Burning certain incense can be straightforward. You simply light them and place on an appropriate tray. Some incense, however, require a bit more knowledge to use such as special incense burners as well as heating elements such as charcoal. This guide is meant to help you gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of incense. It will also help you figure out which products you need to purchase in order to start using incense. If you are new to burning incense and would like to get burning, feel free to read the section on Types of Incense and the Incense Burners and Holders to find the incense you like and a matching burner. If you are looking to gain a deeper understanding of incense, then read on!
Incense are made from organic material that release a fragrance when burned. Incense have been used for thousands of years starting with Egyptians who used them for rituals, warding off evil spirits, repelling insects, and simply to cover up bad odors. Around 2000 BCE, the Chinese began using incense for religious purposes and blending in different plant materials that we are more familiar with today. Nowadays you will find incense used in meditation, in homes for their calming affects, and in stores to set a certain ambiance. They come in different shapes, colors, scents, binding material, and some require different methods to burn.
Direct burning incense are incense composed of a combustible material as a part of the incense. This allows for the incense to burn continuously without an outside heating source. Most common incense fall in this category including cored stick, solid stick, dhoop, coil incense, and rope incense.
Indirect burning incense do not contain a combustible material and require an outside source of heat to burn the organic material. This heat source is usually either charcoal, burning embers, or a hot metal plate. Examples of indirect burning incense including powder incense and resins.
Composition of Direct Burning Incense
Direct burning incense are composed of a combustible material and a binder. The combustible material is usually charcoal or wood powder. This is what allows you to light and incense once and allowing it to burn through on its own. The charcoal or wood selected usually have little to no scent when burned.
The binder is generally made from organic material, usually gum Arabic or Tragacanth. This helps hold the fragrant material together.
Processing of Incense:
Hand Dipped: This process uses unscented combustible powder extruded into sticks also called “blanks”. They are dipped into scented liquid allowing the stick to absorb the scent. This is generally for DIYers who want to create their own scented incense.
Extrusion: Extrusion is the process where the incense mixture is molded by hand or with a machine press to form different shaped incense. This is how solid stick incense, coil incense, and dhoop are made.
Paste Rolled Stick: The incense mixture is rolled with a paddle into sticks. A core, such as bamboo, is the rolled with the mixture to form cored incense sticks.
Powder Coated Stick: A process where stick cores are soaked in a glue like mixture. The sticks are then spread apart while incense powder is repeated applied over the sticks to form larger diameter cored incense sticks.
Compression: A machine presses the incense powder around a core. This process allows for much more rapid and large scale production of cored incense sticks.
Types of Direct Burning Incense:
Cored Stick Incense: These are the incense you are likely to see. They are composed of a bamboo or sandalwood core and come in several varieties including fluxo and joss.
Solid Stick Incense: Solid stick incense are incense where there is no bamboo core. Instead the combustible material is mixed with the plant material and shaped into a stick. They come in several varieties including Tibetan incense, simpoi, and senko sticks.
Dhoop: Dhoop is similar to solid stick incense in that it does not contain a bamboo core. The difference though depends on the shape the incense mixture is molded into. It can be formed into short rods, cones, coils, or long solid stick incense. Depending on their shape they may be referred to as dhoop, cone incense, solid stick incense, Tibetan incense, coil incense, and so on.
Rope Incense: The incense mixture is rolled into paper sheets which are then rolled into ropes. The thicker end is referred to as the bight and is meant to be placed into sand or stones to hold the rope up. The thinner end is the end that is burned.
Smudges: Some may not consider smudges to be necessarily incense. However, burning smudges releases aromatic scents and we include it here for comparison. Smudges are generally dried sage or other herbs that are minimally processed. They are generally wrapped with rope to make handling easier. Smudging is typically associated with Native American culture but the burning of herbs has been used throughout the world.
Types of Indirect Burning Incense:
Powders: May be made of several different materials, powder incense are placed on a heading source where they burn rapidly and release a potent aroma.
Resins: Resins are a bit more granular. Because of their size it is much easier to see the different components of the mixture. They burn much slower than powders given a gradual release their scent.
Pastes: Pastes are powders or other granulated organic material that is blended with a liquid and molded. The come in different forms depending on where they are produced including Bukhoor and Neriko.
