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Making Winter Incense
Article ID: 10366
Age Group: Adult
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Author: Incense Dragon
Posted: January 15th. 2006
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Winter is upon us, but there is no reason that we can’t enjoy the energy of summer as we await the turning of the circle back to green and growth. Incense is a perfect way to do exactly that. Incense draws upon the energy of sun, rain, earth and fresh air stored within its natural ingredients. Even limiting your incense to materials associated with winter will yield a great variety of incense that can be made and used at the right moment. Best of all, incense making is a perfect activity for cold winter days inside the house. There is no more wonderful gift than incense made by hand with love.
Many incense ingredients have strong ties to winter. Most evergreens (including pine, cedar, fir and juniper) are excellent incense ingredients. The wood, foliage and resins are all useful to the incense maker. Two resins associated with winter and Yule are frankincense and myrrh. Long before the biblical association with the baby Jesus, these two resins were revered as powerful materials. Cinnamon and clove are also strongly associated with winter, as holiday cooking so clearly demonstrates. You can bring these various components together to create your own wonderful incense.
Although this article is hardly a comprehensive look at incense making, the recipes it contains were chosen for their simplicity and availability of materials. Recipes are given for five different types of incense. Loose incense is roughly cut materials burned over charcoal. Moist incense is very similar except it contains honey to hold the ingredients together in “pellet” form. Two of the other types we’ll make are sticks and cones, which are familiar to most people. Both are “self-combusting” incense, which just means you can light them and they will burn on their own without outside heat. The last type is powdered incense, not to be confused with loose incense. Unlike loose incense, powdered incense burns without any outside heat. Powdered incense is what allows incense makers to create amazing incense trails, as I’ll discuss later.
Loose incense is the easiest of all types to make and has long been associated with magic. Unlike other forms of incense, the ingredients for loose incense do not need to be powdered. As long as all the ingredients are cut to a similar size (1/8 inch or smaller pieces) it will work fine. For our loose incense, let’s stick with the most basic winter ingredients.
For this recipe you will need a bowl (disposable is fine, but try to use paper) , mixing stick (a clean craft stick or tongue depressor is fine) , scissors and, optionally, a mortar and pestle. The ingredients required are pine shavings (available from pet suppliers as well as incense suppliers) , frankincense tears and whole cloves. Pine shavings are generally about 1/8 inch wide and two to three times that in length. If your shavings are larger than that, break them up with the mortar and pestle or even cut them with scissors. If the frankincense tears are larger than a small pea, break them into smaller pieces using the mortar and pestle (or a heavy spoon can be used to break tears inside a plastic bag) . Chop the cloves with a knife or cut with scissors into roughly 1/8 inch pieces.
7 parts pine shavings (or roughly 7 tsp.)
1 part frankincense tears (or roughly 1 tsp)
1 part chopped cloves (or roughly 1 tsp)
This blend will need to be stirred or shaken before each use to ensure an even mixture.
In order to enjoy this incense you will need to provide a heat source for it. Charcoal is the most commonly used heat source for loose incense, but aroma lamps and even incense heaters can be used. If you choose charcoal I would urge you to seek out high-quality, low-scent charcoal rather than the so-called “self lighting” type of charcoal. Self lighting charcoal contains high levels of potassium nitrate and burns far too hot. It will cause your incense to smell burnt after only 20-30 seconds. Low scent charcoal burns at a lower temperature which results in longer lasting incense and a much more pleasant scent. Simply light the charcoal, wait a few minutes until the charcoal is one uniform color and then sprinkle your incense mixture onto the surface. To reduce the temperature (and the burning time) even further you can sprinkle a layer of ash over the charcoal before adding the incense mixture.
Another kind of incense that is simple to make is moist incense. Unlike loose incense, moist incense (called nerikoh in Japanese) uses a “binder”. A binder is a substance that acts like a glue to hold the incense together. This makes it easier to handle and, in the case of moist incense, adds a new dimension of scent as well. In Asia, the use of this form of incense is likely an outgrowth from the use of herbal pills that were made in a very similar fashion. In the East, moist incense is an ancient form. In the West, the technique is practically unknown.
