The way I store and wrap and transport soap, flat tops work very well. Adding interest to flat soap tops is a bit of a challenge and I’ve worked on several techniques for doing that.
Embossing works well and one way is to line the bottom of the mould with something that makes an impression on the soap and then let the bottom become the top, as it were. For this purpose silicone fondant mats are popular among many soapers. Being silicone they’re easy to use, make a neat imprint and come in large sizes to fit large slab moulds. The downside is that they are quite pricey, around here at least, and the number of patterns available is limited.
If fondant mats come expensive plastic doilies don’t and they leave a nice imprint on soap too. A plastic doily has the advantage to a fondant mat that you can use it on the actual top of the soap too. Since it’s perforated it lets the heat from the saponifying soap escape. Pressing a silicone mat to the top of a soap is likely to result in warm air collecting under the mat making bubbles. Because plastic is less elastic than silicone you can also use a doily like a stamp to make an imprint on the soap after saponification.
Carnation soap stamped with a plastic doily
But, a plastic doily has its drawbacks too. Over time the plastic tends to harden and become brittle from repeated exposure to the heat of gelling soap and a high pH environment, and thin parts with fine detail tear easily when pulled off the soap.
What many regular silicone fondant mats and plastic doilies have in common is that they have positive relief and make a negative imprint on the soap, i.e. the pattern that you see consists of concave grooves in the soap, mirroring the positive relief on the mat or doily.
The effect can be very pretty and if you want to incorporate a contrasting colour in this kind of design you can do it eg by dusting mica on the surface of the soap, either before pulling off the doily or after removing the doily or mat.
In this part of the world plastic doilies are readily available and I keep my eyes open for them in the local shops for cheap eastern imports. So, having trained my eyes in the fine art of spotting choice grade plastic doilies, I was on high alert when soapy sister Zacil Ramirez showed me a picture of some lovely doilies sent to her by her mom in Mexico. Zacil is originally from Mexico and is now the very talented and passionate soapmaker of Soap & Soap in Bochum in Germany.
Now, that kind of thing appeals to me a lot. My own mom passed away long before I started making soap, but I know that she would have loved to follow and be part of my soapy projects – and in fact, in many ways she still is. Although I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Zacil’s mom Nina and probably never will, I can imagine how proud she must be of Zacil’s beautiful creations and how happy she must be about the joy that the soapy craft brings her daughter. I can imagine her being a little amused at the slightly odd request for plastic doilies, but I can also see her going ahead with purpose, comparing the offerings and lovingly choosing the nicest lace that she thought her daughter would like the most.
So, when Zacil in Germany sent me – here in South Africa – a piece of the plastic lace that her mom had sent her from Mexico I thought it was lovely and very special. By making a plan to incorporate that lace in my soap it would reflect something of Zacil and her sweet mom too, making it all the more precious.
The piece of lace was very delicate with lots of very fine detail. Because it was so fine I was concerned that just an imprint of the lace wouldn’t show up very well on the soap. Brushing the parts that the lace didn’t cover with mica might help but it wasn’t really the effect I was after.
I said earlier that plastic doilies and many fondant mats have positive relief and leave a negative imprint on the soap. Now I wanted to transfer the positive image of the lace onto the surface of the soap and add a contrasting colour to set off the lace and make the detail more visible. For that I needed to make a silicone texture mat with concave grooves using the lace as a negative.
Silicone texture mats with a negative relief like the one I was planning to make are available for the baking industry, notably for making sugar lace. These sugar lace mats mostly come in smaller sizes than fondant mats and are at least as expensive. And, when buying a ready-made mat you are limited to the designs that the manufacturers have chosen.
Since I was going to use my texture mat in my soap mould there was no need to make things overly complicated; I could use my soap mould as a mould for my silicone casting project. I usually line my wooden moulds with silicone-coated baking paper and that would do well for this project too.
My first task was to make sure that the lace was flat and mark the outline of the base of the intended mould on the lace.
The next step is super important and crucial to the whole project: if you don’t get this right it’s not going to work.
In order to be able to remove the lace from the silicone once the silicone had set I had to make sure that no part of the lace got completely embedded in silicone. If that happened the lace would get stuck and I wouldn’t be able to get a neat pattern on my mat. Don’t ask me how I know all this – we learn from our mistakes 🙂
So, sticking the back of the lace to something really sticky was the order of the day and I used a couple of strips of really sticky packaging tape for this. You could use sticky labels or whatever you have handy that prevents the silicone from ending up underneath the lace. If you’re making a mat for a mould that is larger than the size that your lace comes in, this is the time to combine several pieces of lace arranging them nicely and sticking them all to the same backing.
After this I cut out my piece of lace all neatly attached to its backing.
Time to place the lace in the mould. I used some ordinary paper glue to stick the backing to the mould liner. Nothing sticks very well to silicone-coated paper but as long as the glue was slightly moist it would keep the lace flat on the bottom without letting the silicone seep in under the backing of the lace.
