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How to make your own natural incense

Updated on July 2, 2010

An introduction

Incense making is as ancient as humanity's control over fire- older than written history and often shrouded in mystery. It is not difficult to see that incense has been burned throughout the ages and for many purposes: it uses are as varied and diverse as the human mind. Incense has appeared in many forms: raw woods, chopped herbs, pastes, powders and even liquid or essence oils. Cones as we know them today were an invention of the Japanese; archaeologists have found forms of cones in cave duellings as well as Egyptian tombs. One of the oldest artifact to evidence the use of incense was found on a tablet placed on the Sphinx at Giza, in about 1533 BC.
Put simply, incense is anything you burn for its scent: that's a pretty broad definition, but it's accurate. Burning leaves are incense for some people, and firewood fits this definition for others. There are different types of incense:
-Stick: this is the commonest type of incense- you can buy it in most supermarkets. The woods/gum resins are reduced to a powder, mixed with a binding agent, and then applied to a sliver of wood. Some forms of stick incense use a lot of toxic fragrance oils on a generic base.
-Cone: a self- igniting cone is made from the same poweder mixed with a burning agent; this is then moulded into a cone shape.
-Loose incense: resin/flower incenses are either used in their raw form (unblended) or ground up together (blended) and then used on a small fire, small brazier, or charcoal block inside an incense burner. It is by far the oldest, most popular and easiest form of incense to make and use.
Humans are blessed with five basic senses; of those, scent is, after touch, the most intimate: most human senses have very complicated nerve processes that send information to the brain. Unlike the others, the sense of smell is directly wired to the brain.. The sense of smell is an ancient trait and incense provide a quick connection to your brain. Memory, passions and smell are heavily intertwined.

Why learn to make incense

Since there are so many brands of incense on the market, you might ask why you should bother to learn how to make incense. There are numerous reasons: making incense yourself allows you to avoid the problems of dipped incense, have complete control over the ingredients used, and allows you to greatly enrich your incense. And best of all, it's fun!
You might have heard the terms "dipped" and "soaked" used to describe incense. The idea of dipped incense is fairly new in the long history of incense and in recent years the quality of dipped incense has come into question.
Dipped incense is made using incense blanks ( a blank is an unscented stick or cone of incense; originally, these blanks were made of sandalwood powder and a type of glue). Instead of using plant materials to scent the incense, the sticks are soaked in oils- as the incense burns, the burning oils supply the scent.
So far, dipped incense sounds pretty nice. The problems come in from the practices in use by commercial incense makers. Essential oils are not used in making dipped incense (there might be a few small producers who dip with essential oils, but I've never be able to locate any!) but synthetic fragrance oils are used instead. Many commercial incense makers and oil sellers stretch their oil supplies by adding a so- called "extender" to their oil; the most commonly used extender is DPG. It is a chemical that adds little scent to the oil and can double or triple the amount of oil you have on hand. DPG is relatively harmless in its liquid state (although I still wouldn't have it anywhere near me!) but produce poisonous gas when burned: that's not something you should have in your incense!
In addition to DPG, incense blanks are not what they used to be: modern blanks are made using any wood powder at hand. Most blanks are made in countries with few or no regulations over them and might contain anything, including saltpeter or unhealthy adhesives and some experts have suggested that many incense blanks release dangerous chemicals themselves when burned (primarily formaldehyde). I also want to warn you about an old practice that needs to be avoided: many books about incense making advocate the use of saltpeter (potassium nitrate). I urge you not to follow this practice: incense that won't burn without saltpeter in the recipe should be reformulated. Not only does it adds an unpleasant scent to your incense, it is also a hazardous material, it's dangerous to have it in your house and so I urge you never to include it in your incense.
Do you have friends who don't use incense because it makes them feel ill or gives them headaches? The chemicals released by burning low- quality incense might be the culprit! Offer those friends some whole- herb incense that you made yourself and they will be able to enjoy it with no ill effects at all!

