Distilling essential oils is now possible thanks to our home essential oil steam distillation kit! We’ve had our eye on distilling essential oils for some time now. And now that we are surrounded by gorgeous distillable native plant materials, we decided it was time.

We ordered the home distillation kit and, of course, had to test it as soon as it arrived.

Before we got crazy and started wildcrafting some of the gorgeous materials in the desert, we wanted to test the process with some fairly standard plant materials. Luckily for us, we have nice friends with gardens full of distillable plant material! So, we started with rosemary and grapefruit. We have a few different rosemary essential oils and grapefruit essential oils at home, which served as our baseline or ‘control’ group.

Essential Oil Distillation: Grapefruit stages

Essential Oil Distillation: Grapefruit stages

The first step in distilling essential oils: research, research, research

As with most new endeavors, we scoured the web, read articles, and watched videos. Armed with loads of hints and tips, we set out to distill our own essential oils.

Distilling essential oils: the process

The essential oil steam distillation apparatus is pretty straightforward and easy to set up. There are seven key components for distilling essential oils and some extras that make the process more efficient:

  1. The boiling flask – this is filled with distilled water and connects to the biomass flask above.
  2. The biomass flask – you add your plant material (i.e., biomass) in this flask which is open on both ends. The bottom end connects to the boiling flask and the top end to the arm, which joins the biomass flask to the condenser.
  3. The arm – this looks like an arm and connects the biomass flask to the condenser. Steam travels up through the biomass flask and travels, horizontally, to the condenser
  4. The condenser – this is where steam meets cold water (they don’t actually touch) and where condensation occurs. The vapors (steam) convert back to a liquid state. There are different types of condensers, we use the Graham condenser in our set up.
  5. The receiver – this is a neat little device that separates the essential oil from the hydrosol. The hydrosol is pushed out of the spout and collected in a separate container.
  6. A submersible pump for cooling the condenser. The cooler the water the better.
  7. The heating element – here, an electric hot plate. Without heat, nothing would happen!
  8. Other: heat shields, timer
Essential Oil Distillation Apparatus

Essential Oil Distillation Apparatus

Plant materials for distilling essential oils

Garden-harvested rosemary for essential oil distillation

Garden-harvested rosemary for essential oil distillation

This is important! Look for healthy, organic plant materials such as plants from your garden, plants from a friend’s garden, or safe areas to wildcraft. As mentioned earlier, we have friends with an abundance of organic plant materials such as rosemary, pink grapefruit, juniper berries, etc.

Also, since we volunteer and do a lot of trail maintenance, we get to wildcraft native plants that would otherwise be inaccessible (i.e., trimmings from plants that interfere with the trails). As a matter of fact, as I write this post, we just distilled our first native plant—white sage—that we collected on our very last trail maintenance work crew. Very exciting stuff!

Tips, do’s and don’ts of distilling essential oils

These are our notes. They may or may not apply to you, but we like keeping it here so that we can use it as a resource!

  • DO chop biomass matter into smaller pieces. This makes it easier to remove from the biomass flask afterwards.
  • When filling the biomass flask, add biomass material through large opening, then turn upside down. Give it a few gentle pats. The reason for this is so that the smaller pieces and silt (if using dry material) doesn’t settle at the bottom. This ensures that the steam passes through the larger pieces first and the silt last.
  • Use a smaller wooden spoon for adding/removing biomass matter. You don’t want to use anything metal with glass.
  • Once the water boils, turn the heat down to maintain a steady boil.
  • DO insulate the biomass flask and arm, but DON’T insulate anything in the beginning so as not to spoil the chimney effect. Start insulating the biomass flask when the water boils. Insulate the arm once condensation reaches halfway across the arm. Insulate the condenser when the ice water is around 35 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • DON’T add ice to water to the condenser in the beginning. Add ice to water AFTER the boiling flask boils when the condensation reaches the elbow (the first elbow of the arm).
  • DO join the tubing connected to the submersible pump to the bottom of the condenser so that cold water flows up the condenser
  • Try insulating the condenser with towels, beer coolers, or pool noodles.
  • DO make plenty of ice!
  • Try using a small cooler for the condenser water reservoir and have the water flow in and out from the cooler.
  • DO set a timer and check the water temperature every 30 minutes. After two hours, check more frequently, i.e., every 15 minutes.
  • DO let everything cool after you finish and unplug the hot plate.
  • DO make sure you have enough plant material for the biomass flask. A 2L biomass flask will hold approximately 8 cups of material. For rosemary, a gallon size Ziploc baggie filled to the brim was enough to fill the biomass flask. For grapefruit, we used the rinds (no pith, no fruit) of approximately 15-17 medium-sized grapefruits.
  • DO have a quart sized jar available for collecting the hydrosol.
  • DO have your essential oil bottle ready.
  • Try using aluminum foil as a heat shield (we use one between the receiver and hot plate, another between the boiling flask and biomass flask—like a reflector, and a third between the hot plate and the backsplash of the kitchen counter)
  • If you are new to distilling essential oils, start with familiar materials before delving into the more ‘exotic’.

What you can expect after distilling essential oils

First of all, don’t expect the essential oil to smell exactly as it should immediately after it’s distilled. Based upon our research, most essential oils need time to cure. Immediately after distilling essential oils, you’ll smell other compounds (akin to burning rubber). Those will dissipate during the curing process. Unfortunately, the curing time varies from one plant material to the other. Grapefruit did not require very much time for it to smell like grapefruit essential oil—a few days. Rosemary took a lot longer…

Also, the amount of essential oil that is extracted will depend upon the plant material, whether it was fresh or dry, the time of year it was harvested, your steam distillation process, and a host of other variables.

Essential Oil Distillation: Receiver

Essential Oil Distillation: Receiver

If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions, let us know.

And happy distilling!