It's a little bit mad-scientist, a little bit Little House on the Prairie, and even though the answer is "Yes," to this question:
"Can't you buy that stuff these days?"
I continue to make a batch or two of soap every year.
Call me a thrill-seeker, but the two main ingredients alone are worth the effort:
boiling oil and caustic lye.
In everyday life -- aside from driving a car -- what's more hazardous than boiling oil and a lye solution that WILL burn the skin clean off your skin?
My former sister-in-law K taught me this old-fashioned craft. She impressed upon me the urgency of getting the measurements absolutely precisely right, and about not playing around with this dangerous stuff. Seriously.
K made wonderful soaps, including one particularly astringent batch that she instructed us all not to use "on your generals."
Saponification = the chemical process by which a strong base (like lye) chemically combines with oil to form soap.
Thanks to her caution, I do wear rubber gloves and eye protection during the dangerous phases of soap-making, and make sure of excellent ventilation. Still, from time to time, I am profoundly glad that K has missed some of the more creative moments in the laboratory.
Of course aside from the thrill of not getting hurt with the dangerous ingredients, there's the alchemical fun of making, you know, SOAP. The essential oils –– essential! –– like lavender, peppermint, vanilla, clove. And more exotic scents: bitter almond, sweet orange, birch, wormwood, violets. And that's just the tip of the smelly iceberg.
Add beeswax, and rose petals or steel-cut oatmeal, cinnamon, or dried mint and powdered green algae or ground marsh mallow root and chopped almonds and the soap is like a good magic spell.
I'd been at this for a few years -- defying hideous injury, stirring up hedge-witchery, and sending the sudsy products into the world as gifts -- when a friend said, "Hey, not for nothing, but can you make some soap without the leaves and twigs for once?" Because, regrettably, that stuff got caught in her man's body hair.
Sure, I said, for once. Though, honestly, probably not for twice, because really, why NOT add whole leaves, tiny plastic toys, lashings of rose absolute or eucalyptus oil, flecks of bergamot, dried heads of clover? If you are going to make your own soap, you might as well aim for something strange and wonderful.
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