The good reaction to my Christmas soap baskets from my mom, sister and sisters-in-law, plus the process of explaining the craft to Eric Seiden today, has reminded me that I don’t have any batches curing at the moment. I may try to stop by Hobby Lobby in Murfreesboro on my way to Nashville on Friday and pick up some candle-coloring chips or fragrances and get something going over the long holiday weekend.


I really haven’t shown much interest in “social networking” web sites like Friendster which claim to help people network with others of similar interests. But Eric Seiden, an online acquaintance of mine, has been trying to talk his friends into signing up for the Google-owned Orkut. I went ahead and signed up, just for the heck of it.

At that point, instead of meeting someone new, Eric found out something about me he hadn’t previously known: I make soap. This interested him, and so I’ve sent him several messages today passing him links and suggestions. After hearing my description of cold process soapmaking, Eric decided that he’s more interested in making some melt-and-pour soap with his preferred ingredients. This is a much simpler process which doesn’t involve lye but still allows you to customize soap with fragrances, colors and exfoliants or other additives.

I don’t know that I’ll actually try to network with anyone using Orkut, but it’s something interesting with which to play.

A good clean Christmas gift

I didn’t blog about it here — for obvious reasons, since at least one of the recipients reads this blog regularly — but I’d been planning the Christmas gifts for my mom, my sister and both my sisters-in-law for several months. As regular readers know, I learned how to make soap for my mission trip to Kenya last August. Most of my soap-making prior to the trip was very simple, focused on the limited techniques and ingredients to which my students would have access. But after the trip, I was a little more free to experiment.

Anyway, I made gift buckets for each of the relatives mentioned above. Each plastic bucket contained four bars of my homemade soap (in all but one case, it was four different kinds) plus a shower scrub poof. I was mostly pleased with the way the soaps turned out and hope the ladies (and their family members, if they decide to share) will enjoy them.

The bubble rises

This is one of the most remarkable stories I’ve read in some time, a story of an inventor with a good idea and the stubborn patience of Thomas Edison. The initial result, and the one with which the entrepreneur was obsessed, is a colored soap bubble. And yet — as Popular Science explains — the implications of the chemistry may be far-reaching.

It’s a tale as inspirational as it is geeky.

I got it from Nashville Is Talking, which got it from Yewknee.

A devil of a problem

First, some background: I learned soapmaking during the LEAMIS pre-field orientation weekend in April/May. I learned it for the purpose of the mission trip; LEAMIS needed someone to teach soap-making as a cottage industry. But I’ve really enjoyed it and hope to keep it up as a hobby. Just this past week, I made a batch of soap which may find its way into some holiday gifts.

But I got some news today which could have an impact on my soap-making future.

Serious soap-makers, the ones who sell their products at craft fairs or over the Internet, buy lye in large quantities from chemical supply houses. But beginners and hobbyists buy Red Devil brand lye, which is — or was — available in most supermarkets in the drain cleaner aisle. It’s 100 percent pure lye, unlike some of the lye-based drain cleaners on the shelf, and it works just perfectly for soap-making.

A few weeks ago, some of the people on a soap-making mailing list that I subscribe to started reporting that their favorite stores had stopped carrying Red Devil lye. Today, there was a post from someone confirming our worst fears: the manufacturer has stopped making the product. Some of the soap-makers are calling the customer service number to complain, but the company says the decision has already been made — apparently the product didn’t sell very well as a drain cleaner any more.

I don’t know if I can find someplace reasonably close by to buy lye. If you order it by mail, you pay a hefty hazardous materials charge over and above the normal shipping costs, so that would only be practical if you were buying a really large quantity (and I have no place in my little apartment which would be appropriate for storing such a large quantity).

I will try to make a circuit of the local groceries in the next few days and buy up any remaining canisters of Red Devil, which will hold me for a while. Beyond that, I don’t know.

More details

I woke up at 7:30 this morning. I had intended to sleep in, perhaps quite late, but the sunshine and thoughts of all I have to do this weekend got me up. I’m going to nap a bit this afternoon.

It was a great trip. The soapmaking workshop went well, and when I was preaching during one of the evening services I kept going even when the church’s generator failed, plunging us into total darkness. (Dad will be so proud.) The team was great.

Transportation was a bear. I broke my digital camera. And I was bitten by a spider or other critter, causing me fever, chills and a red spot that wrapped two-thirds of the way around my calf. But I survived all of it.

Debrief at the safari park was great, too. Also, during our nine-hour layover in Amsterdam, we got to leave the airport for a 2 1/2-hour bus tour of the city.

