January 28, 2022 4 min read
Often used for spiritual cleansing and other sacred rituals, decoration, and its wide variety of heavenly aromas, incense has literally thousands of years of history. Incense-making might look a little different now than it did back in Ancient Egypt, but many of the fragrant materials remain the same. If you’ve ever wondered how sandalwood, patchouli, and other natural ingredients make their way into the delightful little sticks and cones you can’t get enough of, this one’s for you!
There are two kinds of incense sticks — thosewith a center and those without. The former is probably the one you visualize when you think “incense,” as it’s most common in the United States. A “center” refers to a stick, which is covered in all the burnable, fragrant materials, except for a little “tail” at the end that can either be held or placed in an incense holder.
The centerless type is more common today in China, Tibet, and Japan. It’s made without a center stick. Instead, a paste is created by mixing the natural materials with water and other binding agents. The paste is separated and rolled into individual sticks — sort of liked dried pasta — and left out to dry until hardened.
For our purposes, we’ll focus on the ones with a center.
To make incense sticks, most manufacturers start with thousands of bundles of ready-made bamboo ‘punk sticks’, prepared by a specialized supplier — typically in China.
If ‘punk’ sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve lit a few sparklers in your day.
While various plant materials and oils are responsible for the innatearoma of incense, punks bring the burn that pushes that sweet, sweet smell all over your home.
To make incense punks, raw bamboo is carefully sliced into delicate, symmetrical sticks by specialized machines. Those smaller sticks are then coated in a plant-based adhesive* (except for that little “tail” at the end), which, when dried, prepares them for the journey we’ll describe below. This coating also ensures that the sticks will burn evenly.
*Usually some form of unburned wood powder (sawdust) and charcoal powder, mixed with water.
Carefully curated raw materials (the scent-y things) are shipped to the factory, where they’re sorted by aroma and color, ground into powder, and blended with carrier oils.
The punk sticks are dipped into the now-fragrant oils and left out to dry. Sticks may be re-dipped two to three times to ensure maximum coverage, with the drying process repeated each time.
Once properly coated and completely dry, the sticks are grouped by scent into large bundles and shuffled into a warehouse, where they live until beckoned by an expectant customer. At that point, smaller bundles are individually packaged with care and shipped off.
At ruli, though, we’re a bit picky. Incense that has to sit around in a warehouse tends to lose some of its scent, and becomes weaker over time. That’s why all our scents are hand-mixed and dipped to order, with the absolute minimum “sitting around time” so you can get the strongest, freshest scents.
Just as with incense sticks, there are two popular forms of incense cones — standard and backflow. The fabrication process is essentially the same for both. The only difference is that backflow incense cones are punctured with a small hole, spanning about ⅔ the length of the cone. Standard cones aren’t punctured at all.
Um, OK — so what’s with the hole?
Good question. Really, it’s just a matter of the direction of smoke flow. Backflow incense pushes smoke downward, and the plumes of smoke that billow over the burner can make a truly stunning array of shapes. You won’t get that kind of show with typical sticks or cones!
Because cone incense needs to actually be formed by a mold, the process begins with high quality natural ingredients that form a sort of dough, which, when hardened, will hold their conical shape. Ingredients typically include:
First, just like with stick incense, the fragrant organic components are ground to a very fine powder and thoroughly mixed together (at specific ratios), if creating cones with a combination of scents.
Then the flammable base and binding agent is added and all ingredients undergo another meticulous stir.
Once all the dry materials are tightly intermingled, the liquid is added...very…very…slowly, to ensure the mixture doesn’t become too wet, and the resulting “dough” is kneaded together and formed into a ball.
Small fragments of dough are pulled and packed into cone molds. If creating a backflow cone, this is the step where a narrow instrument is used to puncture a small hole through the cone, about ⅔ of the way to its tip. (But never through the top! Because then it would be...a...topflow cone?)
Once formed, the cones are removed from the molds and left to dry. Due to their density and depending on the drying method, this can take up to a few days!
Look at you, expert on all things incense production! Next stop: your own luxe incense subscription.