This Thursday, we’ll revisit when I first began this soap-making journey. Welcome to Throwback Thursday. Many soap makers have very emotional, personal, heartwrenching stories of how they became artisan soap makers. I am not one of those people. Fortunately, my baby did not suffer from skin issues. I don’t have sensitivities or skin issues. Simply stated, I got goats. We began with two goats. We knew nothing about goats and had a lot to learn. With one of our two goats in milk, we naively decided we needed more goats because we didn’t think we had enough milk for our family. At the time, we did not know that a nanny goat produces more milk with every lactation. The Bibbed Wonder and I decided to buy one more goat. However, once at the breeders, we discovered five lovely girls were destined for the auction. I couldn’t allow these sweet, beautiful creatures to go to what would most likely be their demise, and we came home with five more goats.
Suddenly, we had more milk than we knew what to do with, and I had to figure out a useful purpose for the milk. I tried my hand at making fudge. That was an epic fail. We then discovered the wonders of homemade ice cream. That was fun and delicious but terrible for the waistline. I then began researching soap making, and the rest is history. It took me a long time to find the nerve to make soap. The process for someone unfamiliar with chemistry sounds pretty intimidating. I spent uncountable hours reading up on different methods, various recipes, and limitless ingredients. After hours of research and watching videos, I thought the worst that could happen was I blow up my kitchen. Secretly, I would not have been devasted if I had blown up my kitchen; it would offer a good purpose for a remodel.
Lucky for me, I didn’t blow up anything. My very first batch of soap was unscented soap. I didn’t use any colorants, additives, or essential oils. I just wanted to test the process and see if I could make soap successfully. I used a small stainless steel stock pot I had in my kitchen. I purchased an inexpensive immersion blender from Walmart and did everything in my kitchen. I had purchased adorable plastic molds that made six four-ounce bars at the time. Once I was finished, I waited three days before I unmolded the soap. Unmolding the soap was not an easy process. Most of the bars did not come out cleanly. Most of my adorable little goats lost their little faces in the unmolding process. I set my soap on plastic-coated cookie cooling racks and waited for it to cure. In the meantime, I made another batch of soap. This time, I added lavender essential oil and salt to help the soap harden more quickly and, hopefully, unmold more easily. With this batch, I waited twenty-four hours before unmolding. Adding the salt to the lye did the trick, and my soap came out cleanly. All the adorable little goats had their faces intact. Success!
Once Nathan, the owner of Back to Nature, agreed to carry my soap, I upped my game. I bought silicone loaf molds, natural clays, micas for colorants, and various essential oils. Eric helped me triple my recipe. I remember how frightened I was about making such a large batch of soap. I also remember feeling very proud of myself when it turned out well. I look back and laugh a little at my feeling of accomplishment when I made twenty-seven bars of soap at one time. At the time, I felt like that was a big deal. I would sit calculating how many bars I could make in a day. Fifty-four bars of soap seemed like a lot of soap back then.
Initially, I started very small, timid, and regimental in following directives. I did not permit Jordan to be in the same room as me when I was making soap. I was deathly afraid I would injure her. I wore safety goggles that made me look like a mad scientist. I made sure all my skin was covered, and I wore elbow-length rubber gloves. I wish I had pictures of myself during those early days. I took safety very seriously. I also remember my very first lye burn. I kept white vinegar on the counter in case I had an accident. White vinegar neutralizes the lye and stops the burning. I accidentally splashed lye milk onto my face and felt the burning sensation within seconds. I soaked cotton balls in the white vinegar and patted my face. Unfortunately, I did not neutralize it quickly enough and had several little burn marks on my face that went deep enough to make it painful. Lesson learned.
Jordan was eight when I began making soap. Back then, she thought I was cool and wanted to do everything I did. Now, I have to beg her to come out of her room to talk to me…sigh. Once I agreed to let her help me, I bought her a full-on face shield, a little lab coat, and tiny rubber gloves. She looked like a little scientist, and she loved it. We would use essential oils based solely on their benefits for the skin, not the scent. Most of our soap-making attempts went smoothly, but there were a few hiccups along the way.
