Burning Basics for Beginners

From the first time I burned a piece of fragrant wood, up until now, I’ve been trying to figure out the optimal way to burn wood at a temperature and rate that would allow me to appreciate its scent over an extended period of time, fill the room (and scent my clothes) with a beautiful and memorable fragrance, and that would be relatively easy to accomplish and share with friends. I haven’t yet found a burning method that accomplishes all of these goals at the same time, but I’d like to share my experiences so far. I hope some of you will take the time to share your own tips and tricks. I’m sure there are many techniques and materials that I’m unaware of.

Burning on charcoal- My first burner was a brass burner with a grill on top. Because it gets so hot it cannot be passed from guest to guest and has to be placed on a heatproof trivet to prevent it from scorching whatever is beneath it. If I were to purchase another charcoal burner I would try to find one that doesn’t conduct heat and has a grill that is recessed below the top of the burner.

I’ve tried 4 types of charcoal:
1) Self-lighting charcoal. This is easy to light but I haven’t found one that doesn’t have a nasty scent. Sparks fly from the charcoal when it is first lit. On the positive side, it’s inexpensive and readily accessible.
2) Japanese bamboo charcoal – These are supposedly scentless but to me they have a slight odor. They come in different sizes and shapes. The one that is covered with foil is cleaner to handle and seems to burn the longest of those that I’ve tried. (I haven’t yet tried the cylindrical shaped ceremonial charcoal). Bamboo charcoal can be purchased from many online incense vendors.
3) Bincho-tan charcoal- This is an incredibly dense Japanese charcoal that is made from ubame oak. It has a very clean burn and burns for an extremely long time. Unfortunately it is super difficult to light and to cut because it is so dense (it clinks like metal when it is dropped). Because this charcoal is expensive and so difficult to work with I’m not sure it’s worth the effort, although it’s a pleasure to find a scentless charcoal that stays hot for so long.
4) Coconut charcoal- This charcoal, supposedly scentless, also has a very slight odor. It’s larger and burns longer than the bamboo charcoal. Some might consider it disproportionate to the size of many incense burners. It’s easy to find on the web and is relatively inexpensive.

Charcoal can be lit with a crème brulee torch or cigar lighter, by placing it on the burner of an electric stove or in a mesh frying pan above a stove’s gas burner. I use a small pair of tongs (from Mermade Magickal Arts) whenever I have to move the charcoal or place things on top of it. Once I squeezed the tongs too hard and the piece of charcoal broke into small pieces and burned little holes in my wooden floor ;-(

When a layer of gray ash covers the charcoal it’s ready to be used.

If my goal is to scent a room, or my clothes and hair, I put a few small pieces of wood directly on the charcoal. The wood goes up in smoke very quickly and my clothes and hair absorb it’s scent, and retain it, for quite a few hours. I burn this way very rarely because although I like the lingering scent on my clothes, I prefer wood that smells less acrid than it does when burned this way.

If I want to use charcoal while enjoying the scent of the wood as it burns, I put a mica plate directly on the charcoal and top it with 4 or 5 small squares of aluminum foil that are each comprised of a few folded layers. A small piece of wood sits on the pile. If the wood isn’t burning because it’s too far from the heat I remove one foil square at a time until the wood burns slowly enough to release its oils without smoking. Generally I use one small piece of wood at a time when burning this way, and gently fan the air towards my friend’s or my face while the wood is burning.

I read about the Kodo ceremony and became curious about the role of incense in ancient and contemporary Japan. “Kodo” translates as “way of incense”. During a Kodo ceremony a Kodo cup is prepared, passed from guest to guest, and games are played that involve “listening to incense” and attempting to identify, and accurately pinpoint the relationship between, different woods. Making a basic kodo cup involves burying a lit piece of charcoal in “ceremonial” white ash, building a pyramid around the charcoal, piercing a vent to allow it to breathe, placing a mica plate on top of the charcoal and placing a grain-of-rice-sized piece of wood on top of the mica plate. The ash and mica insulate the wood from the heat of the charcoal and allow the wood to release its fragrance slowly and gently.

I very much wanted to make a Kodo cup, and despite many attempts it continues to be both difficult and time consuming. It’s trickiest figuring out how deeply to bury the charcoal and how much to tamp the ash. However when I succeed it’s very satisfying. Making the cup with care and respect can be a meditative process and some woods that I’ve burned this way have smelled especially smooth, rich and soothing. Passing the cup between friends is very enjoyable, and I feel a special reverence participating in such a venerable and age old tradition.

