Friday, February 24, 2012

Clean Cotton Faux Funnel Pour Soap

Do you know about the funnel pour technique? If you are a soapmaker, you've probably heard of it, and you may have even tried it. As you might suspect, a funnel is involved. Soap is poured in alternating colors through the funnel into the mold, creating circular pools of color. The cut bars have cool ribbon-like bands throughout. The funnel is usually held in place above the center of the mold by chopsticks, spoon handles, or - as Bramble Berry's Anne-Marie cleverly uses in this Soap Queen TV video - an overturned cup with a hole in the bottom:

There is also something called the "faux funnel pour" technique. It is like the funnel pour, only no funnel is involved. But the idea is the same. Soap is poured in alternating colors one on top of the other, creating a similar pooling effect as with the funnel method.

I decided to take a stab at the faux funnel pour recently. For this soap, I used a Clean Cotton fragrance oil, which made me think of blue and white.

The goal was to have two distinctly different shades of blue to go along with the white, giving me three colors to pour. I used ultramarine blue oxide and titanium dioxide (mixed with a bit of glycerin) to make blue, light blue, and white colors. (The white looks kinda yellow because I mixed the titanium dioxide into my fragrance oil. It turned out pretty white in the finished soap, though.)

After I made the main soap batch (with the fragrance and titanium dioxide mixed in), I split the batch into three equal amounts. Then I colored one bowl of soap deep blue, another light blue, and left the third bowl white.

Then the fun part - the pouring! My soap got a little thick on me, so my pours weren't as fluid as I would have liked.

I started out with three pools, alternating deep blue, white, and light blue ...

And after a few pours like that, I made some new pools somewhere else ...

And soon my mold was filled and I finished it off with a pretty little swirl on top.

It is tough to wait a day or two before unmolding sometimes, especially if I'm trying a new or intricate technique. During the wait, I sometimes find myself thinking, "Wow, that's gonna look awesome!" Or "Gee, I sure hoped that worked." Or "Well, we can still use it even if it's super ugly." I usually feel both giddy and nervous when it comes time to cut.

Freshly unmolded soap (left); cutting the soap (right)

By the way, I just love my wooden soap mold with the built-in cutter from Soap Making Resource. I am dreadful at cutting soap by hand. Actually, I'm quite fantastic at cutting wonky, uneven bars by hand. Gifted, really. But dreadful at making straight, uniform cuts on my own. So I really like having the guidance. I just wish my crinkle cutter would fit in the slot ... then my life would be perfect.

Here are a few of the cut bars! I like how each bar is unique. I wish that there was more of a contrast between the two blues, but overall I'm pleased. Next time, I will choose more distinctive colors and try to keep my trace lighter so the soap will flow more fluidly. My technique was more like a "plop pour." (It was probably a mistake to use the stick blender to mix in the colorants - I'll try a whisk next time.) I think I'd also pour in a more side-to-side motion rather than choosing random spots, or just make one pool in the center of the mold and pour one color on top of another without moving around. But this batch was fun to make, that's faux sure!

And I do have a funnel - one day I'm going to have to try the non-faux funnel pour (or, as it is more commonly called, the funnel pour).

Anybody else loving the funnel pour, faux or not?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

What the Heck is Soap?

So, you've seen a few of my soaps here and you've probably seen folks selling soap at craft shows or farmer's markets. Did you ever wonder just how exactly one makes soap from scratch at home? What does one need in order to make soap? And just what the heck is soap anyway?

In a nutshell, soap is made when oils are combined with sodium hydroxide (lye). That's really about it.

Let's expand a bit on that, though. Here's where I lay some chemistry on you. I promise it won't hurt much. To make soap, a chemical reaction has to take place between an acid (the fats and oils in a soap recipe) and a base (a lye solution of sodium hydroxide and water). This chemical reaction, which is called saponification, produces soap and glycerin, a natural by-product of soapmaking.

