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9 soap making tips to help you succeed!

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Making soap is not hard. It should be fun and definitely not stressful. The reason I decided to write about this topic this week is because I had several friends message me recently about problems they were having with their soap.

1. Start with easy projects

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Lavender Castile soap

I know it’s tempting to start off with something like the Dancing Funnel Technique but you really want your first soap making experiences to be a success. Start off with a simple soap recipe (like the basic cold process recipe) with a single fragrance or essential oil. Once you have understood and mastered the soap making process itself, you’ll find it easier to start adapting recipes and adding colour and changing the design of the soap.

Here are some other simple recipes to get you started with additives and colours.

And the same goes for more experienced soap makers: do a simple soap every now and then, just for the simplicity and the zen of making soap. I love making a single essential oil Castile soap. Instead of having to worry about intricate colour designs or advanced soap making techniques, I can just relax and enjoy the experience of making pure soap. I do them not only because these make for beautiful soaps, but it’s also a reminder that sometimes simple is enough.

2. Research the ingredients

Especially when using ingredients that you have never used before. Find out how they behave in soap. Will they react or discolour in hot/cold process soap? Are they suitable for melt and pour?

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Soap seizing due to the fragrance

It is important to understand the effect an ingredient can have on the soap making process and in the soap itself. Some fragrances, like those containing vanillin, will change the colour of your soap to a tan or brown colour. Other additives, especially fragrances, will accelerate the chemical reaction, which will make your soap thicken quickly and render it unsuitable for any colour work. Also find out how to use a particular ingredient. Different colourants, for example, will need different preparation before you can add it to your soap. Micas are best diluted in oils, whereas pigments are mixed with water. Other ingredients can change the oil/water ratio of your recipe. Fresh ingredients add additional water to the recipe, clays, on the other hand, absorb water.

Check out the following articles for more information:

3. Preparation, preparation, preparation!

I can’t emphasise this too much. The worst thing that can happen to a soap maker is having to prepare an ingredient while you’re soap is already at trace and thickening. Make sure you have all your ingredients and materials prepared and laid out, ready for use. Prepare your colours. Measure out your fragrances and essential oils. Pre-mix any additives, such as clays, that you will be using. One of my early mistakes was assuming I had enough oils for my soap, only to start measuring out and realising that I had run out of olive oil. Always prepare before you start soaping and don’t forget to have your equipment ready as well!

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Everything laid out and ready for my cupcakes!

4. Tick off all the ingredients as you go

Often I get a help message from a soap maker asking what to do when they have forgotten an ingredient. Fragrances and colourants don’t really matter, they’re just annoying if you left them out. Likewise other additives, such as sodium lactate or forgetting to spray the surface with alcohol, have little impact on your soap. However, forgetting to add one of the oils or fats, or adding them twice, can ruin the whole soap. Even after years of making soap, I will still tick off the ingredients I added as I go. It’s a habit that I follow religiously, because I can be quite scatter-brained and easily distracted. So being able to look at the recipe and see what I have and haven’t yet added helps me keep track and has saved me many, many times from making a bad mistake!

5. Forget temperature

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Adding the lye to the oils when both are roughly at room temperature.

My pet peeve in a lot of soap making literature is temperature. Having made soap for over 20 years and starting off without the cool soap books and websites that are around today, I learned a lot through trial and error. And let me tell you this, temperature was never a huge factor in my soap making. The one lesson I learned early on was to avoid heat! If I soaped too warm, all sorts of funny things would start to happen, which is why I soap at room temperature. So please relax and stop obsessing about temperature. Your lye and your oils don’t have to be at a certain temperature, and you’ll have perfectly good soap without the added stress of trying to get the temperature exactly right. Let both your oils and your lye cool down to approximate room temperature, which is when the outside of the oil and lye container will feel cool to touch or at most lukewarm. Cooler is better, especially when using ingredients such as sugar and milk.

