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Choosing Your Incense Form

When most Americans think about incense, they think of incense cones and sticks (with internal bamboo cores).  However, incense comes in a wide variety of shapes and forms, and the style that you choose will have a huge impact on the tools you will need and how your incense burns.  It is important to consider what form your incense is in in order to ensure proper combustibility and to incorporate it seamlessly into you everyday life.

Loose Incense

Loose incense is the oldest form of incense, originating with the tossing of aromatic plants and woods in to smoldering campfire embers in order to release fragrant smoke in to the air.  Loose incense is not "self-burning" like stick incense, meaning that you must continuously supply heat or it will stop burning.

These days, since we rarely sit around a campfire, the easiest way to burn loose incense is with charcoal tablets.  Most people use round charcoal tablets that have an impression in the center for the loose incense.  This type of charcoal is usually full of a substance called saltpeter, which makes the charcoal burn very easily.  However, it also makes the charcoal burn too hot, and puts out a very odd smell.

However, burning incense on charcoal is a very valuable way of testing new aromatics and blends when making incense and loose incense is the easiest form to make yourself.  One way of solving the saltpeter problem is to use Japanese charcoal made from bamboo.  This is a little harder to light, but has no strange scent associated with it.

Loose incense is the most high maintenance form of incense.  Just to burn it, you will need charcoal, a censer, ash or sand to put the charcoal on , and the incense.  It is not nearly as portable as other forms on incense.  It also requires more quantity control - if you use too much, you can end up with huge amounts of smoke very quickly.

However, it is still valuable to learn to about loose incense, especially if you are considering making your own incense.  Burning your ingredients loose can help you to test a new scent combination without going to the trouble of rolling a stick or a cone.  Burning loose incense can also be a powerful tool if you are participating in a ritual that features a fire with smoldering coals, as you can quickly and easily add raw plant matter and resins in order to bring an extra element to the ceremonial space.

Sticks with Bamboo Rods

This is the type of incense that most Americans associate with the word.  Although this type of incense can be quite nice, it is also the type that is most commonly sold by large commercial producers who put out low quality products.  The bamboo rods in low quality incense are often soaked in synthetic fragrance, and they often burn poorly or unevenly.  However, much high quality Indian incense contains a bamboo base stick, or even a sandalwood base in the case of really high end types.  Therefore, simply be very careful to make a well informed decision when it comes to purchasing cored stick incense.


Cone incense is a wonderful form for novice incense makers as cones can be formed very roughly, and still burn properly.  Cones are also quite durable, so they can be transported more easily than stick incense without breaking.  Making a burner for cone incense is as simple as finding a ceramic place or a flat stone, as they have a stable base and will stand on their own.  The only downside is that cone incense can sometimes produce a great deal of smoke, as a large quantity of material is often smoldering at once.

Solid Sticks and Cylinders

This is the ultimate form of incense, and certainly the most elegant.  Cylinder incense is a round rod of incense material ranging from pencil size down to the thickness of the toothpick.  Cylinder incense offers the most even burn, and the most easily regulated release of smoke and fragrance.

Solid stick incense also lights easily and can be made any length.  It can be burned in a small bowl of rice or sand.  The only downside to this incense form is that the thinner types are fairly fragile and can break more easily.

Coil Incense

Coil incense is an old Chinese style of incense in which the material is circled around in a spiral.  The greatest advantage to this type of incense is that you can have quite a lot of material in a small space, and so the burn time can be very long.  Coil incense is just as easy to burn as solid stick incense, and often comes with a small stand, so it requires very little maintenance.

Other Forms

Wet incense material can be formed into basically any shape, so you can try making disks or other shapes and then burning them when they dry.  Another unique form of incense is "moist" incense, which never completely dries.  Moist incense often uses honey as a binder and is sometimes even fermented!  This type of incense is kept wet and burned over charcoal.

Choosing a Form

Now that you understand the strength and weaknesses of each form of incense, there are a few other factors to considering when choosing your incense form.  If you are making incense by hand, you may want to work with easier forms, such as cone and cylinder incense, to start with.  You will also want to consider how much burning time you want from your incense - the longer the incense, the longer it will burn, for the most part.  Thicker incense tends to burn more slowly than thin, but really thick incense tends to go out by itself.

Finally, consider the content of your incense and what you intend to use it for.  If you want an energizing, refreshing scent to make your home smell pleasant, you may want to consider floral or citrus scented incense.  If you want to use incense to purify your ritual space or to assist in meditation, you may want to try sandalwood, camphor, cedar, or other focusing herbal scents.  Don't be afraid to explore all the different styles of incense until you find the perfect one to fit your life!  With so many styles available, you're bound to find the one that suits you before long!
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