Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Soap Business - Story

How it came about

For this past Christmas, we wanted to do a home-made gift that was small, not too expensive, and had a nice personal touch. It was decided that it was time to break out the old soap-making supplies and make a whole bunch of soap!

A bit of background... my parents have a friend who makes soap, and she taught my dad a few tricks back in 1999 or so. The first time my dad and I made soap together was on a construction trip in a motel room. Between the jars of crystal lye, the giant pots and beakers and such, the gallons of oil, and the horrific smells coming out of the room I have to look back in shock that we didn't get kicked out for making a meth lab!

We made a half dozen batches or so, but never really got our technique perfected. There were lots of books, but everything we read was geared toward the super high-end artisan soaps with oils, butters, botanicals, and everything to make your skin feel like it's being prepped to be deep-fried for a side dish in a six-course meal. Our simplified recipes worked just fine, thank you very much! The final recipe settled somewhere around 50% olive oil, 30% coconut oil, and 20% palm oil.

New age, new tools!

Fast-forward a decade, and the amount of information available to the experimental soap maker is nearly overwhelming! Where before we had to debate when we were at trace, now you just go to YouTube and watch endless examples. How awesome is that?! We fired up the equipment and tried the old recipe and... it was soap! But it didn't have the right texture. The lather was alright, but not really comparable to a commercial bar. It was soft, too, feeling mushy in the hand.

So, it was time to find a new recipe.... We found a lye calculator that had a lot of great tips on what qualities the various oils impart to the finished product. After playing with the numbers for a few hours, I came up with what I thought was a good balance. Firing up the equipment again, the water in the recipe was replaced with goat milk to give it a nice (and inexpensive) scent. The benefit of hot-process soap making is that you can cut and use the bars within a day, so we were able to test it out almost immediately. The end result was a nice bar with a smooth and bubbly lather. Success!

Getting it out the door

In the end we made up four kinds of soap: goat milk, fig leaf and Italian bergamot, lemon verbena and acai berry, and "invigorating mint blend". We used cardboard boxes and tubes lined with freezer paper as molds, and I built a jig to help us cut the bars evenly.

My wife made bath salts, and her sister made salve and lip balm. Together they cut out and decorated name tags for all the items. There was a big night of putting together the packages with my wife and her mother, and then we split up the prizes between all the sisters who contributed to the project. Christmas presents were ready just in time!


On a personal note... I do realize the delicious irony of having this blog post be two days late; right after I posted about my commitment to following a routine for my posts! Drat, I broke the chain! Part of the trouble was collating information about model-driven development for some upcoming posts. This post was a backup plan, but it grew into (hopefully only) two. I'll finish the story tomorrow with the business numbers that I'd originally planned for this one.

Apologies for the purely factual, very dry tone of the post. I'm not very good at weaving a story, and that's part of what this blogging exercise is all about!

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