Having walked through my soaping setup the other day, now it’s time to tackle the nitty gritty: the soapmaking itself, from lye to moulds. This is the most spoon-sapping part for me, because everything else I can do in little pieces, over the course of a day or more. This has to be done right through (apart from a rest while the lyewater is cooling).
So after having picked a week or fortnight period where I can soap in the middle and rest for a few days either side, I roll up my sleeves, glove up, and off we go.
The first step is weighing out my water.
I usually do around a half-half water-ice mix. On this soaping day, I did one about half-half, and one with a big more ice than water, just to see how that would go. I actually wasn’t thrilled with it: the resulting lyewater did start off a bit cooler, but it was significantly more effort stirring to dissolve the lye. I think I’ll stick with half-half, or even a bit waterier than that.
I put that water mix in the sink.
I know a bunch of people don’t mix in the sink, and that’s their choice – especially if they don’t have a well ventilated kitchen, which is a real risk. My kitchen has an open screen door at my back and a window over the sink, so I get a nice cross-breeze at my back. I also have a pretty powerful range hood extraction fan.
My biggest worry, though, is that maybe there’s a microcrack in my Pyrex, and the heat of lye dissolution (it’s an exothermic process) will crack the jug. I really don’t fancy 35-50% sodium hydroxide solution anywhere. This way I know the worst I’ll get in case of disaster is a thorough drain-cleaning. Mixing in the sink also means no carrying the lyewater around, as I do the actual soapmaking on the sink drainer or right next to it.
Next up: weighing the lye. It takes around 500 g of lye for a 4 kg batch. The exact lye amount must be calculated carefully using a soap calculator, according to the exact oil composition and oil weights.
I use the Mechanix lye I showed you before, which comes in nice little beads. They can get very staticky, and fly around everywhere. I don’t know it this makes a real difference, but I run my gloved hands around the outside of the plastic lye container before opening it to try to reduce that. I also hold the lid up between me and the lye while it’s pouring, so that if there’s a static leap it’s not toward my body.
Into the part I need to be really careful about: pouring the lye into the water. Each time I visualise “snowflakes on a lake”, which is the mnemonic for remembering to pour the lye into the water, not the water into the lye. What can happen if you do it the wrong way around? Lye volcano! One very popular classic soap book had a mistake in it that recommended pouring the water into the lye. Brrrr.
I stir continuously as I add the lye in little bits. As soon as the ice is melted from the heat of the dissolution, I know that soon there will be a puff of lye vapour, and getting that on my mucous membranes or in my lungs is a bad idea. At this stage I lean back and down to keep my head out of the way, breathe very shallowly, and at the first whiff of anything, leave the room for a moment.
As you can see, the lye is pretty warm after the solution is made. If I want it to cool really fast, I pack water and ice around it. Usually though, I like a little rest between lye solution prep and soapmaking.
Before that rest though, it’s time to do my final colour and fragrance prep. I’m a bit weird here: I prep these in the bottoms of my split pails, instead of in teeny separate containers to pour into the raw soap. I find I work faster this way. Here’s some orange ultramarine and titanium dioxide.
This orange is really intense, and the titanium dioxide eases that colour down to a nice gentle tangerine. I put in a little water to make a slurry – I can do this readily without affecting the soap adversely, because I’ve discounted the water in my recipe, giving me room to move. Some colours don’t mix up so well in water – with those I throw in a little olive oil.
Here’s some plain titanium dioxide:
And here’s some neone green with titanium dioxide. As you can see, this first batch is going to be an orange, green, and white triple swirl. Into each split pail I also put the fragrance oil, in this case Neroli (orange blossom).
Rest time. And I make sure that by the time the lye is cool, the oils are going to be around the right temp – 40 degrees for the usual, a little cooler if I’m doing complex work or adding fragrances that accelerate trace or heat up a lot, and a little warmer if it’s just a castile and I’m not doing anything fancy.
When the lye is back to around 40 degrees, it’s time! I break out the stick blender, and have stirring on the lowest setting while I slowly pour the lye solution into the oils.
I didn’t get a really good shot of the mixing process in that first batch, so here’s one from my second batch. You can see the mixture going cloudy as the oil and lye blend, and the saponification process begins.
