The Ultimate Guide to Making Incense

Incense is easy to buy in specialist shops or online. However, you can also produce your own incense which is easy and interesting to do and also really satisfying. Before looking in detail at how to produce your own incense, let’s just spend some time defining what incense actually is, and a bit about its history.

What to Know About Incense

Incense is made from aromatic herbs and plants. These are usually dried and can be infused with essential oils. Depending on the plants or herbs used, so the incense produced will have different properties. The mix that makes up a batch of incense will vary according to the use that will be made of it. Some incense is used in religious ceremonies to aid prayer and contemplation. Often it is used during meditation sessions to create a sense of calm. Incense can also be made to use as insect repellent or to have a deodorizing effect.

The use of incense has a long history. We know that it was used in temple ceremonies in ancient Egypt and also in the Middle East and India as long ago as 3000 BCE. In China from 2000 BCE incense was being used as a part of religious observance. The ritual use of incense also took place in Japan and Korea. 

All of these cultures created incense from plants that were growing locally. Once trading between different cultures began to develop, for example along the Silk Road that connected Europe with the civilizations of Asia, so exotic herbs and plants could be transported over thousands of miles. Some of these were particularly valuable – frankincense and myrrh were brought as gifts for the baby Jesus because they were highly valued.

The tradition of using incense in religious ceremonies continues today. Incense is used in branches of the Christian faith and in eastern religions as aids to prayer and contemplation. Practitioners of the old religion called Wicca and more commonly, witchcraft, use incense in ceremonies on a regular basis.

Basically incense falls into two types. Indirect-burning (or non-combustible) incense has to be spread on glowing embers or charcoal so that it burns and so produces an aroma. This type of incense cannot be set alight, but has to be burned on a separate source of heat. 

Direct-burning (or combustible) incense can be ignited and will burn on its own, and then smolder until all the incense has been consumed. In these the ingredients are ground into a paste, helped by some essential oils and a binder. Once the paste is ready it can be formed into coils, cones or coated on to a thin stick of bamboo or sandalwood. These joss sticks became popular in the West during the late 1960s as interest in eastern religions grew.

Incense of the direct-burning type can also be found used as a powder, on papers that have been impregnated with the incense or as ropes. Ropes are made from paper that has the incense rolled up inside it, and then doubled and plaited to form a solid structure that can be stood in a dish and burned.

What do you need to make incense?

Before you set out to make some incense, you will need a few essential items:

  • An incense recipe
  • Aromatic ingredients, which should be fresh and natural. Also a base ingredient and a binder
  • A pestle and mortar or grinder
  • A small mixing bowl
  • Measuring equipment such as graded measuring spoons or small jugs or cups, or a scale that can measure very small quantities
  • Pipette
  • Storage jars and labels

Let’s look at each of these in turn:

1. An incense recipe.

The recipe you use will depend on the use to which you will put your incense once you have made it. There are recipes for meditation incense, prayer incense, healing incense, and so on. Once you are familiar with the process of making incense, you will want to create recipes of your own, using local ingredients and personal preference. 

Incense recipes usually recommend three layers of aromatic ingredients. These layers are the base notes, the middle notes and the top notes. The aroma we smell first will come from the top notes, while the middle notes will develop more slowly. The base notes are those aromas that last the longest and draw the other aromas together to complete the final scent. There are no hard-and-fast rules as to how many of each level you use, so you are free to experiment.

Some recipes that have been tried and tested by others will give you quantities of each herb to use. When starting out, it’s a good idea to use a recipe with given quantities, allowing you to concentrate on the process. Go online to find some recipes that appeal to you.

2. Ingredients.

The best quality incense is made with ingredients that are natural, fresh and aromatic. 

If you wish to make your own incense cones or sticks, then you will need to make incense dough first. This will look like a paste, and can be formed into the shape you want, or applied to a thin stick to create an incense stick.

Most recipes are concerned with the aromatic elements of your incense, as outlined above. In addition to these you will need a base that will burn, and allow you to enjoy your incense without having to maintain a separate heat source. Some base materials are strongly scented themselves and will influence the final aroma you get from your incense. A few do not have strong scents, and are to be recommended to a beginner.

Charcoal, alder and red sandalwood are all low-scent. Stronger bases include pine, cedar and sandalwood. Other bases include quassia, vetiver and willow.

You will also need a binder that holds the other ingredients together so that they can be shaped. If you are new to incense creation, then a wood binder might be the best choice. The main disadvantage of using a wood binder is that you will need to make the binder about three-quarters of the recipe. When buying a binder look out for joss powder or makko, which are the two most popular and easily available.

Gum binders are stronger and less is needed in each recipe. Care does have to be taken with gum binders as too much in a recipe prevents efficient burning. Both guar gum, tragacanth gum, and xanthan gum are used as binders.

