Introduction: How to Make Joss-Style Incense

Picture of How to Make Joss-Style Incense

To make this simple, we'll start out with sandalwood incense.

You'll need:
ground sandalwood -- 4 tbsp
guar gum -- 1 tsp or so
water (you'll add it a little at a time)
a mixing bowl
gloves, optional

a gum-paste decorating syringe with a #5 tip
a caulk gun
a popsicle stick
a piece of coated card stock, like a bookmark or postcard
a kitchen knife or icing spatula
some waxed paper
some cardboard or thin wood

Step 1: Put Your Ingredients Into a Mixing Bowl.

Picture of Put Your Ingredients Into a Mixing Bowl.

It's best to use glass, metal, or a disposable bowl. Plastic and wood bowls will absorb odors, and in the case of wood, absorb the water!

Here, I am making a complex patchouli recipe. Your sandalwood incense, if you are using this recipe, will just have the sandalwood and guar gum.

Start with just a teaspoon of guar. You can add more if you need it, but you probably won't need it.

It would be a prudent idea to sift the powders to make sure there are no lumps. I use a juice strainer. This probably won't matter in this recipe, but when you move up to herbs, sometimes there are bits of stem or leaf that need removing.

Step 2: Mix Ingredients With Water and Make Into a Ball.

Picture of Mix Ingredients With Water and Make Into a Ball.

Add, just a TEENY bit at a time, plain tap water. It can be hot, cold, whatever. You'll want to mix it with your fingers. It's a lot like making a pie crust -- it will create little crumbs, and then, all of a sudden, make a ball.

The ball should have no cracks. This part is very important. Add just a couple drops at a time until the cracks disappear.

The guar gum should feel a little slimy. If the sandalwood is not holding together well, add more guar 1/4 tsp at a time until the ball sticks together.

Once you have enough water, try rolling a test cone with your fingers by just pinching a little off and forming it into a cone, standard incense size. If it holds the shape well without slumping, you are ready. If it cracks when forming, add a teensy bit more water and try again.

When the test cone holds together, you are ready to start extruding sticks. (You can also make the dough into cones if you'd rather.)

Step 3: Get Ready to Extrude!

Picture of Get Ready to Extrude!

Put the dough into the gum paste tube and assemble it. Then put it into your caulk gun. This will let you use the force of your grip rather than having to push down on the plunger with your hand.

With my set up, I have to put it into the caulk gun and then screw on the tip. Your mileage may vary depending on what you find.

Place waxed paper over the cardboard or thin wood that you are using as your rolling board.

Squirt out a few lines of dough. (Note: you may find that you need a little more water here; if so, take out the dough, add a few more drops, and try again.) The lines won't be beautiful, and it will take some practice before you become proficient. Don't worry about that; we'll make it beautiful in a minute.

Step 4: Straighten Out the Sticks and Rack 'em Up.

Picture of Straighten Out the Sticks and Rack 'em Up.

Gently use your finger to roll the sticks smooth. Then take the coated card, and use it to direct the sticks to the end of the board where they are *just* touching. You don't want to press them together, but if they are just barely touching, it will help keep them from warping as they dry.

Step 5: Trim to a Length That You Like.

Picture of Trim to a Length That You Like.

After you've gotten about 6" of sticks lined up, you will probably notice that your waxed paper has had enough and is getting mooky from the dough. That means it's time to trim the edges and start over on another board.

I use a popsicle stick marked at 4" so I can keep the length consistent.

Use a metal spatula or a table knife to trim the ends. The trimmings can be put into the extruder, rolled into sticks, or made into cones.

Step 6: Let the Sticks Dry!

Picture of Let the Sticks Dry!

When you've got to this stage, you're basically done. Leave them on the waxed paper and the cardboard or wood for at least 24 hours. I put mine in wood trays (shown in the foreground) and then stack the trays.

If the sticks are warping, they will still burn. You can try turning them over after 24 hours to prevent, or minimize, warping. After a day or so, CAREFULLY take the wood or cardboard out from under. I put a second piece of waxed paper on top and flip the whole thing over like you do when you take a cake out of a cake pan. Then I carefully peel off the top sheet.

