QUAERITUR: How to clean a messy thurible

Not long ago, I had a question from a reader about a good way to clean an encrusted thurible (the thing in which we burn incense and then swing around, from the Latin word “thus… incense”).

At the site of Romanitas Press, Louis Tofari has a useful article on this sometimes sticky problem.

He recommends using carburetor cleaner to get a really tough stuff off the metal.  I have it on good authority that, once clean, giving it a dip in kerosine works wonders.

NOTA BENE: Some metal thuribles have a lacquer coating.  These need special handling.

BTW… when I took over a church in Italy, which had been close for many years, I found that all the hardware was in truly appalling condition.  I took everything apart and soaked it in buckets of Cola Cola, which stripped the petrified goo right off.  They could then be cleaned and maintained normally.

And, just because I haven’t written it in a while, Benedict XVI is the Pope of Christian Unity.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. wmeyer says:

    Also, for anything brass and tarnished, a brief application of ammonia works wonders. Have a care, as it can etch or dissolve brass.

  2. Father S. says:

    In terms of preventive care, a little tin foil goes a long way. It is cheap, disposible and makes cleaning a snap, if it is placed in the thurible before use.

  3. chiners says:

    While not having direct experience (I came to Holy Orders via choir rather than sacristy) I am told that acetone (as found in nail varnish remover) is also very effective.

  4. rcg says:

    Yikes: Acetone is terribley volatile and flammable. Use with EXTREME Caution.

    Yikes II: Coke could dissolve or oxidise the metal.

    Yikes III: Ammonia is also a danger to the metal.

    Use one of the Manly Trilogy (Duct Tape, Crescent Wrench, WD-40) and soak it in WD-40. Maybe over night. Just spray on until it’s dripping. Not flammable under normal conditions, won’t hurt the metal and will increase chest hair.

  5. ddoyle1220 says:

    I can second the acetone. After almost every use at the place I last served, the Sister Sacristans would soak the thurible in Acetone for as long as overnight. They would then scrub it clean in soapy water with an old toothbrush. Following the soaking and scrubbing, it was then polished, dried, untangled (for the 4 chain thurible) and ready for use again.

    In addition, once it is clean, and before you add charcoals to use it again, completely cover the cup where the charcoals sit with foil. This will make easy cleanup after Mass/Vespers/Benediction, since, once cooled, the foil can be folded over itself and then discarded. If you have the time and use the thurible regularly, I would soak it once a week. We used it almost twice a day, except Saturday, so the Sisters were cleaning one of them daily, the other one only after it was used on Sunday.

  6. lgreen515 says:

    I will never again drink Coca Cola.

  7. tioedong says:


  8. jfk03 says:

    The worst thuribles are the one-chain spill-proof type. These wimpy excuses for censers are nearly impossible to clean without using a coal chisel. I recommend the Greek variety with jingle bells. They have a small metal basin that lifts out and is easy to clean.

  9. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Your stomach acid is more acidic than Coca Cola.

    But yeah, it’s a good cleaner for many general purposes. Emergency toilet bowl cleaner, for instance. (Though obviously not great for cleaning the outside of the bowl.)

  10. Nicole says:

    I work with acetone and mineral spirits (lacquer thinners) in the course of cleaning metals. They’re not particularly pleasant, but as long as they’re in the custody of a safe man, the danger is remote. Ventilation, proper protective gear and clothing, and above all, caution are pretty indispensable. Acetone vapors are extremely flammable.

  11. guatadopt says:

    As a kid server in the 90’s (at a church that used incense at every Sunday mass) we used to use hydrochloric acid. Dangerous, yes buy effective.

  12. I purchased a new thurible last year and these are the instructions I was given to clean it without damaging the lacquer. Find a plastic bucket – with some type of lid for it – that is taller than the thurible; place the thurable in it and cover it with kerosene, cover the container and let it sit over night. It will gently melt the residue off and not damage the lacquer.

  13. Fr Jackson says:

    Rubbing alcohol and a toothbrush! (official Ecône way – at least when I was a grunt in the sacristy…) ;)

  14. APX says:

    @Fr Jackson
    Rubbing alcohol

    I second this, specifically 90% Isopropyl alcohol does wonders to remove resin. While I never cleaned a thurible, I used to play violin and got a little “rosin-happy” when rosining my bow for the first time (I literally wore down my rosin cake 3 mm in the first week I had my violin. I had read that adding alcohol to the rosin cake helps with the application process too because it melts the rosin. Translation: my bow was a mess with caked on rosin.)

  15. Andrew_81 says:

    The active ingredient in cola is Phosphoric Acid. It is the same as in “Naval Jelly” or other Rust Removing products, but in a more dilute solution in coke.

    Unless you have very poor quality brass, acids should not attack the brass (which is an alloy of Copper and Zinc). Copper resists many acids including phosphoric acid. Zinc does react to most acids, but in brass is only a small fraction and well-isolated in the alloy.

    So, no, Coke won’t oxidize your brass thurible. In fact it should remove oxidation or make oxidation easier to remove.

    Ammonia is a major ingredient in Brasso. If you’ve worked with it before the smell is unmistakable. In large quantites it might dissolve enough copper or zinc to damage a thurible, but one would have to soak it for a long time with a huge quantity of ammonia to do any serious damage.

  16. Inigo says:

    How should a thurible made of silver be cleaned?