Common Types of Incense By Region:
Arabian: Bakhoor is a type of indirect burning incent molded into different shapes and burned using a Mabkhara. Mabkhara are usually made of metal with intricate designs and require charcoal as the heat source.
Indian: Agarbathi or Joss sticks are a type of cored incense stick made using the paste rolled technique. The majority of incense sticks in India are hand rolled. Masala sticks are similar to Agarbathi incense but are more native to southern India and contain several ingredients mixed together. Durbar sticks are similar as well but softer than Masala and Agarbathi incense. Champa sticks are also similar but use nagkeshar and magnolia in their production. Fluxo incense is also popular in India, uses a wide variety of ingredients, and much more pungent.
Japan: Senko sticks are solid stick incense. They are formed into thin long sticks with a short burn time.
Tibetan: Tibetan incense are a type of dhoop/solid stick incense made using the extrusion technique whether it be by hand or machine. They are usually much thicker than traditional stick incense and produce a more earthy scent. Simpoi sticks are also Tibetan in origin but primarily based on Deodar Cedar.
Incense Holders & Burners:
Bamboo Incense Trays: The most popular incense burner. It is a flat piece of bamboo that is curved at one end. The curved end will have a small hole where an incent may be placed and held up as it burns. These types of trays work well for cored and thin solid stick incense.
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Box Incense Burners: Box incense burners are long and rectangular in shape. They usually come with a lid and may be composed of either wood or ceramic. To prevent fires and the box itself, burners should come with a piece of heat resistant fabric. When burning sticks in a box burner, some have a small hole where the stick is inserted whereas others do not and you simply lay the stick flat in the incense box. Box burners are perfect for burning cored and solid stick incense.
Cone Incense Burner: These come in all types of designs and sizes. Some are made of ceramic and others are made of metal. They are used for incense that burn through such as cones incense.
Bowl Incense Burners: Bowl burners are usually made of ceramic to prevent heat from dispersing outside the bowl. Bowls are versatile. They may be filled with sand or pebbles to hold up stick incense. Bowls may also be used to burn rope incense, cone incense, and smudges (smudge bowels) with sand used to protect the base of the bowl.
Coil Incense Burners: Coil incense cannot burn well when placed on hard, flat surfaces. Coil incense need to be raised off the ground to burn properly. You may find metal or ceramic burners. They will usually come with a triangulated metal that helps raise the coil.
Backflow Burners: Usually made from ceramics, they have holes throughout allowing the smoke from the incense to accumulate and disperse within the burner. This creates special effects with the smoke such as appearing like flowing water. Most are designed to work with cone incense.
Common Incense Scents:
Cinnamon: Cinnamon is harvested from trees in the genus Cannamomum. If you've never smelled cinnamon before, its best described as sweet and spicy (as in Indian spices). Cinnamon can enhance sexual drive and increasing energy.
Dragons Blood: Is actually harvest from multiple palm plant species. The resin is a bright red pigment. It's scent is sweet, soft, and amber like.
Frankincense: Frankincense is also a very common scent and harvested from trees in the genus Boswellia. It smells sweet, citrus like, and partially woody. Frankincense can help with nasal congestion, relieve stress and anxiety, and improve concentration.
Nag Champa: Nag Champa is a scent originating in India. It is produced from combining Magnolia with Sandalwood. Nag Champa has a sweet, soft, and woody smell. The Nag Champa scent helps promote relaxation and improve sleep.
Magnolia: This scent was extracted from the flowers of in the genus magnolia. It produces a sweet scent. It promotes with mental clarity and excellent for meditation.
Myrrh: Myrrh is a resin extracted from trees in the genus Commiphora. It smells woody, warm, and licorice/medicinal like. Myrrh can help with congestion and improve spiritual energy.
Patchouli: This scent is from the Lamiaceae family plant more commonly referred to as mint. Patchouli has a spice, woody, and musky scent. Patchouli helps improve mood and has calming affects.
Sandalwood: Sandalwood is a very common scent in incense. It is harvested from trees in the genus Santalum. The scent is quite woody, as it is mostly wood. It can be described as warm, soft, powdery, rich, deep, and woody. Sandalwood is good for promoting relation, relieving anxiety, and sleep.
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