or Myrrh, then you will need more Makko powder to help them burn. Up to 50% may be required.
The Makko powder has a number of functions, it is a wood powder that burns well, but it contributes very little scent of its own. And it is water soluble. This allows your mix to be made into a putty like dough that is easy to shape. You may need to experiment a little to perfect your recipe, but there really are no failures.
Before I begin I like to calm my mind and set the intention for the incense. I keep this in mind throughout the whole process as I prepare my ingredients and make my incense. It can be a very peaceful and calming process in itself.
- Grind and powder all of your dry aromatic ingredients and mix them together in a bowl. If you are making thicker sticks, then you don’t want the powder to be too fine or it won’t burn well. If you are making very thin sticks, then you want the powder as fine as possible or the sticks won’t hold together well.
- Add in the fine Makko powder and other wood powders and mix well.
- Add in your essential oils and mix them through well. For a 100gm batch of dry ingredients I would add around 20-25mLs of essential oils.
- The amount of liquid you will need is a bit of guess work at this stage. For 100gms of herb and makko mix you may need around 120mLs of water. Put the desired amount of hot water into a glass or jug. Stir in some powdered Gum Arabic or Gum Tragacanth. For 100gms of powder you may need around 5gms of the binder.
- Stir the binder into the hot water and allow it to sit for a while. It should thicken and become sticky. If it doesn’t thicken, add a little more. You don’t want it too thick, but it needs to be sticky.
- Add a little at a time to your incense powder and mix it in well. I find this is often easiest with your hands. You may want to use latex gloves for this part as it may stain your hands. Keep adding the liquid and mixing the ingredients until it forms a dough. You don’t want it too wet, but you need it wet enough to stay together.
- Finally comes the fun part of creating the sticks. I have seen some clever people hand roll beautiful long sticks on a board. You may want to powder the board with some of the dry incense powder, or even some fine Sandalwood powder to stop your incense from sticking.
For my incense I have modified an old caulking gun and can squeeze out long sticks very easily.
To the left you can see someone pushing the incense dough through a tube with a hole in the end with their thumb.
And for larger operations they may use a machine like you can see below in this Japanese incense machine.
The last step is letting the incense cure over a few days. Lay the incense out on a board and place in a room away from direct sunlight. Ideally you want it to take a few days to dry.
However you decide to make your sticks, it can be a very enjoyable process. I wish you all the best on your incense making adventure.
Incense in cone form is another type of incense that is readily available at many shops, but like the stick incense, they are also far from being natural. Almost always they are scented with fragrance oils rather than natural oils or ingredients. But it is easy to make your own 100% natural ones. The process is exactly the same as making the Tibetan style incense discussed above, except you shape the incense dough into cones instead of sticks.
You can either shape them by hand or to make cones that are more uniform, you may like to make or purchase a mold similar to the one pictured to the right.
These molds split apart so after pushing the incense dough into the mold, you open it up and stand up the cones so they can dry.
Leave them somewhere to dry over a few days and you have your own supply of hand made, 100% natural incense cones.
If you wish to make backflow incense cones, all you need to do is put a hole about 3/4 of the way up through the center of the cone. See this photo below. If the burner you are burning them on has a hole beneath the cone, much of the smoke will flow downwards creating a nice effect.
Incense coils are great. It’s like having a 40cm long incense stick that fits in a small burner. Most of them burn for 4 hours or more. But they are difficult to make by hand. You need a very sticky incense dough or else they break as you wind them. This video below shows one method of winding incense coils by machine.
There are many different kinds of incense burners or incense censers suitable for coils. Some use a heatproof mat that you lay the coil on.
Loose Incense on a Charcoal
The burning of incense on a hot charcoal is a technique going back thousands of years. If you are wanting to burn a resin incense like Frankincense or Myrrh, then this is often the easiest way.
To make incense to burn on a charcoal, then you can choose virtually any natural ingredient to add to the incense. It can be something that smells beautiful when burned, or something that holds some significance, whether religious or spiritual. The Druid Alchemy blends are made with 9 herbs and resins, and infused with an essential oil blend.
