The Collaborator Challenge

Peter is my 23 year old son, who’s been very involved in my business since before it became a business. He loves to be the boss of me! While he often comes in during my soaping time and offers his valuable suggestions, this time he got to see up close and personal how soap is made! 

I invited Peter to be my collaborator mostly because of his prior interest in what I’ve been doing. My whole family has been involved in naming my soaps and sometimes offering ideas, but my husband isn’t a fan of working with lye, and all my other local possibilities (my daughter Jeanne, my son Andrew, my son-in-law Ben and Peter’s girlfriend Rachel) were all busy working or in school. Andrew has since expressed an interest in “having a turn” to make soap. As my dad would say, “Will wonders never cease!”

I sent Peter the video suggestions for the drop swirl and mica line soaps. I’m pretty sure he didn’t watch either of them but he immediately said he wanted to try the drop swirl. I made him look at the photos of each finished product before I agreed to the drop swirl. Patience isn’t usually one of his strengths, so watching videos about how to do something does not appeal to him. Maybe that’s why I had to tie his bow ties for his high school proms. I’m not sure he could have gotten through the how-to videos that I watched and re-watched in order to tie them for him.

Peter decided that he wanted to make a patriotic soap using red, white and blue mica, and one of his favorite parts of this whole process has been naming the soap. Here are some of the finalists in the naming contest:

In soap we trust
Stars stripes and suds
Don’t tread on soap
Give me soap or give me suds
You’re a grand ‘ol soap
One nation under soap
My fellow soapians
United we soap
Let soap reign
Give me soap or give me death
The soap of rights

In the end, we decided that United We Soap has the right vibe, given that in the soaping community we’re all united in loving what we do.

I gave Peter a choice of 4 scents: Brambleberry’s ginger lime and vanilla select FOs, WSP’s citrus splash FO and the one he liked the best, WSP’s bergamot and white tea FO. He didn’t want anything too “girly” so I tried to stay away from the florals. He loves orange EO but somehow it didn’t fit with the red, white and blue theme. 

Peter chose the colors and we put them into the measuring cups that he was going to use to pour thirds of the soap batter. I had lined the 2 lb mold ahead of time. We talked through the process before he ever picked up a stick blender and when I gave him the lye safety sheet he said, “Can’t you just tell me?” I told him. 

Once the oils and lye water had cooled, he put on his goggles and we started. I wished I had thought about getting different gloves before we got together because he’s a really big guy and had a tough time getting the gloves on and off. I needed to help. 

I gave him instructions about pouring over the immersion blender stick, although I’m not sure I got a picture of that. I gave him verbal instructions about tapping the blender on the bottom of the bowl and not pulling it all the way out of the batter (which he did once, but not while it was on, thank goodness!).

I also gave instructions about how we wanted the consistency and how it needed to be well mixed but thin enough so that it didn’t thicken while he was pouring.

Once it seemed like he had gotten it to a thin trace, he eyeballed ⅓ into each of the three measuring cups and started mixing by hand.

We almost forgot to add the fragrance oil before he started pouring but remembered just in time to mix it in. Whew!

Peter pouring his patriotic soap

I took more video than what I’m showing here, but there was some mild swearing going on during this process. Peter is quite the perfectionist, and if you’ve ever made soap you know that it’s impossible to be completely tidy. I have no idea how they do it in YouTube videos but I have to think they stop the camera and wipe down the workspace very periodically. 

By the time we were finished, we had a real mess, but when he first got started and probably through his first 2 pours with each color, he was trying to perfectly get the colors to the edges of the mold without getting any batter on the sides of the mold or on the top. That’s where the swearing came in. I’ve included a photo of him using a small spatula to wipe down the inside wall of the mold when he “made a mistake”. I think he gets it now. You never know what a “mistake” will look like in the end. It might be the thing that makes the batch fabulous!

He likes to take his time and did so with this process. As we got toward the end, he realized that the soap was starting to set, so he moved a little faster. But I really believe he enjoyed the process. And that’s what it’s all about, right? It’s not only what you get out of it, but what you put into it. 

When all the batter was in the mold, he was very unhappy with the way it looked, but I gave him a skewer and invited him to decorate the top. I drew a couple of pictures of what he could do to make it look nicer and we talked about him not putting the skewer down too far, but just dipping into the top of the loaf. I think he did a really nice job on the top. He was very tempted to keep going, but when he was happy with what it looked like, we stopped. 

