I’ve always had a passing interest in soap. However, it wasn’t until recently that I decided to take the plunge and make it myself. Many times I’d talk myself out of entering this venture because I lacked the materials, knowledge, and the confidence to work with lye. After having $300 of “use it or lose it” UMass dining dollars left over from the 2016-17 school year, I decided to purchase $150 worth of snacks for my road trip which I took earlier in the summer. The other $150 dollars were spent on 6 bottles of severely overpriced olive oil. In that moment of carrying those bottles of green gold back to my car that fateful spring day, I knew that they were destined to become soap, and that there was still much work to be done.
To say there was more work to be done was an understatement. Having never made soap before, I underestimated what it takes to make it properly. From a material standpoint, I had to create the molds, buy safety equipment, thermometers, a planer/beveler, a custom soap stamp, and essential oils/fragrance oils. Day after day, dollar after dollar, I became more financially and emotionally invested in making soap. Before I had even made my first batch, the prospect of making soap became more exciting as it became closer to being a reality. Having said that, I still had to do my homework. I spent hours reading soapmaking forum posts, peering over Youtube videos (mainly Uncle Jon’s soap and Soap Queen),and even checking out a myriad of books from the Athol Public Library. I thought that I had a pretty good handle on everything there is to know, but there were still many tips and tricks that I learned which gave me insight. You can always learn something from listening to other people. Come to think of it, I never would have been able to make soap at all if it were not for other people. Someone who has been making soap for years likely knows many things that I don’t, and could be a wealth of knowledge. Nobody told me that it’s both a science and an art, and that many, many different things can go wrong in the process. Just when you think you know it all, odds are likely that there’s much left for you to learn.
They say that no man is an island, and this something that I’m still trying to internalize and implement into my life. My friend Trudy has been a huge help in this process and I wouldn’t have been able to get this far without her. Everyone needs a partner to accompany them into uncharted waters, and she’s been as much of a part of this process as I have been. Her basement is strewn with soap and soapmaking supplies, and she’s always willing to listen to my constant (and I mean constant) musings/ideas about making soap. Even though it’s unlikely that we’ll go into business together, we both appreciate a good bar of soap and the effort that goes into making one, and have a good time making it. Finding someone else who is excited about what you’re creating and wants to be part of that is really helpful and encouraging. Making soap then becomes more than just a hobby, but something to bond over as well.
After creating my first batch, I noticed cosmetic flaws and then researched tips and methods to fix those imperfections. Some of the bars ended up looking like American cheese ends (My Hannaford people are the only ones likely to understand this), and the bars that I had cut were all different sizes thanks to the cheap cheese cutter I bought for the sole purpose of cutting even bars. One of the batches that I made were supposed to smell like patchouli and lime. However, I used an insufficient amount of essential oil which rendered the bars nearly scentless and outed me $20 for nothing. I later learned that some essential oils require larger amounts to present their aromatic profiles in soap, and could also lose their scent in the saponification process. I never would have learned about this, had I not created a flawed batch. These mistakes taught me more than any video or book could have, and gave me valuable insight on how to make a better product. Trying and failing to do something is a vital part of the learning process, and it has only given me more information and resolve to make better soap.
From the first batch to the second, I produced much less waste (pictured below), due to cutting with a knife instead of the cheese cutter, which resulted in evenly-sized bars. The mitigation of waste also had to do with using freezer paper (as opposed to a cut trash bag) to make the mold liner which gave me crisp edges and reduced the amount which would be shaved off in the planing/beveling process. Blending the oil and lye mixture to thin trace (trace is a soapmaking term for the viscosity of the saponified mixture of oils, thick trace looks like vanilla pudding) to reduce the textured edge on the top of the mold also helped cut that down quite a bit. The third batch was scented properly because of what I had gone through previously. Nobody ever wakes up one day and masters their craft. Instead, they hone their skills by continually practicing them day-in and day-out and not getting discouraged when they don’t get ideal results at first.
Anthony Bourdain once said something alone the lines of “If you want to get good at something, you’re going to suck at first. Then you wake up and do it the next day, and suck a little bit less”. Using this motto, I’ve encouraged myself to keep up with not only soapmaking, but also with things like running, lifting weights and playing guitar to name a few. Learning to accept the fact that it takes hard work to become proficient at a craft (or anything for that matter) shouldn’t stop you from pursuing it, and chances are, if it does, you didn’t want to do it in the first place. Becoming better at making soap only encourages me to keep going. With the dream of producing even better bars on the horizon, and by having more people enjoy my soap, I am driven to continue. I want to create something that puts a smile on someone’s face and brightens their day, even if only by a marginal amount.
Through this process, I have learned to appreciate the work that goes into a bar of soap. When you connect with a craft, you can see the discrepancies between good and bad products and understand the work that goes into creating it. Someone who has never made a bar of soap could appreciate one at face value after using it. However, having made soap, I can see below the surface and realize the work that goes into producing it. That knowledge allows me to appreciate it on a different level. Having knowledge helps us connect with the world around us and appreciate the things we come in contact with in our lives. A bar of soap is generally viewed as a mundane part of the minutia of our lives, but I can see it as a thoughtfully crafted product which could brighten someone’s day, thanks to my endeavors.
Soapmaking has been a rewarding creative outlet so far. When you create something, your creation reflects your artistry and your values. Having the connection between you and the object you create is something I feel is sorely lacking from many people these days. When I see a completed bar of my soap, I get a great sense of pride from knowing that I created it. We live in a society which does nothing but consume, never once thinking to produce something of our own, with our own talents and influences. Creating something which other people can find value in creates a sense of pride and happiness that is hard to explain unless you actually do it.
One of the cool things about soapkmaking, is its practicality. Almost everyone uses soap. Some hobbies such as working on cars or painting require extensive clean up, whereas making soap literally cleans up after itself because your final product is, well, soap! What’s not to love? It can also be a profitable hobby, as you can sell your end product, which will allow you to keep making it, and also give you a secondary source of income. Another added benefit is the sensory experience you get from making it. Having a room smell like a freshly scented soap that you made is quite a rewarding experience.
Will I become the next Emmanuel Bronner? Unlikely. But who knows? It’s been a fun ride so far and I know that there’s much left to learn. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was a good bar of soap. All I know is that I’ve really enjoyed connecting with this craft and I hope other people will also get to benefit from this as well. Here’s to many more bars!
If you’re interested in making soap for yourself, please check out:
– Books about soapmaking at your local public library
-Or try talking to someone you know who makes soap about making it. Remember collaboration is key and no man is an island.
Those are my thoughts, what are yours?