When the sticks are completely dry gently break them apart at the seams. It's a little like breaking a graham cracker apart, a gentle yet firm pressure.

If there are broken sticks, there may have been too much water in the dough, or the sticks dried too quickly. You can use them as they are, get them wet and make them into cones, or grind them up in a coffee grinder and repeat the process. (You will need more guar gum.)

Have fun!

Recommended reading: Incense: Crafting and Use of Magickal Scents by Carl Neal


cppeterson (author)2017-02-18

What is the caulking gun you're using? Did you make it? I've been looking for something just like this and would love any info on where to find/how to make one. Thanks!

witch_kid1999 (author)2013-11-27

What's the little circle thing in the first picture that is in the bowl of powder?

That is a charcoal disc. You can get them at metaphysical stores, online, or at a place that sells hookah supplies, since they are also used in hookahs.

RaNDoMLeiGH (author)2012-02-08

I just want to let people know - I thought it was in the instructions, but I guess I left it out - that if you don't have the squirter thing, you can just pinch off a bit and roll it into a snake.

Should be obvious, really, but in case someone was going "wow, great idea!" then not being able to find the gum paste extruder, getting all disappointed, I just wanted to point out you don't really need any special equipment at all to make up a batch of sticks.

We have a yahoo group called Incense Exchange if you are interested in pursuing this further! It's very user friendly and there is a ton of information in the archives.

Bindlestiff (author)2011-08-02

Hi! If I want to make powder incense (the kind that you put in a clay groove to burn), could I use these directions but stop at step 1? Would the powder smolder all on its own?

RaNDoMLeiGH (author)Bindlestiff2011-08-11
It really depends on what you are combining with your powder.

There is a way to burn incense "trails", using fine ash and makko as a base, but can you just put any ingredients into an Azenta burner? Not really. I've tried and get results that are so mixed I can't really recommend it.

I am not real sure what they are using as their powder base. Some kind of super finely ground wood powder, possibly willow because there is almost no wood scent. It's probably not makko, but it could be some other botanical instead of wood. Then they add colors and fragranced oil that is made to be burned (such as candle scent). I suspect a bit of saltpeter or another chemical accelerant is also added to help lower the ignition temperature, because it's hard to get oxygen down in the grooves and thus combust all of the powder. Yet somehow, it happens. The powder is "fluffy" and lets in a lot of air.

If you use natural botanicals, no matter how finely ground, you will probably encounter one or more of the following:
  • not burning at all (doesn't light)
  • not burning as a trail (goes out)
  • only the top of the incense is burning while the bottom is untouched
Add a little saltpeter to some water and mix it into your recipe. Allow to dry and try again. Sometimes this will help allieviate one or more of the problems. Too much saltpeter and your incense will spit and pop and make a huge mess.

Sorry not to be much help. If you figure out a good base, please post it here!
RaNDoMLeiGH (author)RaNDoMLeiGH2011-08-11

oh yeah, also if you are wanting to make a loose incense -- you don't need any guar gum.

RaNDoMLeiGH (author)2008-10-18

OK, since I made this instructable I found another trick: get some screen, like window screen, and support it on something. I was given a paper-making kit from michael's that has a plastic grid with 1/2" squares and some flexible screen, and I tried drying the incense on it instead of on the board. Hey! It works great! So if you have like a cookie rack with grids (not just bars, it wouldn't support the sticks as well), you can get good circulation. Even drying keeps the sticks from curling, and the non-stickyness keeps them from breaking if they shrink.