I showed him how we sprayed it with some alcohol and covered it to gel and get the brightest colors. (I don’t put my soap in the oven.)

I waited two days to unwrap and cut. Peter wasn’t able to be with me when I cut it and didn’t see it until 3 days after that, but I did send him pictures as soon as it was cut. His girlfriend Rachel was impressed with his first effort.

I have to admit that I was just a little jealous of his successful first time soaping. Of course, he had someone with him who knew what they were doing and had had many successful batches under my belt. I didn’t have that. I read books and watched videos and jumped in. Still. I think he did an absolutely wonderful job on his first attempt.

Here are some of the photos of his finished product, cleaned up and beveled. Congratulation, Peter! Nice job.

The whole batch beveled and put back together
The piece on the left is my favorite
A pyramid of United We Soap

The Challenge

I haven’t posted anything in ages, but this has been an interesting process for me that I wanted to share. I recently joined the Soap Challenge Club, which is a monthly group contest that hopefully improves the participants’ soaping skills. That’s right. Soaping skills. A lot goes into making a bar of handmade soap, and many of the people who make soap are artists who use soap as a medium. I’m no artist. But I do take pride in a job well-done so would very much like to improve my skills. 

This month’s challenge is to create a landscape design using layers. I’m familiar with this concept and have used layers before, but not to create a landscape design. There are many designs out there with boats on water, a moon in the night sky, etc. and I wanted to try to do something different. 

I didn’t have any ideas. I really didn’t want anything too complex, since this will be the first time I’m participating in the monthly challenge, but nothing came to mind. I was sitting in the recliner watching TV in the evening with my husband, stewing over the fact that I wasn’t having any creative ideas. Over our TV on the wall is a series of three prints, and this is the middle one.

I’ve always liked this picture and it reminds me of the fun time I had out in San Francisco, biking across the bridge with my son, and my brother and his husband. Of course I decided that this was what I had to do for the challenge. Of course I couldn’t choose any other, easier, more doable design.

This is the picture that I drew of what I wanted the soap to look like. I knew it wouldn’t be easy because there would be multiple pours and I’d have to start with….THE BRIDGE. 

Since the bridge would have to be done ahead of time and would have to run through the entire loaf of soap, I started with that. I made a 2 pound loaf of orange red soap so that I’d have plenty to play with and covered it to gel overnight, hoping to get some really saturated color. The next day, I unwrapped and cut it.

I had decided I’d make another 2 pound loaf for the soap because any more would be too unwieldy. And I didn’t want to make it smaller. What if a one pound mold wasn’t enough and I couldn’t even get one good bar out of it? 2 pound mold for the win! 

I measured my oils and my lye water and let them sit for awhile to cool while I mixed the colors I had decided upon. The water, which was the bottom ⅕ of the loaf, would be Caribbean Blue mica mixed with just a smidge black oxide, with some bits and pieces of chopped soap that I had on hand. This would give the water a little texture and provide color variation. I had some purple, coral and white pieces that I mixed in last minute before pouring. I also added about ⅕ of the scent I used, which is Caribbean Day Spa by Rustic Escentuals. It was the closest scent I have to that wind and water feel I remember having at the bridge.

This was a pretty easy layer to pour since it was the first. I knew I was going to leave it alone for awhile to give it plenty of time to set because the towers of the bridge would have to be set on/in it. While the water was setting up, I took ⅖ of the oils and ⅖ of the lye water and mixed two batches separately, stick blending until they emulsified. For the mountain, I mixed green mica with some mint julep mica, and separately mixed some dark green so that I could do an in the pot swirl. For the sky, I used blue and added titanium dioxide, hoping for a saturated blue for the “lower” sky.

This was very tricky to pour, and I had issues. I probably should have tilted the mold and poured the green first, but that’s not what I did, and the blue and green mixed together in the middle. I corrected then, and tilted the mold and hope that this resolved the issue. We shall see. There are no pictures of the pours because I made a colossal mess of the entire workspace and it was really difficult for me.

Once I got the first little bit of sky and mountain poured, I had to lay the roadway. It’s not really a bridge if you can’t get across it, right? This was also really tricky, because I couldn’t measure the roadway width until after I had placed the towers. I had measured, but needed to make adjustments at this point (read: I had to take off some of the width of the roadway because I had forgotten to account for the width of the towers.) I also found that it was very difficult to lay the pieces flat on the soap batter because they were skinny and the loaf was long enough that the two sides pieces of roadway wanted to sink into the soap batter. I panicked a little but managed to dig them out, give them a wipe and lay them out. Took me three tries with one of the narrow side pieces. No pictures of this part either. It was too darned difficult to deal with. Here’s a good pic of what the roadway looked like when it didn’t line up.

