[META] “Starter Kit” Advice

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Not a recipe for a specific soap, but a “meta-recipe” how one might, could (should?) find one's way to an individual “soapy character”.
Level 1
Get
distilled water, NaOH, olive oil, coconut oil, lard or tallow or palm oil. Protective gear, plastic beakers, stick blender, simple mould
Get used to lye concentration, and lye/oil balance, excess (“superfat”)
Make CP batches (not too small) of each
  • Castile/ZNSC (only olive), 0–1% SF
  • Basic Trinity (olive+coconut+hard fat), 3% SF
  • Salt bar (only coconut), 10–20% SF
  • (Optional) One “bad batch” from a rancidity-prone recipe like with high in HL sunflower or soybean oil, >5% SF
Let them age for at least 4 weeks until (preliminary) judging which direction is most up to your liking. Keep going on, evaluate each 3–4 weeks, take notes.
Don't get distracted by beautiful and fragrant products of advanced soapmakers (you'll meet their level early enough anyway). You will be glad more than once to have “reference soaps” that are uncoloured, unscented, made from simple & cheap recipes.
Level 2
Get
castor oil, a mid-linoleic oil (almond, rice bran, canola), a butter (optional), fragrant oils/colourants (optional)
Get used to property numbers/soap profiles in a soap calculator, reaction of skin to soap, understanding where to apply which soap
Make 2 to 5 soaps. Wildly play with ingredients (while inside sane soap profile numbers) and/or with FO/colour and/or hot process, soap dough. But stay at <5% SF.
Compare the performance of the new soaps with those of Level 1. Distinguish the needs of the skin at different parts of the body (hands, body, face, special regions, possibly hair) and the different sensations that soaps give to them (clean, tender, tight, dry, chalky, moisturised).
Level 3
Get
ROE, sorbitol, arbitrary oils/fats/butters, goat/coconut/… milk, advanced moulds (log, silicone), KOH (optional)
Get used to understand/adapt/reverse-engineer foreign designs and recipes, detailed fatty acid profiles, swirling techniques, forced/avoided gelling, CPOP
Make more soaps, try out designs, ingredients, etc., whatever you want. Again, don't judge tweaks too early, give the soaps time, and critically compare the results to former products. Ideally, give away soap an recap their observations/properties together with your presentee(s).
With quite some experience and a decent variety of soaps at hand, it is now easy to decide into which direction (advanced designs, recipe refinement, soap dough, mass production) to develop further.
Also a good time to evaluate how/where to get rid of excess soap (give away to homeless shelter etc.) before you drain in soap.
Level 4
Get
crazy.
Background: It wasn't until today that I eventually fully deployed my first “true” castile soap – gave it a shot in the shower. Before, I had used up a bar with 25% PKO, that had luxurious lather and slip, but the suspicion is growing that my skin seems to dislike lauric oils – after decades of careless application!
I am a bit angry to myself that I hadn't tried this a lot earlier. Now I'm sitting on a huge heap of coconut, babaçu and PKO containing soaps of which I don't know if I'll like them this way on the long run. Basically, I am walking through the above scheme in reverse order: starting with being crazy 😆, I'm fluent in Level 2 and 3, but I have officially reached evaluation phase of Level 1 only today (sans the obligatory salt bar, that is still far from fully cured).
Who could have guessed that soapmaking is all about patience?

This “starter kit” is kind of my “Notes to my former self”: Fast-forward through a soapmaking career by, as contradictory as it sounds, making less soap and waiting longer than seemingly necessary. But then, a few months in, gained the self-confidence to judge own and foreign (DIY, artisanal and industrial) products, having a few “favourites”, and a great basis to start customising recipes from, knowing why it's a good thing to let soaps time to cure. And knowing myself better, saving me from disappointment and perplexity.
 

earlene

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If this is meant as a general guide or suggestion for beginning soapers, I would alter this a bit.

I would add specific weight sizes for beginner soaps as 'not too small' isn't very specific and 'not too big' which you let out isn't specific enough either. I'd say something like 350 to 500 grams of oil for test or trial recipes of soap.

I would also move the bit about a soap calculator to the the very beginning, because beginners should learn to use a calculator ASAP rather than later.

And I would really emphasize lye safety right from the start. In fact, working with lye safely is a huge issue that should never be left out of recommendations for new soap makers. I just watched a video today where a user was handling caustic soda (lye) without wearing gloves and also boiling it. And there was no mention whatsoever on the safety precautions required for working with this substance other than 'wear a filtered mask'.

I would replace the words like 'wildly' and 'get crazy' with something a little more subdued because I don't think they are a good fit with lye safety precautions. Explore or experiment might be better words, which do not contradict the concept of working safely.

Also for the vegan inclined beginner soap maker, I would provide alternatives to palm oil, as it can be an issue. At least a suggestion to search for Responsibly Sourced palm. So in Level One, I'd put a notation about 'for vegan inclined, alternatives to palm oil may be desirable' and possibly suggest soy wax or butters as possible substitutions.

For a 100% CO salt bar, I would not suggest any SF below 20%.

Also did you mean 'drain in soap' or drown in soap?
 

TheGecko

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If this is meant as a general guide or suggestion for beginning soapers, I would alter this a bit.

I would alter it a lot.

"Protective Gear" can mean anything from a Hazmat Suit to a Condom. And I would emphasize why you need Eye Protection and Gloves. And discuss how dangerous it is to add water to Sodium Hydroxide. You don't need a stick blender, but you DO need a scale.

Level 1 should have two simple recipes...one "vegan" and "animal" with ingredients you can find at your local grocery store/supermarket and I would list the recipe with weight and percentages (for resizing). I took a soaping "class" many, many years ago and the 'vegan' recipe included shortening and coconut and olive oils. I've also used @Obsidian's Lard Soap Recipe...very simple and makes a lovely bar of soap. And a discussion about "trace", the saponification process and the importance of properly curing your soap.

Level 2 would involve an in-depth discussion of the Soap Calculator (how important it is to run EVERY recipe through it) and how to use various ones available. I would talk about experimenting/exploring the different kinds of oils and butters, along with using colorants and scents. It could also include simple design techniques...In the Pot Swirl, Drop Swirl, Drop Swirl/Chopstick Swirl, Layering, texturing the top of your soap. Of making small test batches when using new ingredients, colorants and scents. More about the saponification process and why expensive ingredients aren't recommended, and why you shouldn't certain ingredients at all (DOS, Rancidity, etc).

Level 3 would involve more 'advanced' information...fatty acids, saturated/unsaturated fats, super fatting, lye concentrations (no such thing as a "water discount") and how to calculate your soap by hand. The different soap processes and the pros and cons of each. I would get more in-depth about the saponification process...the science of it.

Caveat: The above is based on my experience: A so-called 'soaping class' that taught nothing (we used Mason Jars to mix our Lye Solution) except no aluminum. How much misinformation is out there. Misconceptions about soap making. How to actually get started (I went with a "kit"). Things I have learned over the last two and a half years...from research, from You-Tube, the Soapmaking Forum and from success and failures.
 

MrsZ

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I do wish I had this list when I was first starting. It would have been nice to have an idea of the order to learn. I made two batches of more complicated soap, then learned about the soap calculator, read everything I could about fatty acids and what they add to soap, how to adjust lye concentration and why, how to force and prevent gel, and I feel that only recently I've been learning the simple recipes. I'm super happy with the recipe I came up with with the help of the SMF friends, but a little more structured learning might have been beneficial.
 
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