How to Burn Incense: A step-by-step guide to light and put out backflow incense cones

Posted by Bill Yen on

Incense has a long history in almost all regions of the world. Over time, the form of incense we use has evolved from leaves, flowers, dried wood and resin pieces, to ground powder that is mixed and dried into different shapes.

Backflow incense, otherwise commonly referred to as waterfall incense or an incense fountain, is a relatively new type of incense. However, it is an incense form that we know a lot about, as we not only hand make our own backflow incense cones, but also design our own backflow incense burners from scratch (aka waterfall incense burners or holders). So we hope that we can share some of this knowledge with you, and that it will be helpful in your incense journey. 

What are backflow or waterfall incense, and how do they work?

Backflow incense are exactly as the name suggests – incense where the incense smoke (or plume) flows in the opposite direction as “normal” incense, that is, downwards instead of upwards. Most of the time backflow incense is made in the shape of a cone, with a small, hollow tunnel through the center, ending in a hole at the bottom center. Backflow incense can also be made in the shape of a stick which is completely hollow in the center, ie, a long, thin tube. 

This is how we think backflow incense works: incense smoke is actually more dense than normal air at room temperature because it contains tiny particles. But when a normal incense is lit, smoke flows upwards because the effect of the heat offsets the weight of the tiny particles, as hot air is lighter than room-temperature air. However, in the case of a backflow incense, as it burns, smoke enters the hollow center tunnel, where it cools as it follows the along the path. When smoke cools, it becomes denser, so when it exits the incense at the bottom, it flows gently downwards.

Below you’ll see a video of the backflow incense cone in action:

An overview of backflow incense burners  (aka backflow fountains, backflow waterfalls...) 

As many of you know, here at Kin we have created a collection of modern backflow incense burners, which are a minimal interpretation of the traditional backflow incense holderWe have always enjoyed the downward flowing plumes of backflow incense, and the way they can be guided and directed to form rather mesmerizing scenery. We really think this effect works strikingly well with our collection. 

We often get questions about incense fountains or incense waterfalls – these are in fact common alternative names for backflow incense burners or holders.  

However, as backflow incense is not widely used, today we will be sharing a step-by-step guide for lighting backflow incense cones.

Lighting backflow incense cones

Despite its unusual form, lighting a backflow incense is actually very similar to lighting a stick incense. Below you'll see a video demonstration, and a set of written instructions underneath.

* This video uses the Kin Valley of Fog backflow incense burner

Detailed instructions for how to burn waterfall incense:

  1. Hold the incense cone with one hand or with some tweezers
  2. Light pointy end of the incense cone with a match or lighter as you would a candle wick. Ensure that the incense is immersed in the flame until it ignites with a small flame (note the flame may not say lit as it might on a stick incense)
  3. Gently fan or blow out the flame or remnants of the flame. For some incense you may need to wait for a short while before blowing out the flame to ensure it properly lights up. This could range from 10-30 seconds
  4. Check the incense tip where the flame was. If you see a small glowing ember, and smoke starts coming out of the bottom, then the incense has been correctly lit. If you're unsure, leave the incense for a minute or so, then check again. If you do not see a glowing ember, and there is no smoke coming out of the bottom, you have completely extinguished the incense by accident, and will need to repeat steps 1-3 above
  5. Place it into the incense holder. Be sure that the hole at the bottom of the incense aligns with the hole on the seat of the incense holder, or the incense plume will be blocked 

Additional Note: How to light handmade incense waterfall cones

Handmade backflow incense cones can be more difficult to light than machine made versions. I'll be honest and admit that I'm not sure exactly why this is the case, maybe its to do with the density of the cones, as handmade ones are hand squeezed to be more tightly packed. 

If you have a handmade incense waterfall cone on hand, you may need to make some changes to the way it is lit:

  • Keep the tip of the incense cone immersed in flame for a longer time period - up to 10-15 seconds, but please exercise common sense and watch the flame, if the tip has obviously caught fire much earlier, reduce the time
  • Sometimes I keep the flame lit on the incense and wait for it to die down naturally instead of fanning

Here is a video example of lighting up a handmade incense from our premium incense collection:

Putting out backflow incense cones

Once lit, it is difficult to put out a backflow incense cone and keep it for use at a later time (as we often do with our stick incense).

While we do not recommend the use of water for putting out stick incense, we do recommend it for backflow incense. The best way to put out a cone that has not been fully burnt is to immerse it into a cup of water. Just note though that once you do this, you will have to discard the cone, it cannot be used again.

How do you throw away incense cone ash? 

