Saint Mary Magdalene Orthodox Church
Proclaiming & Living the Holy Orthodox Faith in Central California




Charcoal for use with incense


Charcoal for incense burning is usually made from beechwood or similar woods.  There are many, many brands of charcoal available but the most popular are the “self-lighting” charcoal disc-shaped type.  The charcoal is round with a diameter of 22mm to 40mm.  The height of the charcoal disk is usually around 5mm – 10mm. The charcoal is charged with an additive that allows the coals to be lighted with brief contact with a flame such as a match or candle flame.  The charcoal is easily handled with small tongs and does not emit a flame but rather burns safely from the edge into the center of the lighted disc. NEVER USE BBQ TYPE BRIQUETS because the additives used to produce them is unpleasant and unhealthy and should only be used for charcoal BBQs.


The three most common charcoal discs are 22mm, 33mm, and 40mm in diameter.  20mm discs burn 20-30 minutes and allow 2-4 incense pellets to burn together and are great for a short prayer reading or activity.  33mm discs are the most popular for home use and burn from 30-45 minutes and allow 4-8 incense pellets to burn together producing a greater quantity of smoke and aroma and are great for longer prayer services or a family service.  40mm and larger discs are used during church services and burn for up to an hour of more. They allow more incense pellet capacity and more smoke to be produced and are best in larger rooms like a church nave or outdoor services.


Charcoal is best stored in dry location and handle with tongs due to black charcoal smudges on bare hands.  Tongs are advised when lighting and placing the charcoal into the “burner”.  Incense pellets are generally handled with a small spoon or with small tongs when placed on the charcoal disc but are not toxic or harmful to bare hands. 


I have used many different brands of charcoal but prefer the offering from Three Kings, Swift-Lite, or Nioras.  I do not recommend coconut or other exotic wood charcoal.  Charcoal is usually sold in foil packs of 10 discs.  Boxes of 10 foil packs (100 discs) are the most economical and sell from $8 – $15 per box via websites (8 to 15 cents per disc).  Single foil packs of 10 discs are much more costly with some vendors asking $3 - $5 per foil pack (30 to 50 cents per disc).


(Lighting charcoal and burning incense pellets are covered in the next article.)

Charcoal Burners

Choose a suitable container in which to burn your incense pellets.  “Charcoal burners” are made from metal, wood lined with metal, ceramic, or stone. Each type of charcoal burners has different advantages and drawbacks.  The heat generated by the charcoal and incense may leave scorch marks on furniture is used without proper insulation. 


Metal burners are often inexpensive and very popular.  Made of brass, steel, iron, or alloys. Metal burners tend to get very hot and work best when placed on wood or other insulating material.  Most metal burners are sold with an insulating wood base.  Other metal burners, especially ornate Church brass burners are hung on a chain suspended away from the wall.


Wooden burners usually have a metal-lined bowl which allows the charcoal to be safely burned and often are cool enough to be carefully moved while in use.


Ceramic or stone bowl type burners are sometimes used with sand placed in the bottom of the bowl to add an insulating barrier.  They also tend to get quite hot and should be used with an insulating wood base or other insulation to avoid scorching furniture.


Bowl-shaped burners are easy to clean since the burned charcoal and incense residue may simple be dumped out (after cooling!).  Burners with slotted holes in the lids are popular and attractive when burning as well as keeping ashes from accidently being scattered.


Deeper bowl-shaped burners often have a removable shelf with small holes on which to place the charcoal and allow ashes to fall into the bottom of the bowl and need emptying less often.


Fancy brass burners with hinged lids and ornate designs, “carved” styling, and hinged handles are a good choice for use on special occasions.  However, many of the burners with hinged lids, are unstable and may tip and fall when the lid is left open. These burners require extra attention when opening the lid to add additional charcoal or incense pellets while in use.


 Tools usually used to handle the charcoal and incense pellets include small tongs (4” – 6”) which can hold the charcoal over a flame for 5-10 seconds (usually a match, lighter, or candle) while the charcoal is lighted.  The tongs are also used to pick up the incense pellets to place then on the hot charcoal.  Small “demitasse” type spoons also work well to move the incense pellets from storage container to the charcoal disc. Decorative tongs and spoons made from brass are very popular tools and readily available.