You Know You’re a Handcrafted Soapmaker If …. (Part 1) Research

Tips for Semi-Professional Handmade Soapmakers…Research, Equipment, Space, Goals

I do not intend to reinvent the wheel, or even the soap pot, with this series of articles. There are plenty of other sources for that. As a “mature” handmade soapmaker well into her second decade of experience, what I’d like to do is pass on bits of information I wish I had known when I got started with natural soapmaking from scratch. I promise you that five years down the road, the decisions you make when you first start your soapmaking adventure will free your mind or put you in a terrible bind in the future.

By way of introduction, I began Anna’s EsSCENTials Bodycare way back in the last century. I was a most unlikely soapmaker, since I never took to domesticity in any form! However, I do admit to being fascinated by good quality soap for a long time.

When I realized I could combine my passion for health, for the arts, and for science too, I never looked back. It’s been a lovely ride. Now I have a whole stable of soaps I am very proud of (www.annas-soaps.com), and a loyal group of customers who swear they will never use another bar of commercial soap. I love experimenting with a new fragrance combination every year (this year is cool and refreshing Ginger Lime), and I especially enjoy the times people have shared with me how much this good, handcrafted soap has helped them. However, the purpose of these articles is to emphasize that the decisions made by a beginning handcrafted soapmaker determine a great deal of the future of that endeavor. Do it right…do it the best you can. I’ll try to point out possibilities and pitfalls as I have learned them.

I figure there are two types of beginning soapmakers…first, one who enjoys the process of making her own natural soap and understands the importance of keeping commercial chemicals off her family’s skin, and second, one who has been bitten by the soaper’s bug and whose friends and family have urged her to get her (or his) good handmade products out to others. Through the years I have encouraged everyone who will listen to learn the natural soapmaking process, and to do it responsibly, both in the home and in the workplace.

I’ll use the space in this series of articles to pass on a few things I didn’t learn from books, although I want to say up front that there is nothing more important than learning all you can about the science, technique and art of handcrafted soapmaking from whatever source you can before you make your first bar of handmade soap. Anyone can make a simple batch of soap. But it pays to start out right…do it well the first time…avoid tempting shortcuts. Believe me, this may well be a lifelong experiment, and the habits you learn up front will guide your future.

Watch What You Read
For example, one thing you will quickly learn from research is that when mixing lye with water, you always pour the lye crystals into the water and not the other way around. And yet, I found one book that claimed just the opposite. Was this a typo? Was it someone writing a book who didn’t really know the process? I don’t know. But it did make me aware of the importance of searching out the best quality research material I could and then rechecking what I was learning. Not a bad life lesson either!

Find Good Dedicated Equipment
Regarding equipment, one thing you’ll need is a long-handled stirring object. My favorite is a long-handled, heat-resistant scraper that came from a fancy kitchen-stuff store. The heat-resistance is important since the highly alkaline parts of the soap process will shorten the life of anything else pretty significantly.

Space is another important consideration. Most of us make our first batches of soap in our kitchens. And if you’re like me, you’ll be completely shocked to find that your efforts really do produce soap! Of course I never claimed to be a cook, so anything that my kitchen successfully spawns is a wonder to me. In fact, some of my grown childrens’ favorite stories are of my less-than-stellar kitchen adventures. (I personally think those legends are highly exaggerated.) Nevertheless, I’ve often wondered just why I took to handmade soapmaking. It reminds me of cooking — but thank goodness it’s more than that.

It did not take me long to figure out I needed to get out of my kitchen and into space dedicated to my rapidly growing soapmaking addiction. First of all, you need space that is your own to experiment in — space that you don’t have to share with food preparation. There will be lots of equipment and “stuff” to store. You’ll need shelves to dry and cure your treasures, and more shelves to store the soaps that are ready to be distributed. You’ll need places for your essential oils, herbs and other additives. Then there are the oils. You will quickly move away from grocery-store bottles to purchasing oils in bulk. So even if you’re just beginning, consider that if you plan to do this professionally, a goal will be to find inexpensive studio space to work out of. As long as you have water to clean up with, electricity for a hot plate and some consistent, comfortable room temperatures, you’re all set.

Your Very Own Soapmaking Space (and stuff)!
Although it may not be completely necessary, I always separated my soapmaking utensils from personal kitchen utensils. I have a big soapmaking pot, pitchers, scrapers, lots of supplies, etc., and I use them only for soapmaking.

Another thing to consider is your schedule. Making soap requires concentration. Ideally, it requires you being in a good, relaxed mood and focusing on the creativity of what you’re doing, without a lot of interruptions. I don’t want to get all mystical on you, but I have a helper who brings with her this wonderful sense of calm. She loves making soap. She seems to enjoy every bit of the stirring and preparation, and her soap is always marvelous.

I love it all too, and my soap is only usually marvelous. That’s because I’ve been known to bring some chaos to the process, with my mind racing over tons of problems — packaging ideas, upcoming festivals, paying for that latest extravagant essential oil order — and worrying about finishing this batch so I can get on to the next task. I’ve learned to not let that happen, at least not often. And the soap seems to appreciate it.

Decide Who You Want to Be
Finally, I would recommend that every beginning soapmaker think about the niche they want to fill before they begin. Even if you’re only trying it as an experiment to give to family members, try to start on the highest level you can. You will tend to duplicate the habits you begin with, and if you really want to produce a quality product, start there.

With that in mind, avoid experimenting with “melt-and-pour” soaps. It does not matter that the process is simplified and anyone can do it. The reality is that you get out only what goes in, and what goes into melt-and-pour kits is sometimes not much better than what you can get in the grocery store which, if you’re reading this, you probably already know is not soap but chemical-ridden detergents, designed more for generating profit than protection of your lovely skin.

The main issue, to my mind, is not how the soap looks or that it’s vivid orange with one of Grandma’s rose buds in the center, it’s that the soap brings soothing, moisturizing results when your family uses it. And with that in mind, consider that if the process is done right, the quality of the oils going into the soap determines the quality of what comes out. So before you latch onto a recipe using tallow or lard because they’re cheap, think about what you want on your skin. Find a good recipe using good oils up front, and you will be glad you did later on down the line.

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