Thursday, June 9, 2016

June 2016 Great Cakes Soap Challenge: Sculpted Layers

               "Almost Argyle"     

     Here is my entry for the June Great Cakes Soap Challenge: Sculpted Layers.  If you will be so kind as to forgive the lengthiness of this post, I'll be most grateful!  Feel free to skip through.  

     I watched Claudia's and Amy's tutorials several times before deciding on a pattern I liked. I'm not much for landscapes, although once I learn this technique, I'd really like to do a mountain scene, one that looks like the miles of misty ridges that you can see from scenic overlooks on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  For this month's challenge, however, I was more drawn to patterns and symmetry.  I love gradients, and thought I'd like to see if I could incorporate gradient shading into a repeatable, symmetrical pattern.

     Here's a sketch of what I wanted to try:

It seemed plenty challenging, especially since I wanted the gradients to be very precisely colored.  Three of the four colors (shades of the same color) would each need to be divided in half so that they could be poured twice: dark on the bottom, proceeding to light in the middle, and then back to dark on the top.  But before halving, each color would need to have some drawn off to serve as the base for the next lighter shade, made by mixing uncolored batter into it.  Some of that resulting batter would again need to be drawn off to go in the next lighter shade, and so on.  Each layer needed to be thickened with either clay, sodium lactate, an accelerating fragrance, or some combination of the three just before pouring it.

     Some pretty tricky math needed to be applied!  Claudia's spreadsheet might have helped if I had been using distinctly different colors, rather than gradients.  But I do love a puzzle, especially when math is involved, so I worked up a process, and typed it out step-by step so I'd have it to go by as I worked.

     The next thing to consider was recipe.  It's so great in Amy's challenges to be given a recipe as a starting point!  I'm a great believer in following the experts' suggestions, but I felt I had to make some adjustments to Claudia's recipe.  First of all, I'm trying to reduce the percentage of coconut oil in all of my recipes because I just don't like how dry my skin feels when washing with soap that has over 20% CO in it.  So I reduced the CO content to 16%, reduced the castor oil to 10%, and made up the difference by using beef tallow.  Gotta get that tallow in there somehow, as my friend and I just rendered the fat from a cow and ended up with over 90 lbs of tallow! Also, I don't have a Costco membership and couldn't find any info on the "Mediterranean Blend" Claudia mentions, so I simply guessed that olive oil would do as a replacement.  And finally, as regards Claudia's recipe, I was a little worried about having to fiddle around with both sodium lactate and kaolin clay while working with the gradient.  So I opted to leave out the sodium lactate, and hoped that the addition of the beef tallow would help with hardening.  (It didn't occur to me until later that I could have simply calculated the total amount of SL and mixed the kaolin clay into it, adding the mixture to each layer as I went. Duh!)

     Finally, I ran everything through Soapcalc and came up with this:
     In my first attempt, my colors were shades of brown and somewhat manly, so I chose to scent the soap with Indian Sandalwood, a fragrance oil from American Soap Supplies that reviews said did not affect trace, but discolors to a light beige.  I could live with that, given the colors I was going for anyway.  For colorants, I decided to use cocoa powder, a tip Amy gave me during last month's challenge, plus a little activated charcoal for the very darkest brown on the bottom and the top.

     Now it was time to make my cutouts, and I used a thick vinyl place mat I found at Walmart with popsicle  sticks to make the tops stiffer.  I found that cheap plastic cutting boards were just too floppy, but the Walmart placemat was just the right amount of thickness to be stiff, yet easy enough to cut with scissors.  I even made a little scraper, since I didn't have one small enough to get inside the mold and scrape the sides as I went. 

     On soaping day, all seemed in readiness, but truth be told I was nervous about all the unknowns.  I may be comfortable with math, but it can let you down if you start with the wrong premise.  Also, I really had no idea how my recipe would behave.  Would I have enough time to work with the gradient process?  How much time would each layer need to set up enough to sculpt after being poured?  Would the remaining colored batter portions wait patiently for their turn to be poured?  