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You will need to have chosen your dry aromatic ingredients before starting work on your incense. Some incense crafters will use essential oils in their incense when they are trying to create a particular scent or scent combination.

The final ingredient is liquid. A liquid is needed to hold the mixture together. Water works just fine, although other liquids can be used when you want them to add to the final scent. Add your liquid very carefully drop by drop (this is where the pipette comes in). Your dough needs to be thick enough to be molded into cones, hence the reason for great care.

3. Pestle and Mortar

A pestle and mortar is needed so that you can grind up your ingredients. Doing this by hand gives you much greater control over the fineness of the powder you are creating. A grinder will do the same job, and with less effort on your part, but you will need to be ready to stop it when the consistency you require has been reached.

4. A scale and measuring equipment

Incense recipes do need to be exact if you do not want one ingredient to overpower the others. Think baking, where exact quantities are needed to create the perfect cake. It is the same with incense recipes. Quantities need to be exact if you are to achieve the desired result.

5. Pipette

Adding liquid to your dough is another stage that needs great care. A pipette gives you accuracy when you need it most.

6. Storage Jars

It is wise to have some storage jars ready to decant your incense for keeping. Most incense will last if kept in clean, dry jars. It might be a good idea to have labels ready to stick on the jars. 

Step by Step Guide to making incense

In this guide to making incense, we will follow the steps needed to make an incense dough. This dough can then be formed into cones – or indeed any shape you wish. It can also be used to make incense sticks.

1. Gather your equipment together.

Make sure your pestle and mortar are both clean with nothing left in or on them that might contaminate your new batch of incense.

2. Next, gather your ingredients together.

You should have already purchased your base and your binder. Choose your aromatic ingredients carefully so as to create the incense scent you seek. Remember that you will need dried ingredients such a leaves, bark, flowers, seeds etc. Choose those that will provide your base notes, others to provide you with middle notes and something to give you the aromatic top note.

Get some water ready in a small jug. Some incense crafters are happy to use ordinary tap water while others prefer to use distilled or purified water. If you will be using essential oils prepare them beforehand and have them ready. You will still need to have water ready, as essential oils don’t contain any water. Your pipette must be clean with no trace of any oils you may have used previously. It is good practice to have separate pipettes for water and oil.

It is common to find incense crafters using wine or herbal tea as the liquid element in their recipes. Both will affect the final scent.

As this is a simple recipe suitable for beginners, the following basic formula is recommended:

§ Twenty parts of your chosen aromatic ingredient(s)

§ Four parts of the base ingredient

§ One part of the binder

3. Prepare your Ingredients

If you are using one of the gums as a binder, it will need some preparation. Mix a teaspoonful of the gum powder in a small glass of water. The water should be warm. Stir and then leave the gum powder to absorb the water until the mixture has thickened to a paste.

4. Grind the Ingredients in the Pestle and Mortar

Using your pestle and mortar, grind your dry aromatic ingredients until they are reduced to a fine powder. You can transfer the powder to a small mixing bowl if you wish, or continue to mix the dough in the pestle.

Add your base wood powder and mix together with the powdered aromatic ingredients. 

5. Add the Essential Oils

If you are using essential oils to add to the mix, include a few drops at this stage. The dried ingredients will absorb the oil easily.

6. Add Binding Paste and Mix

Now add a teaspoonful of your binding paste to the mix and stir together. You will need to add more until you have reached the desired consistency. Mix with your hands until you have a dough that resembles pastry dough. 

A warning, though, that using too much of the binding paste might cause problems with burning later. Don’t incorporate more than the one part of binder that the recipe above recommends. Once the mixture is beginning to bind, it would be better to add just water – or wine or herbal tea – a drop at a time until you have achieved the desired pastry-like consistency.

7. Shape the Cones

Once your dough is ready, the next step is to shape it into the cones that you will eventually burn. Tall, thin cones will burn for longer than short stubby ones. Don’t be tempted to make big cones. The cones should be small and regular in size with a flat base. 

8. Dry the Cones

Dry your finished cones. This can take up to a week depending on a number of factors. Stand your cones on a wooden board and let them dry for about an hour, then turn them onto their side for another hour. During that time turn them occasionally.

In warm summer weather, the board of cones can be placed on a windowsill and allowed to dry naturally. Two days should be enough time for the cones to dry enough to burn. In humid or wet weather, the cones will take longer to dry. Leave them for at least a week before trying to burn them.

A continuous supply of cones can be achieved by making a batch once a week.

9. Store the Cones and Final Thoughts

Once your cones are completely dry, store them in a glass jar with a good seal. Keep them in a dry, dark place until needed.

Check out my guide on the shelf life of incense

If you are planning on creating some incense sticks using thin bamboo or sandalwood sticks, then your mixture should resemble a paste when ready to use. It will need to adhere properly to the sticks, and will need to be very slightly wetter than dough. When ready, shape your paste around the sticks and allow them to dry naturally.

