A couple of weeks ago I was experimenting with finely marbled agateware soap. In the process, I accidentally let one of my low-water soap batches get hard enough to lose its plasticity. Not wanting to waste the batch I ended up making very traditional round soap balls from it. Those balls I then incorporated as embeds in uncoloured soap in this Grand Ball soap. It was pretty although it was nothing like agateware soap.
Cutting the ball soap I noted that the contrast between the uncoloured soap and the white embeds coloured with titanium dioxide was fainter than I had anticipated. I like that faint contrast. I find it rather elegant and it reminds me of the visual effect of the Ghost Swirl.
Unless, of course, you coated them with something in a contrasting colour. Then you would see that contrasting colour and an outline of the shape rather than the embed itself. Something for an interesting bubble effect perhaps..?
Just a couple of weeks ago I had made this blue and white soap aiming for a bit of a poured bubble effect and I thought my same-colour soap ball concept could be a different take on this blue and white theme.
An inspiring idea – which obviously needed to be tested.
Soap ball embeds covered in mica are not unusual. These were some white soap balls dusted with gold mica that I embedded in soap a few years ago.
But now I wanted to continue on my blue and white theme. I don’t have blue mica and besides I was hoping to create a slightly wider outline to show the shape of the embeds. So, I decided to coat soap balls in coldprocess soap batter instead.
I hadn’t done that with soap before but the technique is essentially the same as the candle making technique of dipping weighted wicks in candle wax to gradually build up layers to form the candle.
I’m not a candlemaker and I haven’t worked extensively with candle wax, but I make sugar covered marzipan sweets every year and that confectionery technique is also similar. In our family we have these marzipan sweets at Christmas and they’re also used to decorate the traditional krokan that we make for weddings in the family. A krokan is a tastier Swedish version of the French croquembouche, made of almond paste rather than choux pastry. This is the krokan my sister and I made for our brother’s wedding last year.
In soapmaking the technique of coating solid soap with fluid soap is used extensively e.g. by those who make geode soaps. Soap Queen by Bamble Berry has a tutorial for making geode soap using this technique. It lends itself nicely to melt and pour soap which hardens relatively quickly. It can also be done much the same way with coldprocess soap although the soap layers take longer to set.
In our family we know the little sugar covered marzipan balls as ’jockey hats’. The hot sugar running down the surface of the ball tends to create a bit of a puddle around the base which hardens to a ’peak’. For my soap covered soap ball embeds I didn’t want puddles which I was sure to get if I stood the dipped balls on a flat surface. And so I made a different plan…
Making Soap Beads
I made soap balls from pliable low-water coldprocess soap still in the process of saponification. Once the balls had been shaped I put them in a 60C oven to finish saponification. You could make the balls from saponified high-water soap as well – and then wait for them to cure until hard enough to handle further.
When the balls came out of the oven I strung them on strands of fine cotton thread using a very fine beading needle. I then fastened the strands with pins over a couple of cardboard beer can trays. I had turned my soap balls into soap beads.
The spiky surface of the soap beads shows that my soap was a little sticky as I shaped the balls. Hot out of the oven I could have smoothed down the spikes, but I decided to keep them to possibly give the next layer of soap better grip.
Dip n’ Drip
After this I made a batch of low-water soap coloured with blue ultramarine and titanium dioxide. I blended it to light trace and then began to dip my strands of soap beads hanging them back to drip off onto the tray. Instead of dipping the balls one by one I could dip up to ten beads at a time. Handy!
I learnt that for optimal results I needed to have the soap batter thick enough for my one coating to be nice and thick but fluid enough for any surplus batter to run off without making unnecessary marks on the surface of the beads.
Unlike candle wax or melt and pour soap which set up quickly in a thin layer over a cool surface, coldprocess soap will take longer to set up when spread in a thin layer. I.e. the coating on the soap beads will take longer to set up than the mass of soap in the dipping bowl. This means that it’s difficult to build up several layers from one batch of soap. If you want to build up several layers on top of each other you’ll need to make fresh soap for the next layer once the previous layer has hardened.
For my bubble soap I was happy with one, relatively thick layer. I placed my cardboard trays with the hanging soap beads in a 60C oven and about an hour later the coating was hard enough to handle. This time I did give the ’drip tips’ a bit of a smooth-down as the soap was hot from the oven.
The embeds were unstrung and went into a log mould. I then poured a fresh batch of uncoloured low-water soap over. Once the soap in the mould had set up a little it went into a 60C oven again and a few hours later the soap bead bubble soap was ready to unmould.
I cut the log and this is how the bars turned out:
That’s a nice bubble effect I think, and my play on same-colour embeds worked fairly well. Next time I might use pigmented rather than uncoloured soap though. Uncoloured soap tends to be more translucent than soap with pigment and here the coloured coating around the embeds gives a little bit of a shadow through the uncoloured soap.
Now that I’ve tried these two new layering techniques in quick succession – agateware soap and the dip n’ drip technique – it’s interesting to compare the two. What do they have in common and how do they differ?
Lots of Layering
Layering is one of the most widely used concepts in soapmaking design. Whether straight layers punctuated with horizontal mica pinstripes, gradient layers, undulating tiger stripes or funnel pours, all these and many other design techniques are based on creating visual effect by layering soap of contrasting colours.
How layering is done and what the visual effect will be like depends to a great extent on the consistency of the soap. In a funnel pour all layers are typically fluid simultaneously, the first layers being shaped by the force and gravity of subsequent pours and layers. Perfectly straight horizontal layers, on the other hand, are often achieved by gently pouring fluid soap over semi-solid or solid soap. In practice this means that soap for subsequent layers needs to be mixed after the previous layers have set. This black-and-white layered effect is created by pouring fluid soap batter at emulsion or very light trace over semi-set soap:
Layering fresh, soft coldprocess soap batter over solid soap can give spectacular results. This rainbow cake soap by talented and prolific soapmaker Emily Evily of Shieh Design Studio is a great example of a combination of different layering techniques.
First the gradient layers are gently poured to create even horizontal lines. Once that part of the soap is hard enough to unmould the smooth white layer is applied accentuating vertical lines. Then everything is coated with coldprocess soap batter in textured rainbow colours – with stunning result.
Although much less elaborate and quite different in design, my dip n’ drip soap beads were made using one of the techniques in the rainbow cake soap above: fully saponified solid coldprocess soap coated in coldprocess soap batter in a contrasting colour.
Agateware Soap vs Dip n’ Drip Soap Bead Soap
The technique I used for the agateware soap was inspired by pottery and quite different from the dip n’ drip technique inspired by conventional candlemaking and confectionery techniques. In the agateware soap I made the different colours simultaneously from one batch of soap. The layers were shaped by hand rather than poured or dipped and all layers were arranged in one go without gradually building up contrasting layers of soap batter on solid soap. Because all layers can be manipulated and worked simultaneously you can create finely marbled rolled patterns and ‘swirls’ that a soap-batter-on-solid-soap technique won’t allow.
Because I was making the agateware soap in low-water soap still in the process of saponification, time was of essence and I had to work fast while the soap retained plasticity. To me that was more of a rush and a challenge than the making of loads of soap balls, the repetitious dipping of rows and rows of soap beads and the patient waiting for the layers to set. The dip n’ drip technique is definitely less rushed but quite time-consuming. Yet, by using low-water soap and oven processing I manipulated the rate of saponification and managed to make the soap bead bubble soap start to finish in one day.
Both of these layering techniques are labour intensive – although in different ways. On the other hand they can also both be varied in lots of ways and used to create all sorts of interesting effects.