The basic materials

Any plant, resin or wood can be used as an aromatic (the part that primarily supplies the scent) as long as you like its scent when it is being burned (and you can be reasonably certain it is not harmful). Also, it is sometimes surprising that an aromatic with a very strong scent alone may add well to another scent when used carefully. Many aromatics don't smell all that great when burned alone (turmeric for example) but can add a wonderful scent when used in combination with other aromatics. Many herbs smell quite pleasant in their natural state, yet can be very offensive when burned: a good example of this is mint, because, when burned, it smells awful!
To test an aromatic, always burn it (if you open a bag of myrrh granules you'll smell very little and even in powder form myrrh has very little scent. Once you add heat to it, however, you are greeted with a wonderful warm scent that is hidden in the resin): testing with burning is the only way to know with certainty how an aromatic will smell while being burned in your incense.
Resins are the dried sap or fluids form plants and, more often, trees: frankincense, myrrh and dragon's blood are all resins. Resins are usually very powerful and, as a result, they should be used sparingly (when using a resin for the first time or when experimenting with one, use caution and only add a small amount to your blend: don't underestimate their strenght!). Plant materials would include the roots, bark, or the leaves of trees; patchouli, sage, lavender and many other aromatics are plant materials. Luckily for us, there are hundreds of plants that work very well and produce great scents. There are also the fragrant woods to be included in the list of aromatics: sandalwood, pine and cedar are all good examples of these type of woods (it should be carefully dried before using it, otherwise you will have trouble to burn it). As long as the wood has a strong fragrance, it can be used as an aromatics, but if a wood has a weak scent, then it can be used as a base.

Base materials serve two basic purposes. The first is to improve the burning properties of the incense; many aromatics are reluctant to burn and the base aids in the burning process (leafy plant materials in particular can be very hard to burn: one of the first ways to improve the burning properties of a mixture is to increase the amount of base material). The second purpose is to improve its scent: it does this by mellowing the scent or muting it (if your blend produces too strong a scent when burned, increasing the amount of base material will help a great deal). Moreover, the base also helps take the bitterness out of an herb, or makes its fragrance milder and it is necessary because many herbs are too strong, pungent, bitter or overpowering when burned by themselves: a good base will correct these faults, while still retaining the basic scent of the herb.
The base material is usually wood powder; many types of wood can be used, but in general I get better results from soft woods rather than hard woods (although it is not a wood, clove is also an important base material: adding clove to an incense blend causes it to burn hotter and thus help you use aromatics that are harder to burn). The most popular and easy to obtain bases are: sandalwood, quassia, vetiver, willow and evergreen needles (if you know people who cut their own firewood, you may be able to get some wild cherry or cedar sawdust, which will add a pleasant scent).

The final component of incense is the binder: the binder serves as the glue that holds your incense together and allows you to shape and form the incense as you please. Binders range from plant gums to animal dung! In fact, the are dozens of resins and gums which can be used for this purpose.
The most common and the most ancient binder is gum arabic or acacia, one of the first incense binders used in the West (it is a little easier to find than many other binders). It is a white powder sometimes with a mild minty smell and when mixed with water it forms a glue. You must use caution because it is very sticky that makes it hard to handle and, in general, it's tough to work.
Gum Tragacanth is an excellent binder for incense, it is by far the best available bonding agent; it is a light- tan to cream- colored powder and it has a very mild scent that is reminiscent of sweetened flour. It is strong and pliable and it is also fairly forgiving for the novice incense maker: it works very well for hand rolling, molding and extruding (it is rather expensive but a little will last for months).
Karaya is the least expensive gum, for this reason is widely used by incense makers. It usually comes in small chunks that must be ground to powder and dissolved, as the other gums, in boiling water.
(Remember: you need a liquid to turn the bonding agent into a glue. The best and easiest liquid to use is simply water, but almost any fluid may be used and even wine, brandy, honey, rose water, olive oil and beer can be used!).

Some tips and a simple recipe

There is no such thing as the perfect incense formula, however an excellent basic formula to begin your incense making with is one of twenty parts aromatic substance, four part base, and one part bonding agent. This general formula can be used as a kind of stepping- stone to more elaborate formulas. Always keep the proportion of aromatic substance at least twice as large as the base (the only exceptions to this rule are when you are working with an extremely strong or bitter herb, or if you are using only scents).