RaNDoMLeiGH (author)RaNDoMLeiGH2010-06-22

Updates: I just found out a little more about the plastic grid I use to support the window screen for drying: it's used in ceiling lights as a diffusion material. I found a sheet of it at ace hardware for just a few bucks. I also do stained glass and have seen this sold as a glass cutting surface (the little chips fall throught it) but a large sheet of it through the glass supply shop was gonna be about $45. At Ace I think it was under $20, maybe about $12 for a piece maybe 36x24. Gonna go back and get one today and a new caulk gun. I have moved to a size 6 cake dec tip since I posted this and the paste comes out a little better. Paintball tubes make great storage for dried sticks. Here's something else I learned: Harbor Freight sells small electric meat grinders. I had a coupon and was willing to gamble $30 to find out how it worked as an extruder. I took out the x-shaped cutting blade and stuffed in a big gob of dough. It worked! It came out like long strands of play-doh hair in a pile. For the most part I was able to separate them and roll them down to the "right" thickness (so I could get 10 pieces in the tubes I use to package it), but I think I'm going to get a pvc pipe end and drill a single line of holes in it so what I get is a nice row of incense rather than a bunch of incense in a wad. I still had leftover dough to form, about a gum paste extruder (the blue thing in the pix) full, after the machine did its thing. It took a couple minutes to scrape it out with a popsicle stick and the metal spatula. Everything cleaned up really well though, and my hand wasn't all crampy after, so all in all I consider it a good purchase if you're thinking about getting into regular production.

moonshyne (author)2010-02-02

eeep!  hope someone can answer this for me!  My friend and I have been trying to get into making our own incense...but our incense so far just smells like the wood powder we used to create it.  It's not a bad smell,  but it is overpowering (think "campfire") and there's no way we'll be able to use some of the more floral, delicate scents we'd like.

And in case it needs to be known, we've been using cedar and aspen. 

anyone know how to fix this?  any help would be appreciated.

RaNDoMLeiGH (author)moonshyne2010-02-05

cedar and aspen smell like campfire because they are camp fire woods.

Try a base of willow (nearly no smell), charcoal (from the health food store, used for digestion and cleansing, NOT the stuff you put in your grill), or sandalwood (red or yellow/brown).

Also try making really skinny sticks, which will enhance more delicate botanicals like rose petals or ground herbs. You can add quite a large percentage of herbs or other botanicals, and then thin it out with the base so that it doesn't wind up smelling like scorched leaves.

Check out these books:
Wylundt's Book of Incense
Incense, Oils, and Brews by Scott Cunningham
and the Carl Neal book named in the last step of this instructable.

schimmi (author)2009-07-22

So what's the difference between dipping and rolling? Any smell difference?

RaNDoMLeiGH (author)schimmi2009-07-23

An herbal incense (rolled) is going to smell a little different, just because of the ingredients you use. The dipped kind can smell quite good or so-so or whatever (I've run across some real stinkers in my travels) just depending on the oils. The DPG doesn't have any smell once it's evaporated out, as far as I can tell. I developed a sensitivity to DPG -- it happens -- so I quit doing dipped. But I used to do some with a made-for-burning Leather fragrance oil that smelled sooooo good... I don't think there is a way to create that with natural ingredients. However, if I made a willow or charcoal base, which don't really have a scent, and added some of the leather FO to it, I don't think I would be able to tell just by smell whether it was dipped or rolled if in cone form. The bamboo stick they use for dipped stick incense can sometimes be detected but it's usually at the end of the burn. I would, of course, be able to tell immediately from the headache that hits right between the eyes, but I don't think there would be a difference in smell.

pumpkinman (author)2009-07-05

can't you use something else instead of guar gum? Wooden glue, gelatine, pine resin, some chemical?

RaNDoMLeiGH (author)pumpkinman2009-07-12

the idea behind the guar or karaya or tragacanth or arabic gums is that they are natural resins. Sure you could use wood glue, if you want burning pvc destroying your lungs and possibly melting your house. Gelatin... might smell like burning horse. Give it a shot and let us know how it works out. Pine resin is super sticky and is occasionally incorporated in incense for a nice foresty smell, but since it doesn't really dry out it wouldn't make a good glue -- if you used enough to bind it, the stick wouldn't burn on its own. A novice would have fits with pinion or another type of pine resin, and for the experienced it's a tad tricky to compose something with pinion or pitch and not have your fingers stuck together all day. I have used it in a dhoop type incense, but that is beyond the range of this instructable. Please do not burn wood glue as incense. just don't do that.

pumpkinman (author)RaNDoMLeiGH2009-07-13

what do you think about using tar?