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Goats milk soap

6. Patience!

I’m talking about curing time here. This is the most difficult part for any soap maker, as they will tell you, waiting for the soap to be ready. Unfortunately, soap is not something that will be ready the next day, unless you’re using a melt and pour soap base, or re-batching, but even then it will take a few weeks to be fully ready. The golden rule for hot and cold process soap is “the longer the curing time, the better the soap”. Soaps that haven’t had a full curing time, will still contain a little moisture, and such soaps end up getting mushy in your soap tray. You’ll find soaps that have had the longest time to cure will be the ones that are the hardest and longest lasting and the ones that remain nice in your soap tray. So be patient and leave those soaps to cure for months!

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Margarita soap

Tip: when I give away my soaps, I usually tell my friends to not use them straight away but place them where they keep their towels. That way their towels get to smell lovely and the soap gets additional curing time!

7. Keep a record of your soaps

One of the most annoying things that can happen is when you use one of your soaps, after having cured for half a year or so, and then absolutely loving it, but when you try and remember what you put in it, you find you lost the piece of paper you wrote the recipe on. Particularly, when you start experimenting and creating your own recipes, make sure you write it down. Not just the recipe, but the method (did you use a stick blender), how the soaping process went (did it accelerate or thicken too quickly), how the ingredients behaved (did the fragrance discolour the soap), and how it cured (how long, DOS, any discolouring?). These notes will help you for future recipes and will also be a record of how certain ingredients behaved in soap. Have a separate notebook, just for your soap making. Write down the date and the recipe and then keep adding notes as you check and use the soap.

8. Less but more often

A lot of soap makers don’t have special soap making rooms or areas and just make soap in their kitchen, as do I. And it seems logical to dedicate a whole afternoon or a day to just soap making, like having ‘baking days’ or ‘canning days’. But unlike baking or canning, making soap is actually a quick and easy thing to do. You don’t need an oven or a lot of equipment, there’s not a lot of preparation and apart from the cooling down of the lye and oils, it doesn’t take that much time either. So instead of making a lot of soap in one time, make smaller amounts but more often. I love preparing my lye and oils in the morning after everyone has left the house, and then I’ll do some blogging or writing (or housework), and about 1-2 hours later, I’ll go and make the soap, which should take no more than half an hour.

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My favourite soap mold is this 4-bar square silicon mold from Pure Nature.

Regular practice makes perfect, the saying goes, and by making soap more often but only a batch at a time, means you get more practice. After a long break from soap making, like my annual summer break, I always find I need a few batches to get back into it. Making a simple soap at least a couple of times during my break, keeps me from getting too ‘rusty’!

9. Don’t get discouraged

Thomas Edison never gave up. The story goes it took him over 10000 tries to invent the light bulb and when asked why he never gave up, he replied: “I didn’t fail. I just found 10000 ways that didn’t work.” I love reminding myself of this, when a soap doesn’t turn out the way I wanted it to.

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Don’t be afraid to try new techniques, experiment with new ingredients or play with a new idea. It might not turn out the first time, or even the second time, but you will learn from those experiences. Get up, brush off the disappointment and try again. Find out what went wrong and how you can improve it or avoid it. My biggest lessons in my soap making journey came from my failures, and I am willing to bet that every other soap maker will tell you exactly the same thing. So don’t get discouraged and don’t be afraid to fail. It’s all about the journey. Making soap should be an enjoyable, fun experience, regardless if you are making one small batch or hundred bars of soap at a time.

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Aargh, the dreaded soap ash!

And lastly, we are usually our worst critics. The soda ash on your soap? The glycerin rivers? Not quite the colours you were aiming for? What you see as a mistake, others won’t notice and they will love your soap! Trust me!

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Let’s talk about water

WATER

One of the most common questions I get asked here in New Zealand is “Do I need to use distilled water when I make soap?” To answer this, we need to take a closer look at the water you use. Where does your water come from? When rain water falls, it is mostly free from impurities, but as it makes its way through the soil and rocks, the water dissolves and picks up minerals, such as calcium and magnesium. Water containing minerals is called hard water, whereas rain water and treated water very low in dissolved minerals is called soft water.

