The basis of this post is handout I used for the OBOD East Coast Gathering (2011) for my incense making workshop. I added in additional details based on what we discussed in the workshop, and I wanted to expand upon this handout and provide some info on finding local materials and intentions.
Incense in the Druid tradition
Incense-making has a long history in spiritual, religious, and esoteric traditions. In Druidry, we might use incense to help us enter a deep meditative state for working within our inner groves or to aid in our ritual activities. Incense crafting itself can be a very personal and spiritual experience. I use incense in my druidic practice very frequently, usually several times a week. I have crafted a number of incenses for different purposes, including those for different kinds of work (Bardic Balance, Bardic Creativity, Ovate Divination, Ovate Healing, Druid Focus, Happy Plants, etc.).
Some of the best incense materials (energy and smell-wise) may be local to your area or grown in your garden. For those that aren’t available locally or able to be grown, there are several good companies online who can sell ingredients.
Wildharvested Ingredients: In South-East Michigan, I am able to find a variety of materials that can be used for incense recipes. When you are wildharvesting, make sure you do not take the whole plant, but only a small part enough to allow it to continue to grow. Only take plants that are numerous–check plants that are on endangered lists in your area and make sure you are taking only well-established species. I also make it a point to ask and be thankful before I take; the plants and spirits of the land appreciate this. Here are some of my favorite wildcrafted ingredients:
- Conifer resins. We have a number of fantastic confiers that produce great resin incense. White Pine is one of my favorites and produces a wonderful vanilla-pine scent. Scots pine produces a much more musty scent, still very nice. To harvest a conifer resin, you can just look for drips from a tree–a freshly trimmed branch will leave a lot of gooey resin; you’ll want this to dry hard before you use it like any other resin.
- Sassafras Roots: These aromatic roots, when chopped fine, work wonderfully in non-combustible incenses! Sassafras produces offspring by sending off “runner” trees–so you will likely find a ton of little sassafrass trees very close to a big one. Usually harvest them by removing the runner shoots that would otherwise not make it. You can also occasionally find a Sassafrass uprooted by a storm and have as much as you want.
- Wild Rose Hips: We have many of these wild rose bushes in the yard, and the rose hips are smaller than traditional rose hips, but still wonderful for incense.
- Yarrow and other wild herbs: A field or edge of a forest can be a wonderful place to find yarrow, nettles, violets, black raspberries, alfalfa, etc. Many of these make wonderful incense ingredients–usually for their energetic properties rather than their smell.
- Juniper Berries: Even in areas it isn’t a native species, you can find juniper as an ornamental shrub or bush. The berries have a wonderful piney smell that is just irresistible!
Ingredients You Grow: Many ingredients, especially herbs, can be grown in your garden. You harvest, dry, and preserve these just like you would cooking herbs. Some commonly used herbs in incense include: bay, sage, rosemary (smells wonderful when burned!), lavender, sweetgrass, lemon balm/mint, and basil.
Ingredients You Purchase: Depending on where you live, there are a lot of ingredients you simply can’t grow or find–but these ingredients are often crucial to successful incense. You can purchase many incense making ingredients. I try to purchase most of my ingredients through Mountain Rose Herbs, as they are an ethical and sustainable company. If you are starting from scratch, a few good ingredients to have on hand are a few wood powders (Red Sandalwood, Cedar, Palo Santo wood), resins (Frankincense, Myrrh, Dragon’s Blood, Copal, Benzoin) and then other assorted herbs depending on your purpose. Some can also be found at your local grocery store, such as star anise, cinnamon, or nutmeg.
In addition to materials, you’ll want a few other ingredients on hand.
- A mortar and pestle is absolutely crucial. If you are making incense and bulk, a dedicated coffee grinder can also be helpful. I find it particularly helpful for juniper berries! But I don’t use it much at all–I prefer the natural grinding of ingredients, which allows you to add your own energies as you work.
- You also will need a censer and some charcoal blocks. You can purchase the cheap self-lighting ones, which work fine if you are outdoors (these go most often under the “swift lite” brand). These ones also really stink, which can reduce your enjoyment of the incense–and make it more difficult to smell the true smell of various ingredients. If you are inside though, I strongly recommend purchasing pure bamboo charcoal–it has no nasty, carcinogenic smells (like the self-lighting ones have) and is fine for indoor use. Here’s one such example. You also need some small measuring spoons. I really like these ones for measuring out incense powders!