The last way I use charcoal is with Shoyeido’s Portable Incense Burner. I like the refined yet rustic charm of the design and being able to comfortably pass the burner between guests. It’s much easier than making a Kodo cup and it works particularly well with very small granulated chips.

Electric burners allow the user to control the temperature by turning a dial. The wood is placed either in a metal bowl or on a mica plate above a ceramic heating element, depending on the model. The thickness and density of the wood determine the optimum temperature at which to set the dial, which can be adjusted according to the behavior of the wood. The ability to control the temperature is a big advantage of these burners and the design makes it easy to combine other incense ingredients with the wood. If you line the pan with a piece of foil clean up is a breeze. On the down side, some of these burners have a faint smell of metal,  it’s a little inconvenient to have to be near an electric outlet, and a dangling wire makes passing the burner somewhat awkward.

Speaking of cleanup- I’ve found that using alcohol can help remove resin from mica plates. It doesn’t remove the residue completely but it takes off some of the superficial stains. I’ve always washed the plate with water after wiping it with alcohol.

The most recent burner I tried is Shoyeido’s Kodutu battery-operated portable wood chip heater. This burner is perfect for sampling pieces of wood. A round mica plate sits over the heating element and a small wood chip is placed directly above the coil. Although the heating filament only stays lit for 3 minutes it can immediately be reactivated. There is a dial that can be set to 3 different temperatures and replacement mica plates can be purchased. This burner makes a great traveling companion and because it is so easy to use I find myself reaching for it when I want to indulge my senses without going to any trouble.

Electric and battery-operated burners can be purchased from japanincense.com and essenceoftheages.com.

Lastly, it’s possible to burn a piece of wood quickly with a lighter- just long enough to get a whiff of the fragrance ☺

Although I still haven’t found a burner that’s good at doing all things well, is easy to use and is very affordable, or a method of burning that’s satisfactory in every situation, I have found a variety of burners and methods that work well in different circumstances. I would be really interested to hear what works for you, about your favorite practices and products, and what doesn’t work, too! I feel as though I’ve just gotten my feet wet, and I’d like to have company as I head towards deeper and deeper water ☺

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17 Comments

  1. Greg said,

    July 31, 2012 at 10:00 am

    Scenting clothes is an age old practice and very practical. I’ve discovered that placing a stick of dhuni incense in a moist linen towelette in my underwear drawer imbues them with a subtle fragrance. If I perspire during a hot day, I will catch wafts of moksha that has a calming effect even when I’m under stress!

    • Marian said,

      July 31, 2012 at 12:51 pm

      Thanks for the suggestion, Greg. I’m gong to try it. I’ve been using little sachets filled with blends of herbs and spices but the stick idea is more economical and offers more variety.

  2. Mike said,

    July 27, 2012 at 8:47 am

    I’ve created a new “page” for this article, for easier reference, it can be found in the “Pages” links at the top left. David (or anyone else) is free to repost their comments on that page or we can move them as well.

  3. July 26, 2012 at 11:58 pm

    Hello,

    I advise this

    http://www2.shoyeido.co.jp/

    It is not on the English Shoyeido site if I am correct but I have seen it somewhere on a western site.

    Shoyeido made this charcoal especially for monkoh or listening to incense. It takes a little time to light so I advise a mini torch lighter.
    The ashes also for monkoh are special and were developed to eliminate most smells.

    [Please, no sales requests here – ed.]

    Next to that is the Kohun Kohtan charcoal that we sell good for maybe aromatic wood mixtures etc.

    Another idea is a chakoro or incense burner to warm green tea leaves. You use a tea lite candle as we call it, I think it is an aroma pot or warmer candle. I advise 10cm distance to the plate. Also I advise to put an aluminium foil so the oil does not stick to the plate.

    The Shoyeido battery operated Kodutsu is good but goes off after 3 minutes so it is more for monkoh than scenting your room. The other big one is expensive and the plate is small, so as you say the one of Essence of the Ages is good.

  4. David Oller said,

    July 26, 2012 at 5:55 pm

    Marian, if I may help you a little here.

    Kodo is indeed “The Way of Incense” and it refers to the practice.