As a newcomer to making incense, you may find it beneficial to produce a few dried bundles or bouquets of aromatic ingredients and burn them on a bed of charcoal embers. This will let you experiment with quantities and selection. You will then appreciate how more of one ingredient affects the final scent. The ingredients should be dried – this can be done by hanging a bundle upside down in a dry, airy place like a shed. 

Tips on using incense

Incense can be burned as part of a range of activities. Meditation and healing sessions are often accompanied by the burning of incense. It can be used to create mood and atmosphere in a dwelling. Yoga sessions are often accompanied by the burning of incense. In some cases, incense is used to purify the air and to repel bugs. When you are making your own incense, you are free to include the ingredients you need for these different purposes.

Certain aromatic ingredients are better than others in various circumstances. For example, frankincense is a great fragrance to aid meditation. Aromas also will trigger memories, so if you need to take a trip into your past, there will be an aromatic ingredient that can do just that.

When your heart chakra is blocked, incense can be used to assist in opening it up. Jasmine and rose are both particularly good to use.

After a busy day at work, or a particularly stressful meeting, we all need to relax. Use lavender or sandalwood to help you unwind. Both are calming and promote a feeling of peace.

Once you become more experienced at making your own incense, you will find that you have favorites. Our response to aromas is intensely personal. You will respond to some aromas, but not to others. By creating your own mixes, you will be able to have your own incense for different occasions.

Lighting a favorite calming incense in the evening will help you relax before heading for bed. Do the same in the morning will help you face the day with enthusiasm and anticipation. If you have trouble getting to sleep, burn incense that helps you to drift off. Incense can also help to improve the quality of your sleep.

Many of us feel anxious and overwhelmed by life in general. Grounding – where you set yourself firmly back in the here and now – is a great way of overcoming anxieties and stress. Incense can help you to feel more grounded, particularly if it incorporates vetiver or cedar.

Incense also can be used to promote spiritual healing. Healing sessions of this type often include the burning of incense. Physical healing sessions also can be made more effective by the inclusion of incense burning. It can be particularly effective when used in a massage session or during reiki.

There are practical concerns when using incense. Incense should always be used safely. Remember that incense smoke can be harmful if inhaled in large amounts. By following the advice below, you will avoid too much smoke in a room at any one time.

Tips on Staying Safe When Burning Incense

  • Keep a window open while burning incense, or open one after a burning session.
  • If you are burning incense sticks, just burn one at a time. As we have already seen, too much smoke can be harmful.
  • When making your incense, always try to use natural sustainably grown ingredients.
  • Never leave incense unattended when it is burning. 
  • Avoid using incense if you have any respiratory issues.
  • Be aware that some commercially available incense contains synthetic materials. Avoid them if possible.
  • Use a proper holder when burning incense sticks. Don’t be tempted to use a pot, jar or vase. The ash from the incense is going to be hot. When you use a proper holder, the ash will just fall onto it. 
  • Similarly, when burning a incense cone, don’t place it directly onto a surface. Use a dish so when the cone has burned completely you will only be left with a little pile of ash in the dish. There are many attractive incense holders available.

What to do with leftover incense ash.

If you hate waste then you might want to use the leftover ashes from your incense in a positive way. Incense ash contains residue from the ingredients you used to make your incense. These are unlikely to be harmful, but may not be entirely beneficial if used as a fertilizer.

All ash, whatever its source, will be high in potash. Using ash in quantity as fertilizer in your garden may lead to a change in the pH level of the soil. Incense ash will come in small quantities, so is unlikely to have this effect. It is therefore safe to spread it in the garden.

There are those who recommend using incense ash as a fertilizer on indoor pot plants. The suggestion is that the incense ash will give the plants a boost and stimulate better growth. Treat this suggestion with caution. Try using it on a pot plant that you know to be tough and rather forgiving. 

You may have used your homemade incense for magical purposes. Incense is often burned during magical ceremonies. Proponents of magic are usually very careful about how they dispose of incense ash after a ceremony. There will be a further ritual to ensure that the ash that has been exposed to magic is disposed of safely. Incense ash can be used when making black salt.

There are some practitioners of magic who spread incense ash on their carpets and then vacuum it up in the same way carpet freshners are used. It won’t clean your carpet but it will leave a scent trail that will last for hours afterwards.

Summary

Incense has so many uses that it does make sense to create your own. Making your own gives you control over the aromas you generate. It also allows you to avoid synthetic ingredients and you can guarantee that the ingredients you do use are fresh, natural, and sustainably produced.

Producing your own incense will give you pleasure and satisfaction. As you explore the possibilities, so you will be encouraged to experiment with quantities and aromas. As a result you will soon be producing different incense for particular uses, trying different ingredients and learning as your expertise grows.

Do not be afraid to experiment. Not only will you learn more about incense, you will enjoy yourself greatly and feel more confident in your skills. Above all else, it’s fun!

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