Seven Best Practices of Expert Soap Makers
After countless web clicks and searches, you've finally done your homework on soap making. But, let's face it. You can't be a soap expert overnight. Like most crafts, it takes preparation, determination and a little bit of insanity. Soap making is essentially an unfolding learning process. Most of the time you learn from your mistakes more than you do from the recipes you follow. And yes, you shouldn't let those mistakes stop you. As you can see, even the best soap makers in the craft make mistakes as well and they too have learned stuff the hard way. One good thing about soap making is that you're never really alone. With the use of the Internet, soa pmakers are able to share their experiences, discoveries, experiments and insights with each other. This is why the craft itself IS evolving. Since we're here, allow me to share with you some best practices that I found most helpful.
Double-check the recipes you follow.
Do not be complacent about written information even if it's a recipe you got from an expert or a trusted online source. There may have been typos in the recipe or miscalculations with the values. Always run the numbers through a lye calculator to make sure everything's okay. If you are creating your own recipe, run your numbers through the calculator twice to be sure. Learn to use calculators and conversion charts. That's because some recipes call for amounts in different measuring units that you're used to - for instance, volume instead of weight. You could either consult conversion charts or do manual conversions yourself (but this takes a little math skill). Whatever you do, always double-check. Keep this saying in mind: It was Complacency that killed the cat, not Curiosity.
Learn the essence of labels.
Read the labels on the products you buy. If you run into any problems with the equipment or ingredients you bought, do not be afraid to let their manufacturers know. You have to trust me when I tell you that if they value their business, they will take your comments or suggestions seriously. If you have time, I suggest researching on the various chemicals you see on the labels of your ingredients, especially those which have names that are hard to say out loud. After all, a little knowledge goes a long way.
I'm not just talking about learning how to read labels. I'm also talking about labeling your stuff. Color-code the labels if you can. For example, I use red marker to label my lye solution container and the bottles for my fragrance oils. This helps remind me and the people in my house that those items are dangerous (well, this is partly because I have a big poster on my wall saying, "Items with RED marks are dangerous. Do not touch."). I print some of my labels using a colored printer to make it easier to label new items. I label everything from my Rubbermaid containers to the drawers in my desk. Whenever I leave soap out to cure for days, I mark their containers with the dates I finished making them so I can count the number of days that have passed more accurately. I admit that I have very poor memory and labels help me compensate for it.
Take note of EVERYTHING.
Be detailed. From the brand name of the coconut oil you used to the steps you changed in the recipe to the color of the bubbles on the surface of your mixture. Everything. One of the most important tools you have in the craft is your personal soap making notebook. Or call it your soap making journal. There you can log your day-to-day experiences with soap making with detail. You can even keep a log of every soap batch you make. No, it's not just something you can read in your spare time, reminiscing about the good ol' days when you used to bother too much about the color of your soap. Your notebook will come handy for troubleshooting problems you might run into as you make your soap batches. If you take down notes, you spare yourself the trouble of having to remember everything you did. After all, you can't really expect yourself you remember every single thing detail. Getting the "remember-every-detail" part out of the way will give you more room to focus on other aspects of the process. With your notes in hand, you can backtrack or retrace your steps with ease and confidence, and you can more easily pinpoint the root cause of your soap problems.
After months or years of use, your notebook or, as I like to call it, journal will be your best friend. Over time, it will have more oil stains on it. The edges may wear off. You'll have fingerprint smudges on the pages. Think of your notebook as your own blog - the difference is, it's not online. In time, it will become your most prized possession.
L2Organize (Learn to Organize).
This goes hand-in-hand with item #3. You need to have a certain level of discipline when it comes to handling your equipment and materials in order to avoid soap making mishaps. For instance, I make sure to store my essential oils separately from my fragrance oils. But I don't stop there. I also segregate my fragrance oils according to similarities in scent (like keeping together fragrance oils with citrus-y scents).
Organizing information is also essential. If you're maintaining a soap making notebook or journal, it pays to keep your notes organized too. That way it's easy to back-track things. Apart from that, I take the time to log all the materials I have in a handy-dandy Excel spreadsheet immediately after I purchase them, and right before I label and store them. I update this spreadsheet as I use up my materials so I can anticipate when I am about to run out of stock for a certain ingredient.
Get your lye-to-fat ratios right.
This is very important if you're a fan of cold process soap making. Although hot process soap making is a little lenient when it comes to lye volume, it pays to accurately measure your ratios too. There are many reliable lye counters and fat-to-lye tables found online, and you should try using those liberally.
Get your soap mixture to trace correctly.
Trace is what a lot of soap makers call "the point of no return". This is where the lye and the original oils in your mixture will no longer be able to separate back. With the introduction of stick blenders to the craft, getting soap to trace no longer takes a long time. Some soap makers use their instinct when it comes to determining whether their soap mixtures have achieved trace. One technique in determining if you've achieved trace is by dipping your spoon or spatula in the mixture and dribbling a bit of it back. If it leaves a small mound of soap that takes a second or two to disappear back into the mixture, you're there.
Develop respect for the chemicals you use in soap making.
Arrogance and disrespect for the nature of the ingredients used in soap making has led many crafters to failed batches and, worst of all, accidents and disasters. At first, learning about the possible dangers of soap making may seem pretty scary but once you get used to following safety guidelines, you can start relaxing and having fun. However, keep your guard up always and don't be too complacent about things.