Days Go By

One of the truisms burned into my head over the years is that “dogs, cats, kids and gardens don’t care if you’re tired.”  The work has to be done anyway, anyhow, however you feel and whatever else you feel like doing (such as watching multiple episodes of “No Reservations” while in your jammies).  Everybody has to be fed, watered, often entertained and usually cleaned up after.  (It’s a good day if someone in the house hasn’t had a barfing fit. With three cats and two large dogs, you know it’s just a matter of time. “Time” meaning “minutes.”)

With that recognized, it’s also good to be aware that your agenda isn’t the only one that’s active.  For example, below is a shot from a second-floor window.  That’s a bougainvillea asking to come in.

Unbelievably Useful Husband fears it has malevolent intentions.

Yes, it has to be trimmed, but there’s a lot to be said for a bush so exuberant that it blasts itself up two stories in two months without any of the other residents of the household noticing it.  This is a ninja bougainvillea.  “This is not the bougainvillea you’re looking for.” The CIA should hire this plant and teach it to pick locks.  It’s about three inches away from being able to peel open the window as it is.  When you’ve got a landscaping plant suddenly waving at you cheerfully at the level of your second-floor office window, you get the idea that maybe it’s not all about you, what you want, or even what you do.

I’m ruminating about this because I “took the day off” yesterday. The world didn’t end, the animals aren’t all dead (well, the feedings did still occur) and there’s now a bougainvillea leaning in the window who wants to edit my posts.  There’s also a soap that had to wait one extra day before I could unmold it, because it was a lot softer than I anticipated.  I’d done a session on Friday, trying a new technique that scared the living daylights out of me. It demanded that I split the basic soap batter up into five separate containers for separate colors, and then layer them into a mold.  The inspiration for the design came from a sunset photographed from the little island in the Caribbean.

Layers of color, with the stars coming out.

The preparation for this moonshot was a little demanding.

The giant bag of coconut oil is sitting outside in the sun, warming up.

Soapmaking (like dogs, cats, kids and gardens) doesn’t care if you want to take a break to put your feet up, have a cigarette, talk to your mom on the phone or catch the latest Facebook update.  Saponification happens with a terrifying inevitability.  First the lye-infused oil batter is thin and liquid; then it gets glossy, and then it “traces” more and more heavily, and not too long after that you’ve got soap on a stick.  Once you’re on that train it’s not gonna stop. It’s alchemy at its most intense.

Accordingly, it is incumbent upon you to have your mise in order.  You’re going to be working really fast.

The colorant and mold array.


Oils, molds, colorants, containers, fragrance — everything has to be in reach and the step-by-step process has to be followed precisely without fail.



I don’t have any photos of the actual making of the soap on Friday, because it really was that high-speed and that terrifying and I don’t have minions to take the pictures. (Where are my minions? Wasn’t I promised minions? Did the Kardashians take them all?)  By the time I reached the fifth layer, the soap was setting up so hard I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to pull it off.   But somehow it all worked, and I put the mold to bed.

The next day I decided I was wiped out and wasn’t going to do anything I didn’t absolutely have to.  So the soap contemplated itself, the garden managed its own affairs, the bougainvillea apparently grew another three feet and the animals entertained themselves, with some sub rosa assistance from Unbelievably Useful Husband.  And when I rejoined the ranks of the responsible today, I unmolded the soap.

“St. Croix Sunset, Emerging Stars”

The fragrance is a rich, deep and fruit-laden indulgence, with a base of patchouli and just a hint of herbal grassiness to cut the sweetness. This is going to be a very creamy, sensual soap when it’s done curing.  The cure will probably take a little longer than others, because I included more water in the recipe to slow down the saponification at the front end. The water must evaporate out to make the soap harder. And the evaporation cannot really be speeded up.  It’s all time and patience, without me having to “do” anything at all.  A lot like my Saturday.


Shut Up And Wait

Not too long ago, a Very Important Young Person asked if I could make a “chocolate soap.”  Without hesitation, I said “You bet.”

