Thursday, December 31, 2009

Trial, Error, and the Sweet Smell of Sucess (aka, What We've Learned in Two Years of Soapmaking)

We stumbled onto the path of soapmaking like many others did- we wanted to start a home based business that wouldn't cost too much to start and that we would really enjoy for a long time, not just while we were feeling the initial fun of getting everything going.

I was browsing the internet looking for ways to start a jewelry-making business inexpensively, and somehow ended up on a page that had all kinds of craft ideas- the one that caught my eye was "Soapmaking". I thought "seriously, you can make soap on your own? Isn't that dangerous?" but I read through the page and decided to investigate. Now, many fun batches later, I'm very glad I did! I've had the chance to make soap with my Mom for a few years now, and we wanted to write about some of the things we've learned!

First and foremost, we learned that soapmaking is an incredibly useful hobby/business. As I mentioned, we wanted to start in jewelry-making. But our reaction to the cost of tools and materials was a gasp nearly every time! With the basic ingredients for soap, it was much more reasonable. Even the most exotic butters and oils are usually less expensive, ounce-for-ounce, than that cup of gourmet coffee you probably bought this morning as you dashed off to work. Beyond that, what you make can be used on a daily basis, whether you decide to make it your business or not. So in the long run, you're saving money on personal care products that can be as basic or as luxurious as you want them to be.

If you're kicking around the idea of making a batch of soap, here are some tips that we hope you will find helpful:

1- Don't be afraid of being confused. The first time I realized I could make soap at home, I filled my head with so much information I couldn't sort it out when I rambled it all back to my Mom that evening! It only took a good set of instructions and a few batches of practice to sort everything out in my mind. If you don't feel like you can make soap because you're not sure of the method, or why/why not to do something, just arm yourself with a clear set of instructions from a seasoned soapmaker, make sure you're following the guidelines for safety, and give it a shot. Our first batch of soap cost so little that even if we had ruined it horribly (as I almost did- more on that later) it would have been nothing to shrug our shoulders and try again. We still had plenty of ingredients to work with because of tip number 2...

2- Try to be a one-stop-shopper. Nowadays the internet has everything, but at times it can feel like what you need is spread around ten different websites (all separately charging you shipping and handling!). If you're trying to make soap, lotion, or any other body product for the first time, or even if you're a seasoned soapmaker, we've found that it's really helpful to try and get everything you need from one or two websites. Fortunately, while looking for a good price for shea butter we stumbled upon, and found not only the shea butter we were looking for but also an invaluable resource on everything soap/lotion/lip butter, etc. We found a lye supplier that we trust (, and haven't looked back! Two sites were all we needed to get everything going, and we've saved a lot of money on shipping alone.

3- Check your recipes on a soap calculator. The first few recipes we used were from a book on soapmaking that was very helpful in alleviating our apprehension and giving us a great set of instructions, and the author did a great job of telling us why the process of soapmaking worked so that we would be better equipped to formulate our own recipes later on. We were so confident that the book was right that we didn't check the recipes against a soap calculator, even though that was part of her advice. Guess what? Her recipes were wrong! To this day, I haven't been able to make sense out of the recipes that got published in her book. What this taught us is that there are many authors of many recipes for soap- but you should always check them against a good calculator. We like to use for checking the qualities of the soap and the fragrance calculator at thesage for checking how strong our scent will be.

4- Be safe, but have fun! When you've double checked your recipe, gotten your ingredients measured, and donned your safety goggles and gloves, the hard part is honestly over. You'll have some great stories to tell when you've made a few batches, because little mistakes are inevitable but can always be fixed. Part of soapmaking that's so much fun is that looking like a mad scientist is a must! For some reason, all of a sudden all the men in the house will grab their phones and take pictures, asking you to laugh maniacally for effect!

The first time we made soap I was still a bit nervous- we were careful about everything having to do with lye, but since I didn't know exactly what 'trace' looked like, we went the safe route and kept mixing with our stick blender until it was as thick as pudding. (All the experienced soapmakers are cringing right now- that's pretty heavy trace!) We had prepared sections of PVC pipe with vaseline and carefully tied plastic to the bottom so we'd have nice circular bars of soap. While my mom spooned the soap into the pipe, I gently tapped it down... unfortunately, I wasn't holding the plastic as well as the pipe, and it slipped right off! The soap went *SPLOOT* all over the counter and I screamed so loud that everyone in the house came running! By the time we got it all back into a pan, then back into the pipe, it had nearly set up. Even through all that, the soap turned out nicely and didn't look ugly from multiple trips from pan to mold. (Our kitchen did smell like gardenia for a week though...)

The point is, mistakes become funny stories that you learn from. As long as you're being safe, have fun! Others will see how fun soapmaking is and pretty soon you'll have people asking you to teach them how to make their own soap.

Enjoy soapmaking!

1 comment:

  1. Your post was very entertaining and brought many of my own soapmaking trials to mind. I hope you continue to have fun.