Way back in 2011 I published a blog called Sacred Smoke and at the end of that blog I promised to write a follow up, well here it is 2 years later (better late than never!)
Many Crafters tend to favour loose or grain incense which is homemade, either by themselves or local business Witches. I consider myself to be firmly in that camp and the vast majority of incense I use in rituals or upon the Hearth shrine as an offering is hand blended loose incense. There are a couple of exceptions; I have a divine Rose Incense which I bought from Walsingham Abbey church supply store a couple of years ago and also a Frankincense and Myrrh incense someone made for me around Christmas last year.
There is however, one downside to hand blended loose / grain incense in that it’s not always convenient. To get the best result, time is required to plan, blend and mature incense (look up traditional Kyphi recipes for example) and often loose incense is crafted with a specific purpose in mind and requires coal, a heat proof holder, lighters, tongs etc etc. For that reason many people occasionally use Joss Sticks or Cones. They are convenient, easy to whip out of the tool kit at a moment’s notice and readily available from almost everywhere, and being self-igniting they need little extra apparatus, a stick or a cone can be lit and placed harmlessly upon the ground and all that’s needed is a lighter or match.
Yet Joss sticks and cones still lack that personal touch and often smell sickly, overpowering and artificial. One almost wonders whether for the sake of convenience, one is sacrificing the specialness of the offering. After all, I know which I would prefer if I were given the choice between a mass produced joss stick containing a high percentage of sawdust and synthetic oils or a lovingly hand blended incense.
Yet we are Witches working in the 21st century, sometimes we need a little convenience, we want the best of both worlds, hand crafted but still quick, general purpose and able to be used at any time or any place at the drop of a hat if needs be.
I learnt how to make self- burning incense cones from an old friend about 10 years ago now. I have to say, it’s a craft I often forget however recently during the annual spring clean, I stumbled across the method and thought it’s high time I wrote part II of a blog devoted to incense.
There are two prerequisites to any good self-burning incense. Firstly (and most obviously) it has to burn without coal, secondly it needs to be able to bind to the actual fragrance constituents and make it pliable to shape into cones or sticks.
There is a substance I use specifically as a base for this purpose called Makko powder. Makko (Machillus thunbergii) is Japanese in origin, it turns into a wonderful putty like substance when moistened sufficiently which is sticky and virtually odourless and its use today is primarily in Japan for the manufacture of joss.
The first step is to measure out the Makko powder into a suitable vessel. Start with about 3 teaspoons on first attempt, until you become more confident.
Add to the Makko powder your fragrant constituents; I have used Benzoin resin in this example. I recommend starting only with resins and no more than two as they can be ground extremely fine with little effort, which is exactly what you need for a good quality cone or stick. In fact Benzoin is an excellent addition to any incense owing to its natural preservative qualities. Add equal parts resin to Makko, so again in this example, three teaspoons. Mix everything well.
Now it’s time to wet the ingredients to bind them together. But before that we need to add the ‘combustbile’ element – Saltpetre (Potassium Nitrate). Food Grade Potassium Nitrate can be purchased online at around £5 for 500g. At this point you need to know how much dry mix you have, then dissolve 10% of that amount of saltpetre into approximately 1 teaspoon of water per 3 teaspoons dry mix.
Did you get that…? In our example we have 6 teaspoons dry mix, so we need to dissolve a little over half a teaspoon (10% of 6 is 0.6) salt peter in 2 teaspoons of water (we have 6 teaspons of dry mix and 6 divided by 3 is 2 teaspoons of water).
Add the wet little by little to the dry. The key is adding a little, stir, and add a little more, stir again. It’s like making bread or pastry. Too little water and the mix won’t bind, too much and the mix will become a sticky stodgy mess. You are aiming for a smooth dough which is similar to ‘plastacine’ or kid’s play-dough.
You can then add any essential oils you may like. I used Frankincense in this example and 3 drops is sufficient for this small amount. Please, always strive to use good quality Essential Oils, if you insist on using synthetics, you have missed the point and you may as well give up now and buy a bulk load of mass produced Joss!
By now you should already be able to smell the finished product. All that’s left to do is shape your cones. Pinch off a small amount of marble sized dough and roll into a ball in the palm of your hand. Then using your index or middle finger, rock the ball back and forth in the palm, gradually bringing your finger backwards and a cone will start to form. Gently squish the cones onto a sheet of greaseproof paper or baking parchment which will stop them sticking as they dry and at the same time make a nice flat base for the cones. Don’t spend hours trying to make perfect cones, I personally like that they look ‘rustic’. Apologies for the rather ‘Mr Hanky’-esque nature of the photos! 🙂
From this mixture you should manage to produce about 9 or 10 good sized cones. These will need to dry for a week to 10 days at room temperature.
When ready your cones will have significantly lightened in colour and the scent will be subtle…don’t expect these to smell anything like the mass produced cones or sticks you may be used to. These have been made using natural ingredients…so no synthetics boosting the scent.
Once you feel more confident you can increase the quantities so you have a good stock ready to use at a moment’s notice or you might want to try sticks. For sticks the process is the same however instead of forming cones you roll the pieces of dough into thin sticks. This requires a little bit of a lighter more delicate touch as thin sticks are obviously more fragile. The key is not to go for sticks which are too long, 6 inches is probably OK. Leave the sticks lying down to dry, again on greaseproof paper and turn them regularly throughout drying.
You can then start to experiment with recipes. For example, you might wish to add powdered herbs and barks etc. Just make sure the herbs are powdered as fine as possible to enable even distribution throughout the mix and the the cones or sticks to bind evenly, but as a rule its good to still have a resin make up the bulk of the fragrant constituents. And perhaps instead of water, you could try using wine or mead to bind the mix or perhaps floral waters or diluted honey.
It’s also worth noting that this same process can be used to make small ‘pills’ of incense, only for these leave the saltpetre out. Pills still require coal because they are so small, but because of the way the little pellets are made, the finished incense becomes more manageable, easier to handle and more economical. All the ingredients are ground so fine, and mixed so evenly that every little incense ‘pill’ will smell as good as the last. Just pull little bits of dough and roll into small balls, smaller than peas. Leave the pellets to dry, store in a jar and burn on coal as normal. I suspect many church incenses are made in a similar way to this.
There are other methods to make combustible incense which use orris root and a combination of gum arabic and Tragacanth gum. I have yet to try this but to be honest the Makko method works, it worked for me 10 years ago and a batch I made last week is looking promising. The possibilities however are endless, experiment and enjoy.