Rolling My Own

What is your opinion on fine shaving creams and hard soaps? Do you like Trumpers, Coates, Taylors, Truefitt & Hill? Post your reviews and opinions here!
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TRBeck
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Rolling My Own

Post by TRBeck » Thu Apr 25, 2013 9:10 pm

Gents,

I have been interested in soapmaking for some time, and in recent weeks I've finally gotten started. I got interested in making soap only after I found wetshaving, naturally, and mostly because I wanted to make shave soap (though I also wanted to create bath soap for my kids, my wife, and myself, respectively). Over the past couple of years, my desire to do this has grown, both because I thought the hobby of soapmaking could be an enjoyable alternative to some of my less healthy pastimes (I'm looking at you, beer brewing) and because my options for usable, high-quality shave soaps have dwindled. I have found few satisfactory palmate soaps, and I prefer tallow for ethical reasons. I can't do lanolin or shea, so many artisan products are out. Benzaldehyde burns my skin like hell, so no almond-scented shave preps.
Other than Valobra, Harris, and the Germans, it's slim pickings these days for me. I'd like to be self-sufficient regarding shave prep, so it was time to take the plunge.
I had spent hundreds of hours reading and researching in books, on forums, etc., and finally felt prepared to proceed. My initial batches of soap have been good, and I finally took on shave soap this week. I'm not going to bore everyone with lots of process information. I've got a picture below of my most recent batch cooking (in the gel stage) in a crockpot. I do hot process soaps, mostly due to lack of patience but also due to the fact that soaping is replacing homebrewing as a hobby for me, and I need the cook/gel stage to really feel like I've done something. Anyway, here's the soap in process:

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My first soap recipe was a bit off, too bubbly and not rich enough. It's bath soap now. My second formulation came damn close, and I'll use it up as shave soap, though it's not quite where I want it. My third formulation is closer still to the target. The lather is dense and creamy, the shave is good, the blade glides as it ought to. What's missing as of now is mostly lather stability, but more on that in a moment. I loaded my brush with soap from batch 2 last night and went through the motions of a shave, sans blade, to demonstrate where things stood as of then (the third batch was completed last night and used for the first time this morning...more on that in a bit).

Here's the brush after loading (I loaded for 45 seconds; I typically load 30-40 seconds for Palmolive or Valobra, given my awful water situation):
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I then lathered up on my face, waited a minute or two, rinsed, and applied again. Here's the brush afterward:

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And here's the lather on my face:
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I then rinsed again, lathered up a third time, then a fourth, and found that other than adding water as the lather tends to get dry a bit faster than I'd like, I needed no further adjustments. In fact, here's my leftover lather at the conclusion of the shave:

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I then reloaded the brush, built some lather, and let it stand for 10 minutes:

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And after 25 minutes:

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Note in these last pics that the lather, while somewhat stable in its fluffiness, loses moisture and becomes airy over time. The lather that has been rehydrated throughout the shave, however, is still creamy and has good texture. So this is decent soap, in my opinion. The third batch, which attempts to correct this problem, was used this morning. It was not a fair test, as the soap was finished cooking only seven hours earlier. Thought hot process soap is good to go as soon as it's cool, theoretically anyway, a bit of a "cure" does some good, and indeed batch 2 improved dramatically from day 1 to day 2. So, tomorrow will hopefully reveal more about this latest batch. For now, though, I can say that it seemed a bit harsh on the skin (again, this is common with very fresh soap, whether hot or cold process) but that it shaved better and had more stable lather than batch two.

As I said, I could happily shave with the second formula, but I'd like to get something about which I'm ecstatic for daily use (and which doesn't irritate my skin with prolonged use, a factor that can't yet be accounted for) before I settle in and start messing with perfecting scents. For now, everything is lavender or lemongrass, as I have lots of these two EOs on hand.

I have been looking for ways to add some experimentation to my shave hobby without just buying more products. This is one approach I'm taking. Toward that same end, I am going to be digging back into straights. I have no stones or hones of any kind, but I do have blades and a strop and the will to learn. Again, experimentation is one goal, and the endgame of self-sufficiency is another.