Caution: These charcoals burn very hot. Using a suitable container is a must. You can use an incense burner with a metal grill on the top like the one pictured to the right. You can use other non-flammable containers if you fill them with sand or other heatproof material to protect the container and whatever the container is sitting on.
Whatever you choose, please use common sense as they get very hot!
Most charcoals available are easy to light. They will sparkle for a while when lit. This is because they have salt petre in them to help them burn. Once you light the charcoal, leave it a few minutes to heat up properly. And then using a metal spoon, place your incense on top of the charcoal.
This type of incense will produce a lot of smoke as it burns the incense rapidly. They are really only suited to outdoor conditions or very large rooms. For indoor conditions, see the next section on how to enjoy your loose incense by warming rather than burning.
Warming Loose Incense
If you have been burning incense on a charcoal then you will know there is a lot of smoke, the incense burns very fast and you can use up a lot in a small amount of time. But most of the ingredients used will give off their beautiful scent at a lower heat. And by doing so will have less smoke, and will last much longer. There are a number of ways you can do this.
One of the best ways is to use an Electric Bukhoor burner with a variable temperature. We sell some here. Then you can warm just the right amount for your room to be filled with the beautiful aroma without filling it with smoke.
Another way is to use an ordinary essential oil burner that is heated by a candle. Instead of placing water and oils in the dish, place your loose incense.
Or you may find an incense burner heated by a candle, just for this purpose.
Bakhoor, or Bukhoor is a type of incense, often wood chips soaked in oils, but may also contain herbs and resins. These are burned either on a charcoal, or in an electric burner.
Burning Bukhoor is part of Arabic traditions and cultures. It may be burned daily in the home as a blessing, or it may be burned on special occasions. A Bukhoor burner (Mabkhara) may be passed around guests so their clothes may become scented with the aroma of the incense.
Heating Agarwood (Oud) on a Mylar Plate
If you haven’t smelled the divine scent of an Agarwood chip warmed up, then you are missing out on an experience. One traditional method of warming the wood chip is using a bamboo charcoal and a mylar plate.
This is often done as part of a ceremony where a bowl filled with white rice ash is carefully tended. A small, lit charcoal brick, is buried in the rice ash. The rice ash is ideal as it allows the air to flow through it so the brick is not smothered.
The surface of the rice ash is often imprinted with a pattern. This can be a very meditative process and is part of the ceremony.
The mylar plate is placed on top and the Agarwood chip is placed on the plate.
After a while the divine scent of Agarwood will fill the room. The Agarwood chip contains an oil, called Oud, that is extremely rare and precious. Once you smell the scent of the Oud coming from the Agarwood chip, you will understand why it is valued so much. It can transport the mind to a place of deep calm making it perfect for meditation, prayer and other spiritual practices.
Makkoh Trail in Rice Ash
The Makko Incense trail is another ancient Asian method of enjoying incense. This method of incense burning can be used for pleasure while entertaining guests, or as an offering in a spiritual practice. It was also used as a way of measuring time.
The Makko trail is made by pressing an indentation into a bowl of white rice ash. The traditional method is using a U shaped press called a Koh press. The indentation is about 12mm wide and deep and is then filled with makko powder.
The makko powder is compacted lightly with the Koh press as seen in the image to the right.
A small piece if incense stick is lit and pushed into one end of the makko trail. Once the makko trail starts to burn, the loose incense is sprinkled over the makko trail.
Below is a timelapse video I made explaining some of the process.
Zukoh is a finely ground powder made from the same ingredients that fine incense is made of: cinnamon, cassia, clove, sandalwood, borneol, star anise, etc. Buddhist monks have used it for centuries for purification before ceremonies, preparing meals, or even touching another person.
This wonderfully fragrant incense powder is rubbed into your hands for cleansing and purification.
While you make your own incense, why not keep some of the powder to use as Zukoh. It is very cleansing and refreshing dusting your hands before meditation or ceremony.