Adventures in Soap Making


By Jack Edwards

My Michigander sister is always busy – the type of person that is so active she makes you feel like, well, the television watching slouch that you are. She has a barrel load of hobbies. The three things she looks for in a hobby are: 1. Convenience (something she can do at home), 2. Productivity (the creation of useful product), and 3. The opportunity to permanently blind herself or a loved one.

Amateur soap making fit the bill perfectly because it involves using lye. For those of you who don’t read books about pioneers or who aren’t aficionados of Little House on the Prairie reruns, lye is a key ingredient in soap. Only one problem, lye is a teensy bit toxic. Take a look at the warning label on the bottle. The first thing you’ll notice is that the warning label is the size of Kansas. The second thing is that Rule #1 is that under no circumstance should you handle the bottle unless you’re wearing one of those Ebola protection suits.

Perhaps I’m overstating the concern. The warning on the bottle simply mentions that you shouldn’t let it touch any part of you or your clothing. And warns you to wear chemical resistant gloves, protective clothing and goggles (chemical resistant goggles I suppose). The warning includes a laundry list of the types of accidental exposure, and after each, it directs the victim (i.e. amateur soap hobbyist) to seek medical attention IMMEDIATELY. Under “Ingestion,” it says that you may give the soap maker sips of water if the person is “conscious,” but emphasizes that you should not give the person sips of water if the person is “unconscious or convulsing.” So, as you can see, amateur soap making sounds like a lot of fun. It’s really just like bread making, that is, if accidentally ingesting yeast caused you to collapse into a writhing, convulsing coma.

My sister came out to Oregon to visit and tried to get our mother to start making her own soap. But our mother pointed out that she can afford 69 cents to buy a bar of soap, and flatly announced, “I’ll pass.”
On the other hand, the thought of mixing toxic and potentially explosive chemicals naturally appealed to me. So I eagerly volunteered for a soap making apprenticeship.

There was much to learn. First off, you might think that soap is soap. But it turns out that soap isn’t soap. There are about a bazillion decisions to make. What do you want it to smell like?  (You have three trillion choices).   What color do you want it? (If you want your soap to look like dirt – put honey in it; it’ll come out brown – not a good brown, more of a… yeah, that shade of brown. I like my soap white – the way God intended). I stood back and watched my sister mix and stir and boil and finally pour the concoction into a plastic mold. She handed it to me and told me to leave it in the mold until it was dry, and then she took off back to her soap making headquarters in Michigan.

This is where the trouble started. I let it dry, and then for the life of me, I couldn’t get it out of the mold. I shook it. I pounded on it. I slammed it against things. I used a butcher knife to slice it into bars. Over several days, I fought an epic battle with my soap to remove it from the mold. It wouldn’t budge. It’s sitting there now, mocking me. This temporary setback aside, it has been a very positive experience, and I strongly recommend soap making as a hobby. Trust me. I wouldn’t lye to you. And I’ll even loan you my Ebola suit.