Make your own incense!
In the early days of my path I wanted incense SO badly. But it was verboten. I grew up in a non-smoking, hypoallergenic home. My family is literally allergic to everything, if it’s got dander or pollen. Smoke was a definite no - and I didn’t argue about it. What I could get for incense was cheap and terrible, and made me sneeze and cough and swell and drip like everyone else.
It wasn’t until I was in my mid 20’s that I found the good stuff. Hand-rolled incense that isn’t dipped in perfume oils but made with real essential oils, extruded incense from Japan, and loose incense… glorious loose incense! None of these things set off my allergies, provided I avoid my specific allergens. I became addicted to incense fairly fast after that.
One of my earliest goals on my path was to learn to make good, natural incense for my own use, for whatever I needed it for. For a long time it seemed as if I wouldn’t, but at some point a key turned in a door, and I was inside that space. I’ve never looked back.
Today I am refilling incense jars. I enjoy the work - but there’s a lotta jars here. The work does take its’ toll, mostly on my hands - lots of grinding. There’s nothing fancy here. Me, my measuring spoons, a mortar and pestle, and jar upon jar of resins, dried spices, and herbs. But it’s worth it.
Handmade incense is an expression of one’s self - every bit of it personal. The majority of what I make are my own recipes. It’s a curiously satisfying thing, to crush, grind, and blend - working your will and intent into your ingredients as you work them down to the desired texture. I do a lot of research for my recipes - looking at the elemental correspondence of my materials, whether or not there are specific materials associated with the subject of the incense, etc.
Incense is as powerful as any other mood-altering substance. Different scents trigger different emotions and memories in ourselves, and when used ritually or magically can help to achieve the particular type of altered consciousness you’re looking for. You owe it to yourself to use the best ingredients you can, with the most care, thought, and intent you can give it; the same as with food, drink, or other substances, it’s Garbage In - Garbage Out.
It can be tricky. When you’re starting out, you’re sometimes working with ingredients that you’re unfamiliar with as an odour. My advice is to burn a little on a charcoal by itself, if you can. That way you can learn what you like and what you don’t.
Magical intent is important sometimes, but if you don’t like the way certain things smell in incense, don’t use them. If you’re going to be nauseated or displeased with the smell, you’re not likely to use the stuff anyway - so research into alternatives for what you’re doing that you might like better. That’s not a universal rule - if you’re creating a blend for a particular entity or deity and they have absolute requirements - must have X, won’t accept Y - you will need to take that into account, whether you like the ingredient(s) in question or not. But generally speaking you can usually find ways to substitute things for others if you have a real antipathy towards them.
It helps to understand base, middle, and top notes in scent. You have to think of your incense like a chord of music. It can be flat, round, or sharp, and it can be harmonious or discordant, depending on your need or want.
Resins and woods are generally your basenotes - the strong foundations of the scent. The midnotes are there to fill out the body of your scent, and generally draw some subtleties out of the base. The topnotes are usually brighter notes, small amounts of elements that are distinct from the general blend, and give it a particular character or flavour; the same base/mid mix can invoke very different things, depending on how you alter the topnotes. If you add essential oils to your blends for stronger scents, or in place of particular herbs, they’re always a top note. It takes very little oil to overwhelm a blend, so you only want to add a few drops at a time.
Proportionally, I tend to break recipes down thusly:
1-3 parts base notes (1 to 2 ingredients)
2-4 parts mid notes (2-4 ingredients)
1-2 parts top notes (1-4 ingredients)
This isn’t a hard and fast rule, for parts - some of my incenses just have one very mild base, and are all mid and top notes, and others have a strong base, and few other notes. But until I got more experienced, and more experimental, I sort of stuck with this formula.
Find a measure. It does matter what it is - incense recipes generally can be broken into ‘parts’, and not specific measurements. So long as you use the same measure all the time, your incense recipes will come out consistently.
Incense is best when the ingredients can be left to sit and blend and age together; even a week really helps. Months later, incense can have matured and mixed into something absolutely fantastic, that you’d never have thought. Incense made with oils really needs to age in glass - it lets the oil be absorbed completely by the entire batch, and be properly distributed throughout, and the glass keeps the oil IN. Plastic containers are too porous, and the oil’s scent ‘leaks’. Incense without oils can be left in plastic bags or containers just fine.
For me the smoke is integral to my practice; it is a method of altering mental state. But not everyone needs that or can have that in their space. If you like the smell of incense but not the smoke, consider burning your incense indirectly. You can make a small foil cup and place your incense inside that - it sits on the coal and smoulders, releasing the scent without actively creating smoke. You can also place the foil bowls with candle oil burners (I’d recommend a stone one, and lining the entire thing with foil, and it will release the scent of the incense gently without smoke - just make sure there’s 4” between the flame and the bowl. There are also Japanese electric incense burners that warm a plate of mica, and uses the foil method. Incense burned in the foil method is spent once it darkens; it should not be let to smoke or smoulder.
And to think, I started this post with only this thought:
I will be wearing my incense work -for days-. Normally it wouldn’t be so bad, but I’m making a lot more blends at one time than I usually would. I wash thoroughly between each different scent, both myself and my tools, but the oils and resins linger beyond my mundane washing ability. By the time I’m done I usually smell like everything. Right now I am primarily redolent of myrrh soaked in red wine, and crushed juniper berries, and cedar…but I have many things left to finish, and I haven’t even started the blends that include a few drops of essential oils, here and there. By the end of the day, I will likely smell like my apothecary exploded on me.
But that’s ok. It’s worth it. Try it out sometime.