Making tea tree soap was the first time I experienced seizing. Seizing is when your soap batter hardens quickly in the pot. The first time I made tea tree soap, I followed all safety procedures. I blended with my little stick blender. I took my soap batter to a thin trace, added my tea tree essential oil, and I had hard, thick soap in my stock pot in the blink of an eye. I have never seen anything move so quickly as the soap batter did that day. My rubber spatula got stuck in the center of the mix. I fussed, fretted, and created a melange of curse words that would have made satan blush. The only thing to do was allow the concoction to turn into soap and wait three days to dig it out of the stock pot. It was a mess.
After seeing how quickly things could go from fine to frantic, I became very aware of the temperature of my ingredients. Measuring the temperature became almost an obsession for me. That is the only time I experienced soap seizing. There were many more lessons to learn along the way. For example, we are diligent about not putting any soap batter down the drain. Not an ounce of batter is permitted to slide into our drains and go to our septic system. You know there is a story here.
After several months of soap-making in my kitchen, I noticed our downstairs sink draining slowly. I poured some drain unclogger into the drain, let it sit overnight, and rinsed it down in the morning. There didn’t appear to be much difference in the draining speed. I also noticed the toilet didn’t seem to be flushing properly. I used a plunger to try to clear the drain. That, too, did not appear to help. I also noted that the kitchen sink was slow to drain, and my garbage disposal kept backing up. The Bibbed Wonder was working away at the time. I reported the problem to him, and he told me he would look at it when he got home. In the meantime, I continued making soap and innocently washed all my dishes in the kitchen sink without scraping out any batter. I simply rinsed it all down the drain. Now mind you, dear reader, soap is made up of a combination of solid fats, oils, milk, and lye. Please also keep in mind that soap turns solid in approximately fifteen to twenty minutes.
My bib overall-wearing buddy came home and did his best to unclog the drain but realized our plumbing issue was out of his pay grade, and he called in a plumber. The plumber tried to alleviate the problem to no avail. He finally brought a drain snake with a camera on the end of it. Everything appeared fine until he reached our pipe system’s very end. There seemed to be a three-foot section of hard pink build-up, nearly closing off the pipe into the sewage tank. The plumber asked if we ate a strange, exotic diet because he had never seen anything pink in a drain before. It took us a while, but we finally figured out soap was blocking the pipe. I was not very popular with my husband, the plumber, or the guys who drained our septic tank.
It took days to unclog the drain. Once it was cleared out, a tube of yucky, pink soap appeared to go on forever. The septic tank cleaner said he had never removed anything like it in his experience, and despite being in the septic, it still smelled like roses. Umm, gross. To this day, we don’t allow a drop of soap batter to go into the drains. We rinse our pots with scalding hot water and dump them outside. If I even think about being lazy and pouring soap batter down the drain, all I have to do is remember the work, smell, and cost of having the septic tank cleaned out, and I pour the water outside.
Soap-making continues to teach us lessons, we solve new problems, and we have become more confident in our soap-making skills. It’s fun to remember the early days and measure how far we have come. Now, making twenty-seven bars of soap at a time doesn’t seem worth the effort. We now make fourteen loaves of soap in one batch, giving us approximately one hundred twenty bars of soap. I no longer make soap alone. I can’t lift the pots. I have blown up four small immersion blenders in my history. I now use a massive industrial blender that is a powerhouse. We are a bit more relaxed with safety precautions, but when we get too comfortable and cocky, the lye quickly reminds us it deserves respect. We’ve figured things out as we go, learned lessons the hard way, and learned to work together. Most importantly, we love what we do and have fun doing it. On this lovely Thursday, stay safe, be smart, remember where you’ve been, be proud of how far you have come, and wash your hands.