Incense Magick: Art & Ritual of Incense

Incense fanatic Carl Neal walks you through the joys, wonders, and science of making and using natural incense. From making your first basic cone to creation and use of elaborate incense rituals, Incense Magick is your guide to the sometimes secretive world of incense and incense making. Every article explores different facets of incense, incense making, ingredients, rituals, tools, or techniques.

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3 Techniques For Making Joss Incense Sticks

There are three basic shapes for self-combusting incense.  There are cones, masala sticks, and joss sticks.  Most incense users are familiar with the cone.  It is the shape I generally teach first to new incense makers.  Masala sticks are probably the most common form in North America.  Masala sticks have a wooden rod (usually bamboo) to support the stick.  Although the wooden rod can cause significant problems when the incense burns, it really is the most popular form on this side of the world.  The other type of incense stick is the joss stick.  Unlike a masala stick, the joss stick has no wooden rod.  It is just a solid stick of incense.

I have always believed that the joss stick is the purest form of incense.  With no wooden rod to burn, you get a pure scent as you would with a cone.  Unlike a cone, a joss stick is a consistent diameter from one end to the other.  When you burn a cone, the amount of smoke released increases as the cone burns.  It kind of reminds me of a opera by Wagoner.  It starts off mild enough, but as it moves along the smoke builds and builds.  It finishes with a huge crescendo of smoke, and then goes out completely.  A joss stick will release the same, consistent amount of smoke from the time you light it until it goes out.  An incense coil is probably the ultimate development of the joss stick.  A well-made coil can burn for hours or even days.

The joss stick offers an additional benefit to those who make their own incense.  Because a joss stick is almost 100% surface area, recipes that are difficult to burn as a cone or masala stick often work much better in joss form.  If you make cones and they consistently go out about halfway through the burn, try rolling the recipe as a joss stick instead.

There are 3 practical ways to make joss sticks at home.  The first is to roll your joss sticks by hand.  Prepare your incense dough as you normally would for cones.  You might want to step up the amount of binder a little bit if you only plan to make joss sticks.  They are also more tolerant of binders than other forms of incense, so you can use a bit more than you normally would.  Once the dough is ready, take a small amount (a teaspoon or so) and place it on a clean, smooth surface.  Carefully roll the dough back and forth into a stick.  If you roll with the palms of your hands, you will get a more consistent thickness.  If you find you have areas that are obviously uneven, place on finger on the thicker section and roll it gently until it is the same thickness as the rest of the stick.  Joss sticks made this way won’t have the smooth, consistent thickness the other methods create, but they will still burn just fine.

A second way is to treat your incense dough like it is pie dough.  Roll the dough out into a flat, square shape.  You can put wood powder on the surface first to prevent sticking, or put down a bit of aluminum foil to roll on.  Once you have the dough rolled to the desired thickness, use a hobby knife or a razor blade to cut straight lines all the way through the incense.  Space the cuts about the same distance apart as the dough is thick.  This will result in square joss sticks, rather than round ones, but these will also burn just fine.  If you like making joss sticks this way, you might want to try a rolling pizza cutter instead of a hobby knife.  They make nice cuts and a easier to use.

The third way will produce the most professional looking joss sticks, but it requires a special tool.  An “extruder” is basically a metal syringe with a tapered tip.  You can load the extruder with your incense dough and the press the dough out through its tapered tip.  This will make a smooth joss stick with a perfect diameter.  You can use your extruder to make a long joss stick and then spiral that stick into an incense coil if you prefer.

Joss sticks are awesome.  They are pure incense in a convenient form.  You can burn joss sticks in a censer, a specialty burner, and even many types of burners designed for masala sticks.  They are excellent for ritual use or daily use.  If you need to extinguish an incense cone, it can be tricky.  A joss stick can be buried in sand or ash to extinguish it.  Better yet, just break off the stick just below where it is burning.  The remaining part of the stick is still perfectly usable.

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  Carl Neal has walked a Pagan path for 30 years. He is a self-avowed incense fanatic and has published 2 books through Llewellyn Worldwide on the topic. For many years (and even occasionally these days) he was a vendor of altar tools and supplies which led him to write The Magick Toolbox for Red Wheel/Weiser  

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