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How to Burn Incense

Although burning incense is often as simple as lighting a match, with the many different types of incense that are available on the market these days, the process can occasionally get more complicated than just that.  Some incense burns more quickly than others and produces more smoke and scent, and therefore you may want to burn it more carefully.  The type of incense you choose may also dictate what sort of incense burner you will need to use.

Of course, you could just burn your incense on a ceramic plate or another non-flammable surface.  However, in order to get the most out of your incense and to ensure fire safety, you will most likely want to invest in some kind of incense burner, whether it be simple or ornate.

Cylinders and Cones

If you are burning incense cones and cylinder incense, it is important to have a good burner, not only to catch ash, but to make sure that you don't start a fire.  Incense that has an internal wood core will not burn all the way through, but cone and cylinder incense burns away completely, so the surface that you burn this type of incense on needs to be heat resistant.  Never burn cone or stick incense that does not have a wooden core on a wooden surface or wooden incense burner.

The most common form of burner for cone incense is the brass burner, which are usually small brass bowls with lids.  Ideally, you want to select a brass burner with a bowl large enough for you to put the cone in easily without burning yourself (so, big enough to fit at least three of your fingers).  The walls of the bowl should also be high enough to make sure that the cones don't fall out.

You also want to make sure that the lid of your cone burner is tall enough so as not to put out the incense when you put it on.  It is important to keep the burner well cleaned, or the oils and resins from the incense will ruin the brass.  Over time, brass incense burners will take on a scent all their own from continuous use, which will become part of the scent of any incense you burn in it.

It helps to put a small amount of sand, ash, or dry grain, such as rice, at the bottom of cone burners.  This improves the air flow under the cone, helping it to burn, and protects the burner from heat.  Never use brass burners on wood surfaces, even if they are raised.  Brass conducts heat very well, and you don't want to risk starting a fire.  A ceramic tile or plate is an ideal surface on which to use a brass burner.

Another excellent option for burning cone incense is the soapstone burner.  These are usually a little more expensive, but it does not conduct heat well at all, and so you can use them on wooden surfaces safely.

Incense cones are also the easiest type of incense to make.  If you're interested in this fun craft project, we have a page on How To Make Incense Cones!

Loose Incense

Loose incense is perhaps the most confusing type of incense to use.  You will need to obtain a burner that is basically a small charcoal grill, often made of brass.  You can put sand or ash in the bottom of the bowl, or use a piece of metal screen to keep the charcoal disk off of the bottom of the bowl.  Put a few charcoal bricks in your burner and light the edges, and then place the loose incense on top of the burning charcoal.  This will release the scent into the air.  Loose incense requires a decent amount of maintenance to keep burning for a long period of time, and so is not ideal if you want something that requires minimal supervision after lighting.

Cored Sticks

The most common sorts of incense burners for stick incense are "boats", long flat pieces of wood, stone, glass, or ceramic with an upward curve at one end.  Some have a storage area for incense underneath the burner portion.  These are probably the most common and easiest to find types of incense burners, and they come in a tremendous variety of styles, so you are sure to find the perfect one to fit your space.

Stick incense can also be burned in wooden or stone pieces with holes drilled in to the top.  These burners generally hold several pieces of incense at once, and hold the stick straight up and down, so they require less space than "boat" style burners.

Stick incense that has a core can even be burned in the ground outside as long as any flammable materials are moved away first.  It is best not to burn incense outdoors when it is very windy, as sparks may come off during the lighting process and start a fire.

Solid Sticks

Solid stick incense which does not have a core will burn all the way through, and so it is not safe to burn on a wooden incense burner.  The most efficient way to burn incense of this type is in a censer, bowl, or small cup that is filled with ash, sand, or dry grain such as rice.  One of the simplest ways to burn large quantities of solid stick incense is to get a nice bowl and fill the bottom with rice, and to then stand as many pieces of incense as you like inside and light them.  This method also has the advantage of being very easy to clean up! You can find very long burning incense sticks of this type, as well!

A great option for burning any type of incense you might come across is a censer.  Censers are decorative bowls which you fill with ash, sand, or other non-flammable, dry material.  You can light any type of stick incense, as well as cone, cylinder and charcoal for loose incense in them.  If you burn incense regularly, investing in a censer will ensure that you can burn any sort of incense you come across in your explorations!

Lighting Incense

To light stick, cone and cylinder incense, hold a lit match or a lighter flame to the coated end of the incense for ten seconds or more, then remove the flame.  The incense will generally extinguish on its own and begin to slowly burn, but if it continues to flame, you can simply blow it out and it should proceed to smolder.

The smoke given off by your incense should be light gray to white in color.  If you are using low quality incense, you may notice long wisps of black smoke floating in the air - these are chains of synthetic oil that do not all combust with the burning of the incense.  This is not really something you want to inhale or to release in to your space (if you burn enough of this type of incense you can actually end up with unsightly smudging on the walls and ceiling).

Fire Safety

Incense burns slowly, so it is easy to forget that it is still a live flame that must be treated with care and respect.  It is important to always be conscious of where your incense is and what it might come in contact with.

Always make sure that no part of burning incense comes in touch with wood or other flammable materials.  Never burn incense with anything directly above it, as the rising smoke can cause discolorations and possibly fire.  Incense burners themselves can also get very hot, so be careful not to place them on wooden surfaces or to touch metal burners after you have been burning incense in them.

Never leave burning incense unattended.  As with candles, don't leave the house while incense is still burning - if you need to put a piece of incense out, turn it upside down and bury the flame in sand or ash.  This will allow you to continue using the incense in the future.

In general, always keep in mind that when you are burning incense you are working with fire, which is both a beautiful gift and a potentially hazardous force that must be treated with care and respect.  Always be conscious of your incense, both as a wonderful scent and a smoldering flame.  And be sure to keep in mind what type of incense is appropriate for what type of burner and where these burners can be placed for maximum safety.  If used with a little bit of care and respect, incense is very safe and a wonderful tool for daily use!
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