In your home, hard water is the cause of lime scale and soap scum, which is when the minerals in the water bond with the soap forming a greasy film. Another effect that hard water has on soap is that it tends to reduce the quality and amount of lather in your soap.

In soap making, hard water can also affect the saponification process, i.e. when the dissolved minerals in the water react with the other chemicals, leading to inconsistencies  and poorer quality of your soaps. However the most common problem with hard water is the increased chance of getting DOS (= Dreaded Orange Spots) in your soaps, a term used in the soap making community to describe the localised oxidation (orange spots) of unsaturated soft oils, such as olive oil, sunflower oils and rice bran oil. These DOS not only affect the appearance of the soap, but will also cause the oxidised oils in the soap to go rancid.

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However, the good news is that most of the tap water here in New Zealand is rain water or comes from a rainwater reservoir. So we can, with ease of mind, use tap water to make soap. For those on bore water (water from underground aquifers), don’t despair! You can either use distilled water or you can add chelators to your soap. Distilled water is available from your supermarket or hardware store, and is fairly cheap.

To find out if you are on bore or reservoir water, check with your water supplier or local council!

If you want to use chelators to soften your water, the most common chelators used in soap making are citric acid, sodium citrate and EDTA (ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid). They work by binding the minerals, basically rendering them inactive, and thus improving the lather and effectiveness of the soap. Citric acid is probably the easiest to get hold of here in New Zealand, with the added bonus that it is also considered a natural additive. If you intend to use citric acid to soften your hard water, usage is 10 g of citric acid for every 200 to 300 ml of water (roughly the amount of water used in a 1000 g oil recipe). Mix the citric acid into the water before you add the caustic soda. However, because citric acid also neutralises, you will need to add extra caustic soda to compensate. For each 10 g of citric acid used, you will need to add an extra 6.24 g NaOH to your recipe.

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Another dilemma many beginner soap makers have is should you weigh or measure your water? As you may have noticed in the previous paragraph, or in my tutorials and workshops, I usually give the water amount in millilitres. Water is the only ingredient in your soap that doesn’t matter if you are a couple of grams out, or even 10 grams!

The reason for this lies in the purpose of water in the soap making process. If I were to add the caustic soda, which comes in pellets or flakes, directly to my oils and fats, guess what would happen? Nothing. Water is the medium I need to dissolve the caustic soda, so that its molecules can react with the fat and oil molecules to produce soap (and glycerin). That is the only purpose of water. It isn’t part of the actual chemical reaction during the saponification process, and eventually the water needs to be removed again, which is done through curing.

So how much water I use doesn’t really matter, as long as I use enough to dissolve all the caustic soda, right? Wrong. Even though water isn’t part of the chemical reaction itself, it does have an impact on the speed and temperature of the soap making process. Saponification is an exothermic reaction, meaning it produces heat. The amount of water will let you control both the speed and the temperature of the chemical reaction. By adding more water to a recipe, you can slow down the saponification process and lower the temperature of the soap during this process. You add more water if you need more time, such as when doing colour work and swirling or when you have a lot of fast moving oils in your recipe. You also add water if you need to lower the temperature of the process and prevent the soap overheating, for example when using certain ingredients, particularly those containing sugar, such as honey. And when using additives like clays and flours, which absorb water, or when you add fresh ingredients or water containing ingredients to your soap, you will also need to consider the amount of water you are using in your recipe.

Although adding more water in a recipe can be useful, it does have its drawbacks. More water slows the saponification process, which means the soap will take longer to thicken and reach trace. And all the water you add to your soap will eventually need to evaporate again during the curing to make for a nice, hard bar of soap. More water equals longer curing time. More water can also make a soap softer and stickier, making it more difficult to unmold. And another major disadvantage is that soaps with a high water content are prone to forming glycerin rivers. Although perfectly fine to use, the translucent streaks or rivers are usually regarded as an undesired effect in soaps.