  17. mike cliffson says:

    You have sparked a trip down memory lane: the sacristry cum vestry and back room off behind were a male preserve, (not that the good ladies who did altar cloths and vestments, flowers. etc never came in , but they sort of tried to be selfeffacing and preferredtimes with no men about) , late fifties or very early sixties when I was an altar boy: the adult lay head of the altar boys,Mick, (still alive 2011) keeping a cleaning of church stuff to himself, TO himself !, basins and bits and cloths and lots of little tine and bottles and muck in the back sacristry, just like when a chap takes over his whole kitchen to his wife’s annoyance to messily.strip down a carburretor. It looked like fun but he shooed us away ,he hogged the fun to himself , we altar boys thought. It will have been for safety’s sake , could the volatile smell have been petrol(uk)/gasoline(usa)?
    I can’t remember WHO polished the candlesticks.
    I know it’s easy to make fun of all this and stereotype it , but there were places in daily life that were for men, and there were places in church. If men and women find each other funny, well praise the Lord for something amusing.

  18. albizzi says:

    If Coca Cola works wonders to clean an encrusted thurible, I let you imagine what the hell this rubbish drink may work on your stomach’s inner mucous wall.
    Stop drinking this crap, your health is at stake.
    I did so and replaced it by red wines, and I feel fine since decades.

  19. wmeyer says:

    rcg, you panic easily. WD-40 may do the job, but unless the thurible is quite small, and not all that heavily coated, WD-40 becomes a rather expensive approach. Consider, too, that the active ingredient in WD-40 is fish oil, which might be acquired at a lower expense without the manly patina.

    Inigo: for silver, I would suggest the kerosene approach for removing the resin. For polishing the silver, I would use nothing but a product like Wright’s Silver Cream, which uses diatomaceous earth, a very mild abrasive which will not harm the silver in any way.

  20. AnnAsher says:

    I like Greek jungle bell thuribles.

  21. Andrew_81 says:

    Silver can be cleaned with ammonia, which was a traditional method of removing tarnish. One mixes up a dilute solution with some dish soap and allows to soak.

    The petroleum-based methods will also work. Acetone, brake parts cleaner, carburetor cleaner, or similar products will help remove resin and other burned on grime, but these easily remove paint and will damage any lacquer. I cannot see why one would lacquer a thurible, given it’s high heat (which itself would damage the lacquer), but you never know.

    In general it’s better to use the harsher things on the inside and leave the outside for polishes. Use Brasso or a similar compound for Brass and copper, but do not use on plated items or silver. For silver or gold use Silvero or a similar compound. Sometimes Silvero will also work well for a final polish on brass.

    There’s also another tip that works well. Have a cup made for the inside of the thurible out of brass or copper. The cup holds the coals and incense, takes the majority of the heat and leaves the whole thurible more cleanable. The only part that would need serious cleaning then is the inside of the lid. The whole outside would need an occasional polish.

  22. Andrew_81 says:


    Hydrochloric acid, also called muriatic acid, in a dilute solution is good for removing mineralization, but won’t touch most oils and resins. Thus it’s unlikely to truly clean the thurible of these. You need something to dissolve the resin and thin it out, which oil-based volatiles like brake parts cleaner do well. Soaking in an alkaline detergent for a long time also may work, but acids are unlikely to help a thurible.

    Hydrocloric acid won’t attack copper or most good brass, but will destroy silver, leaving you with silver chloride, which is what makes photographic paper sensitive to light. Thus you’ll have white coated thurible after treatment which will turn black as light hits it.

    What muriatic acid is good for is removing the hard-water deposits and tarnish in an aspersory set. A very dilute solution of HCl, or of vinegar left to soak in such brass sets will remove most hard water deposits, with some elbow grease. Better yet, emptying the aspersory into a stainless or plastic container after use, and storing the set dry will mean it rarely needs more than a quick polish.

  23. Skeinster says:

    Whatever you use, do clean it! There was once an Episcopal church here in town who never, ever cleaned theirs and one day the accumulated gunk ignited during a service.

    Now, would you like to hear the one about the helpie-helperson who liberally squirted Energine on the tinder for the New Fire and didn’t tell anyone? Which, due to inclement weather, was being lit in the narthex? Good times…

  24. Will Elliott says:

    There are some sacristans who rely the classic combination of ketchup and elbow grease.

  25. Banjo pickin girl says:

    Coca Cola is a dilute phosphoric acid solution. It won’t damage metals as readily as HCl or some other acids.

  26. edm says:

    I have used acetone for years. It works very well and very quickly. There is no need to soak the thurible. Simply slowly drip the liquid over the thurible and let the mess run off it. When all the guck is off, polish the outside with the metal polish of your choice. It is a good idea to have lots of ventilation and no nearby open flames!

  27. emily13 says:

    I agree on the acetone…works like a charm and very quickly to remove the residue. I have also found, at least the the thurible I clean, that stuff called “Earth Brite” available from HSN cleans and polishes after the acetone cleaning very well. Thurible looks like brand new…just cleaned it on Saturday.

  28. Nathan says:

    Hats off to you sacristans! You are clearly doing the Lord’s work, and are the unsung heroes and heroines of many a parish.

    In Christ,

  29. Supertradmum says:

    Father Z., if you had not said Coca Cola, I would have…it cleans gungy sinks and drains as well, and takes rust of some metals. Can you imagine what it does to our innards? I know car mechanics who use Coke for cleaning.

  30. Supertradmum says:

    PS on old cars, not new ones which are mostly plastic.

  31. uptoncp says:

    I’ve found that, before starting any of these methods, the task can be reduced considerably by a good (careful) scraping while it’s hot – the gunk is quite soft, but sets solid on cooling. Grip it with the tongs you use for transferring lit coals, and scrape with a spoon (perhaps you have one you use for ladling the ashes out? Probably not the spoon from the boat, though!)

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