When I first started making soap I saw the world with new eyes. Anything and everything equipped with some form of cavity became the centre of intense focus as a potential soap mould. This is a common phase that many soapmakers go through. As you make more soap you then tend to become a little jaded in this respect: you learn what works and what doesn’t and you learn to appreciate the value of uniformity. It’s just easier to calculate volume and storage and then to cost and price and package bars that are of uniform shape and size.
Like so many seasoned soapmakers before me I’ve pretty much outgrown the phase of seeing soap moulds everywhere. I stick to what I have (admittedly I have quite a stash of moulds in various shapes and sizes) and every year I’m getting better at resisting all sorts of potential mould temptations that I run into.
But, relapses happen and this is one of those stories.
A few weeks ago I was invited to an antique fair by a friend.
Now, I grew up in a house full of antiques and that teaches you a few things. It teaches you to sit straight on delicate chairs and not to play ball indoors. It teaches you never to clear the antique stemware off the table late at night after you’ve had a long, wet dinner, and it teaches you to spot the good stuff among the junk. It should also teach you not to amass unnecessary belongings, because those beautiful things carefully handed down to you through generations already fill your space.
I held on to that last thought as I browsed through some junk and some nice pieces I liked but did not need. All was fine until I came across a little silver box with a funny face on the lid.
It was a repoussé and chase work cigarette case, complete with a spring hinge in perfect working condition and little rings inside to attach bands for keeping the cigarettes in place. It was solid silver, undamaged – and beautifully made.
I don’t smoke so I don’t have any need at all for a cigarette case (and this is a very short little cigarette case – from a time before filter cigarettes), but the size and shape of this little box just shouted out ’EXTRA UNIQUE ONE-OF-A-KIND SOAP’ to me. The box was not exactly cheap, but without knowing anything more about it I could tell from the design, the condition and the workmanship that this little box was worth it. And so I forked out the money and the box became mine.
As one does I felt I needed to know all about my box immediately. A bit of close examination revealed hallmarks both on the front lid and on the back.
From my childhood I remember lengthy dinner conversations about silver hallmarks in a time when you had to look them up in books. Now, with Google on my phone it was a matter of seconds to find out what these hallmarks stood for.
The maker’s mark is a combination of two sets of initials: JR over SJ belonging to the company Rosenthal, Jacob & Co, JR standing for Julius Rosenthal and SJ for Samuel Jacob. Their partnership lasted from 1881 until 1892.
The leopard’s head mark is a town mark indicating that the piece was made in London. The lion passant guardant or Britannia stamp indicates that the silver is of a purer grade than sterling silver and the letter M stamp on the backside tells us that the piece was made in 1887. Finally the last mark on the backside is the sovereign head or duty mark indicating that duty for the piece had been paid.
So, my box was made in London in 1887 of high quality silver. A further image search revealed that the box is made in the style of Samuel Jacob rather than that of Julius Rosenthal.
But what about the enigmatic face on the lid? Who could that be? At a quick glance it looks as if flames of fire are springing from the mouth of our character. But at closer inspection those flames are almost identical with the foliage of the flowers in the top corners, and do in fact end in flower heads in the bottom corners. So, our fellow is holding not one but two flowers in his mouth, and in addition to the four flowers in the corners there is a flower immediately above the face and one immediately beneath the face. Lots of flowers all around..
This time Google didn’t spit up any handy references to imps or goblins with flowers. But I know somebody called Florian, a name which obviously refers to flowers, so I casually looked up Florian and St. Florian.
Well, lo and behold – what do you know! It turns out that St. Florian is the patron saint not only of fire fighters and beer brewers, but of soap boilers too! How’s that for an interesting coincidence!?! There’s why research is so rewarding; it teaches you new things you didn’t know 🙂 The Florian who later became Saint Florian was born in 250 AD in what is now Austria. He was an officer in the Roman Army and trained military units specifically to fight fires. In the Roman persecutions of Christians around 304 AD Florian was executed by drowning. He is the patron saint of Linz in Austria as well as the patron saint of Poland and his feast day is on May 4.