And here we go, emulsifying away. I stir with the stick blender for 10-30 seconds, then just stir the switched-off blender around in the mix for 10-30 seconds, so the blender doesn’t burn out. This is probably not an issue with my new badarse blender o’ doom, but I do it anyway, so I can keep an eye on the process.
At this point I’m keeping a very close eye out for the initial signs of light trace. I like to pour my splits after full emulsification has occurred, but juuuust before light trace. Trace is the point at which saponification has progressed such that the soap begins to thicken. When I lift the blender out of the soap mixture, it leaves trails on the surface. Here are some heavier trace photos from a different batch:
Split time! It all gets rather fast-moving and exciting now. My assistant would do well not to get underfoot while I’m in this zone. This is also a time where I risk spilling the raw soap mixture. Newspapers are down. I don’t weigh or measure the soap mix out at this stage: I have a pretty good feel for the amounts now, and any excess I just pour off into individual moulds.
I pick the lightest colour bucket, and give it a stir up, combining the colours and fragrance with the raw soap mix. I bring that to light-to-medium trace Preferably pretty light. Then I mix the next most intense colour, zizz the stick blender in a bit of water, then do the heaviest colour.
It’s TIME TO SWIRL! I love this part. This is where the chemistry stops and the art and magic begin.
I slodge in one colour in criss crosses, another colour in criss crosses, and then the next. This doesn’t have to be precise: some people do fancy geometrical swirls, but I like a more freeform approach.
In goes the back of the fork, and I swirl around and around and around…
And around and around.
Dividers get slammed IN, because at this stage I’m wondering whether that lavender & lemongrass split is starting to set up without me. I start racking my brains as to whether lemongrass essential oil accelerates trace, and I’ve just forgotten.
Hm, turns out it was over there saponifying away. No matter: I mix up hard and fast, don’t adjust the colour because there’s no time, and slodge it on into the mould. A few swirlies, for texture,
And dividers IN!.
Phew. Take a breath. Time to relax. I put those soaps to bed, and my assistant clears the decks while I go rest for a while.
Later on… I repeat that whole process for the second, 3 kg, batch.
First up, an in-the-pot swirl. I’m using a Vanilla Oak fragrance oil for this, and I know the fragrance will discolour the soap over time to brown. So I decide to do a white “blind swirl”. I add no fragrance to the swirl portion, and I add titanium dioxide to it to give a pretty dense white. Into the pail goes the soap-and-titanium-dioxide mix.
I slodge it around the pail once, twice, not incorporating, just swirling. Then into the log mould it goes.
A little texture on top with a spatula.
Here’s the in-the-mould swirl in that batch, a thick and slodgy one because I did it second. These two are fragranced with sandalwood, black pepper, and mandarin. There is copper mica in one half, and orange ultramarine in the other.
I was going for a rustic look. I think it’s kinda pretty.
I have a pot of unfragranced soap left, and off it goes into individual moulds. In the background you can see the orange excess from the sandalwood/mandarin/black pepper batch, poured off into some more individual moulds.
Insulating it increases the chance that the full batches of soap will go through “gel phase”. I didn’t photograph gel phase, because I prefer not to peek – I find it increases my chances of the soap developing ash, a powdery white coating. You can see The Sage’s picture of gel phase here, and The Soap Queens’ picture of a near-full gel phase here.
Gel phase is a part of the saponification process. The soap will heat up and turn translucent, to a sort of Vaseline-y texture, and then slowly cool and solidify. If the soap isn’t insulated, it may go through a partial gel only, and since gelled and ungelled soaps have different textures and looks, there will be a sort of “tidemark” in the finished soap. This isn’t a fault – both gelled and ungelled mixtures turn into perfectly nice soap, and it’s a matter of personal taste as to which a person prefers. I prefer gelled soap. Another way to push the soap hard through gel phase is Cold Process Oven Process: instead of blanketing the soap, I put it in a very very low oven for an hour or two. This carries risks to both moulds and ovens (soap volcano!), so I don’t do it much. In cold weather, I sometimes tuck an electric heating pad in with the soaps. I’ve known other people to bed their soap in a hot car or on a hot patio.
After the soaps are tucked up tight, then go shower and crash. I’ll revisit them tomorrow.
And I’ll see you… later! For part three.