Using less water is known as adding a ‘water discount’ to your recipe. Where more water slows down the process, less water will speed it up. This is an advantage when using a lot of slow moving oils and those with long curing times, such as olive oil. My olive oil soap recipes usually have water discount, which cuts down the curing time significantly.  However, discounting your water in a recipe will speed up the chemical reaction and increase the temperature, making it more difficult to control the soap making process, which is why I usually recommend to attempt water discounting to advanced soap makers only. In rare cases, a water discount can cause a soap to overheat to the point of quickly expanding and rising out of the mold, a phenomenon  known as the Volcano Effect. Although spectacular to witness, the design of the soap will be ruined (although the soap can still be used).

How much water you should use in a recipe depends on the oils you use (slow or fast moving), the design of your soap (i.e. colour work or swirling), and your additives and the effect they have on the saponification process. You’ll notice different soap makers and soap calculators will use different methods to calculate their water. Some use a set amount of water, usually something between 250 – 300 ml of water per 1000 g of oils. Others calculate a percentage of the total weight of oils or total recipe, somewhere between 22% to 33%. The most accurate method, however, is to calculate the amount of water in relation to the amount of caustic soda in the recipe.

The standard amount I use in my soap recipes is a 33% lye solution, which is twice as much water as caustic soda. So for example, if a recipe calls for 130 g of caustic soda, I would use 260 ml of water. Most of my recipes will use a 33% lye solution. If I add a water discount to a recipe, for example when using certain ingredients or to avoid glycerin rivers, I might go up to a maximum of a 40% lye solution. Anything more than 40% and you’ll end up with a very fast moving (accelerating), high temperature chemical reaction, which would be very difficult to control. Also never use a lye solution stronger than 50% (equal parts of water and caustic soda), because there won’t be enough water to dissolve the caustic soda.

How to calculate your water:

25% lye solution
weight of caustic soda (g) x 3 = water (ml)

 

33% lye solution
weight of caustic soda (g) x 2 = water (ml)

 

40% lye solution
weight of caustic soda (g) x 1.5 = water (ml)

 

Note: 1 gram of water equals 1 ml water

To understand and see the effects different strengths of lye solutions can have on soap, check out this blog post by Auntie Clara, who created a stunning Ghost Swirl soap by using only different strengths of lye solutions. And while you’re there, have a browse through her soap gallery. Her soaps are absolutely amazing!

Lastly, a friendly word of caution: Adding a water discount will increase the strength of your lye solution, making your lye more potent and more dangerous! Be careful when working with lye. Always wear protective gear, such as safety goggles and disposable gloves to protect your eyes and skin. Stay safe!

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Where to get a hanger swirl tool in New Zealand?

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One of the disadvantages that we have down under (New Zealand and Australia, but also pretty much anywhere which is not North America) is that we can’t easily get hold of the many soap making tools and equipment that they have in the US. So sometimes a little kiwi ingenuity is called for. Luckily, there’s no short supply of that here in little ol’ New Zealand! Here’s my quest to find a hanger swirl tool in New Zealand.

I first came across the hanger swirl method through Soap Queen on her blog, and shortly after, I ordered one of those hanger swirl tools from her webshop in the US. They’re not expensive, around US$6, and I still use mine frequently. However, postage to New Zealand is incredibly expensive, and the hanger swirl tool is actually just a piece of plastic coated wire. I figured it shouldn’t be difficult to find something similar here in a hardware shop that would do the same job. So I set out to see what I could find.

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First, the requirements. Whatever I was going to use had to be fairly firm and solid, yet bendable and able to hold its shape. And it has to be of a material that can withstand the caustic environment of freshly poured soap. This means no aluminium, zinc or tin, which react (corrode) with anything that has a higher pH than 12 (caustic soap has a pH of 13-14).

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So off I went. The first section I went to was the wire section. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see any plastic coated wires, and the only wires that were available were either aluminium or galvanised steel (which is zinc plated). I also looked at the electric cables, but they were too floppy and wouldn’t hold shape.

