Monday, February 18, 2008

My First Experience at Making Soap

My first experience with making soap came from a box that I purchased at a craft store, which is not an unusual thing. Lots of folk start out that way. My reason for purchasing it may have been just a bit different though.

I had a couple of agendas. First, I wanted something to do with my kids that we could do together. My kids are preteen/teenager and I wanted something easy enough but would still catch their interest. Secondly, I had written a novel that initially included a character that made soap even though I knew nothing about making soap at the time. Unfortunately, I took the character out of the story because she was something of a side point rather than propelling the story forward. I hated doing it because I really enjoyed the character. She had grown on me so much that I wanted to know more about soapmaking.

So, back to the box. I took the box home and opened it up and saw all kinds of strange stuff that already LOOKED like soap. All I was going to do with it was melt it, remold it into a different shape, add color and fragrance. Simple enough. We did that as a family, had a great time doing it and made some really fun bars of soap. I realized that after I had done this, I still didn't know anymore about making soap than I did prior to buying the box. All I had done was learn the basic art of melt and pour soap art. I liked it, had fun with it but I wanted to know more.

I began researching the internet to find places where I could learn more about soapmaking and found some great places such as a magazine called "The Saponifier" that is all about soap, several sites that show you step by step how to make soap from "scratch" and several sites that sell supplies for such a thing. What I REALLY wanted was someplace nearby that actually taught me how to make soap, but found nothing at all.

Determined, I continued my search and finally gave up, bought some books on how to make the stuff, studied them for months on end, and researched the net for as much information as I could gather. I got on forums, asked questions, asked more questions, kept studying about rules and regs, importance of sanitary conditions in soapmaking, the dangers (yes, it can be dangerous if not handled properly when making it). It gave me a very healthy respect for the art of REAL soapmaking and I wondered if I really wanted to pursue making it or not.

Step by step, I continued until I felt brave enough to actually purchase all the ingredients to make my first batch of what is called "cold process soap". I set all the ingredients out in the order that I would be using them including all the utensils that I would be using as well. I felt fairly confident that I would make a great batch of soap. I started off making a small batch so halved the original recipe I had.

Because I am naturally creative by nature, I can't just make an exact replica of someone else's recipe. I can't help myself, but have to experiment, even just a little. In this particular case, I chose to use some fragrance oil that wasn't in the original recipe. I had read enough to know that this is frequently done and felt safe enough in attempting it, even on my first try. I also chose to one of those hand held beaters to mix my ingredients up rather than hand stir...another thing that I learned was done regularly and also speeded up the process a bit.

I donned my gloves, apron, and goggles and began mixing lye with water. Whoa! I forgot to open a window! That was toxic smelling! I held my breath till I got to the window! I forgot about that part of the instructions where it says "well-ventilated". After I caught my breath, I went back and checked the temperature of the water lye mixture and was amazed at how hot it was. I then began to start mixing my oils in a separate pot (stainless steel), and heating them up to the correct temperature until everything was melted. Once the oil and the lye/water mixture was of a similar temperature, I mixed the two mixtures together, first by hand and then chose to play with the hand mixer instead. Once I started to see some thickening (called trace) I added my fragrance oil. It smelled marvelous! Wow! This was going to be great! I continued using that hand mixture full speed ahead. I noticed that everything was completely mixed together but was hardening up so fast that I could barely get it out of the pot and into the mold fast enough. The books I read never said anything about this phenomenon. I was confused, but covered up my soapy mass and allowed it to "cook" overnight.

Next day, I took it out of its blanket and took a look. Something just wasn't right at all. This soap didn't look a bit like those pictures. It wasn't mixed very well together and looked like some sort of ucky yellowish blobby mass of goo. Still smelled great though. I waited and waited and allowed it cure a bit further, but it never changed the way it looked.

I researched a bit further and found out that I had done a few things wrong that my first books never talked about. My soap had "seized", meaning that it set up much faster than it was supposed to. I had throw the whole batch out!

Not wanting to give up so easily though, I started again. This time I followed the recipe exactly and was rewarded with some great bars of soap. I have since learned more advanced techniques and researched my ingredients further so that I can make some great bars of soap.

It has been a long time since that first experience at soapmaking occurred. Soapmaking the first time without a teacher nearby is not a method I would recommend now that I've been through that myself. I learned some things the hard way as a result, but learned them well. The great thing about making soap is that I am constantly learning new things about it. It is a challenging art and you must always remember that someone else will be using your creation on their skin. Never lose sight of that. I never lose sight of that when I am making soap. I test batch things and try it out myself many times before it goes out to others.

Great and responsible soapmaking is a long process of learning. It isn't something you can just decide to do one day and open up a store and sell soap the next. The more I know, the more I realize how much I still need to know.

Now, I can go back to my character in the novel and really write!!!