Moist incense makes an excellent and unusual gift for friends and family, so make enough for everyone. Incense is a much better gift than cookies or cake – everyone can enjoy the same piece at one time and incense won’t make anyone gain weight. If you intend to give moist incense as a gift at Yule, plan to make it as early in December as you can. You might consider making the incense at a Yule celebration for use on Imbolc. It is best to give it a couple of weeks to cure, but it can be used or given immediately if there is a need.
For this recipe you will need the same equipment for the first recipe (bowl, mixing stick, and mortar and pestle if available) . Gloves will definitely be required. The ingredients required are white cedar wood powder (red cedar can be substituted) , frankincense powder, myrrh powder, powdered charcoal and honey. You can use any honey, but I always recommend using local honey to add regional flair to your incense.
6 parts cedar wood powder (1 tablespoon)
2 parts frankincense powder (1 teaspoon)
1 part myrrh powder (1/2 teaspoon)
1 part charcoal powder (1/2 teaspoon)
The charcoal can be omitted, but you will need a much longer curing time. Under no circumstances should you use self-lighting charcoal for this recipe. Thoroughly mix the powdered ingredients in your bowl. Once the powder has reached a consistent color, gradually add honey to the bowl. How much to use will depend on how much water is in the honey, the other ingredients and even in the air. Start with 1½ teaspoons and add more if needed. Add the honey a little at a time and then mix it very well with your stick. The goal is to get your incense to roll into a gooey ball. It will look a bit like, well, something you might step in at a dog park.
You should then place the ball into a plastic bag and set it in a dark, cool spot for a week or two. When you remove it from the bag it will have a very different consistency that it did before. You can then break off small pieces from the ball and roll those into pea-sized pellets of incense. Those can be put in a fresh bag or a sealed jar and kept indefinitely. Keep them out of the light, especially sunlight, and avoid storage in high-heat areas.
Moist incense can be burned just like loose incense. Place one or two pellets onto burning charcoal to release the amazing fragrance. If you line the pan of an aroma lamp with a bit of foil, you can use the dry lamp to heat the pellets. The foil prevents them from sticking to the bottom of the pan.
The most familiar forms of incense to most Americans are sticks and cones. These take a little more work and require some materials that are harder to locate, but they are loads of fun to make. Unlike the first two forms, this is combustible incense that will burn on its own once lit. Much like moist incense, sticks and cones require a binder but, in their case, it must be a much stronger substance than honey. For this recipe, we will use gum powder. There are also bark powders that are excellent binders, but they are harder to locate.
For this recipe, you’ll need a bowl, gloves, mixing stick and some room temperature water. The ingredients required are red cedar wood powder, juniper berry powder, pine wood powder, cinnamon powder and guar gum. Measure the ingredients using level spoonfuls.
2 tablespoons red cedar wood powder
3 tablespoons pine wood powder
1 teaspoon juniper berry powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon powder
¼ teaspoon guar gum
Mix all the dry ingredients in your bowl until the powder is one consistent color. Gradually add 8 teaspoons of room temperature water and thoroughly mix. The mixing stick “cuts in” the water and the incense often forms into small pellets. Once the water is mixed in, put on gloves and press the mixture together. It should cling together. Begin kneading the mix with your fingers. Within a minute or so you should be able to gather the mixture into a single lump, similar to cookie dough. If you can roll the mix into a smooth ball with few cracks, it is ready to use. This recipe will yield 35-40 ¼ teaspoon cones, so the “dough” might begin to dry before you have finished rolling. If that happens, just add a few drops of water as needed (make certain the “dough” is kneaded well after adding water) . Take care not to add too much water.
If you wish to make cones, simply break of ¼ teaspoon piece of the “dough” and form it into a tall, thin pyramid shape with your fingers. You can use your fingers and a firm surface to roll the edges off the cone if you wish, but they work fine with flat sides. Just remember to keep the cone tall and thin, never short and fat.
