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Step by Step Guides to Natural Incense Making   

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  Basic Incense Tools

The Incense Burner
Before beginning you need a fireproof incense burner. What kind of burner you need depends on what kind of incense you wish to burn.

Any ceramic or metal cup or bowl works great, as do large sea shells or rocks with natural bowl forms... the choices are virtually unlimited. They key element is the containment of heat and protection from burns and fire. You allow fire in the form of burning coals and incense on the inside but you don't want the hot coals, heat, or ash to exit the burner and start a fire. Always think safety first.

If using a ceramic or metal incense burner, then something with legs or feet is preferred. Legs lift the hot bottom of the burner off of the surface where it's placed and allows for airflow between the two surfaces which in turn cools and protects them both. In some eastern traditions the three legs of the burner represent mind, body, and spirit.

Shells and rocks or other items without feet can be placed on a ceramic tile or a piece of slate or stone, etc. for heat protection (preferably these items also have small pads or feet affixed to them).

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Fill the Burner: Ash, Sand, Crushed Rock, or Salt?
Most incense burners work best and are safest if they're half-way to three-quarters filled with either Ash, Sand, Crushed Rock, Sea Salt, etc. These greatly reduce the heat the burner will absorb and give off, making it a safer burner to use.

We like using white chaff ash to fill our burners because it can be used for burning sticks, cones, pellets, or loose incense, using charcoals, trails, and even the elegance of Kodo style.

Ash allows charcoals and trails to breathe from all sides even if the coal is partially or fully buried. This is a huge advantage over sand, rock or salt which offer no air circulation from below.

Pure, fine quality White Chaff Ash is made specifically for incense burners can usually be found wherever Japanese incense is sold.

*No Fill in Burner:
The incense burner can also be used with no filler; using just a lit incense charcoal placed in the middle of the burner and the incense sprinkled on top of, or right next to, the hot charcoal (once it's completely red-hot the coal will appear grey all over).

Caution: Not using a filler in the incense burner produces a very hot incense burner which should never be handled once used. This style can be dangerous and brings a high risk of burns and fire hazards.

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Incense Charcoal
Many commercial incense charcoals contain toxic chemicals such as saltpeter (sodium or potassium nitrate), sulfur, etc. These can usually be identified by the charcoal crackling or sparking when lit, and/or by the odors it exudes.

We prefer using chemical-free natural charcoals. Any natural wood or root charcoal will work as long as its free of chemical additives.

So far the best chemical-free natural charcoals we've found are made of bamboo or natural roots and come from Japan. You can usually find them wherever Japanese incense is sold.

*Tweezers are an ideal tool for handling charcoals while lighting and transferring to the incense burner.

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Mortar & Pestle's (for Gums & Resins, Seeds)
We prefer using a large solid granite mortar and pestle for the heavy work of grinding resins.

*clean with alcohol

Soft resins may stick to the granite so freezing the mortar and pestle as well as the gum resins prior to grinding can help prevent this. We freeze most resins for 20-30 minutes prior to grinding. Soft gummy resins require more time and are best frozen overnight.

For gum resins that soften very quickly while being ground even when frozen, like labdanum and elemi, we prefer using a "seasoned" Molcajete mortar and pestle. A Molcajete is a traditional mortar and pestle from Mexico made from porous volcanic rock which you can "season" by grinding in pre-soaked white rice to coat the pores. This helps prevent soft gum resins from sticking to the walls.

*clean by grinding plain, uncooked white rice through it as needed. Alcohol can also be used to clean a Molcajete.

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Grinders (for Herbs, Roots, Seeds, Spices, Flowers)
There are any number of grinders that will work in making incense. We use a few different grinders. The strength of "steel burrs" for grinding is the only requirement.

Hand-crank coffee mills with steel burrs

*clean by grinding plain, uncooked white rice through it as needed.

Hand-held Herb Grinder (herbs & flowers only - no seeds)

Electric Grinder with steel burrs

*clean by grinding plain, uncooked white rice through it as needed.

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Scale / Measuring Spoons
We prefer measuring by weight and using a scale that measures by as little as one-tenth of a gram (0.1 gram) to allow for small recipes to be made. Recipes by weight seem to be  more reliable for consistency because volume measurements greatly depend upon granular size.

If measuring by volume, use spoons that measure 1/4 TSP, 1/2 TSP, 1 TSP, and 1 TBSP. Measuring cups can also be used for making larger batches of incense.

TBSP = tablespoon

In either case, roughly measure the ingredients in their whole form first, then grind each and make your final measurement once the ingredients are ground. ***This is an especially crucial step if you're measuring by volume.***

Kodo Utensils

The utensils used in the Japanese incense ceremony, Kodo. These utensils are usually sold in sets and a complete set contains (from top to bottom) a framed mica plate, an ash press, metal chopsticks, feather, incense handler, ash skewers, scoring sheet pin, and a mica plate holder. Click here for "How to prepare a Kodo Cup" and see the utensils in action.

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Mica - Raw

Raw Mica rocks can be found in the wild, in most gem & mineral shops, and all over the web. Each "mica rock" is comprised of many thin layers of this glass-like mineral compressed against each other. These are easily separated with an art knife, cut to length with scissors, and used for heating incense and making incense stoves.

Koh Press
A small shaped block used to press an indentation into the ash of an incense burner and allow that indentation to be filled with incense and burned as a trail.

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Clay guns, beef-jerky and sausage extruders, and sugar-paste guns, etc. can be used as extruders to make incense sticks of all shapes. Stuff the gun with incense dough and squeeze the lever to create perfectly shaped sticks.

*Check with the manufacturers of these extruders for the various "dies" they may offer to produce thinner, thicker, or shaped-edge sticks.

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Storing Ingredients
Store all natural ingredients and incense mixtures in colored glass or ceramic jars and keep them in a cool, dark, dry space. Interior closets usually work well.

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