     Well, as it turned out, I did have a wrong mathematical premise to deal with:  I hadn't
allowed for enough overall batter to divide up into the separate layers, leaving precious little wiggle room while sculpting each one.  There was even just barely enough to fill the mold all the way to the top.  Part of this had to do with me being a cheapskate and not wanting to waste batter. But it also had to do with last minute resizing for my mold, and taking into account the relatively low water in the recipe.  Still, on each layer, I squeaked by with just enough to run the scraper across, but hardly any more.  Sometimes precise math can come in handy, and sometimes it's just downright scary!

     I wanted to scrape a perfectly flat top with the last color, but had to add some of the scraped off colors to be able to fill it up to the top of the mold.  So I formed streaks of color as I ran a flat spatula across it.  All told, my leftover batter amounted to less than a third cup!  I like to gel my soaps, so this one got wrapped in towels and went into a warm oven turned off.  

     Here's my first attempt, and I was pretty pleased with it, especially considering the learning it provided:
     With these results, it was clear to me that only my impatience was keeping me from getting sharp lines on each layer, and that if I had only waited a little longer for the soap to set up before shaping, I would have achieved what I was looking for.  Now that I knew how the batter would behave I was eager to try again, feeling sure I could get those zigzags into sharper points.

     For my second attempt, I felt ready to kick it up a notch and add a gold mica line to define each layered color, and to change the color scheme to blue.  I wanted the mica line to give the finished soap an almost argyle look, which is what the brown soap made me think of when I first saw it.  I played around with the mica samples I had, and came up with another simple sketch:

     Instead of strict adherence to gradient shading using only one mica color and diluting it, I made it easier on myself by choosing two different micas from Nurture Soap: "Blue Vibrance" and "Nautical Blue."  Black Pearl mica was added to Blue Vibrance to get the darkest navy blue, and titanium dioxide was added to the Nautical Blue to get the lightest. I also decided that I'd use sodium lactate along with the clay.  I debated using an accelerating fragrance oil instead, it was one that I really love that would go with the blue shades: Salty Mariner from Brambleberry.  But in the end I thought it best to save that one for another day.  It accelerates like a runaway freight train, sometimes rices, and I didn't think I needed the aggro.  The sculpting requires enough nerves of steel and patience as it is. So I used a blend of lavender and tea tree essential oils plus a little amber fragrance oil. This blend has been a favorite of mine and I didn't expect it to throw any surprises.

     Surprisingly enough, my fragrance choice did throw a curve ball, I think.  It seemed to slow trace when I added it along with the sodium lactate and clay just before pouring each layer.  Some of them took 10 minutes or more to set up.  Fortunately, the recipe allows for plenty of time to wait.  Even with 7 distinct layers, I was able to work good sharp peaks with my cutout scrapers, and only the very last layer had become thick enough to not require the addition of clay and sodium lactate.  I spritzed each layer with a fine mist of almond oil mixed with water before sifting the gold mica on.  Note to self:  figure out a a way to "poof" the mica on better, or practice first.  This mica wanted to clump, even coming out of the fine sieve I was shaking it from.

     I want to thank Claudia for working out this technique, and most especially for her recipe and incredible tutorial. The calculator is the bomb!  Although I didn't use it for my attempts, it is a fabulous tool to have for other sculpting projects I have in mind.  And I know it was a labor of love for her to design and publish: precious time freely given so other soapers could benefit! Thank you, thank you, Claudia!

     And thank you, Amy, for hosting the monthly challenges, introducing such fun and goodwill to soapers worldwide!  

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

May 2016 GreatCakes Soap Challenge - the Teardrop

Here's my entry for the GreatCakes May Soap Challenge:

     I'm fairly new to soaping, with less than 20 batches of cold process, hot process, and liquid soap to my credit in the last 6 months.  I started with 100% tallow soap for the laundry, made from home-rendered tallow, and just couldn't stop there!  I love the satisfaction of producing something useful and beneficial for my family, and - more and more - the excitement of trying new techniques and recipes to make this everyday product not only useful, but lovely and appealing as well.
     I really entered the GreatCakes Challenge just for, well....the challenge!  I realized that if I am to continue to be happy with the soaps I produce, I was going to have to learn and grow in many areas: in working with soap colors and the colorants that produce them, understanding batter behavior, becoming acquainted with fragrances, and so much more.  I needed to learn how to set a goal, how to plan each step in reaching the goal, and then follow through by not being afraid to try (and fail!)
     My biggest challenge was, and probably always will be, color.  Like most people, I know what I like when I see it.  Duh!   But I really don't have a clue about how to reproduce the colors in a design I like by mixing them, let alone how to put them into the soap batter when (if!) I've accidentally mixed a color that looks right.
     But I had to start somewhere, and this is what I saw that I liked:

     Yep, that's right, it's a log!  From our woodpile, no less.  It had all the colors I wanted to try to get into the soap.  And I wanted the teardrop to give the impression of what it looks like when a branch on a tree trunk "drops in" from the side to form a knot.  Here's a very rough and ragged example of that from another log from the woodpile:
     Also, for the sidepours of the teardrop, I wanted to incorporate all the lighter colors in a swirl to at least give the feeling --- if not the actual appearance---of the swirls of a wood burl, like this:

So here's my sketchup of the plan:
     As you can see, I had my color wheel out, and was beginning to study on how to achieve the colors I wanted.  It would have been nice, I thought, if I could figure out how to make the side pours in layers like the sketch, but I knew that the batter wouldn't behave that way as it poured.  So I compromised with trying for a mottled burl effect.
     The first thing I discovered when I went to my stash of mostly sample colorants was that I had no dark brown at all, and was going to have to improvise by mixing reds and yellows and black.  Oh no. 
     I couldn't face the prospect of mixing colorants, so my first attempt at the soap was a great big fail, because I tried to make finely ground coffee crystals work.  They make such a lovely rich brown when mixed in a tiny amount of water!  But alas, they also had the effect of immediately turning Amy's fine slow-moving batter recipe into a thick pudding.  It plopped onto the poured teardrop base in thick droplets that refused to spread out when the other colors got poured on top of it.  I won't bore you with pictures!
      So I regrouped, went back to the micas that were patiently waiting for me to discover them, and went to work.  Here's the result of a little mixing and finger-painting:
     I finally felt that I had something to work with, and so I went ahead and prepared another batch of Amy's slow-mover (which is so forgiving, if you take your time to find the "goldilocks" point).  I chose essential oils of bergamot, tea tree and litsea to try to avoid acceleration, while also giving a fresh, somewhat manly scent.  This time I also made quite a bit of extra batter so I wouldn't feel constrained by amounts as I mixed the different batches of color. 
     One dilemma that I knew was coming, was how to get that "burl" effect into the side pours.  This had me stumped, but I decided my best hope for it was to pour them on top of each other into the two pouring cups and swirl them a little bit with a skewer.  

     I didn't get actual pictures as I was pouring the loaf, because I was way too focused to stop and think that maybe that would be a good idea!  But I will tell you that I thanked Amy a thousand times over for her wonderful recipe that gave me so much latitude as I poured.  The base and side pours required that I pour with little circular motions to keep the swirled batter from going in as straight horizontal lines, which would have been lost in the cut.  Also, those circular motions had to be ever-so-slight on the side pour so as not to distort the teardrop.

     The micas I used for the darkest brown did cause the batter to start to thicken up, and it was the first color I chose for the teardrop, which is key, if you want that first color to spread out and border the whole teardrop.

    What the thickened dark brown did allow, however, was for me to put a dark layer on top and texture it to simulate bark.  Before I spooned that on, I spooned a layer of reddish brown, which is just under the outer layer of bark in many trees (you can just barely see it in the rough log above). The dark brown itself was quite heavy, and I could tell it was sinking into the layer below more than I would have liked.

Here's the finished soap in the mold.  I accidentally pulled up some of the reddish brown as I was texturing the top, decided that I liked it, and then added it into more of the bark top:
The next morning, my loaf was hard enough to cut, and after releasing it from the mold, the endpiece looked promising:
     But the rest of the bars were somewhat disappointing, as you can see from my entry photo.  I would have like for the top of the teardrop to have extended all the way up into the bark, and for the top two solid layers to be more even across.  But what a nice surprise to have achieved the colors that I wanted!  And I am not at all disappointed in the mottled burl effect of the side pours.  This, for me, was the happy result of the challenge:  gaining the confidence to work with colorants, and the benefit of taking the time to experiment with them.
     Thank you Amy for the great tool this monthly challenge is to us all!  And the recipe you suggested is a huge bonus.  It provided plenty of time to work with, it sets up fast without additives or fiddling, and it lathers up nicely, even fresh from the cut.
     Happy soaping, everyone!