The chemical structure of a typical soap
The mention of lye can make some people uncomfortable, conjuring images of harsh soaps and irritated skin. The truth is, you cannot make soap without lye. It's just not possible. The good news is that when soap is properly made, there is no lye present in the final product. Great-grandma may have made some lye-heavy batches in her day, and too much lye can certainly make for an unpleasant bar. But soapmaking has come a long way in the past couple of decades and today's soapmakers use things like gram scales and lye calculators to make sure that they are using exactly the right amount of lye to oils.

See, each molecule of sodium hydroxide combines with a molecule of oil. During saponification, triglycerides in the oils break down into fatty acids and glycerols. The fatty acids react with the sodium ions, creating sodium compounds that are better known as soap. (So soap is chemically a salt. Cool, huh?) And where does all of that skin-loving glycerin that I mentioned earlier come from? The newly liberated glycerols react with the hydroxide ions to create glycerin.

Of course, you can't just dump some sodium hydroxide into some oils and get soap. There is a process.

Dig my look?
What does that process look like? First and foremost is safety. Lye is caustic and it must be handled with respect. A speck of lye in your eye will really ruin your day.

Here are the basic safety rules: Suit up with goggles, gloves, long sleeves, long pants, and close-toed shoes. Take care to not breathe the lye fumes. Standing back and running the exhaust fan is usually enough, but wear a painter's or dust mask if you want to. If you get lye or raw soap on yourself, rinse thoroughly with water and then rinse with vinegar. (I always have a spritzer of vinegar handy.) Protect your countertops and appliances, too. I take a tip from Dexter and cover everything with plastic drop cloths. I also lay down paper bags so I have a place to rest my soapy utensils.

A few words about equipment: I use either heavy-duty plastic (polypropylene is my plastic of choice - the kind with the recycling code with the "5" and "PP" on the bottom) or stainless steel for making soap. Never use aluminum, tin, copper, teflon, or any other metals, as they will react badly with lye. I also do not use glass - over time, lye can etch tiny cracks into the glass and one day it may decide to just shatter.

Kitchen prepped for soapmaking

Every soapmaker's process varies, but here's how I do things. I am a mise en place kind of soaper and I like everything out and measured before I get started. First I measure out my oils and butters for my batch size, which is usually two pounds of oils. (I measure everything in grams for greater accuracy.) My basic recipe typically includes olive oil, coconut oil, palm oil (from a sustainable source), shea butter, and/or avocado oil. I like to measure out my oils in separate bowls so I can put some back if I over-measure. Plus, I'm OCD and feel reassured to see four bowls of oils if I'm using four oils in my soap. I gently heat the oils in the microwave to melt them and to get them a bit warmer. When all of my oils are warm and melted, I combine them into one big bowl.

I also like to measure out my fragrance or essential oils and get any colorants ready. I usually use powdered oxides and micas and mix them with a bit of liquid glycerin to work out any clumps.

Next, I get my lye solution ready. As discussed, soap is made through a chemical reaction with oils and sodium hydroxide. You need some sort of liquid, though, to dissolve the sodium hydroxide and to act as a carrier, ensuring that all of the lye gets to the oils. Water (preferably distilled water) is usually used, but beer, wine, fruit juices, milks (goat's milk being a particular favorite), etc. can also be used in place of the water. I keep my liquids in the fridge so that the lye solution doesn't get too hot. To make the lye solution, I measure out my lye flakes into a cup, and then slowly sprinkle my lye flakes into my cold liquid, stirring as I go. NEVER ADD WATER TO LYE - ALWAYS ADD LYE TO WATER. The lye solution usually heats up to about 165 degrees F when I start with cold liquids, and I like the temperature to be more like 100-110 degrees before I combine it with the oils. So, I always make sure I have an ice bath waiting in the sink so I can rest my lye container in the frigid water, thus cooling it down faster. After about 10-15 minutes of stirring my lye solution in the ice bath, it's cool enough to add to my oils.