    The incense ceremony is called “Kouseki”

    Charcoal is first placed in a separate Koro to burn off the ammonia like smell when it is first lit. Once the charcoal has a white appearance and the smell is burned off it is placed in the Kiki Gouro (what some here call a kodo cup) The word means “listening furnace”

    On the preparation, or “making the ash” the rice chaff ash is fluffed with metal chopsticks to be loose and airy. A hole is made in the center to place the charcoal. The charcoal is then covered using the chopsticks to keep everything fluffy. (there are a lot of ceremonial formalities also involved, but functionally not required)

    When you go to tamp the charcoal you are not really going to tamp. The object is to lay the tamper very lightly on the surface. Ideally you smooth the surface leaving the ash underneath airy and undisturbed.

    The palm of the hand is used to check the temperature.

    There is one more trick. When to go to make the vent at the top push the charcoal down with the chopstick about an eighth of an inch. You have to do this by feel. This creates a small air chamber to aid combustion.

    Charcoal, done properly, is much better than electric. You learn the perfect heat.

    Before placing the mica and wood check the temperature with your hand, after watch the wood, it it smokes the furnace is too hot. Try placing a second mica plate on top or moving the wood to the edge of the mica.

    There are procedures on my Japanese-incense.com website and video on youtube under my name.

    David

    • Marian said,

      July 26, 2012 at 6:11 pm

      Thank you for such an informative post and such clearly written instructions, David. I’ve referred to your Japanese-incense.com website many times and have found the information you shared to be invaluable, as is your video. I think there’s no substitute for a live demonstration!
      I’m so happy to have this additional advice and I will do my best to follow your instructions 🙂
      By the way- Baiedo’s “Green Kyara”- indescribably sublime!

      • David Oller said,

        July 26, 2012 at 7:41 pm

        I will let them know you love their kyara.

        I don’t know where you live, but if you ever come to Albuquerque I would be happy to work with you on preparing the ash.

        If I do visit any of our retail stores in the future I would be happy to let this group know.

        • Marian said,

          July 26, 2012 at 7:47 pm

          Gee. Maybe I should check air fair to Albuquerque 🙂

          That notification would be very much appreciated. Please keep us posted 🙂

  5. insensory said,

    July 26, 2012 at 5:38 pm

    I have just gotten into burning fragrant wood on charcoal, which I’m a little nervous about as you no doubt understand from your experience with the tongs. This extensive review of the different types of charcoal and heating methods has put my mind more at ease. I have a better sense of what kind of charcoal and burning method to use. Thank you, Marian.

    • Marian said,

      July 26, 2012 at 5:42 pm

      You’re welcome, insensory. Have fun with your explorations!

  6. Taha Syed said,

    July 26, 2012 at 4:37 pm

    Thanks for sharing your experience Marian!
    I had actually never thought of using alcohol to clean my mica plate. Thanks to you too, Mike, for the advice. : )

    Sooo… what do you do about the carbon monoxide/smoke detector?

    • Marian said,

      July 26, 2012 at 4:56 pm

      Hmmmmmm- that’s a tricky one. I’ve never burned so much wood that my alarm was activated 🙂 Your house may be noisy but I’ll bet it smells really good. I’m sure you’ve tried burning as far away from the alarm as you can, cracking a window that’s close to the alarm, and getting on a chair and using a magazine to fan the air around the alarm until it stops beeping. I wonder if a fan would circulate the air enough to prevent the alarm from going off, but not eliminate the nice scent.
      Maybe you could cover it with a plastic bag while you’re burning, and remove the bag as soon as you’re finished?
      I read that photoelectric models don’t go off as easily as less expensive ionization units. Do you know what kind you have?
      If you come up with a solution, please share it 🙂

    • Mike said,

      July 27, 2012 at 7:04 am

      I burn my incense, usually, right underneath where one of my smoke alarms is and in all my time burning it has never set the alarm off. Cooking smoke, even not that much, will set it off.

  7. Marian said,

    July 26, 2012 at 11:53 am

    Thanks, Mike 🙂
    I’m so glad a little white paint was all that was needed to repair the damage, and that no other damage was incurred. I always feel more comfortable with sticks than with charcoal but, as your story illustrates, it’s so important to be careful and alert when burning.

    I never thought about soaking a mica plate in alcohol over night. I’m going to give that a try 🙂 Thanks for the suggestion.

  8. Mike said,

    July 26, 2012 at 10:12 am

    Great stuff Marian. I’ve often thought about a fun piece on incense mishaps (related to your story about your floor). For instance on my last art piece, there were literally two times that incense sticks dropped out of the holder burning onto the piece. Nothing a little white paint couldn’t fix, but …. whew. 🙂

    For cleanup, you’re at your best with 91% isopropyl alcohol and I doubt it would hurt to soak the mica plates in alcohol over night.


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