Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Wood Wool as Thurible Fuel (Don't try this at home)

Disclaimer: I take no responsibility for any damages resulting from reading this article, and urge all churchmen to observe the most vigorous fire safety precautions, including the use of wireless smoke detectors and automated environmental monitoring systems; too many beautiful historic churches have been burned down in recent years due to a vigil lamp or candle being forgotten about, or a thurible unsafely stored without being properly defueled and cleaned at the end of the service.

This article comes as a result of many months of experimentation on my part to find the ideal alternative fuel source to charcoal for burning incense.  Our Christian incense, unlike the rather putrid joss sticks used in Eastern religions (which produce a smoke the mere whiff of which will give me an almost unbearable sinus headache, and which are popularly used by hippies and hipsters to mask the odor of marijuana smoking), is not self-combusting, but instead, like the incense burned on the Altar of Incense in the Tabernacle and the Temples that followed it, requires an external heat source, most typically charcoal.   Charcoal, even of th self-lighting variety, is cumbersome to work with however, and leaves unpleasant black stains when it is spilled.   Thus, I have experimented with a number of alternative fuels, including cooking oil, rubbing alcohol, and a Book of Mormon (the latter produced most unsatisfactory results, for the burning paper and ink produced a foul, chemically-laden odor that masked entirely the smell of the incense, and to no small extent I felt as though my thurible was contaminated by the mere presence of such a vile text, even in shredded form, within its combustion chamber).

Excelsior, or wood wool, a highly flammable packing material, is the first viable alternative material I have found, and works surprisingly well, but great caution must be observed.   Excelsior burns much faster than self-lighting charcoal, and will, unlike charcoal, produce dramatic flames.   Fill the thurible with about an inch of excelsior, cover it with a small layer of incense, and and ignite it.   Be aware that jets of flame will shoot up, so keep your hands and vestments clear of the device.  When the fire reaches that portion, do not swing the thurible, but keep it steady to release an initial, highly perfumed smoke.   At a certain point, the flames will become excessive; at this time, quickly close the lid of the thurible.   You will get a steady stream of smoke for about three to five minutes; not as much as with charcoal, but enough to serve.  Do not swing the thurible with the lid open.  

When the burning stops, you will, on inspection, find only the uppermost layer of excelsior has burned; the lower  strands are still unburned.   This is an artifact of the fast combustion and is in fact desirable.   The incense, which when melted acts like glue, will have caused the mass of fuel to cake together, and it can be stored and reused.  For safe storage, store it in an airtight glass (not plastic) jar, to prevent the risk of accidental reignition.   When reusing the previously used fuel, the layer of burned excelsior serves to slow the rate of combustion.   You will thus largely "preload" the thurible with incense, as the open flames excelsior will produce will be smothered by a normal application from the boat.

Any thurifer considering the use of excelsior as fuel would do well to obtain the permission of his priest, for a mishap resulting from it could have a deleterious effect on one's subdiaconal career.

In the Ambrosian, still served in the Cathedral of Milan, which features some rather spectacular liturgical spectacles, open top thurbiles are used, which are gently moved in a clockwise direction, rather than swung.   This is doubtless due to the spilling that would occur were they swung; however, exclesior would not work as fuel in that context given its extremely fast rate of combustion; rather, the use of it in the Ambrosian Rite would be a good way to facilitate the construciton of a new Duomo.

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