Right now, most of my efforts are being directed towards the five-part series I’m writing for the paper next week. I will post links to those stories as they are put up on the newspaper’s web site, and I’ll also post other details and stories here that don’t fit into the series.

Thanks for all your concern and support.

My own soap

I didn’t post about it, but I started using a bar of my own soap — my May 7 batch, the first I made on my own after training — a couple of weeks ago. I really like it. It has lost most of the fragrance I originally added to it; I can see that hand-milling is the way to go when it comes to adding fragrances. (Hand-milling means grating and re-melting a soap after it has cured, in order to add fragrance, color, exfoliants or what have you.) So the bar smells like lard and soap, not like peppermint. But it’s hard, and it has just the right consistency, neither powdery (which would mean too much lye, and would in fact be dangerous to use) nor squishy (too much fat). Like many kinds of homemade soap, it took a use or two to “break it in” before it started to lather well. But now it works just fine, and my skin feels great.

A few weeks ago, I made my sister a batch of soap with gardenia, a fragrance she had requested. I may need to hand mill that soap and re-add the gardenia fragrance oil before I give it to her next month.

Homemade soap has plenty of glycerin, which is supposed to be good for the skin. Glycerin is a natural byproduct of the soap-making process, but most of your big commercial manufacturers rob their soap of most of its glycerin in order to use it in other products (such as toothpaste).

The rest of my May 7 batch, as well as all of my May 14 batch, have been chopped into quarters to take to Kenya. Since the soap we make during class won’t have time to cure, I wanted everyone to have a little chunk or two of usable homemade soap to take home with them.

One problem with the homemade soap: it leaves a good old-fashioned soap ring on the tub.

Cupboard-cleaning soap

As I posted last night to the soapmaking group on Yahoo!, I made a batch of soap last night using up a couple of odd leftover amounts of lard and palm oil, and adding coconut oil and plain olive oil to boot. The combination was a little random, but one of the gurus says it’s actually a pretty good mix.

Each oil used in soap-making gives certain properties to the finished product. Soap made from one oil lathers very well, another is very gentle to the skin, while another makes a hard, long-lasting bar. Some of the on-line recipe calculators, like Soap Calc, will show you the properties of each individual oil and of whatever combination you type in. Part of the fun of soap-making seems to be searching for that perfect combination.

Soap just for me

I made soap tonight — and this is the first batch that I won’t be taking to Kenya to give away as samples. (It won’t have cured by then.) So I had some fun with it.

Last year, when Carolyn taught the soap-making class in Nairobi, some of her students asked her about including avocado pulp. It turns out some of them rub avocado pulp on their skin as a moisturizer. I decided to try including avocado in my recipe tonight. Carolyn and I found a recipe when I was in Mississippi a couple of weeks ago, but I forgot to copy it down and bring it with me. I did know that it required benzoin as a preservative to keep the avocado from spoiling. As such, it’s probably not much good to the people in Kenya.

But for my own curiosity, I ordered some benzoin from GloryBee Foods — see my post below for more details about how that went — and tried adding benzoin, and the pulp of half an avocado, to a basic lard cold process soap recipe. (I wasn’t sure I had gotten the entire pound of lard out of the plastic tub, so I added a slight drizzle of olive oil.)

One posting I’d seen online suggested adding two teaspoons of benzoin when melting my pound of lard, so that’s what I did. But the benzoin was cakey and hard to measure. Anyway, the resulting soap was the color of peanut butter as I waited for it to trace.

At trace, I added the mashed avocado and stirred until I thought it was well-distributed. I added a few drops of blueberry scent, also from GloryBee, and poured it into the molds.

We’ll see how it turns out, although I won’t be able to use it until about the time I get back from the trip.

Peeve of the week

Dave and Carolyn Schussler had recommended GloryBee Foods as a source for soap-making supplies such as fragrances. I went to their web site a week ago and ordered a couple of fragrance oils and some benzoin powder (a preservative used when you include vegetable pulp, etc., in your soap).

The items arrived today — along with a snooty little note that their minimum order was $30 and that, while they filled my $22.50 order, any future orders below the limit would be subject to an additional service charge.

OK, so here’s my complaint: if they have a minimum order size, why did their web site accept my order? Why don’t they have their web site set up not to accept small orders — or, at the very least, to put up a warning message? I think minimum order sizes are a lousy idea anyway. I don’t know about soap-making, but there are plenty of mail-order and e-commerce sites that seem to get along just fine without them. You can easily tweak your shipping and handling fees to favor larger orders, if you like, without putting up that big red “NO” sign and alienating potential customers.

I’ll get off my soap(making) box now.