Incense: how are they made?
Incense materials are available in various degrees of processing and forms. They can mainly be separated into two types:"direct-burning" and "indirect-burning”, depending on the use. Preference for a particular form varies with culture, tradition, and personal taste. The two types differ in their composition due to the former's requirement for even, stable, and sustained burning. The production of direct- and indirect-burning incense is both blended to produce a pleasant smell when burned.
Also called "non-combustible incense", it is a combination of aromatic ingredients that are not prepared in any particular way or encouraged into any particular form, leaving it mostly unsuitable for direct combustion. The use of Indirect-burning incense requires a separate heat source since it does not generally kindle a fire capable of burning itself and may not ignite at all under normal conditions. This incense can vary in the duration of its burning with the texture of the material. Finer ingredients tend to burn more rapidly; while coarsely ground or whole chunks may be consumed very gradually as they have less total surface area. The heat is traditionally provided by charcoal or glowing embers.
In the West, the best known incense materials of this type are frankincense and myrrh, likely due to their numerous mentions in the Christian Bible. In fact, the word for "frankincense" in many European languages also alludes to any form of incense.
- Whole: The incense material is burned directly in its raw unprocessed form on top of coal embers.
- Powdered or granulated: The incense material is broken down into finer bits. This incense burns quickly and provides a short period of intense smells.
- Paste: The powdered or granulated incense material is mixed with a sticky and incombustible binder, such as dried fruit, honey, or a soft resin and then formed to balls or small pastilles. These may then be allowed to mature in a controlled environment where the fragrances can commingle and unite. MuchArabian incense, also called "Bukhoor" or "Bakhoor", is of this type (Bakhoor, actually refers to frankincense in Arabic, and Japan has a history of kneaded incense, called nerikō or awasekō, using this method. Within the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition, raw frankincense is ground into a fine powder and then mixed with various sweet-smelling essential oils.
Direct-burning incense also called "combustible incense" is lit directly by a flame. The glowing ember on the incense will continue to smoulder and burn away the rest of the incense without continued application of heat or flame from an outside source. Direct-burning incense is either extruded ,pressed into forms, or coated onto a supporting material. This class of incense is made from a moldable substrate of fragrant finely ground (or liquid) incense materials and odourless binder. The composition must be adjusted to provide fragrance in the proper concentration and to ensure even burning. The following types of direct-burning incense are commonly encountered, though the material itself can take virtually any form, according to expediency or whimsy:
- Coil: Extruded and shaped into a coil without a core. This type of incense is able to burn for an extended period, from hours to days, and is commonly produced and used by Chinese culture
- Cone: Incense in this form burns relatively fast. Incense cones were invented in Japan in the 1800s.
- Cored stick: This form of stick incense has a supporting core of bamboo. Higher quality varieties of this form have fragrant sandalwood cores. The core is coated by a thick layer of incense material that burns away with the core. This type of incense is commonly produced in India and China. When used for worship in Chinese folk religion, cored incensed sticks are sometimes known as "joss sticks".
- Solid stick: This stick incense has no supporting core and is completely made of incense material. Easily broken into pieces, it allows one to determine the specific amount of incense they wish to burn. This is the most commonly produced form of incense in Japan and Tibet.
- Powder: The loose incense powder used for making indirect burning incense is sometimes burned without further processing. They are typically packed into long trails on top of wood ash using a stencil and burned in special censers or incense clocks.
- Paper: Paper infused with incense, folded accordion style, lit and blown out. Examples are Carta d'Armenia and Papier d'Arménie.
- Rope: The incense powder is rolled into paper sheets, which are then rolled into ropes, twisted tightly, then doubled over and twisted again, yielding a two-strand rope. The larger end is the bight, and may be stood vertically, in a shallow dish of sand or pebbles. The smaller (pointed) end is lit. This type of incense is highly transportable and stays fresh for extremely long periods. It has been used for centuries in Tibet and Nepal.
The disks of powdered mugwort called 'moxa' sold in Chinese shops and herbalists are used in Traditional Chinese medicine for moxibustion treatment. Moxa tablets are not incenses; the treatment relies on heat rather than fragrance.