Then I took a break because I have a tendency to hold my breath when I’m doing something that requires acute concentration. I truly needed a “breather”. 

Now came the most difficult part and the one that may sink my entry because I never could figure out how to do it……adding the cables. I had taken some very thin slices of the orange bridge color and molded them around a broomstick, hoping to have them stay curved. I thought this went really well and was hopeful that it would help me during this step in the process. I knew I had to pour more sky and mountain, but the way the cables worked is that I had to pour sky and mountain into the mold and then set the cables on top, making sure I had no hollow areas under the curves of the cables. No experience here, so not sure how this is going to go. And here are a couple of examples that show what was so difficult about this part. In one of these, I can see right through the holes in the soap, but don’t have the photography skills to share that here.

At this point, I mixed my final ⅖ of oils with the final ⅖ of lye water for the rest of the sky. Here’s where I ran into another issue. I intended for my sky to lighten as it went up the soap, but I think I added so much more TD to my blue for this final pour that it might look like two separate layers. This was unintended. I had hoped to have a gentle lightening of the sky. Oh well.

Now it’s the next day and I can’t wait to unmold the soap. I’m hoping to have at least one bar that truly represents the Golden Gate Bridge with water, mountain and sky. I’d love to have multiple bars, but I would be happy enough with one. This was a really difficult challenge for me, but really, it’s my own fault. I could have started with something much easier. It’s just that once I thought of this, I couldn’t not try it. After all, I’m doing this to improve my skills!

Fast forward post the unmolding! I’m really pretty jazzed at how well it turned out. I mean, I know how taxing it was and how much I sweated during the pours around those cables! But the rest of you don’t. Some pieces came out better than others. There were several that had some holes caused by the issue with the curved cable pieces, as you saw in the pictures above. Below is the photo I entered of the best bar.

I’m not an artist. My jam isn’t making works of art like Clyde, Zahida or other amazing artists out there who use soap as a medium for their art. I like to make soap that is pleasant smelling, pretty and very useful. But I do believe I expanded my skills during this challenge and I’ll do another landscape soap sometime just because. 

Where Does the Inspiration Come From?

This week, I would say it comes from Frank Lloyd Wright. I recently visited his home, Taliesin, in Wisconsin. I’ve never been a huge fan because I have a very different aesthetic than I thought FLW did. But I found a lot of inspiration through his architecture and his thought to detail in natural settings.

Frank Lloyd Wright was adamant that his buildings belong to the surroundings. He built buildings in horizontal lines that flowed into the landscape around them. This is very interesting to me and really pretty awesome when you think about it. He didn’t lose landscape in order to build buildings, he built the buildings to snuggle into the landscape. He said that he built for the present in natural surroundings and created problems for the future to solve. 

This is actually an issue because nature is always changing. Trees have grown and died and needed to be trimmed back or cut down in order to preserve his work. It makes me think: people are always acting in ways that will create problems for the future to solve. Our founding fathers knew that slavery was an issue when they declared independence from England. By the time it became a national crisis, they were gone, and over a century later and many generations later, we’re still working out how to resolve this issue. 

Ecology is another example. For many decades we took no notice of the damage we were doing to the environment. Now that we’re finally taking action, it will take decades more to solve for the issues already caused. I would love for the USA to become a zero waste nation. I work at hard at recycling and it definitely pains me when I see recyclable items thrown away. 

This is another reason making soap appeals to me. It’s useful, usable and consumable. I use water to clean my materials when I finish using them, but if I wait a day for the new soap to fully saponify, I can clean my equipment with the same material that made them dirty in the first place! 

But I digress.
Inspiration comes from anywhere. I believe that my recent trip to Taliesin has changed the way I view architectural elements for good. I can tell that I see the world differently just from that slight shift in perspective. It’s moving that kaleidoscope just a smidge and seeing a completely different picture. 

Look for that in some of my future soaps.

Facts About Coconut Oil

Coconut oil is great for the skin. When my husband lived in Colorado he always had a container of coconut oil on the edge of the tub for after-shower moisturizing. Since coconut oil melts on contact with skin, it’s a great way to treat your cracked heels and elbows, leaving them soft and much smoother. However, be cautious of using coconut oil on your face, as it can clog your pores or in the case of sensitive skin, can cause a rash or reaction.

