Most people are familiar with stick incense. The sticks look like this:
They’re usually burned one at a time in an incense burner, and when lit they look like this:
There are two basic kinds of stick incense.
- Cored Stick Incense
This is created when a thin stick of bamboo is rolled in a paste or dough of incense. The thicker the core, the longer the incense will burn. The smell of the burning bamboo is part of the incense. This incense is largely found in China and India.
- Solid Cylinders
Exactly what it says it is – these are solid cylinders of incense without a core. They might look identical to stick incense, or be a good deal thicker and more irregular. Solid cylinder incense will burn quite a bit faster and more fragrantly than stick incense.
There’s a variety of ways to use stick incense. They can be held in the hand for ritual purposes (just keep an eye on how much it’s burning down), put into a single-stick incense holder that looks like this:
Or stuck burning-end-up in a bowl of sand or other inflammable material.
Stick incense is sometimes referred to as a “joss stick,” which refers to the Chinese practice of burning incense in shrines.
Does your stick incense bother your eyes or make you cough? It’s probably because cheap stick incense is made with a coating of sawdust, glue and saltpeter and then dipped in a cocktail of fragrance oil and preservatives. They’re not required to tell you what’s in it. Unless you know the source of your stick incense, stick to the ones without a core.
Cone incense looks like this:
You need a heatproof surface for the incense, and you can find very elaborate incense holders shaped like crystals and dragons and little temples for cone incense.
This burns faster than stick incense and produces a more pungent aroma, as well as more smoke.
Cones are usually made of aromatic woods, resins and botanicals with a binder of some kind. Depending on the brand, that binder may be chemical or it may be a natural substance, like a plant gum. As with stick incense, cones are sometimes made of a ground up paste including sawdust and glue and then dipped in a synthetic scent and a fixative. Sneezing and coughing? Probably your incense.
Coil incense looks like this:
It can be suspended from the middle, draped over a triangular or circular object, or used in some other way – but it’s basically the same as cone incense in another form. This one does last longer than the cone.
Resin incense looks like this:
(at least, frankincense looks like this, because that’s frankincense)
Resin incense is sap, bark, wood, or roots of trees and plants that are burned for scent. While resin incense can vary in quality, it is much less prone to fillers and synthetics.
Resin incense needs to be burned on charcoal, and takes quite a bit more fuss and accessories than just lighting a stick of incense.
The incense burners can be very fancy, or pretty plain. This is a plain one:
In the base of the burner, you’d put a layer of sand or pebbles, and then you’d put the charcoal on top.
This is not the same kind of charcoal you use for your grill. This is charcoal specifically made for incense and tobacco products. It’s called “self lighting charcoal,” and several pieces are packaged together in a cylinder.
This is the charcoal that’s used in hookah pipes, so if you’re looking for it, your local smoke shop will probably have some. There’s different kinds of charcoal used for incense, but the most popular kind is called “self lighting charcoal.” It contains potassium nitrate, which makes the charcoal light quickly and stay lit longer. While it might be tempting to hold the charcoal in one hand and light it with the other, don’t. The self-lighting charcoal can spark and catch fairly fast.
Resin is burned on the charcoal, which has to be thoroughly hot before the resin is added.