Soapy

It’s been about a month since I made my first soap of 2007, and I tried a bar tonight. It seems OK. I should have made more by now, but haven’t gotten around to it. Maybe tomorrow night, or Thursday. The batch I tried tonight I may share with family, but from here forward I’ll probably make all-lard soap that I can save for samples for the Bolivia trip. The pure lard soap doesn’t have as much fluffy lather as the soap with coconut, palm and olive oil in it, but it’s the closest analogue to what they’ll have available in Bolivia.

I think I took some mixed-oil soaps last year among my samples, without thinking it through, and later I wondered if my students would be disappointed when their soap didn’t lather as well.

The story so far

I sometimes forget that the people who read this blog only occasionally, or who have only recently found it, may not know what I’m talking about. (Sometimes I have no idea what I’m talking about.)

Anyway, here’s the back story about some of my recent posts referencing soapmaking, Spanish and mission trips.

I have taken foreign mission trips through LEAMIS International Ministries, a small, non-denominational missions agency based in Sewanee, Tenn., since 2003.

In 2003, we went to Nicaragua, for a relatively routine construction-and-visitation trip. For me, it was a great introduction to foreign short-term missions. But the founders of LEAMIS wanted to break out of the construction mold for such short-term trips.

In 2004, 2005 and 2006, I traveled to Kenya with LEAMIS as the agency moved to a cottage industry approach. I and my fellow volunteers taught simple skills which the people of our host churches could use to produce a marketable product. In 2004, I taught a craft called copper foiling, but I had doubts about whether it was really practical as a cottage industry.

In 2005, because LEAMIS would be working simultaneously at two sites in Kenya, I was asked to teach cold process soapmaking. I knew nothing about it, but I was trained by Carolyn Schussler, the volunteer who would be teaching it at the other site. I taught soapmaking again in 2006, all by myself.

This year, LEAMIS is not planning a team trip to Kenya. LEAMIS has not abandoned Kenya and will be making some smaller trips this year to install water purification systems. I am sure they’ll do another cottage industry trip in the future.

LEAMIS is doing a trip to Bolivia, in South America, this summer, and I will be a part of it. I am now raising money for the trip. Task assignments haven’t been finalized, but the assumption seems to be that I will teach soapmaking again, so I am working in that direction. It is, however, always possible that the host church will request something different.

We still need team members for the Bolivia trip; contact me or LEAMIS if you are interested.

Ashes to ashes, lye to soap

At Ash Wednesday service tonight, Rev. Dr. Doyle gave us a caution I’d never heard before. He suggested that, when it came time to wipe the imposed ashes from our forehead, we should use a dry cloth first to collect most of the ashes before going to a wet washrag. The idea is that ashes are closely related to lye, and can burn your eyes. I don’t think this is a serious problem — I’ve never had any ill effects from imposed ashes before — but it’s probably good better-safe-than-sorry advice.

Anyway, I had to smile because I knew that I’d be exposed to lye in a much more potent form after coming home from the service. I made my first batch of soap in ages tonight. It was pretty haphazard — the blend of oils wasn’t carefully calculated but was based on emptying my existing bottle of plain, non-virgin olive oil, then adding some lard because there wasn’t very much olive oil, then adding some palm and coconut oils for lather. (You must not go overboard on the coconut oil; it adds lots of bubbly lather, but in soap form, it dries out your skin.) I was eyeballing my additions, but I did keep track of how much I had added using a digital scale. I kept notes on how many grams of each oil I had added, and then plugged them into SoapCalc to find out how much lye and water I needed. I threw in my last few drops of blueberry fragrance oil, although it’s likely that the scent won’t survive the curing process.

I used little round Glad-Lock containers for molds. The soaps are now going through gel stage in an insulated mylar bag. I threw the empty fragrance oil bottle into the bag before closing it up because, well, it couldn’t hurt.

Future batches will be a little better thought out; this one was just for fun, to get me back into the habit.

The bars will be solid and can be popped out of their molds within a few days. But when you use cold process, you aren’t supposed to use the soap for a month to six weeks, on the off chance that there are any tiny specks of un-saponified lye lurking inside. I have heard of some soapmakers who follow those guidelines faithfully for any soap they sell or give away, but for their own use they sometimes take the risk of using the soap sooner, especially if it’s just as a hand soap.

While they are curing, the soaps may develop a dull powdery coating. This is harmless soda ash, and can easily be shaved or rinsed off before the soaps are used.