I hope to post about continued progress on the soapmaking front, but I can tell you that the shave I had today, besides being pleasantly-scented and close as can be, was incredibly gratifying. I can only imagine shaving with a straight that I brought to shave-readiness by my own hand would make it moreso. For those inclined toward DIY, homebrewing, recipe-building, etc., this is a fun way to indulge two hobbies at once, and at worst you end up with good bath soap for the family. Worth pursuing, at least for me.
Regards,
Tim

Why should we not meet, not always as dyspeptics, to tell our bad dreams, but sometimes as eupeptics, to congratulate each other on the ever-glorious morning? - Henry David Thoreau

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Post by ShadowsDad » Thu Apr 25, 2013 9:16 pm

Interesting!
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Post by rsp1202 » Thu Apr 25, 2013 9:57 pm

Tim, both the lemongrass and lavender sound good (if not almond, maybe rose?). You've done a knock-up job so far; the lathers look fine. As Hank Stram would say: keep matriculating up the field.

Really, Tim . . . a straight? You're gone, baby, gone. :lol:
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Post by CMur12 » Thu Apr 25, 2013 10:27 pm

I'm impressed, Tim!

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Post by fallingwickets » Fri Apr 26, 2013 5:46 am

Good luck with your adventure, although i have to say im a bit sad to read beer is on the lather altar
:lol:

clive

p,s, always amazed at how much lather you gents make
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Post by gsgo » Fri Apr 26, 2013 6:05 am

Tim, thanks for sharing, please keep us posted on your soap making saga.

If you by chance come across a recipe for the making of a soft Italian style barbershop soap please do let me know. Despite a nice but small collection of other quality soaps and creams all I use these days are ABC and Valobra Almond. If ABC can be made in the back of a shop, I wouldn't mind trying to make it at home. Lucky for me, I have no problem with the additives for the scent.

Soap on!
Good shaving,

Gary

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Post by TRBeck » Fri Apr 26, 2013 7:27 am

Thanks, guys. It's been a blast so far.

Clive, I'll still drink beer. There's just no need for me to make 5-10 gallons at a time given my current/preferred/healthy rate of consumption.

Gary, to tell the truth, most homemade/handmade soaps come out softer than the commercial firms, and well-made shave soaps especially are closer to croaps due to a higher percentage of potassium hydroxide rather than sodium hydroxide. I have been varying the amounts of certain fats and the percentages of sodium and potassium hydroxide to land on the right mix, and I can say that the hardest soap I made was about the texture of Arko, while the third/current batch is somewhere closer to Klar. I could easily make a more croap-like soap and hope eventually - more for fun than personal use - to figure out exactly how to get to Cella/P.160/Valobra (the soft stuff).

Ron, rose will happen. I don't want to waste my rose otto until I have the proper base recipe dialed in, but yeah, it'll happen. Almond may, too; I'm researching ways to get that scent (which I love) without benzaldehyde.
Regards,
Tim

Why should we not meet, not always as dyspeptics, to tell our bad dreams, but sometimes as eupeptics, to congratulate each other on the ever-glorious morning? - Henry David Thoreau

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Re: Rolling My Own

Post by dosco » Fri Apr 26, 2013 11:46 am

Bummer on homebrewing ... I love me some beer. I havn't brewed in a while so I suppose I'm not one to talk.
TRBeck wrote:I have found few satisfactory palmate soaps, and I prefer tallow for ethical reasons.
Errrr ... come again?

Anyways, good stuff. I am interested in these sorts of things so it is interesting to learn of your success.

Carry on!

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Re: Rolling My Own

Post by TRBeck » Fri Apr 26, 2013 1:02 pm

dosco wrote:Bummer on homebrewing ... I love me some beer. I havn't brewed in a while so I suppose I'm not one to talk.
TRBeck wrote:I have found few satisfactory palmate soaps, and I prefer tallow for ethical reasons.
Errrr ... come again?

Anyways, good stuff. I am interested in these sorts of things so it is interesting to learn of your success.

Carry on!
Tallow is an honest byproduct of animal husbandry, hunting, and consumption of meat. Palm oil is an industrial agricultural item, the production of which is destructive and, given the amount of tallow available on the market, totally unnecessary.