Next, I went to check out the metal rods, but those were all too thick and didn’t seem as if they would bend at all. However, on my way back, I walked past washing line wires, and surprisingly, they looked like they might work. The heavy duty ones had a wire core, which was plastic coated, and seemed fairly thick and solid and I was able to put a sharp kink in it so that it would hold its U-shape. But unfortunately, after trying them out, I realised they only work as a hanger swirl tool as long as the soap doesn’t get too thick. The other downside is that they’re rather expensive, $29.98, and you’d have a lot of spare wire.

Either way, the washing line gave me the idea to think outside the box. I started to walk up and down the aisles looking for possible items that could be (mis-)used as hanger swirl tools. I thought the garden section might have bendable, plastic rod-things, but I couldn’t find any. However, I did find plenty of different sized hooks, made of plastic coated metal rods/wire and they looked like the perfect solution. Not only were they cheap ($2.98) they would also be strong and durable, and the plastic coating would protect the metal from the caustic soap. But when I got home, I realised the problem with these is not that you can’t bend them, some pliers or strong person will do the trick, but the coating can flake off when you try and bend it. Otherwise these hook things would have been perfect.

The best item I found on my search were these gear ties, which come in different sizes and strengths. These were the closest I could find to the standard hanger swirl tools. They are bendable to any shape you wanted, and you can keep re-shaping them to fit different containers. They are plastic (rubber) coated, and strength wise, they appear to be solid enough to hold their shape when pushing and pulling them through the soap, and the thickness of them is actually an added bonus. If you would use a very thin wire, you’d only get very thin lines going up and down in your soap, so for a nice swirling effect you do want a bit of thickness in your hanger swirl tool. The ones I bought was one of the middle sizes and I paid $12.98 for it, which came with two gear ties = two hanger swirl tools.

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And after giving them a try, I have to say, I’m very happy with the outcome! They worked really well. It was easy to bend them to the right shape, and the shape held when I pushed it in my thickened soap (unlike the clothes line wires). And as you can see, despite the thickness of the wire the lines in the soap are well defined and not disproportionate. The cleaning afterwards was a breeze. Because of the plastic coating, the soap washed off easily and looked just like new again. To be honest, I like this one better because it’s easier to bend and straighten and only slightly weaker than the original. And my original hanger swirl tool that I bought all these years ago has quite a few kinks and twists in it, which I can’t get out anymore. So it’s nice to have a good alternative to buying from the US. $12.98 for two hanger swirl tools is not bad at all.

Here’s a comparison side by side of the two tools.

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Bring on 2018!

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New Zealand’s most beautiful beach – Hahei beach!

Hasn’t this been the most wonderful summer ever? The weather was absolutely incredible and for most of us it was the perfect summer. I think I read somewhere that it was the hottest January on record. We made the most of the sunshine and spent most of the sunny days outdoors doing something fun together.

Having my parents in law visiting from Switzerland kept us busy. We had a great time together and made some wonderful memories! We kayaked down the Puhoi River, went on the Mail Run (by boat) to Kawau Island, did a road trip around Coromandel, which has some of the best beaches in New Zealand, checked out the geothermal area in Rotorua, visited the bird sanctuary island Tiritiri Matangi, walked many, many miles through bush and on the beach, tasted some wines at my favourite winery (Coopers Creek), climbed like monkeys through the trees at Tree Adventures in Woodhill forest, cooked meals together and organised extended family BBQs and gatherings at every possible occasion. This summer was all about family and being together!

But the highlight of my summer was the privilege of cooking a hangi during our little road trip. Cooking has always been a passion for me, and I love being in the kitchen, because the kitchen represents a place of being creative and making people happy, be that with food, soap or by just being together and doing the dishes. I love trying out new things and recipes. So when I found a holiday park with its own hangi oven, I knew we had to go and stay there. Hangi, for those who aren’t familiar with the term, is a maori way of cooking with natural steam. The holiday park we stayed at is located in Rotorua, a region of active geothermal energy with plenty of mud pools, geysers and hot water springs. Placing your food in heke (NZ flax) baskets, the maori used to lower these baskets into the steam and let the steam do the cooking. Those still lucky to have a hot spring on their property will still cook this way. I felt really privileged and lucky to try this method of cooking and to me, that was the highlight of my whole summer! Btw the food is deliciously tender and juicy, and the corn was the best I ever tasted!

