The electric burner:
a thurifer's best friend
Louis J. Tofari
A common frustration shared by thurifers (and sacristans) is effectively lighting charcoals. In olden days, sacristies often had a coal or wood burning stove for heat, from whence embers could be easily extracted for use in the thurible. In the early 20th century, some sacristies were equipped with a gas burner for lighting charcoals, but later these fell out of use or were deemed unsafe because of their open flames.
Today, charcoals are customarily lit with matches, wicks, wooden tapers or even candles, and then finished off by laboriously blowing over the coals. This time-consuming (and usually dirty) method often results in unevenly lit charcoals whereby the imposed incense barely burns. Not only is the symbolic value of the smoking incense disappointingly lost, but so too the church’s financial investment.
To the Rescue: the Electric Burner
An easy, quick, safe, relatively clean, effective, and economical solution to overcome the difficulty of lighting charcoals is the use of a portable electric range, or burner. This inexpensive burner is available in two versions, a radiant coil or radiant plate; either unit costs around $20 and will give years of faithful service.
Here are some of the advantages of using an electric burner:
quickly heats up to the maximum temperature
flat surface allows for the charcoals to be evenly lit
lights the charcoals in just minutes
flameless operation is safer than conventional use of open flames
operation does not result in leftover burnt matches, wicks, etc.
operator is not required to continually attend charcoals, allowing attention to other duties
Sacristy Placement of the Burner
It goes without saying that every sacristy should have a suitable charcoal preparation area that includes the other thurible items such as charcoals, tools, incense, and the boat. This area should also possess a hard-surfaced and fire-proof floor to guard against errant sparks; of course, unprotected combustible items should not be kept in its proximity.
A portable electric burner can be placed on any flat surface, but as a safety precaution against lit fragments that might stray, I recommend putting it on a metal baking pan. If you intend to take up my suggestion to use real charcoals (as will be discussed below), a device for cutting the charcoals is essential, unless your church’s thurible is akin to the famous Botafumeiro of Santiago de Compostela!
One such device is a preparation stand consisting of a heavy-gauge steel box resting on legs in which the burner is placed; a person with basic welding skills can easily construct one of these. The stand can also include a shaft from which to hang the thurible and a shelf for holding tools or the spent charcoal receptacle. Such a stand provides an efficient and safe area for all of the tasks necessary for preparing charcoals.
Using the burner
Here are the basic steps for using an electric burner:
Turn it on to its high setting: this should be done by the operator immediately upon arriving for the ceremony, as it takes about five minutes for the burner to heat up to its maximum temperature.
Place the charcoals flat on the burner: arrange the charcoals close together, even touching.
Finish and remove the charcoals when completely lit: see below for the particular procedures depending on the type of charcoal used.
Leave the burner on high: if the burner will be used multiple times during the ceremonies (e.g., High Mass), don’t turn it off until the last batch of charcoals have been lit; this way it will be immediately ready for the next batch.
Other essential tools
A few other tools that every thurifer should have at his disposal for preparing the charcoals are:
pair of tongs
flathead screwdriver with a long handle
receptacle for depositing spent charcoals
Regarding the screwdriver, this should be dedicated to the charcoal preparation area. It is also important to ensure that this screwdriver does not come into contact with candle wax, as this will create an awful stink should any traces touch the burning charcoals.
As for the receptacle, a coffee can or baking pan suffices for this function; it is a good idea to line the bottom with sand to prevent corrosion from the charcoal debris. It is also best to place this receptacle outside the church during the ceremonies so the sacristy does not become filled with smoke.
Types of charcoals
There are two types of charcoals available in the United States that can be used in a thurible: self-lighting and real briquettes.
A variety of “self-lighting” charcoals can be purchased through religious supply companies, or even local venues. These come in two different shapes, round and square. In both cases, the upper side of the pressure-formed charcoal contains an igniting chemical that reacts to either an open flame or direct contact with a high degree of heat. The side permeated with the igniting chemical is formed either as a star, rim, or stamped with the company’s logo. Some of the most popular brands of self-lighting charcoals are: Self-Lite Charcoal, Three Kings, Swift Lite, and Instant Lite.