Anyway, I'm not vegan, but even when I was, I tried to steer clear of palm oil, particularly in food, where it turns up pretty frequently (margarine, chocolate, etc.).

Unforunately, when you go to buy stearic acid these days, a lot of it is "palm-derived" or "vegetable origin" for PR purposes, meaning it's from palm or maybe coconut oil. Thus, even if you want to avoid palm oil, it's hard to do.
Regards,
Tim

Why should we not meet, not always as dyspeptics, to tell our bad dreams, but sometimes as eupeptics, to congratulate each other on the ever-glorious morning? - Henry David Thoreau

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Post by brothers » Fri Apr 26, 2013 3:07 pm

Tim, good work. Sounds like an interesting and productive pasttime. That lather seems to be the real thing.
Gary

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Post by jww » Sat Apr 27, 2013 4:53 am

Brilliant. Love to see one using their ingenuity. Well done, Tim!
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Post by drmoss_ca » Sat Apr 27, 2013 11:47 am

Palm oil is definitely not the ethical or environmentally sound choice.

Image

World Wildlife Fund link.

Say No To Palm Oil link.

The Independent's comments.

The Daily Telegraph's view.

Doesn't using a renewable resource that doesn't kill off great apes make sense? Talking of which, when I'm finished my current projects (canning/bottling and cheese-making) I'm thinking I might next try soap-making. My wife's grandmother used to make her own soap using lard as the fat, which should approximate tallow quite nicely, and be easily available and cheap. I'm still unsure what separates shaving soaps from other soaps. The soi-disant shaving soaps from Lothantique and Classic Shaving's Wool Fat Nightmare have both been very pleasant bath soaps but the lather from them disappeared on my face within seconds. I'm open to advice, as the last thing I need is more soap that is waiting to be used. The point will be to try to make something as good or better than my current stash.

Chris
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Post by TRBeck » Sat Apr 27, 2013 1:46 pm

I said I wouldn't bore everyone with process, but Chris, I would be perfectly happy to post at length about what I've deciphered regarding shave soap formulation in the past few weeks if you feel it might be helpful. I am not an expert at all, but I do have a few tidbits I've picked up that I think are perhaps different to the usual conversations regarding ingredients in shave soap. I'm all for open source; a nation of soapers flipping the bird at the big firms and enjoying great shaves would be a grand thing. If guys are interested, I'll have some time later to say more. Chris, I'm happy to PM with you, too, about this. It's about the most fun I've had with the wetshaving hobby, and I do believe my wife is bored of hearing about it, even if she's glad I'm having fun.
Regards,
Tim

Why should we not meet, not always as dyspeptics, to tell our bad dreams, but sometimes as eupeptics, to congratulate each other on the ever-glorious morning? - Henry David Thoreau

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Post by owenm » Sat Apr 27, 2013 3:21 pm

TRBeck wrote:I said I wouldn't bore everyone with process, but Chris, I would be perfectly happy to post at length about what I've deciphered regarding shave soap formulation in the past few weeks if you feel it might be helpful.
I'd love to read that too, Tim.
Cheers,
Owen

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Post by brothers » Sat Apr 27, 2013 4:28 pm

I'd be very interested. I know it would be a lot of work, but coming from Tim, it would be worth the read.
Gary

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Post by cjc15153 » Sat Apr 27, 2013 5:16 pm

I am impressed and very interested in the "boring" stuff.
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Post by TRBeck » Sat Apr 27, 2013 10:51 pm

Okay, guys. I'll post something tomorrow. I wrote it up tonight, but it's late and I'm too tired to look over it and make sure it's not just gibberish. Hope it doesn't disappoint.
Regards,
Tim

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Post by drmoss_ca » Sun Apr 28, 2013 3:35 am

I'm looking forward to it.

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Post by TRBeck » Sun Apr 28, 2013 6:54 am

Chris, lard does approximate tallow in the ways that matter for soap-making, and besides being readily available, may be better for soapmaking in its shelf-stable hydrogenated form than it would be when fresh-rendered.

