The trouble with short cuts April 28, 2015 13:00

I've been making soap a long time. Thirteen or fourteen years to be not very precise. I can't remember exactly because my oldest son was an infant at the time and, as any parent will tell you (in more detail than you want), no one remembers a darn thing from their kids' infancy because they're too damn tired. Why on earth did I think, "I've got a baby, my FIRST baby, so I think I'll take up a hobby"? Especially a hobby that involves caustic chemicals, precision, and patience. Things you really shouldn't pair with a new parent. But I tend to be the sort of person who is decisive (the synonym for that being impulsive) so I bought a bunch of books and gave it a whirl. Honestly, the last thing I needed was another hobby but I found I really enjoyed making soap. I liked the combination of art and science. I liked that it involved Chemistry (shout out to Dr. Collins, my Chemistry professor in college who had a shrine to Elvis) and I liked making something useful.

In the years since that moment of weakness, I have made a lot of soap. I don't even know how much. I know I haven't bought soap in forever (unless it's someone else's handmade soap or, God forbid, I had a situation where I HAD to buy commercial soap). I took a few breaks too, particularly when I was pregnant with kid #2. I had a moment of sanity where I thought, "Hmm, I have a toddler and I'm about to have another kid. Maybe I shouldn't be doing this right now". Ya think? 

But I always went back to soap making. And thanks to some extraordinary divine intervention, I really didn't screw up. Because, if you make soap, there are a GAZILLION ways to screw up. There's lye, which is extremely caustic and can be mismeasured or spilled thereby ruining you soap, counter top or a lot more. There's oils which are expensive and can get rancid or spilled. Actually everything can and will get spilled. There are 25 different ways you can miscalculate a recipe, 24 of which have disastrous results. But overall, I made very few mistakes. I wasn't good; I think I was just too scared the house would blow up so I was really really careful. About a year ago I made my first big mistake. It was such a lovely recipe too; Orange Ginger soap, made with coconut oil, shea butter, olive oil, orange essential oil and a design which looked like a sunset in the desert. Except, I forgot to add the olive oil. This is why I should never make soap at night; I'm too tired (refer back to the above section on kids, except that now I had five). I kept thinking, "why is this batch so small?" but I never put it all together. The next morning I went to cut my soap and it was like a brick of 50 year old Parmesan cheese--rock hard and brittle. I knew at that point I'd screwed up so I used the highly imprecise, but still very accurate zap test. I licked the soap. Soap that has any unreacted lye will zap you just like you'd licked a 9 volt battery. Up until that day, I'd never been zapped but that streak was now over. I went back over everything, realized my mistake...and into the trash it went. I could have salvaged it by using a technique called hot process, but I was so pissed off I just threw it away. I wish I'd taken a picture of my colossal failure but I did not.

Fear not. I screwed up again recently and this time I documented it in iPhone detail. I was making new batch (always dangerous) using a well known essential oil blend called "Thieves" (more on the origin of Thieves sometime because it's a truly bizarre story). Anyway, Thieves is (of course) a very expensive blend. It has cloves, cinnamon, rosemary, eucalyptus and lemon. It smells like a spicy doctor's office.

Because I have a number of shows coming up and because it's fall and people like to buy soap as gifts, I decided to discount the water I use to dissolve my lye. I won't get into all of the ins and outs of discounting water. Basically all you need to know is that a) it will make your soap cure (get hard) faster and b) it can make your soap "accelerate" which basically means the batter takes less time to get thick. So, stupid me decides to do a big water discount. I knew it might make things go faster but I figured, "hey I've been making soap for thirteen or fourteen years--give or take a few; I can handle this". Mental note: Pride goeth before a fall. I add the lye water to my oils and damn expensive essential oils and within 90 seconds it is rock hard. In that 90 seconds, I had succeeded in pouring the soap batter into three containers with colors and mixed it just enough so that it was kind of colored, but mostly not. Just enough to look bad. Of course it was pointless since I couldn't even get it off the spoon, much less in the mold. So there went my vision for a pretty cream colored soap topped with a layer of black soap colored by activated charcoal and another layer colored by purple Brazilian clay. Damn damn damn. That's not actually what I said. It was really worse than that.

I decided this time I would try to salvage my recipe since I knew I had the correct amount of oil and lye. And because of all those essential oils. I still don't want to calculate how much they cost. Anyway, you can save a mess like this by hot processing it--cooking it in a crock pot. The heat will soften it up, speed up the saponiofication reaction, and make it possible to get it in the mold. The only problem is, it will never liquefy the soap, just soften it to the consistency of lumpy mashed potatoes.

I really hate hot process soap. It is so damn ugly. I ended up having to mix the two colored batches together so instead of nice cream, black and purple layers I got brown vaseline layer topped by something akin to grey-black rock. In fact, the top looked pretty much identical to a blue corn chip.

Voila! The finished masterpiece.

I told my daughter and step-daughter about it on the way home from school that day. I explained it was pretty awful, but when they saw it they didn't mince words, "wow, that is really terrible". Thanks guys. Then my daughter said, "nothing good ever comes from taking short cuts, Mom".

She's a smart one.

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