Adding lye flakes to water (inside a dishpan in case of any spills); stirring lye solution in ice bath
Some soapmakers wait until "trace" (something I'll explain in a moment) before adding fragrance or essential oils, but I usually go ahead and add my fragrance to the oils once they've cooled down to about 110 degrees or so. I do this for a couple of reasons. First, this way I won't forget to add it. Second, if my fragrance is finicky, the oils will give me a bit of a buffer against seizing, ricing, or acceleration.

Adding lye solution to oils; emulsifying lye and oils with stick blender
When both my oils and my lye solution are somewhere around 100-110 degrees, I slowly add the lye solution to the oils, stirring as I go. To help speed things along, I use a stick blender to mix and emulsify the soap batter.

Look closely. See the trails of soap on the surface? That's trace.
How do you know when to pour?

Soapmakers look for something called "trace." Trace occurs when the soap batter is completely emulsified and will not separate into a watery, oily mess. How do you test for trace? Dip a spoon or spatula into the soap and dribble a bit on top. If the dribbles leave a trail of soap that stays on the surface for a couple of moments before sinking back into the batter, that's trace. Trace can be light or heavy, depending on how long you mix it and what consistency you want. Lighter trace is good for swirling, heavier trace is good for layering.

Once I've reach my desired level of trace, I pour my soap into my mold. Some molds (like silicone, plastic or acrylic) don't need to be lined, but others (like wooden molds) do. To line a mold, I use freezer paper with the shiny side facing in.
Freshly poured soap in the mold
Once the soap is in the mold, I pop a lid on it and insulate it with a couple of towels. I like for my soaps to go through gel phase, which is a part of the saponification process in which the soap heats up and becomes rather gelatinous. After 24 hours, gel phase is complete and the soap can be cut. Soap doesn't have to go through gel phase to become soap. Some soapers purposely avoid gelling by popping the soap into the fridge or freezer because they like the color or texture of ungelled soaps better. Ungelled soap still saponifies, it just takes a few days longer.

After about 4-6 weeks of curing time, the soaps are ready to use!

And that's pretty much it! Now you know the basics of soapmaking. I hope it was interesting!

Until next time ...

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Orange Patchouli Soap

I love patchouli. It smells musky, earthy, and dirty, like rich soil. Not everyone loves it. Some folks hate it. I remember burning patchouli incense when I was in high school and my mom complaining that I was "making the house smell like dead things."

Lovely, sweet, amazing-smelling dead things.

One day, when the price of patchouli essential oil comes down a bit (and by a bit I mean a lot), I will make a batch of soap scented with patchouli straight-up. Fortunately, a little patchouli goes a long way, and it's great in blends. And I have found that people who hate patchouli - like my mom, for example - like it in a blend.

I bought a bar of Orange Patchouli soap at a farmer's market a couple of years ago and loved it. A couple of weeks ago, I was browsing through my fragrance cabinet and squealed with delight when I found that I had full bottles of both orange and patchouli essential oils. So I made a batch of Orange Patchouli cold-process soap.

For this batch, I used Bramble Berry's 10x Orange and Patchouli essential oils at a 3:1 ratio. I love the 10-fold Orange essential oil because it sticks well in cold-process soap. Citrus essential oils are notoriously fleeting and often fade to almost nothing in soap. The 10-fold Orange is a concentrated essential oil, so it tends to be stronger and better survives the saponification process. This batch of soap smells mostly of orange with a bit of musky earthiness in the background.

Patchouli blends so well with so many other scents. I've tried lavender and patchouli together, too, and that is a wonderful combination. There are so many combos that I think would be fantastic - patchouli and lemongrass, grapefruit, geranium, peppermint, rosemary, sandalwood, or cedarwood ... the list goes on. Experimentation is a huge part of the fun in soapmaking!

How do you feel about patchouli? Love it, hate it? Do you like it by itself, or prefer it in a blend? What are some of your favorite patchouli blends?

Until next time ...