So, without any further ado I’ve decided that the face on the box symbolizes St. Florian. It would have been very prudent, I think, to keep the patron saint of firefighting on a box of smokes.. I agree that he looks somewhat more like Shreck than a saint, but who says that saints must look like hipsters and can’t look like goblins? I’ve decided not to be judgmental in this respect. Also, the symbol of St. Florian resembles a Maltese cross. If you look at the outlines of the foliage and those rocaille scrolls left, right, top and bottom of the face, they are more than just a little reminiscent of a Maltese cross..
But now over to the question of how to use the box for soap.
I was going to make a soap mould using the box as a negative. The box is only about 8.5cm x 6.5cm x 2cm. That’s a little smaller than what I prefer a bar of soap to be and so I began by building up my ’negative’ with some mould making clay. With the clay I could conveniently cover the hinge, and seal the box opening. I was going to make the mould from silicone and silicone has a knack for creeping in everywhere so I knew I had to seal the box tightly. From previous experiences I’ve also learnt that silicone is relatively heavy. This means that whatever you want to cover with silicone needs to be well-weighted, otherwise it will float to the surface of the fluid silicone. Hence I filled the box with coins before I sealed the opening.
Silicone is the obvious material for individual cavity moulds. I’ve worked with silicone before and so I had some tucked away from previous projects.
Silicone is flexible, doesn’t react with lye or much anything else and soap doesn’t stick to silicone. The down side is that silicone is relatively expensive – at least the pouring kind used for mould making – and so you want to waste as little as possible.
To use only as much silicone as I needed for a mould, I decided to build a custom designed cardboard box slightly bigger than my silver box and place my silver box in the cardboard box. The space between my silver box and the cardboard box would be filled with silicone which would eventually make the walls of my mould.
First I drew the box template onto cardboard.
Then I scored all the lines with the very pretty butter knife that I also picked up at the same time as the silver case. The butter knife has a blunt edge and is well-suited for the purpose.
I made four cuts and stuck some double-sided tape as close as possible to what would become the corners of my cardboard box – and eventually the corners of my silicone mould.
Then I stuck the box flaps in place with the double-sided tape and secured the corners with masking tape
Now my custom-made box was ready to host the silver case
Next up I needed to mix my silicone. As I said earlier silicone is expensive and you don’t want to waste any, so it’s a good idea to mix as little as you think you will need and then mix more later if necessary. For this project I guesstimated that 150g of silicone would be just about enough and it turned out to be the perfect amount. Too lazy to fetch my proper soapmaking scale from the soap room I used my little battery scale in the kitchen and boy is it annoying to have that gadget turn itself off mid project! Anyway, I did manage to weigh first the silicone and then the catalyst. The silicone needs to be mixed thoroughly; when you think you’re done you go on mixing for a good while. Once thoroughly mixed I poured the silicone onto my silver case in my cardboard box.
Once I had poured all the silicone into the cardboard box I used a skewer to release air bubbles from all those little bumps and grooves on the surface of the silver box. A soap mould I would routinely tap against the worktop to release bubbles, but here I definitely didn’t want to dislodge the silver negative from its position inside the cardboard box so no tapping or banging this time.
After chasing bubbles in the blind for a while I stuck some masking tape across the opening of the box to keep the sides from bulging. And then it was a waiting game.
I let the silicone set over night and then carefully opened the flaps of the cardboard box to unmould the silicone mould. Once I had ‘unmoulded’ my silver box this is what the mould looked like:
So far so good: no annoying bubbles and the face and flowers looking very crisp indeed.
Now for proof of concept – et voilà! Here my 1887 London silver cigarette case has been turned into a bar of soap. Pretty cool!:
When it comes to moulds with fine detail like this one, my personal preference is for soap of a solid colour. Also, the more opaque the soap, the better the detail shows up. Once again I can only marvel at how accurately the silicone and then the soap picks up the detail of the original object.
I repeated the cardboard box and silicone process a few times and now I have a nice set of completely unique and very exclusive St. Florian soap moulds.
On that note I wish everybody a very happy new year. May 2016 be an exciting and prosperous year with lots of happiness and interesting new challenges. May the trace be light, the swirls fluid, the suds abundant and may the beautiful magic of soap continue to bestow pleasure upon us all. Cheers!