Energy and Intention
Before you make incense, you’ll want to think about what your goals are for the incense, and work to build in appropriate energies and intentions into it. If you are making a cleansing incense, you might want to create it during a waning moon; likewise, an incense that aids in balance or grounding might be made at the Fall Equinox. Same with the actual movements you make in crafting the incense–clockwise motions add a different energy than counter-clockwise. With all things druidic, however, using your intention and experience is best.
All of the recipes I’m posting here use a “part” as the primary measurement. A part can be anything–a 1/2 teaspoon or 1 teaspoon as a basic “part” works well for most. If you go larger than that, you are apt to have a lot of incense–probably more than you can use!
Two Types of Incense
Scott Cunningham, in The Complete Book of Incense, Oils, and Brews, identifies two types of incense that you can make. I think his descriptions are pretty useful.
Non-Combustible: Non-combustible incenses are those that do not burn on their own and usually come in powder form. They may be resins, dried plants, herbs, flowers, essential oils or mixtures of various ingredients. They must be burned on charcoal blocks. These are easy incenses to make and great for the beginning incense-maker becuase you can have a wide range of experimentation and really create some beautiful blends.
Combustible: Combustible incense, in the form of sticks, cones, and coils, burn on their own without the aid of charcoal blocks. When you buy incense sticks in the store, they are typical “combustible” incense. Combustible incense is more challenging to make because it requires that you have a high ratio of burnable substances (8 out of 10 parts including woods or plant materials). Combustible incenses typically have a base (the burnable wood substance); a binder (that which holds the incense together, typically Guar Gum or Makko); and aromatics. When making combustible incense, it is very important to get everything powdered as small as possibly. Large chunks of anything, especially resins, will prevent it from burning properly.
For combustible incense, you want to have 3-4 times more woody base than anything else. You want to limit your use of resins, because they don’t burn well. I usually have combustible incense recipes that look like this:
- 4 parts base (sandalwood, cedar, etc.)
- 1 part binder (usually guar gum)
- 2-3 parts aromatics (rosemary, orange peel, etc.)
- several drops essential oil
- Enough water to make into a paste
If your combustible incense does not burn after you make it, you can grind it back up and add more woody base.
You can also use an extruder designed for polymer clay to help you roll it out. I purchased my extruder from a local art supply store.
Two Druidic Incense Recipes
The following two recipes are original creations that I’ve made as part of my druidic work. They are free to use for your own personal purposes.
Tree Divination (Ovate) Recipe (Non-Combustible)
This is a recipe I created for use with the Tarot of Trees. Its also an all around wonderful smelling and working for any kind of divination.
- 1 part frankincense (powdered)
- 1 part red sandalwood (powdered)
- 1 part cinnamon
- 1 part crushed juniper berries
- 1/20th part sweet orange essential oil
- ½ part lemongrass
- ½ part yarrow
Directions: Powder the frankincense and juniper berries separately first. Resins are tricky to powder–a circular motion works best. Juniper berry likewise can be tricky–sticking it in the freezer for about 20 min makes it way easier to make smaller – it doesn’t really ever “powder” completely. Once those two ingredients are ground down, add the remaining ingredients into the mortar and pestle and grind them together. A Once it is all nice and mixed, add the oil and ground together. Let sit for a few weeks for the incense scents to meld.
Elemental Balance (Bardic) Recipe (Combustible)
- 10 parts Cedar (Fire); Base
- 6 parts Sandalwood (Water); Base
- 1 part Honeysuckle (Earth); aromatic
- ½ part lemongrass essential oil (Air); aromatic
- 1 part Guar Gum (Binder) (Guar Gum can be
- Water to make the incense into a firm dough
Powder all ingredients very, very finely, again, adding the oil at the end of the grinding process. Once all ingredients are ready, you can add Guar Gum, mixing well. Add enough water to create a firm dough–if you use too much water, you can add more cedar or sandalwood powder. Once your dough resembles play-dough or sculpey, you can roll out and cut, or shape into small incense cones/blocks/sticks. Allow it to dry for 2 weeks and then store in a nice container with a piece of quartz. Quartz represents creativity and spirit!
Once you’ve created your incense, you’ll want to store it in a cool, dark place. I like to use metal tins (as pictured in the photo above) and add little handmade paper labels to them or else find interesting bottles or tins at a thrift store. You can also use wooden or glass containers–anything that keeps it sealed and dry.