If you want to make sticks, roll the “dough” flat so that it measures at least 4” long and 1/8” thick. Use a razor blade or pizza cutter to make long slices that are 1/8” wide. Each slice will give you an incense stick 4” long. Again, you can roll the square sticks on a firm surface to round off the edges, but square sticks burn well. If you want to use the stick in a standard boat-style incense holder, insert a toothpick deeply into one end of the wet stick. When dry, the incense will cling to the toothpick. You can then insert the toothpick into your favorite holder.
After all your hard work, you will be tempted to rush the drying process, but you must resist that urge. Incense needs to dry slowly to prevent curling and cracking. Keep your wet incense away from heaters, sunlight, drafts and high temperatures. 65°F is an ideal temperature for drying incense. Give your sticks 3-4 days and cones 1 week to dry before testing them out.
The final form of incense is one that has been all but forgotten in the last 1000 years. Modern magic and witchcraft are only now rediscovering the energy and limitless uses for powder incense. Not to be confused with loose incense, powder incense requires that all the ingredients be ground as fine as possible. Also unlike loose incense, powder will burn with no outside heat source. Any recipe for sticks or cones can be used for powder incense, although the binder can usually be omitted. Our powder will require only white cedar wood powder, frankincense powder and cinnamon powder.
12 parts white cedar wood powder (2 tablespoons)
2 parts frankincense powder (1 teaspoon)
1 part cinnamon powder (1/2 teaspoon)
You can mix the powders in a bowl if you wish, but it is even easier to put the ingredients in a sealed plastic bag and give them a good shake instead. That’s all there is to it! The powder can be used to create incense “trails” in several ways. The simplest is the spread a line of powder on a fireproof surface such as a ceramic (not glass) ashtray. Light one end of this “trail” and the powder will burn towards the other end. You can shape the trail any way you wish – including into magic symbols. Even experienced incense users make trails that burn out, so don’t be frustrated if this style of trail doesn’t work perfectly on your first try.
A much more refined, and reliable, method is to use a bed of ash. You can smooth the surface of the ash and then use a sharpened pencil to draw a design into the ash. By making a shallow furrow (1/8” deep) you can prepare a perfect bed for your trail. You can write words, symbols or even draw pictures. Once your trail is cut into the ash, you can sprinkle in your incense powder into the impression. Use a stiff note card, folded in half, to hold the powder. You can then tap the side of the note card and the powder will gently sprinkle into the trail.
Some of the materials used in this article are not going to be in the cabinets of very many homes, but they are easy to find if you know where to look. Every ingredient I have mentioned is available from quality incense making suppliers. Check the Internet and you’ll find dozens of them. Even ash is available from finer Japanese incense suppliers who are also on-line and have shops in some cities.
Some of the ingredients have viable substitutions. Gum tragacanth works just as well as guar gum. Some incense makers prefer karaya gum over the other two. Check stores that sell cake-decorating supplies for gums. Wood powders and resins (like frankincense and myrrh) can be found at many herbal supply stores and New Age shops. Cloves and cinnamon are as close as the nearest grocery store. Any pleasant smelling wood can be used in the recipes I’ve listed. If you do not have access to pine but have hickory wood, give it a try instead.
Incense making is a perfect activity for the gift-giving season or any dreary winter day. Unlike commercial incense, the incense you make yourself contains your energy and your intent within it. If you make incense for someone you love, keep a picture of that person with you as you make it. As you blend and knead the incense, look at the picture and think of the good things you want for her. That love and positive energy will bond with the incense and your wishes will be released when the incense is burned. What better gift can you give a friend than something homemade and filled with love?
Cunningham, Scott. Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs. St. Paul, Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications, 1998
Cunningham, Scott. Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs. St. Paul, Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications, 1998
Fischer-Rizzi, Susanne. The Complete Incense Book. New York: Sterling Publishing Co, Inc., 1998.
Morita, Kiyoko. The Book of Incense: Enjoying the Traditional Art of Japanese Scents. Kyoto: Kodansha International, 1999
Neal, Carl F. Incense: Crafting and Use of Magickal Scents. St. Paul, Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications, 2003
Smith, Steven R. Wylundt’s Book of Incense. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Wiser, Inc., 1989.
Copyright: Copyright 2005 Carl Neal
Location: Corvallis, Oregon
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