Incense Making 101
Making incense doesn’t need to be expensive, and isn’t really complicated. It’s very much like cookery; if you understand the principles, then you can make the most amazing things for next to nothing. A few hints before we start:
If you can afford a good pestle and mortar, make it one of your investments. A company called Milton makes an excellent one, standard equipment in laboratories, as it is acid proof. You don’t use acid, but some of the oils might as well be, the way they eat through plastic! Milton makes a range of sizes, from tiny to huge. The person who taught me the art of making incense had a mortar so large, it was bigger than the average sized sink.
Avoid pestle and mortars made from wood, marble or other stone. All of those will absorb oils, and you’ll never get the smell out. Avoid metal as well, as it seems to taint the incense. Glass and plastic are also impractical, although you can use glass to mix, as it doesn’t absorb oils.
Your second investment should be a good set of measuring spoons, and some glass pipettes for measuring oils. (Although, some oils are sold with a dropper, in which case you can use that instead.)
But let’s assume that you haven’t got any spare funds, and have to make do with what’s already in the house You would be able to get away with a glass bowl, some spoons, and a knife to mix. If you need to crush gums, use a hammer or rolling pin with the gum wrapped in greaseproof paper.
And now onto the ingredients. Most incenses are a combination of one or more of gums, resins, oleoresins, herbs, roots, barks, buds, petals, berries, leaves, stalks, seeds, oils, etc (you get the idea). Some of these you will probably already have in the house. Others you will be able to purchase relatively cheaply by shopping around.
I was taught to start my incense with a base of gum, then add whatever dried plant ingredient I wanted to use, then oleoresins, then finally, oils to mix. The tradition in which I was trained is of the classical sort, and uses quite a lot of oils in the incense. This isn’t the only way to make incense, but it’s the one I prefer, as it produces a rich incense that burns very well. I dislike incenses that have a high herbal mix, as they nearly always smell of burning leaves, no matter what plant is used.
When you refer to tables of correspondences, you have to remember that these have been compiled over hundreds of years, by hundreds of different people, living in different countries, and used for different purposes! The best advice to anyone is “go with your intuition” because what the substance means to you personally is definitely the one to go with.
People often wonder what raw ingredients they should buy to start their stock. Olibanum (Frankincense) is one of the most adaptable gums, and is used in lots of different recipes. It is generally reckoned to be Fire, or solar. It’s not very expensive, and worth while having a fair bit of this on hand.
Mastic on the other hand, is expensive (except for the kind sold in Greek
delicatessens, which should be avoided, as it’s nearly all sugar!). But, Gum Damar is an excellent alternative for Mastic, and a fraction of the price. Mastic and Damar are both attributed to Air.
Myrrh isn’t something that most people use in prolific amounts, as it is rather bitter, and actually conflicts with a number of other gums (including Frankincense!). Myrrh is attributed to water.
Other popular gums include Arabic (Acacia), Copal, Tragacanth, Benzoin, and Karya. There are lots more, including (in Australia) gum from the Eucalypts that grow here in profusion. Red gum is particularly good, for those Ozzies reading this
Dried petals, dried fruit peel, dried berries, roots, barks, etc., are all
useful for making incense, and cost nothing to collect. You can also use honey, and one recipe I have calls for raisins to be soaked in retsina before being chopped up and added to the incense!
Balsams and oleoresins are basically gums or resins mixed with essential oil, so they are semi-solid or liquid. Storax would be at the semi-solid end of the scale (more solid than not!), whilst something like Tolu Balsam would be more liquid. Essential oils (often available in synthetic form as well as essential), are of course liquid.
One ingredient which is very useful as a base (instead of a gum) is Peat Moss. It gives a very earthy smell, and when combined with other earthy substances (eg, cedar, sandalwood, white willow bark), and mixed with a good helping of oil, the result is a very rich incense indeed.
If I don’t stop here, none of this will end up on the PC! Hopefully, this will give a few hints to be going on with. Next time I get the chance, I’ll post up some recipes, and more helpful hints
Author: JULIA PHILLIPS