Did I mention I loved being in the kitchen? It wasn’t just us humans loving this weather, the harvest this summer has been so bountiful with fruit and vegetables and the past few weeks I’ve been busy canning, jamming, pickling, freezing, and dehydrating. I had a great little helper, who not only picked 7 kg of strawberries in record time, he also cut and dehydrated 5 kg of apricots for me, and he’s come up with some great chilli sauce recipes. I’m happy to share any recipes, just flick me a pm!

And it wasn’t just all about food for me this summer. I also had the privilege to teach a one-on-one session with Gama, visiting New Zealand all the way from Indonesia. He’s a fantastic soap maker and an incredible photographer, and I love seeing his images on Instagram!

Having had such a wonderful fun and busy summer, I feel fully re-charged and ready to bring some great new ideas to 2018. There will be new courses and venues, lots of tutorials, more techniques to learn, and online books and courses. Here’s a little sneak peak to what’s coming this year:

 

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2017 Christmas Soap-Along

2017 Christmas Soap-Along

Woohoo! It’s a Soap-Along! This has been a while in the making – a lot of planning and preparing, but it’s finally here. Come and join the 2017 Christmas Soap-Along!

As a group you’ll be working on a special Christmas themed cold process soap, and I can promise you that you’ll love it <3 

To join up: click here

What is a SAL (Soap-Along)

A SAL or Soap-Along is a group of soapers who all work from the same set of instructions to make their own soap. However, the set of instructions is broken down into parts, also called clues, which are revealed only one at the time, and participants do not know what they are making and how the finished soap will look like until the end.

Where did I come up with this idea?

I am also an avid knitter, although to be truthful, since I’ve founded IN MY SOAP POT, my knitting has taken a bit of a back seat. Knit-alongs (KAL) have always had a big following in knitters circles and  I’ve participated in several KALs over the past years. They’ve been  so much fun that I wanted to do something similar for soapers.

Why you should join a Soap-Along?

They’re both fun, a chance to bond and connect with other soapers, and an opportunity to try out something new! Often times soapers can see a photo of a project and get overwhelmed by its complexity or the technique and decide there is no way they are going to attempt making that soap (even if they would have been perfectly capable of it). With a SAL there is no photo to incite fear… you just get your clue and follow it word for word, and at the end you’ll be surprised what you are actually capable off! SALs inspire confidence! Everyone will be working on the same project and at the same pace, and you will be able to share your progress and photos in the group.

Why a Facebook Group and not just post it here on the blog?

Facebook groups allow for a more secluded setting, away from the public scrutiny (and trolls) giving you the privacy to share and post at will as you work through your SAL clues. This is particularly important for beginners, who might feel intimidated asking questions or posting pictures of their progress. We have a ‘leave no soaper behind’ policy and everyone will be treated with kindness and respect. Working within a group, you’ll find all the support and encouragement you need. Each part of the SAL will guide you step by step through your project and as the host of the SAL I’ll be there on hand to answer any questions too!
I also want the Soap-Along to be something special for those of you who join up. Groups are a great way to bond with like-minded people, and also allow me to communicate and share with you in a more direct way than what is usually possible through my blog or Facebook page. In my soap making workshops, I often hear how participants love being finally able to connect and talk to other soapers, and I hope the SAL will give you another place to bond and share with other passionate soapers!

I’m a beginner soap maker, can I join?

Yes! All I require is that you have made one or two batches of soap before starting on your Soap-Along adventure, so that you know what cold process soap making entails. During the SAL, I will guide and support you every step of the way!
The 2017 Christmas SAL is set up for beginners and advanced soap makers alike. It will give all a chance to try out new techniques and learn new skills!
So what are you waiting for? Join now! <-click here