After several days of scrambling around madly developing an appropriate gentle recipe (there may be allergen issues, and I wanted to make a shea- and cocoa-butter-free soap), researching and ordering fragrances, and trying to memorize a new technique, “Chocolate Cream Pie” was born. What’s pretty amazing is that I used no colorants at all for the “chocolate” part of the soap. I discovered through my research that chocolate fragrances necessarily contain vanilla, and that fragrances and essential oils that contain vanilla, or its man-made counterpart vanillin, will change the color of a soap all by themselves.  That’s about as good an example of alchemy as I can come up with, incidentally, and I was counting on it. I wanted to keep the recipe as simple as possible.

But when this soap was first unmolded, a day after it was made, I thought I’d messed up. Sure, the pH was perfect, there was no separation, and it cut like a well-mannered soap should. But the color of the chocolate part was barely tan, much like a butterscotch pudding.  To Unbelievably Useful Husband’s eternal credit, he didn’t say a word about The Pretty Obvious Color Problem as I babbled on, secretly appalled, about how I’d read that the fragrance I’d used would eventually darken the soap to the shade I’d hoped for.

Of course, as I put the soap up to cure, I was mentally pulling my hair out.

A day later it had turned at least two shades darker and the Lab smelled like a chocolate factory.  And now, about two weeks in — it needs at least two more weeks to cure — it’s starting to look like what I’d imagined.  Of all the lofty philosophical ideas that have been kicking me around lately, the strongest is the one that says “Shut up and wait.”


For My Handmade Soap Testers

Thanks so much to all of you who’ve stepped up to try the latest batches!

As most of you know, this soap is carefully made in absurdly small quantities by hand from individual oils, butters, essential oils, fragrances, herbs, infusions and even enfleurages. The technique is traditionally called “cold process” soap. I like to make it because it’s the very best kind of alchemy:  you start with a few ingredients that bear absolutely no resemblance to the end product, you follow rigorous steps at speed and with precision, and when you’re done you either have what you’re after or you have a complete and mystifying (and if you’ve really screwed up, a Hazmat-team-worthy) disaster.  How much more thrilling can a project get?  Those medieval guys, they knew what was worth doing.*

One of the things about cold process soapmaking is that (if it works) the soap requires a “curing” time after it’s made.  Curing shouldn’t be a matter of safety.  A properly designed and prepared recipe should be pH-safe very soon after unmolding, and I confirm safety at several points in the process with testing. (Also, by trying it out on myself first.) What curing does is slightly different.  Curing dries and hardens the soap, making it last longer.  It also allows you to see if colors or fragrances change over time, and many people say the soap becomes milder and bubblier.  Cures last from at least four weeks to over six months, depending on the recipe.

So for the folks that are testing out the new bars — thank you!  You’re evaluating the end product of a very small-scale and long-term process, and I could really use your feedback.  So when you’re trying it out, think about the following and if you can, send me your thoughts:

  • How does the soap make your skin feel? For example, moisturized, clean, too dry, too hard to rinse?
  • How was the lather? For example, bubbly, creamy, rich, too thin, too hard to produce?
  • Did you like the way the soap looked?  How was the size of the bar, and were the colors and appearance attractive or not?
  • Was the fragrance appealing? Was there enough, too much, or not enough of it? Did the fragrance “match” the appearance of the soap?
  • Are there any other changes that you would suggest?

You can send your thoughts to, or just post a response here.  Let me know which soap you’re testing in your remarks. What you say, good or bad, matters to this accidental alchemist.  Thank you.

* Endnote:  The university doctors and the freelancers with pointy hats weren’t the only people doing alchemy in the Middle Ages.  Alewives and herb-women did it all the time, and with a great deal less fuss.  But the women were only making beer and medicine, instead of gold and immortality elixirs.


Soap, Again, For The Intrepid Testers

Once you really start experimenting with soapmaking, you end up with a lot of it.  Some of it ends up stuck in a giant ball on the end of a spoon (“seizing”).  Some of it does weird things, like “volcanoing” in the mold.

Not a mushroom. Not a mushroom at all.

Some of it doesn’t retain the fragrance you expect, or the colors come out strangely (“This. Is Not. Blue. On OUR planet anyway”) or is way mushier than what you thought it would be and ends up sticking to the cutting knife, to the mat, to you, the cabinets, the floor, and to random passersby out in the street.  When you’re first starting out (and if reports are correct even when you’ve been doing it for a while), sometimes you get surprised.  The only things you can do are to follow your ideas, your carefully evaluated recipes, and your GMP procedures while you’re making it. If it comes out, you always test the soap for pH safety, and then you just let it cure.

