I have used coals for a long time, both as an altar boy when I was young, and at home...
I now use the Athonite style charcoal power... it is much better.
We also use it at the Greek church I go to… it is very nice.
It actually is tiny granules like sand which burn quietly and more safely.
Nice burn, No smoke- (the accelerant which sizzles across the face of the charcoals briquettes leaves an acrid gunpowder smell and smokes up your house (although I got quite a thrill from it as a kid))
It is used at monasteries and you can get it (made from the clippings of grape branches) from St. Anthony’s in Arizona… it comes in a silver can and is available on their website. http://www.stanthonysmonastery.org/ccp7/index.php?app=ecom&ns=prodshow&ref=CHARCOALPWD
Just pile in a bit with a spoon (depending on how long you want your incense to burn for), and then score (draw) a cross (creating cross shaped valleys) in the grains of charcoal, and then light.
It can be lit by holding the flame against the edges of the valleys, but it is easier if one uses a small torch… like a crème brulee torch (you can get a very cheap one from Harbor Freight)… just get it hot until it glows red… blow on it for a couple seconds to help it along, and then you are done…
Place a couple pieces of incense along the edge of the red lit part (so as not to suffocate).
The other nice thing is that if you decide you want it to burn longer, you can add a little more as needed and it will stay lit as long as one keeps adding fuel (a small spoonful of the powder).