Mixing the silicone came next. For this type of project with lots of fine detail you need two-component, pourable silicone which gives a very smooth surface and doesn’t shrink excessively as it cures. Mix the silicone according to the manufacturer’s directions and remember to wear gloves and goggles while measuring and mixing; the silicone is thick, the catalyst is very liquid and mixing them together can easily cause splashes. You should never make skin contact with uncured silicone catalyst. If you’re uncertain of what quantity you should mix – start small. You’ll have time to mix some more if necessary. On the one hand silicone is expensive and you don’t want to waste it and on the other you don’t want to make your texture mat any thicker than necessary. The mat goes on the bottom of your mould and the volume of the mat takes away from the volume of your mould.
When the colour is completely even you are done mixing and then it’s pouring time.
The silicone I use is slow-flowing and will take its time to settle into all the fine detail of the lace. If you want the silicone mixture more liquid you can add some silicone thinners but that could result in greater shrinkage as the silicone cures.
As the silicone slowly runs into position and releases bubbles you need to make sure that your mould is completely level. A slant will result in a texture mat of uneven thickness which in turn will result in a slanting soap bottom/top.
How long it takes for the silicone to set depends on the type you’re using. I waited overnight at which point it was ready to be unmoulded.
Strip off the paper and voilà, a silicone mat with a piece of lace stuck to it.
Strip off the lace and voilà, a texture mat. A couple of fine bubbles here and there, but nothing that would stand out too badly on this busy surface.
Now, time for proof of concept. The purpose of making the mat with a negative imprint of the lace was to be able to use colour contrast to show off the lace pattern. Now that I had a mat with grooves instead of a lace with ridges and empty spaces, I could fill those grooves with one colour soap and pour soap of a different colour on top.
The soap that goes into the grooves needs to be at heavy trace, i.e. spreadable and definitely not runny. This means that the process needs to happen in stages; you’re not likely to be able to use the same batch of soap to spread into the ridges and to pour on top. On the other hand you need a minute amount of soap to fill the grooves (I needed about a teaspoon of soap for mine) so making a batch especially for that does not make sense. Instead, you can upcycle the leftovers that you scrape out of your pot and off your utensils from a previous soap batch. Just add the colour of your choice to the leftovers and spread the soap onto the mat.
For best effect the colour contrast between the soap in the grooves and the soap you pour on top needs to be strong. Avoid using dyes that might bleed into the other colour. To make white lace I suggest using titanium dioxide. You want the white to be opaque to show up well against a darker background.
Spread the soap with a spatula or scraper, making sure that all the grooves are filled but that the spaces between the grooves are scraped clean of soap.
Once the soap is in the grooves you can let it rest there for a couple of days, no need to hurry. I’ve oven processed mats spread with soap and the pre-gelling seems to do no harm and might in fact help keep the soap from sticking to the silicone as you strip off the mat later.
This time I was in a hurry to see how my project would work out and so I just placed my freshly prepared texture mat on the bottom of my mould, soapy side up ( 🙂 ).
Then I poured my soap and because I’ve been around the block a couple of times I know the value of soapy contingency plans. I added some inverted stamp decor to the top of the soap so that just in case the bottom with the mat would be a disaster, I could shave it off and pretend that the inverted stamp top had been my intended top all along 😉
Now came the trickiest part of all. The waiting. The Waiting. THE WAITING. How long you have to wait before it’s safe to remove the texture mat depends on a number of variables. Obviously your soap needs to be properly hard and fully cooled down. How long this takes depends on how hard or soft your oil formula is, how much you discount water, whether you use salt or other hardeners and whether the soap goes through gel phase or not. I usually discount water, oven process and use a relatively hard formula. Under normal circumstances I can cut within 12h. Now I felt I had to wait a little longer to make sure that the superfine and fragile detail would be hard enough to withstand the mat being pulled off. How long something like this would take with ungelled soap I don’t know but keeping the soap in the freezer for a few hours before pulling off the mat definitely helps keep the fine detail intact.
Well, the mat came off (with just a little bit of soap stuck in the narrowest grooves) and the result was rather pretty if I say so myself!
Thank you Nina and Zacil!
I had been able to successfully transfer a 3D image of the very fine Mexican lace in a contrasting colour onto my soap, which is what I set out to do. I’d also tried out my new glue applicator/spreader thingy between the two layers of soap and the crenellated effect suggests something slightly ’Zorroesque’ I think. Swashbuckling soap – I like that! All I need to do is close my eyes and I can see Don Diego de la Vega portrayed by Antonio Banderas – in tight pants 🙂 🙂
These are some other versions of soap made with DIY silicone texture mats. I’ve used plastic doilies as negatives for my mats but there are lots of other textured items one could use, wallpaper, tiles, carvings etc.
East Indies. Nice strong contrast between the blue of the lace and the white of the main soap.
Vanilla Mint. The pale mint green is pretty and because the grooves in these mats are fairly deep it works although the colour contrast is not very strong. Here, the texture mats with the green soap were oven processed a day before the white soap was poured on top. Smells fantastic by the way! 🙂
Blue Wedgwood. White on pale blue, here with intentional ‘glycerine river’ crackle effect. I applied the white soap to the mat and then got distracted by life for a full week before pouring the blue on top. Still worked well.
Coconut Caramel. Some very fine soapy detail here.