“Curing” is the process whereby you cut your soap and then just leave it alone for a period of time — anywhere from four weeks to over six months in some cases.  The water used in the processing slowly evaporates out, and the soap becomes harder and theoretically more long-lasting. Some people say it becomes milder and bubblier during the cure as well.  That’s why, for every batch of soap you make, it’s a good idea to hold back at least one or two pieces and just let them do their thing on the curing rack.  But the others? You send ’em out to your Intrepid Testers, after ensuring they are safe, and let them find their way.

So: Intrepid Testers:  These are the soaps that have cured, and are looking for tryouts in the next couple weeks.

Sea Reef:  The islands of the Caribbean are usually surrounded with coral and stone reefs that break, redirect, and even still the waves.  Viewing them from the surface, the effect is a spectacular variation in the colors of the water. 

This photograph is only one example.  Along the reefs, shades from light and forest greens, sky and navy blues, delicate violets and purples close to night are striated, streaked and sometimes massed together.

The seas along the reefs inspired me to try out some new colorants.  In “Sea Reef,” I began with a classic olive oil, coconut oil and shea butter basic recipe that I knew performed well, along with a bright, fresh breeze of a fragrance I also knew.  I then picked out some cosmetic-standard pigments: Ultramarine Blue, Ultramarine Violet, and Chrome Green, and did a mold swirl to try to replicate the mixing of the colors of the sea across a reef.

Sea Reef

Harbor:  For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, they say, and I think this applies to almost every endeavor.  Before Sea Reef, I experimented with the same basic olive oil, coconut oil and shea butter recipe, but along with the Ultramarine Blue pigment I tried a fragrance that I hadn’t worked with before but liked a great deal “OOB” (out of the bottle).


Now here’s the story on fragrancing soap:  some fragrances can screw you up. What some do is “accelerate” the process of saponification — the alchemy whereby a sodium hydroxide solution transforms the present oils into soap. The key is to manage the process so that it doesn’t happen so fast that it turns into a solid, immoveable mass before you get it into the mold.  Guess what? This fragrance accelerated like a bat out of hell. It went faster than an Internet entrepreneur in a brand-new Tesla. It would have taken superhuman dexterity to get it into a mold. I ended up with what folks call “soap on a stick,” but I did manage to save a few pieces before it all turned into a brick.

The color, though, is very reminiscent of the color of the sea of some harbors in the Caribbean.  At least that bit worked.


The fragrance to my sense is also outstandingly “oceanlike.”  There are only a few pieces, though.

Night Sky:  Last comes my favorite, and probably the one that has to be babied the most.  It’s a “milk” recipe — a soap where the water usually used to dilute the sodium hydroxide into a solution is replaced by milk.  They are difficult, cranky, annoying and unpredictable soaps to make, and yet some folks swear that they are the best real soaps on the planet and won’t use anything else.  The quality for the user is more than worth the terror for the maker.

But let’s back up one second.  Most of the Caribbean islands are unusual in that their placement in the tradewinds, as well as the absence of light and atmospheric pollution, creates outstanding views of the night sky at sea level.  (Want more info? Go here: . Do it.) Without naming names, I’ll tell a story of a person who pointed up at the sky from a little island house and said, “What’s that? An airplane trail or something?”  I said, “That’s the Milky Way. You can see it here.”

“Night Sky” is my attempt to capture that extraordinary vision of the edge of the galaxy. It is made from olive oil, coconut oil, and coconut milk, and is colored with completely natural activated charcoal.  The highlights are eye-and lip-safe cosmetic-grade micas (the same stuff in mineral makeup), each piece individually painted with artists’ brushes.  It is a soft and gentle soap that will be ready in about two weeks.

Night Sky

The scent is a rich but measured sandalwood-based spice fragrance. It is intoxicating.

I’m looking for testers on all three soaps.  Let me know if you’re interested at my contact on this blog.


Making soap is powerful magic.  Transformation of matter is a profound occupation.  –Alicia Grosso

There’s a little house perched on a mountain on an island in the Caribbean, and that’s where I got the impulse to focus on the alchemy of soap.   But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The foundation for the idea was already laid, as it is for most of the ridiculous things that people attempt — I’d been growing herbs for a while, and tried a few salves and balms, but as it happens herbalists might not be the go-to guys for actually formulating a body product.  That particular expertise lies with the handmade soapmakers and lotionmakers, as I discovered once I started searching the Web for some advice.