I probably need to make 100 percent lard soap for most of the samples I end up taking to Bolivia, since it’s most likely that my students will be making lard or beef tallow soap rather than using a bunch of different frou-frou oils. (In Kenya, which isn’t much of a pork producer, beef tallow was the fat of choice.)

Back in the saddle soap

I hope to make some soap this week. I haven’t made any since back before the last Kenya trip, and I hadn’t gotten around to replacing my stainless steel stock pot or other items that I left (on purpose) with the church in Ndonyo. But I need to get back into practice and start building up some samples I can take with me to Bolivia this summer.

I also need to make some more soap for the family, surprisingly enough. In 2005, I gave all the adult women in the family homemade soap but thought of it as a one-time thing. But Mike and Kelly said last week in California that they had run out and wanted me to send them some more. Daniel calls it “Uncle John Soap.”

On my soap box — literally

I have posted several times before about Charlie’s Soap, a great, basic, no-frills, biodegradable laundry powder — it takes only a tablespoon per load — which you order by mail. When you consider washloads per box, it’s also very inexpensive.

Well, I came home from work today and found a package on my doorstep. At first, I thought it was my DSL self-install kit, but that isn’t scheduled to even be shipped until tomorrow. No, it was a gift box of Charlie’s Soap.

I did a double-take; I’ve never bought the stuff in the gift packaging before, and it’s labeled as “lingerie powder”! (The brown-paper packaging I usually buy says “cleans everything from silk frillies to shop rags.”) I checked the web site to make sure they hadn’t come up with some new product intended just for delicates, but no, it’s the same Charlie’s Soap I already use and love. Which is a relief, because now I don’t have to go out and buy lingerie. :)

There was no explanation or packing slip, but the mailing label said “REFERRAL.” If you refer a new customer, you get a free gift box. I haven’t spoken to anyone about Charlie’s Soap lately, so I imagine someone must have ordered the stuff after reading about it in the blog and was kind enough to say on the order form that they heard about it from me.

I don’t know if the new Charlie’s Soap customer is a regular reader or just someone who ran across this blog by way of a search engine. If it’s the former, please let me know how you like the stuff.

Soaping again

I need to make a few batches of soap over the next few weeks so that I will have samples to take with me to Kenya in August. Since cold process soap takes six weeks or so to cure, we won’t get the immediate satisfaction of using the soap we make during our cottage industry workshop. So I tried last year to bring samples to hand out.

The trouble is, I never know ahead of time exactly how many people are going to be in the workshop or how it’s going to be set up. Or, rather, I think I know but it usually gets changed. The first requirement of foreign missions is flexibility.

I meant to make a batch of soap last weekend but things have been crazy. I vegged out on Saturday after a really long and stressful work week. Then, on Sunday, I was over at my folks’ all day for Mother’s Day (and the family observance of my birthday). It’s not just the soap-making itself; job one is to clean out the sink and clean off some work space. I finally got around to it tonight.

I should have made straight lard soap (my students will be making primarily beef tallow soap). But I’m still playing around with soap, and I couldn’t resist adding a little coconut oil and olive oil. It’s still mostly a lard-based soap. I tried adding some crayon to color it but I don’t think it will turn out. (I keep meaning to stop by Hobby Lobby in Murfreesboro and pick up candle-making color chips.) I added gardenia fragrance oil.

Logistics

Well, I’m still pumped from the news that I’m going to be going to Africa this year after all.

Now, of course, come the logistics. The trip isn’t until August, but some things have to be done sooner than that. I had to fill out my formal application for the trip, and in order to do that I had to go ahead and purchase my insurance for the trip. I’ve posted about Overseas Travelers Protection Plan before; they specialize in insurance for short-term foreign travel, and will pay to airlift you to a Western-style hospital if that’s needed. And the top level of protection is only $45 for a two-week trip. LEAMIS requires participants to have some sort of insurance for the trip.

Our pre-trip training weekend will take place in mid-May at a retreat center in Sewanee, Tenn.

I’ll need to get new passport-style photos taken so that they can be sent to the Kenyan embassy with a visa application. I’ll need to buy supplies and materials for my soapmaking workshop, most of which will be left behind with the host church when I leave. If I have room, I’ll also take some school supplies, toothbrushes, toothpaste or other giveaway items to leave with our host church. My vaccinations are still good, but I’ll need to get prescriptions (and fill them) for an anti-malarial drug and for an antibiotic that I can take in case of traveler’s diarrhea.

There are a million other little details between now and then. But it will all come together.

Charlie’s Soap

Anyone who’s seen my apartment, or my fashion sense, may not put much stock in my endorsement of a cleaning product. But I’m going to tell you about it anyway.

