Incense has been used for thousands of years in religion and, more recently, as a method of aromatherapy in homes. “The popularity of aromatherapy has led to a growing interest in incense as a means to make our homes more welcoming, more inviting, more pleasant” (Sams & Schwartz, 1999, p. 2). Incense is available for purchase, but you can easily create it at home. The best way to make incense is to combine your chosen ingredients with a base material, add potassium nitrate, and bind it with a gum tragacanth glue. The key to making incense is selecting the right ingredients.
Choosing a Recipe
When choosing the scent of the incense you want to make, research information on the individual scents, and their effect on the brain. The smells of the ingredients used in incense have a significant impact on human emotions. For example, “lavender imparts a very fresh, clean scent and is used in aromatherapy to induce relaxation” (Sans & Schwartz, 1999, p. 12). Another example is the scent of rosemary. “Rosemary has a fresh piney scent associated with memory-enhancing properties and youth” (Sams & Schwartz, 1999, p. 13).
There are two aspects to selecting a recipe; the most important is the materials available to you. Take an inventory of what herbs, resins, and woods you have in your cupboard and compare that to your recipes. Some incense blends assemble based on the items the incense maker had on hand. The second thing to consider when picking a recipe is the desired result. (Neal, 2003, p. 55)
With online retailers, customers can purchase herbs and other incense ingredients without needing to visit multiple stores. Often, buyers can find herbs in bulk at a lower price, and shipping charges may be free. After purchasing the components needed for the incense recipe, mixing begins.
Begin Mixing Your Ingredients
When mixing ingredients, the key to the best-formed incense is to have the herbs as finely ground as possible. One of the best tools to used to process recipe’s ingredients is a mortar and pestle. A mortar and pestle allow you to grind ingredients to the smoothest consistency allowing your finished product to burn with a higher quality aroma and at a steady rate. (1996, p. 13)
Some recipes may call for a resin. “A resin is derived from the sap of plants. Once processed, it resembles tiny tan or dark brown pebbles” (Sans & Schwartz, 1999, p. 2). A way to save time grinding resins is to use a coffee grinder. You can use a mortar and pestle, but resins are tough to grind by hand.
If following a recipe, add the proportions of the ingredients together according to the instructions. A tool to use in measuring out the amounts is a kitchen or postal scale. Another means to use is a set of measuring spoons.
Be Sure to Test Your Blend
As the ingredients blend, it’s best to test them. “When making your recipes, keep a lit piece of charcoal nearby to burn bits of pieces of plants or drops of oils… Try burning pinches of items under consideration before incorporating them into a batch of incense” (Sans & Schwartz, 1999, p. 30). Sometimes, an ingredient may seem like it will smell pleasant until it’s burned. It’s always easier to change the amount of the component, rather than having to start the entire batch from scratch.
Adding a Base
After picking the herbs needed and powdering and mixing them, the dough needs to bind with a base. The use of a base is necessary because most herbs burn poorly without one. The base also helps take the bitterness out of an herb or makes its fragrance milder. Many herbs are too strong, pungent, bitter, or overpowering when burned by themselves. A good base will usually correct these faults, while still retaining the underlying scent of the herb. (Wylundt, 1996, p. 5)
The following is a sample base recipe. “6 parts powdered sandalwood, two parts powdered Benzoin, one part ground orris root, 6 drops essential oil (use the oil form of one of the incense ingredients), three to five parts of the incense mixture” (Cunningham, 1989, p. 52).
After the base mixes, the mixture requires potassium nitrate. Potassium nitrate is a powder that allows the incense to burn when lighted. Caution is needed as potassium nitrate is a highly flammable powder. If too much adds, it can be highly combustible when lit. However, too little, and the incense won’t burn evenly. A simple formula to use is to take ten percent of the total incense recipes weight and at that much potassium nitrate (Cunningham, 1989).
Binding the Incense
The final step is to bind the incense. The most common method is to add a mixture of gum tragacanth and water to the incense mixture. “A teaspoon of the powder in a cup of hot water quickly thickens it into a glue” (Sans & Schwartz, 1999, p.10). Once the glue forms, add it to the incense mixture and mix thoroughly. An alternative powder to use is gum acacia, also known as gum Arabic. “Gum Arabic absorbs less water but is treated the same way” (Fettner, 1977, p.107). After adding the glue, the shape can be formed. The most common form is sticks and cones.
Forming the Dough
To make stick incense, take a piece of the dough and place it on a flat surface. Using the palm of your hands, roll the mixture out until it resembles a thin rod. To make a cone incense, take a piece of dough, place it between your thumb, index, and middle finger and shape it into a small cone. After all of the mixture has been formed, the incense needs to be dried.
Wood is one of the best surfaces to dry incense on. To dry cones, simply place them on the board vertically, and after an hour, lay them flat. If you leave them standing vertically, the cone will not dry evenly, and the saltpeter will settle to the bottom. When this happens, the top of the funnel doesn’t burn well, and the bottom burns too quickly. To dry stick incense, drill holes about one inch apart in the wood board, and place the sticks vertically. (Wylundt, 1996)
After drying, the best way to store dried incense is in a sealable container. This way, the scent of the fragrance will be preserved longer. It’s best not to mix different fragrances. When this happens, the scents contaminate each other, creating a universal scent for each incense (Wylundt, 1996). Incense can be stored for months at a time, and still have a fresh scent.
Cunningham, S. (1989). The complete book of incense, oils, & brews. Woodbury: Llewellyn Publications.
Fettner, A. T. (1977). Potpourri, incense, and other fragrant concoctions. New York: Workman Publishing.
Neal, C. (2003). Incense crafting & use of magickal scents. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications.
Sams, T., & Schwartz, M. (1999). Making your own incense. North Adams: Storey Publishing.
Wylundt,. (1996). Wylundt’s book of incense. York Beach: Samuel