What I found inspired me to try my first soap.  As I’m a pretty inveterate reader, I relied on an actual book — “Smart Soapmaking” by Anne Watson.  I can recommend this no-nonsense, detailed and tightly-focused guide to anyone starting out.  And the best part of her approach?  You get to do this with your first batch:

Michelangelo would be so proud.

That first shea-butter batch came out so beautifully from its milk-carton mold that I was well and truly hooked.

So once I got to the little house on the island, I started looking around. (“Looking around” seems to be a marker for the alchemy syndrome.)  The heritage flower on St. Croix  is a lovely trumpet-shaped yellow blossom called the “Ginger Thomas.”  Dense stands of these flowers surround the little house, and they support entire colonies of bananaquits and Anguillan hummingbirds.

Find the bananaquit in the Ginger Thomas.

The fragrance of the blossom is delicate, and I decided I would try to preserve it and take it home through a process called “enfleurage.”

Enfleurage is a centuries-old technique that’s still used today for flowers with fragrances so sensitive that they are lost in the usual commercial high-pressure steam or chemical distillation processes.  What it entails is the gentle submerging of flowers in a bed of solid oils (in my case, cocoa butter) over a period of days.

Ginger Thomas blossoms in a bed of cocoa butter.

Each day, the flowers are sieved out of the oil and replaced with fresh blossoms.  Gradually, the fragrance and color of the blossoms transfers to the oil; at this stage, it’s officially called a “pomade.” Additional steps using alcohol can further refine the pomade, but as I would use the infused oil itself in the soapmaking process, I packed up the oil and brought it home.

The batch was small, but simple and promising. I used olive oil, coconut oil, and the enfleuraged butter, and poured it into the “sample mold” I use for new experiments.

The color is true to the blossom.

But here is where the mystery of alchemy comes in — once the soap was unmolded and cured, the color had faded, and some of the fragrance lost.  This isn’t all that surprising; any soapmaker can tell you stories about fragrances run amuck (or vanishing completely) and colors morphing without warning.  So, while I had a perfectly adequate soap, it just wasn’t . . . what I was looking for.


I also prefer a very conditioning, creamy soap, and this didn’t quite hit the mark in that respect either.  Enter the “Rebatch.”  There are several techniques to “rebatch” or remake soap; I chose the one where you shred the old soap, and then combine it with a batch of newly created soap.  For the new recipe addition, I combined olive oil, coconut oil, castor oil, and a heavy dollop of shea butter for a very rich, mild, conditioning recipe.

Looks delicious.

During the research for the rebatch, I went over some of the photographs I’d taken on the island.  Christiansted, one of the two major towns, slopes gently down to a glorious harbor in a warren of stone-laid streets, cloisterwalks, and sea-faded but vibrant pastel buildings.

The second picture had me rooting through my colorant options.  I didn’t want a white soap (although those can be awesome as well);  I wanted something that reflected the island, and the juxtaposition of the gentle reds and warm yellows was exactly what I was looking for.  Moroccan Red Clay and an apricot FDC colorant promised to get close to what I had in mind.  Further, the Ginger Thomas fragrance had become very subtle, so I needed to find a fragrance that would enhance and expand it.  I found I had a fragrance oil that reminded me of the scent of the trade wind coming off the island when you are on the sea.  The grassiness and floral note of the Ginger Thomas is carried by a clean, fresh burst and a hint of berries and fruit.

I mixed the colorants and fragrance into the rebatched soap, pot-swirled the colors, poured the whole shebang into a loaf mold, and crossed my fingers.  (In addition to research, precision, and physical skill, modern alchemy always requires a certain amount of luck, hope, and resignation.)

This is how Christiansted looked at cutting:

Cutting frame custom made by unbelievably useful husband

And now, after curing for 5 weeks to harden and become even milder:

I was extremely pleased by the performance of Christiansted.  The red clay gives the lather a pleasing “slip,” which might make it a good option for shaving, while the shea and cocoa butters provide a rich creamy character.  The coconut and castor oils zing it up with some bubbliness and a solid cleaning profile.  But best of all, it brings with it not only a memory of the Caribbean, but also the Ginger Thomas flowers of St. Croix.