When making incense- be it cone, cylinder or stick- the ingredients should always be ground as finely as possible; this will make the incense easier to work and the finished product will burn cleaner and more evenly.

The consistency of the incense mixture should be that of a soft lumpy putty or of moist dough. It shoud be easily workable, yet not too wet (if the mixture is too wet, the incense will run and sag; if it's too dry, it will be crumbly and hard to shape).
Wet incense is a lot like wet clay. It can be formed into virtually any shape desired: that gives the incense maker a lot of flexibility and allows for some creative efforts.
In addition, you can buy inexpensive cookie cutters and cut your wet incense dough into any shape you desire- the shape might not completely burn, but they often do.
Since incense dough is so easy to work with, you'll find that you can make most anything from it. You're only limited by your own artistic skills (don't start out trying to craft sculpture: learn to make good incense first, then try your hand at sculpture!). Incense can be shaped in a wide variety of ways: from the humble but beautiful cone to the longest coil, all offer us pleasure and joy...personally, I like to make incense in many different shapes and forms- try them all and find the ones that suit you the best!

How you intend to use the incense: will you require a long burning time or will a short one do? Keep in mind that the burning time of your incense is primarily determined by its length: the longer your incense (or the taller the cone), the longer it will burn. Moreover, thick incense will burn a little slower than thin, but be wary of making incense that is too thick (never make incense thicker than an unsharpened pencil).

Proper drying is very important because improperly dried incense takes much longer to dry and may even be ruinated. I will describe the drying of cone incense, but the methods and techniques used can be readily adapted to the drying of other types of incense as well.
When you have finished making the cones, place them in a vertical position for about an hour; next, lay the cones flat, turning them occasionally (the best surface to dry incense on is wood). In warm weather, cones can be easily dried on a windowsill and it usually takes about two days for them to dry. On the other hand, incense dries very slowly when the humidity is high or on rainy days (check the weather forecast!). Proper ventilation is a must when drying incense (it should never be covered or placed in a box to dry). The cones are finally dry if you can squeeze them as hard as you can and they neither give way nor break (this method only works when using tragacanth gum; cones made of gum arabic will be too fragile to be tested in this way). After your incense is completely dry, it should be carefully stored in a glass can, in a dark and dry place.

First, prepare the glue: place a teaspoon of the ground gum in a glass of warm water and mix completely until dispersed; this natural glue is highly absorbent: allow your gum mixture to absorb the glass of water until it thickens to a paste.
In the meanwhile, create your incense base: the fundamental wood powder- the one of your choice- and ground spice, dried herbs and flowers, or any combination thereof. At this stage, add the base materials and all the aromatics of your choice (once you have defined your base, an essential oil may be added for additional scent). Finally, add one teaspoon at a time of gum- glue, mixing with your hands as you go. Add only enough of the glue to achieve the consistency of model clay or play dough from the entire mixture. Now let's shape the mixture into the forms you like the most (cones, blocks etc.). Then, let your incense dry for a week, following the above mentioned rules...when it is ready: burn and enjoy!


Submit a Comment
  • Varenya profile imageAUTHOR


    10 years ago

    Hi Dolores, many thanks for your nice comments! I assure you: this project may seem complicate or difficult to realize but, in reality, is quite simple and fun and, with a little practice, you will get excellent results!

  • Dolores Monet profile image

    Dolores Monet 

    10 years ago from East Coast, United States

    Varenya - this sounds so cool! I love to make stuff and this would be a great project - yet easy to ruin, like all the fun projects! Great hub!

  • Varenya profile imageAUTHOR


    10 years ago

    Thank you, lovelypaper, for the comments. You are right: as I've said, there is virtually no limit to the fragrances that can be employed in incense making!

  • lovelypaper profile image

    Renee S 

    10 years ago from Virginia

    I love incense. There are so many wonderful fragrances.


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