I can’t recall exactly where I ran across Charlie’s Soap — I think it’s possible that I may have been looking for something related to my soapmaking and Charlie popped up as a Google ad. However it happened, I went to their web site and read about their three products — a household cleaner, a liquid laundry detergent and a powdered laundry detergent.

I realize you can get a variety of fine laundry detergents at your corner supermarket, but this one sounded different. Supposedly, it’s chemically different from the normal supermarket products, based on a combination of washing soda, sodium silicate and a coconut-oil-based detergent. Thanks to my soap-making, I know about coconut oil.

The manufacturers claim that the product’s cleaning ability is so strong that they warn you to run an empty cycle the first time around because Charlie’s product could actually dislodge some of the buildup left behind in the washing machine by your previous detergent.

It’s quite concentrated — one tablespoon of the powder is the recommended amount. A bag not much bigger than a softball does 80 loads of laundry. It’s completely unscented, hypo-allergenic and biodegradable.
“Softeners are not recommended or needed,” proclaims the package (a brown paper bag with a flexible wire closure). “There is nothing softer than really clean clothes.” They claim the product washes out of clothes more completely than traditional detergents.
They also boast about the lack of scent. “If you want flowers, go pick some,” growls the bag.

Well, I decided to give it a try. It sounds expensive but when you consider that one bag does 80 loads, it’s really not bad — and the prices on the web site include shipping within the U.S.

The first load seems to have come out fine, although I had nothing particular to test — no egregious recent stains or what have you. But the whites are white, the colors are still apprpropriate and everything feels soft and clean.  We’ll see how this works over the long run.

Soap opera

My cousin Ted made me feel a little guilty over using palm oil in my weekend batch of soap. Read his comment on my previous post to find out why. Of course, there are probably a lot of products I use that are grown or harvested in environmentally-destructive fashion.

Actually, I used a little more palm oil than I intended in this recipe. Both the palm oil and the coconut oil are good for the soap’s hardness and its lathering ability, but a soap made exclusively from either (or both) would dry your skin. (Ted’s comment, by the way, explains the difference between the two oils.)

I bought a big bleach-sized jug of palm oil from a mail order house. But it’s solid at room temperature, so when you use it you have to sit the jug in a sink full of hot water until some of the oil melts, then carefully pour what you need. I was measuring into the stainless steel stock pot which I have dedicated for soap-making; it was sitting on top of a scale and I had already added the coconut oil. I went a little overboard. I tried to add enough olive oil to compensate, but by that time it was already the largest batch I’d ever worked with.

I retroactively plugged the oil percentages into SoapCalc, which reports that the soap will be within acceptable values for all the various qualities (cleansing, conditioning, hardness, fluffy lather, stable lather, etc.).

A return to soap

After returning from the Kenya trip last August, I made several batches of soap so that I could give gift baskets to my mom, sister and sisters-in-law for Christmas. They were well-received. But by the time I got through with those batches, I got busy and hadn’t made any soap since.

I made a batch today. I meant to stop by Hobby Lobby when I was in Murfreesboro on Thursday and buy some color chips (intended for candle-making, but useful for soap-making as well). During the day on Thursday, my father suggested I check the craft department at Wal-Mart. That sounded like a good idea and I never made it to Hobby Lobby Thursday night. Well, the craft department at Wal-Mart did not have them (at least not that I could find). So I bought a box of crayons.

Adding color and fragrance to soap is a tricky affair; when the soap is still liquid, it is also quite alkaline, and the lye can kill or change fragrances and colors so that the final product is not at all what you were expecting. Some soapmakers have gotten good results with the cerulean blue crayon, but other colors are a hit-and-miss affair. And I discovered today that the box of crayons I bought did not have a cereulean blue crayon. So, I tried a purplish-red crayon; we’ll see what happens. I also tried a swirled pattern for the first time, coloring part of the soap but not the rest and then trying to swirl the two colors together in each mold. That didn’t work out as well as I expected either. I should have poured the two colors side-by-side instead of drizzling one on top of the other. Live and learn.

Anyway, I was so preoccupied with the color that I forgot to add any scent to the soap. That’s not a major disaster — some people like unscented soap. In any case, I was not using lard today so I didn’t have the lard smell to overcome. The soap is 39 percent palm oil, 39 percent olive oil and 22 percent coconut oil.

Anyway, we’ll see how this batch turns out.

I still have plenty of now-discontinued Red Devil Lye for my sporadic soap-making. When I do run out, I understand there’s another brand which is carried by Lowe’s.