The basic materials
Any plant, resin or wood can be used as an aromatic (the part that primarily supplies the scent) as long as you like its scent when it is being burned (and you can be reasonably certain it is not harmful). Also, it is sometimes surprising that an aromatic with a very strong scent alone may add well to another scent when used carefully. Many aromatics don’t smell all that great when burned alone (turmeric for example) but can add a wonderful scent when used in combination with other aromatics. Many herbs smell quite pleasant in their natural state, yet can be very offensive when burned: a good example of this is mint, because, when burned, it smells awful!
To test an aromatic, always burn it (if you open a bag of myrrh granules you’ll smell very little and even in powder form myrrh has very little scent. Once you add heat to it, however, you are greeted with a wonderful warm scent that is hidden in the resin): testing with burning is the only way to know with certainty how an aromatic will smell while being burned in your incense.
Resins are the dried sap or fluids form plants and, more often, trees: frankincense, myrrh and dragon’s blood are all resins. Resins are usually very powerful and, as a result, they should be used sparingly (when using a resin for the first time or when experimenting with one, use caution and only add a small amount to your blend: don’t underestimate their strenght!). Plant materials would include the roots, bark, or the leaves of trees; patchouli, sage, lavender and many other aromatics are plant materials. Luckily for us, there are hundreds of plants that work very well and produce great scents. There are also the fragrant woods to be included in the list of aromatics: sandalwood, pine and cedar are all good examples of these type of woods (it should be carefully dried before using it, otherwise you will have trouble to burn it). As long as the wood has a strong fragrance, it can be used as an aromatics, but if a wood has a weak scent, then it can be used as a base.
Base materials serve two basic purposes. The first is to improve the burning properties of the incense; many aromatics are reluctant to burn and the base aids in the burning process (leafy plant materials in particular can be very hard to burn: one of the first ways to improve the burning properties of a mixture is to increase the amount of base material). The second purpose is to improve its scent: it does this by mellowing the scent or muting it (if your blend produces too strong a scent when burned, increasing the amount of base material will help a great deal). Moreover, the base also helps take the bitterness out of an herb, or makes its fragrance milder and it is necessary because many herbs are too strong, pungent, bitter or overpowering when burned by themselves: a good base will correct these faults, while still retaining the basic scent of the herb.
The base material is usually wood powder; many types of wood can be used, but in general I get better results from soft woods rather than hard woods (although it is not a wood, clove is also an important base material: adding clove to an incense blend causes it to burn hotter and thus help you use aromatics that are harder to burn). The most popular and easy to obtain bases are: sandalwood, quassia, vetiver, willow and evergreen needles (if you know people who cut their own firewood, you may be able to get some wild cherry or cedar sawdust, which will add a pleasant scent).
The final component of incense is the binder: the binder serves as the glue that holds your incense together and allows you to shape and form the incense as you please. Binders range from plant gums to animal dung! In fact, the are dozens of resins and gums which can be used for this purpose.
The most common and the most ancient binder is gum arabic or acacia, one of the first incense binders used in the West (it is a little easier to find than many other binders). It is a white powder sometimes with a mild minty smell and when mixed with water it forms a glue. You must use caution because it is very sticky that makes it hard to handle and, in general, it’s tough to work.
Gum Tragacanth is an excellent binder for incense, it is by far the best available bonding agent; it is a light- tan to cream- colored powder and it has a very mild scent that is reminiscent of sweetened flour. It is strong and pliable and it is also fairly forgiving for the novice incense maker: it works very well for hand rolling, molding and extruding (it is rather expensive but a little will last for months).
Karaya is the least expensive gum, for this reason is widely used by incense makers. It usually comes in small chunks that must be ground to powder and dissolved, as the other gums, in boiling water.
(Remember: you need a liquid to turn the bonding agent into a glue. The best and easiest liquid to use is simply water, but almost any fluid may be used and even wine, brandy, honey, rose water, olive oil and beer can be used!).
Some tips and a simple recipe
There is no such thing as the perfect incense formula, however an excellent basic formula to begin your incense making with is one of twenty parts aromatic substance, four part base, and one part bonding agent. This general formula can be used as a kind of stepping- stone to more elaborate formulas. Always keep the proportion of aromatic substance at least twice as large as the base (the only exceptions to this rule are when you are working with an extremely strong or bitter herb, or if you are using only scents).
When making incense- be it cone, cylinder or stick- the ingredients should always be ground as finely as possible; this will make the incense easier to work and the finished product will burn cleaner and more evenly.
The consistency of the incense mixture should be that of a soft lumpy putty or of moist dough. It shoud be easily workable, yet not too wet (if the mixture is too wet, the incense will run and sag; if it’s too dry, it will be crumbly and hard to shape).
Wet incense is a lot like wet clay. It can be formed into virtually any shape desired: that gives the incense maker a lot of flexibility and allows for some creative efforts.
In addition, you can buy inexpensive cookie cutters and cut your wet incense dough into any shape you desire- the shape might not completely burn, but they often do.
Since incense dough is so easy to work with, you’ll find that you can make most anything from it. You’re only limited by your own artistic skills (don’t start out trying to craft sculpture: learn to make good incense first, then try your hand at sculpture!). Incense can be shaped in a wide variety of ways: from the humble but beautiful cone to the longest coil, all offer us pleasure and joy…personally, I like to make incense in many different shapes and forms- try them all and find the ones that suit you the best!
How you intend to use the incense: will you require a long burning time or will a short one do? Keep in mind that the burning time of your incense is primarily determined by its lenght: the longer your incense (or the taller the cone), the longer it will burn. Moreover, thick incense will burn a little slower than thin, but be wary of making incense that is too thick (never make incense thicker than an unsharpened pencil).
Proper drying is very important because improperly dried incense takes much longer to dry and may even be ruinated. I will describe the drying of cone incense, but the methods and techniques used can be readily adapted to the drying of other types of incense as well.
When you have finished making the cones, place them in a vertical position for about an hour; next, lay the cones flat, turning them occasionally (the best surface to dry incense on is wood). In warm weather, cones can be easily dried on a windowsill and it usually takes about two days for them to dry. On the other hand, incense dries very slowly when the humidity is high or on rainy days (check the weather forecast!). Proper ventilation is a must when drying incense (it should never be covered or placed in a box to dry). The cones are finally dry if you can squeeze them as hard as you can and they neither give way nor break (this method only works when using tragacanth gum; cones made of gum arabic will be too fragile to be tested in this way). After your incense is completely dry, it should be carefully stored in a glass can, in a dark and dry place.
First, prepare the glue: place a teaspoon of the ground gum in a glass of warm water and mix completely until dispersed; the natural glue is highly absorbent: allow your gum mixture to absorb the glass of water until it thickens to a paste.
In the meanwhile, create your incense base: the fundamental wood powder- the one of your choice- and ground spice, dried herbs and flowers, or any combination thereof. At this stage, add the base materials and all the aromatics of your choice (once you have defined your base, an essential oil may be added for additional scent). Finally, add one teaspoon at a time of gum- glue, mixing with your hands as you go. Add only enough of the glue to achieve the consistency of model clay or play dough from the entire mixture. Now let’s shape the mixture into the forms you like the most (cones, blocks etc.). Then, let your incense dry for a week, following the above mentioned rules…when it is ready: burn and enjoy!