RaNDoMLeiGH (author)pumpkinman2009-07-23

I think someone's trolling me, that's what I think.

norml (author)2008-02-02

Great Instructable. I've always wondered how these were made. Have you tried parchment paper? It's silicone coated and non-reactive. So less "mooky"?

RaNDoMLeiGH (author)norml2008-02-21

I tried out parchment paper with a recipe I made last week. It was a HUGE amount of stuff (that glass bowl was full to the rim). The parchment paper was excellent, and I was able to use the same piece and slide off "sections" of sticks onto another board for drying. Great idea, thanks!

RaNDoMLeiGH (author)RaNDoMLeiGH2008-07-03

A follow-up on this: the parchment works well, true. However, that weird cling wrap that has the stickum on one side works as well. My mom-in-law gave me a couple boxes of it so I thought what the heck. Parchment is hard to affix to the board, by its nature; the weirdly waxy paper that has the built in sticky stuck to my wooden rolling board and stayed there. It also lasted through a rolling session pretty well.

RaNDoMLeiGH (author)RaNDoMLeiGH2009-02-14

another thought about the sticky cling wrap (irrelevant to this instructable but I just found out about it): you can use it to line the inside of a wooden soap mold and the soap comes out nice and smooth.

bellarachel (author)2008-07-27

Hi. I tried making this twice, I was wondering if there is an easier way other than the caulking gun? Both times I did it my hand hurt so bad before I even got done with the tube. Also, if anyone has any recipes or tips I would LOVE to hear them, please message me. Thanks. --Rachel

RaNDoMLeiGH (author)bellarachel2008-08-06

you need to add more water if it's too hard to squish it out.

bellarachel (author)RaNDoMLeiGH2008-08-08

Thanks, I'll try that. How do you know when it has enough water?

RaNDoMLeiGH (author)bellarachel2008-10-18

when it slips out like toothpaste. It takes a little practice to know when it's got enough and when it's got too much, but basically just take the dough out, add a little bit of water, and try again. If you get too much it cracks when it dries.

nightninja87 (author)2008-06-22

couldnt u make a cone instead like some of the incense?

RaNDoMLeiGH (author)nightninja872008-08-06

sure! I just prefer sticks. With cones you sometimes have to tinker overmuch with the ingredients so that they burn well, or add a pinch of saltpeter to the water when you moisten the dough. A few people don't like saltpeter because of its metaphysical association with Mars, the god of war, so it's generally considered best to keep your formulations saltpeter-free. One incense maker I know likes to flatten her dough and cut out triangles from it, which she burns by sticking them into a dish of sand. You're not limited to cones or sticks -- you can model the incense dough into gnomes or cats or letters or anything. "Your name in incense" -- cool idea. Play with the formulas and make sure the drying time is sufficient. Nobody likes moldy incense.

nightninja87 (author)RaNDoMLeiGH2008-08-11

yea nobody likes moldy incense thank you for the ideas

schimmi (author)2008-01-31

sweet, i would try it if i knew where to get guar gum and sandlewood and i'd probly use cinnamon

RaNDoMLeiGH (author)schimmi2008-02-01

Cinnamon is delicious! You can get guar gum at health food stores. Some health food stores sell bulk herbs and most likely have sandalwood. You might look under "herbs" or even "occult" in your yellow pages, a lot of new age shops sell bulk herbs. Otherwise there's a lot of places you can order small quantities online; this recipe uses about an ounce (I think).

Tobita (author)RaNDoMLeiGH2008-05-22

hahahahaha! they have an "occult" section? that would be pretty funny, i will have a look!xD

RaNDoMLeiGH (author)RaNDoMLeiGH2008-02-01

I had another thought -- a different binder may be easier to come by. You can also use karaya gum, which is sold by Wilton (the cake decorating people) as Gum-Tex. Use the same amount as guar. It costs more, but if the store has a sale or coupon, it may be easier to use. Karaya gum is used to thicken icing when you're making gum paste flowers and things. I got mine at Michael's, but I think wal-mart also carries it.

GorillazMiko (author)2008-01-31

Cool Instructable! They look good enough to eat, seriously.

But don't eat them.


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