In soap, coconut oil plays a different role. I know that some folks are very big on all coconut oil soaps, but unless you’re a mechanic, sailor or have very tough skin, you’re probably going to be disappointed. In soap, coconut oil is very cleansing and makes a very hard bar of soap, but it’s so cleansing that it can leave your skin feeling really dry. In the soap making world, it’s important to be sure that you “superfat” your soap in order to counteract the drying properties of coconut oil. In this case, superfatting soap means adding an extra 20% of another, more moisturizing oil to those hard coconut bars. Oils in this category include olive, avocado and sweet almond, as well as many others.

Most soap makers use coconut oil at 30% or less in their soaps, but if coconut oil is first in the list of ingredients in a bar of soap you’re buying, be sure to ask the soap maker what their superfat percentage is. They should answer somewhere in the neighborhood of 20%. They’ll be impressed that you’re knowledgeable enough to ask the question. Unless they can’t tell you the answer, in which case they’ll probably get annoyed. 

Photo by Ahunt

Fun fact about coconut oil soaps: they are cleansing even in salt water. Something to keep in mind if you’re taking your yacht to Monaco for the weekend or are going on an Outward Bound adventure.

Photo by Lukasz Grochal

On the plus side, coconut oil does create wonderful, big bubbles in soap that many people love. I think a lot of times we believe that the more big bubbles we get, the cleaner we’ll be after the shower. This isn’t necessarily true, but I can’t tell that to my brain. I like the bubbles.

And those beautiful soaps you find at markets and festivals are all supposed to clean, right? Coconut oil is the ingredient in those soaps which you’ll need after those marathon-prepping runs or after a session at the gym. It’s the oil in soaps which provides that all-important cleaning.

So, use coconut oil out of the jar on your elbows and heels, make sure that it’s not the first ingredient in soaps you buy, and enjoy the bubbles it provides you in the shower.

And if you have questions about particular oils in soap, click the contact button. You can always ask me.

It’s A Process

I had a friend once who set about an hour’s worth of alarms to get him up in the morning. He would eventually make his way out of bed and into the bathroom, where he would lie on the rug while the water in the shower warmed up. When asked why on earth he would wake up so early just to go through that excruciating ordeal every day, he would always say, “It’s a process.”

So is soapmaking. As much as I never want to wait to see a new soap cut or how excited I get about seeing whether my vision for a project has been realized, it really is all about the process. I love watching the lye water slowly pouring down my stick blender into the pot of oils. 

For whatever reason, the anticipation of waiting for that oil and water combo to completely combine almost makes me want to hold my breath. I’ll use the immersion blender in short bursts followed by using it to stir manually, watching as oil and water morph into something that looks like vanilla pudding. Once it gets to that point, there’s the next thrill of anticipation because I know I’m about to impose my vision onto that soap batter. It may not turn out the way I expect. But it might. Or it might not. <virtual hand wringing>

Now is the time that my plan gets put into action. I’ve already decided into what proportions the batter will be split. My colors and scents are mixed and ready. I separate my portions and add my colors. Are they the tint I had envisioned? Did I use too much and now there’s no going back? Can I add more? Next come the scents. Are they going to translate well into the soap? Do they accelerate the process? Do I still have enough time to make whatever design I had decided on?

And then…..The Pour. Sometimes this is a seriously complicated step and requires undivided attention which might not even be enough to realize the vision. Warning to my nearest and dearest: For your own safety, do not talk to me or in any way distract me during this time.

Even after all of that, when the soap has been poured and the deed is done, comes the real wait. I have to wait two or three whole days until the process of saponification has been completed and I can unmold and cut the loaf of deliciousness. It’s like waiting for Christmas morning to hurry up and get here after I’ve already heard Santa on the roof!

There are a lot of aspects in life where we’re fearful of the unknown. So much of what we do is completely out of our control and we’re always trying to control it anyway. It adds so much stress to our lives – trying to bring everything we touch under our firm and determined hand. And life just doesn’t work that way. This is one small way in which I’m trying to let go of that need to control and let things happen as they will. Almost all of the time, the design or scent I get is beautiful and works well, even if it’s not what I had envisioned. This happens all the time. I think soap making is a good way for me to practice anticipating life. I may not get what I originally intended, but what I do get is often way better than I could have hoped for.

After all, soap making, like life, is a process.