If you’ve ever done online research into incense making, you’ve almost certainly come across references to a mysterious material called “makko”.  Some places online even insist that you can’t make your own incense without it.  There is a lot of confusing information out there about makko, and I’m sadly to blame for a bit of that, so this is an effort to clear up the mysteries that surround makko.

The first thing I need to say is that is that you do NOT need to have makko to roll your own incense.  Makko is only one of many different “binders” that are available to modern incense makers.  In fact, makko isn’t the best choice for every incense making project.  In this age of online ordering, makko is a lot easier to locate than it was just a decade ago, but if you want to make your own incense you have lots of options beyond makko.  That being said, just what is makko and how is it used?  But first, a confession…

 

My first commercially published book about incense making came out in 2003.  Before that was published, I had written a series of booklets and articles about incense making.  Since that first book was published, I’ve published another book about incense and written an expanded and updated version of my first book.  In pretty much all of these, not to mention endless workshops and classes, I contributed to the confusion about makko.  It wasn’t until a year or two ago, when I was talking with another incense maker, that the situation finally became clear.  The really sad part is, this was explained to me when I was a novice incense maker, but I didn’t understand what I was told until many years later.  It is now part of my mission as an incense maker to clear up the confusion I helped to create.

Makko is often described as the bark of an Asian tree (machilus thunbergii) that is used as a “binder” or glue that holds incense sticks and cones together.  It is also frequently called a “burning agent” and is touted for its ability to improve how well incense blends burn.  Both of those statements are true…sort of.  This is actually how I became confused about it way back in the 1990s.  I was a member of an online discussion group where I asked, in a wide-eyed innocent way, “what is makko?”  I immediately received two, contradictory, explanations.  A major Japanese incense importer described it as being ”tabu no ki”, which is the bark of the machillus thunbergii, a low-scent wood binder for incense making.  Within minutes of receiving this explanation, I received a response from a Buddhist monk who was also a member of the group.  He described makko as being a blend of ingredients created in Japan centuries ago when imported sandalwood powder was scarce.  In order to practice incense ceremonies, such as “sonae koh”, makko was developed as an economical replacement for precious and expensive sandalwood.

Given those two seemingly contradictory statements, and considering that I was focused on incense making, I embraced the first explanation.  As it turns out, both statements contain truth.  The important thing to understand is that makko is not tabu, but it contains tabu.  That means that makko, just like tabu, will work to bind incense together.  The key is that makko also contains clove and other ingredients that attempt to simulate the properties of sandalwood.  Tabu, especially the higher grades, are virtually scentless.  Makko is definitely scented and can be burned as incense without adding anything to it.  While tabu can be used for incense trails, makko is traditionally used because of its pleasant scent.

You can make incense with makko or tabu powder.  Either will work, although tabu will also have slightly better adhesive properties than makko because makko also contains ingredients that don’t act as a binder.  Recipes that call for makko can easily be made with tabu.

The important thing to understand as an incense maker is that both makko and tabu powder are generally called “makko” in English.  Even venerable incense companies and well-established websites use the terms interchangeably.  The two are actually easy to tell apart.  Tabu no ki is a medium to light brown color, while makko is typically much darker brown.  Tabu no ki is essentially scentless, while makko has a pleasant scent that is clearly like incense.  You can blend makko with a little water and roll incense sticks or cones that will burn well and smell nice without any other ingredients.  Rolling tabu with just water will yield incense that looks nice but has almost no scent.  The scent it does have is more akin to a campfire than incense.  If you want to make incense that gains all of its scent from the aromatics you choose, you want to use tabu.  If you like, or at least don’t mind, having a scented base material with excellent burning properties you should use makko.  Some incense makers will use tabu powder to make their own makko.  They then use the makko they have created as the base for all of their incense.  This creates a bit of a “common scent theme” in all of the incense they make.

There are 2 major Japanese incense companies that import into the USA.  One company labels tabu no ki as makko.  The other sells traditionally scented makko.  As a consumer, the only way to know what you are getting is to ask.  As a vendor, I sell both makko and tabu no ki, but most sellers only offer one.  If you aren’t sure which one they sell, just ask them about the scent of the product.

If you’ve read this whole essay and haven’t ripped your hair out or been forced to uncross your eyes, you just might be an incense addict, lol.