Just as bread bakers yearn for the impeccable crust and wine sommeliers search for the right bouquet, soap makers attempt the perfect bar. Gentle or astringent, perfumed or unscented, soap is an ancient craft.
If making soap is a reminder of pioneer women stirring giant vats of lard and wood ashes, you’ve studied history. Soap making has a messy past based on a chemical reaction that appeared magical. Fat combines with lye (wood ashes contain a simple lye) resulting in saponification. The substance no longer is fat or lye, but a new product capable of cleaning dirt from skin and clothes.
Saponification remains the basic chemistry. But modern soap makers experiment with exotics like avocado or walnut oils. Although tallow and lard are available, the mixture of vegetable oils like olive, palm or coconut has become a favorite.
Homemade soap is nothing like the chalky bars of pioneer days. It may look like stained glass or be studded with oatmeal. Modern soap makers have turned soap into a hobby that produces the finest, silkiest bars. Perfumed with essential oils such as lavender, clary sage, citrus or rose, home soaps look, and feel, luxurious.
In commercial soap, one of the by-products, glycerin, is siphoned and sold to cosmetic companies. That simple emollient will remain in your home made soap. You can design a creamy soap for dry skin, tingly for oily. Have a skin allergy? You can decide exactly what goes into soap.
Soap contains lye. With that comes a caution: lye will burn your skin and blind you if it splashes in your eyes. Vinegar is an antidote, but it cannot undo the damage of spilled lye. In soap making, few accidents happen because soap makers are cautioned extensively to wear goggles, long sleeves, long pants and rubber gloves. Never use lye around children or pets. Once this basic lesson is taught, the rest of soap is easy.
Unlike bread, where you can dabble with the basic ingredients, soap isn’t cooking. It’s a complicated chemical reaction. You measure just the right amount of lye and water. Those are mixed outside or in a well-ventilated room then added to oils and stirred until a trace is formed. A trace is when the mixture has thickened. When a little is dribbled over the surface, the dribble line sits on the surface without sinking into it. An essential oil is stirred into the mixture. The mixture is poured into trays, wrapped in a blanket for warmth and allowed to sit for about 24 hours. Saponification continues for several days and the soap will feel warm to the touch. The soap is not suitable for use until at least a week later and possibly longer. It will cure and harden in a few weeks.
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