Friday, January 15, 2010

Got Soap? Maybe . . .

When I checked my soap mixture 24 hours after making it last weekend (see previous post), I was convinced I did something wrong. According to my soap mentor, Ann Marie Craig of Century Farmhouse, I should have been able to actually feel heat generating from my make-shift shoe box mold. Even though I covered it with blankets and towels, the box was cold and the mixture not thicker than when I first poured it. I waited another 24 hours and noticed that the mixture was getting firmer, but still too soft to attempt removing from the mold. My impulse was to discard the batch, but I decided to keep it covered and wait until the following weekend to see if I actually made soap or if I would have to figure out how to get rid of nothing more than a lye and oil concoction.

I'm glad I didn't follow through on my impulse, because when I arrived at the house today, I discovered that the soap did turn out and was firm enough to remove from its mold. I have cut the block into bars and have arranged them about two inches apart so that they can air dry and cure. That will take anywhere from two to four weeks. Regardless of whether or not the bars will prove soap-worthy, the smell of cedar and sage is divine.

Anyone interested in a soap sample? You'll have to wait, just like me.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Can I Make Soap?

Over the holidays I decided to learn how to make soap. I know you're asking yourself why? Blame it on my current—temporary—unemployed status, the chance of creating my own "Baby Boom" success story (minus the apples, the baby, the house in Vermont, and the female central character), or just spending too much time in the country. Whatever the reason, I was determined to give it a try. Now anyone who knows me, knows that I can come up with a million and one little projects to occupy my weekends at Trout House (very few of them fun or exciting). But there was something about saopmaking—particularly as a winter endeavor—that just felt right. I started to do a little research and called Ann Marie Craig of Century Farmhouse.

I first met Ann Marie (that's her on the right) at the 2006 Country Living Fair in Chicago, where I discovered her beautiful hand made soaps, purchasing several varieties for myself and for gifts. Ann Marie is a self-taught soap maker who has turned a home-born business into a successful enterprise. All of her soaps are made from fine vegetable oils and natural essential oils. She continues to experiment and perfect the art of her craft and often draws on her surroundings for inspiration and ingredients, like using filtered rainwater or snow, sap tapped from local maple trees, and herbs grown organically in her own garden. To stand in front of her booth at a Fair or farmers market is a delight to the senses with beautifully crafted bars in subtle colorations and the fragrant mix of floral scents and spices. One of my personal Century Farmhouse favorites is the Chai Soap.

Ann Marie couldn't have been more encouraging or more helpful. She suggested book titles to read, web sites to check out, resources to shop, and some personal insights into the craft. She also added some words of caution: Soap making is addictive.

The picture below shows the tools of the trade that I had to gather for my first experiment. If you know nothing about soapmaking—like me—a love of chemistry helps, since every ingredient has to be accurately weighed and measured, you need protective eyewear and rubber gloves to make and handle the lye solution, you need to achieve a common temperature for the base oils and dilluted lye solution before mixing, and, when combined, you need to watch the process of saponification (the solution becoming soap) until it reaches "trace." And then . . . and only then . . . can you add the fragrant oils to the blend and get ready to pour the mixture into a mold.

This morning was D-Day. I followed directions to the "T" and after nearly 30 minutes of continual stiring poured the traced mixture (or what I believed to be the traced mixture) into my make-shift shoe box mold, lined with a heavy duty garbage bag. I now have it covered with blankets and towels to keep it warm and within 24 or 48 hours will have my first batch of soap. Or will I? Stay tuned.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Remade in under $50

This cabinet was left for trash in the courtyard of my apartment building in New York City. As you have learned from my previous posts, I hate to see anything discarded, especially when it takes so little time—and money—to make it new and useful again. Since I felt the cabinet would be great for kitchen storage opening up both cabinet and counter space, I wanted the finished piece to be cheery and practical. In just three steps I was able to transform this discard into a keeper.

Step one: The wood stain finish on the inside of the cabinet was in pretty good shape, but the exterior was well worn. I decided to use a brightly colored floral oilcloth (purchasing two yards at Denver Fabrics for $12.90 plus shipping) to recover the doors and a complementary yellow paint to refinish the outside of the cabinet. After a good hour at The Home Depot I settled on Behr's "Chickadee" #350B-7 Semi-Gloss Enamel (1 Quart for $12.98). I applied a primer and then several coats of paint, lightly sanding between applications.

Step two: One of the door panels was missing the screws that held it to the door frame so I could see how easy it would be to recover the panels and re-assemble to the frames. Since the frames were in good shape and would only be visible when the cabinet was open, I left them in their original stain finish. I stapled the oilcloth covering to the panel, pulling it taught as I worked the stapler.

Two things to consider: You want to make the corners tight, square and flat. To do so, you will need to cut away some of the material and then tuck and fold so that you have a clean finished corner (see above left). Think of how you make a hospital corner when putting sheets on the bed. The second thing to consider is the pattern repeat. I finished one panel and then placed it on top of the remaining oil cloth material. By inserting the second panel adjacent to, but underneath the oilcloth (see above right), I was able to move the panels until I had the perfect pattern alignment.

Step three: The final step was re-attaching the wood frames to the back of the door panels and re-installing hinges. I also opted to get new door pulls and opted for wood ones that I painted to match the outside cabinet. (Twenty-four screws and two unfinished wood knobs totaling $10.96 plus tax.) The finished project is shown below: fresh, fun and functional—all for less than $50.