We often get asked the best way to dispose of burnt incense cone ash. This can be tricky as if you try to pick up the burnt incense cone, the ash will fall everywhere and make quite a mess. There are a couple of other suggestions that we have, but whatever method you choose, please ensure that you wait for the burnt incense cone to cool down (3-5min) before attempting anything else:

  1. Move a trash bag or move your garbage can close to the incense (don’t try to move the incense holder), pick up the small metal plate the incense cone is sitting on, and gently tip the whole burnt cone into the trash - we've found this to be the easiest and cleanest method, and this is what we prefer
  2. Use a vacuum to directly suck the burnt incense cone up (or a dustpan and small broom, although we find that this can get messy)

Some people find success with sprinkling a little water on the ash before attempting to clean it up. We do not personally use this method as we find it rather cumbersome. 

How do you clean incense waterfalls?

We recommend that you clean your incense waterfalls after every 2-3 cones burnt. You can read about our simple and effective method of cleaning backflow incense burners in this article

Having trouble getting your incense waterfall to work?

If you've followed all the instructions above, but still do not see smoke flowing down your backflow incense holder, there could be a couple of reasons for this. You should check both your incense cone and your holder to figure out the exact problem.

Incense cone - ensure that your incense cone is lit, this means that there is a glowing ember at the tip, and smoke is visibly flowing down the bottom hole when you hold the cone in your hand. It can sometimes take 

Incense holder - ensure that the plate holding the incense cone is clean and that the hole is unobstructed. If you've used the incense holder multiple times, resin from previous cones can get stuck to the plate. This reduces the amount of air that can get to the incense cone, and affect its burning

Another important factor to check for is wind flow near your incense - moving wind near your incense could put it out accidentally, or affect the smoke flow in the incense holder. If your incense cone is lit, but you don't see the plume moving through the incense holder, try to close nearby windows/doors, turn off fans/ ACs, and also minimizing large arm movements.

A few words of caution for using incense cones

As with all things flammable, we do want to remind you that you should take care in using incense. There are a few things you should be aware of:

  • Please ensure you put the incense on surface that is heat-resistant, and no flammable items like curtains or books are near where the ashes can drop 
  • Please ensure that you do not leave the incense unattended
  • Please place incense out of reach of children or pets
  • Do not touch remnants of the incense right after it has finished burning. Also do not touch metal parts of the incense burner right after burning. Both of these may still be hot. Give them several minutes to cool down

For those of you interested, we have also previously shared a guide on how to use stick incense, the most popular form of incense.

Of course, if you have any other questions, please feel free to leave us a note in comments.

Otherwise, enjoy!



← Older Post Newer Post →


  • Hi Alice – No, you do not need to put water at the bottom of the incense holder. The smoke creates the effect of the water.
    Hope this helps!

    Miranda Yen on
  • Hi Chris,
    The smoke will touch the surface around where you placed your incense burner briefly, and then be dispersed into the air by the surface. And yes, you are right, it can stain the surface if the surface is light colored, so we we would recommend placing the incense burner on a tray or mat. All of our backflow incense burners that allow the smoke to travel right down to the surface comes with a silicon mat to prevent this exact issue.
    Thanks for the question and thanks for reading!

    Miranda Yen on
  • Where does the smoke go when it reaches the bottom? Will it stain whatever furniture the burner is placed on?

    Chris on
  • Do you put water at the bottom of the waterfall?

    Alice Barnett on
  • Hi Tootie,

    If you’d like some instructions on how to use incense sticks, you can refer to our other article on lighting incense sticks here:

    I hope this helps!


    Miranda Yen on
  • Mine came with sticks. I don’t have an idea of how the heck to work it or where the stick is supposed to go. Please have pity on an old woman. Thank you so much. xoxo

    Tootie on
  • Hi Annabelle,
    The oil you are seeing is perfectly normal, and it is the oil from the wood (or other ingredients such as resins or flowers) used in the incense. In fact, it is the oil from plants that give them their wonderful smells.
    If it does not affect the functioning of the incense holder, there is no real need to clean it. But if you don’t like the way it looks, or if it’s blocking the incense holder in some way, we like to wipe it down use a wet wipe or damp cloth. The best time is 5-10min after an incense has finished burning, when everything has cooled down but slightly warm to the touch, as the remaining warmth makes the oil easy to clean.

    Miranda Yen on
  • How should I clean my incense holder? Because I have just lit one and there is some sort of oil on the top of the holder. Should I clean it or is it ok to leave it as is?

    Annabelle on

Leave a comment