To light these charcoals, place them on the burner’s heating element with the igniting side face down.
After about 5 minutes when the side is evenly gray, transfer the charcoals to the thurible then cut them into halves with a screwdriver.
It is best to chop self-lighting charcoals in the thurible, as they tend to shatter into small pieces which are difficult to transfer.
Also, when chopping the charcoals in the firepot, be sure to support the bottom of the thurible (e.g., on a flat surface) so the chains and their brackets are not unnecessarily strained.
There are several drawbacks to using self-lighting charcoals, the least being that they are rather expensive compared to real ones.
Other cons include the fact that they burn up quickly, can be difficult to keep lit, do not burn very hot, and can even explode from time to time. The latter occurs because an air bubble can be compacted in the charcoal when being formed under high-pressure; when heated, the air expands causing an outburst of flying lit charcoal pieces.
Real charcoal briquettes
Briquettes (you know, the kind you grill with) are comparatively more effective and cheaper; for example, a 10lb bag of charcoal usually sells for under $10. Real charcoal also has the advantage of burning hotter and longer, while partially-consumed coals can usually be retrieved from the disposal receptacle and relit. Its preparation though does require some extra equipment and steps.
As mentioned earlier, ideally a metal box on a stand should be used; the box’s walls allow for cutting the charcoals easily while preventing any lit fragments from escaping. The heavy-gauge steel also acts as a heat dissipater should the thurifer choose to store any lit charcoals or sizeable fragments for future use during the ceremonies. If a stand cannot be had, a baking pan with high sides can be used, but it should be placed on a fireproof layer of stone, porcelain, or quarry tile to prevent accidentally singeing the counter top.
To light real charcoals, when the burner has reached its maximum temperature, place them on the burner and when the bottom side is completely gray, flip the charcoals over. When the other side is also completely gray, remove the charcoals from the burner and place them in the box or pan. Using a flat-head screwdriver, chop the briquettes into quarters; this is done by centering the screwdriver on top of the charcoal, and while loosing grasping the handle in one hand (usually the left), strike the top of the screwdriver’s handle with the open palm of the other hand. With some practice, this action can be done without much force and noise.
When putting the charcoal quarters in the thurible, laid them evenly across the firepot with the hot spots facing up to maximize the burning area. This will ensure that the incense imposed will be completely consumed and not wasted.
As for storing charcoal briquettes, a metal bucket, or old-fashioned coal scuttle, is recommended; the bag in which the charcoal was purchased or plastic trash cans are flammable hence should be avoided.
Regular maintenance of the burner
An electric burner is basically maintenance free, except for occasionally removing carbon residue which can act as an insulator on the heating element.
A good practice is to use a small brass brush to lightly remove any reside after lighting a batch of charcoals. Be sure to use a brass brush, and not a steel one (which is not as pliable) or of course, a brush made of flammable plastic or hair.
Also, when cleaning the pan or box, be sure to deposit any fragments (no matter how small) in the receptacle for disposed charcoals, as these may still be lit; placing them in a trash can could actually start a fire.
There are several safety precautions regarding charcoals that should also be mentioned before concluding this article:
Always light the charcoals in a well-ventilated area, preferably where fresh air can be taken in (e.g., by a window, door or even a vent).
Never touch the burning element when burner is on, even if element is not glowing red hot.
Never wear a surplice while preparing charcoals; an inerrant spark can create a hole in the fabric, which usually cannot be mended. Also, charcoal dust can dirty the vestment which should be immaculately white.
For the same reasons as above, as well as general safety, other than the thurifer, servers (especially younger ones) should not be allowed around the preparation area, particularly when the burner is in use.
Never put a charcoal on the burner and then replace it in a storage container; it may appear unlit, but that doesn’t mean it’s not!
1 Which is recommended at a minimum of 20 minutes before the service to allow for adequate preparation, especially as the thurifer’s position requires more than any other server’s except the master of ceremonies.
Reward of a job well-done!