I have come at this process from two angles. The first has been perusing soapmaking forums. This is a useful pastime in terms of process and some background on fatty acids, but the soapers on these forums seem to view shave soaps as merely variants of bath soaps. Their background is entirely built on working with hard bath soaps using sodium hydroxide. They want to simply tweak their bath bars, up the percentages of a couple of key fats, and call it shave soap. I think this is a misguided notion and results in some lousy soaps turning up on Etsy and elsewhere. Traditionally, these soapmakers strive for a balance of several factors in a bath bar: hardness, bubbly lather, skin conditioning, cleansing capability, and creamy lather. They also care to some extent about the ease of saponification of a given formula, but this isn’t much of an issue if you’re using pure lye, and it’s even less an issue for hot-process soaps (and FWIW, I don’t believe it’s possible to make a great cold-process shave soap, though I’m happy for someone to prove me wrong). So, balance of all of these factors makes some sense for bath bars, and it’s useful to learn about which ingredients can provide these things in a soap, but for shaving purposes, the two most significant factors are bubbly lather and creamy lather. We want both, and to optimize both, the other factors need to be largely ignored IMO. So, looking around on soapmaking forums that are generally skewed in favor of cold-process soaps and bath bars is helpful, but won’t get you all the way to replacing Art of Shaving or Trumper.

The second and perhaps more revelatory information source has been the ingredient lists on my favorite shave soaps. Some are quite easy to decipher, while others require some work (and some of my detective work may be inaccurate since not all countries require ingredients be listed in descending order of prevalence in the finished product). I think generally the best-known piece of shaving soap wisdom is that stearic acid is the magic ingredient. It’s the main ingredient in every UK shaving cream (and any other cream worth a damn). This is one of the constituent fatty acids of tallow, and it doesn’t comprise a large percentage of most vegetable oils save palm, shea, kokum, and a couple of others even more obscure and expensive than kokum. Stearate and stearic acid turn up in ingredient lists of good shave soaps time and time again, and this is because stearic acid gives lather a creamy, sturdy quality. So, okay, I can’t and won’t argue against the significance of stearic acid. In fact, in many ways, I’d say we’ve deemphasized stearic acid too much by focusing on one of its primary sources: tallow. Because tallow doesn’t really matter.

Basics of saponification (I know most of you guys, Chris included, know a lot of this stuff, but just in case): All lipids are comprised of a spectrum of fatty acids: palmitic, stearic, lauric, myristic, oleic, linoleic, ricinoleic, and linolenic. Among these, the first four are the ones that are beneficial in shave lather, while the latter four are, at best, tagalongs, and at worst, lather killers. Saponification occurs by the addition of an alkali – either sodium hydroxide for very hard soap, potassium hydroxide for soft/liquid soap, or a mixture of both, which is what most shave soaps contain – to fatty acids. Look at a tub of Creighton’s-made cream, and you’ll see stearic, myristic, and often palmitic acid figure prominently in the ingredient list. Palmitic and stearic acids behave nearly identically in practical terms, which is to say both yield creaminess and durability in lather. By the same token, myristic and lauric acid behave almost identically, giving bubbly volume to lather. Coconut oil is comprised primarily of myristic and lauric acid, which is why it turns up in virtually every soap on earth and is of particular importance in shave soap. Without it, lather wouldn’t be lather, not as we know it. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that the best lather would be comprised entirely of saponified stearic, palmitic, lauric, and myristic acids. I should add parenthetically that these four fatty acids all contribute to a soap’s hardness, while the remaining fatty acids make a soap softer. A soap made of sodium hydroxide and these four fatty acids would be incredibly brittle and hard.

So what about oleic, linoleic, linolenic, and ricinoleic acids? Ricinoleic acid is sort of its own beast, as I’ll explain later. The first three are monounsaturated (oleic) and polyunsaturated (linoleic and linolenic) fatty acids. They do nothing for lather, but they may do something for the overall effect a soap has on the skin. They can also affect a soap’s shelf stability. Linoleic and linolenic acids oxidize rather easily, which is why lipids that contain a lot of these two oils (i.e., most vegetable oils) are hydrogenated when they are put into products that must remain shelf-stable (e.g., margarine). More on hydrogenation here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydrogenation. Oleic acid is monounsaturated (and as one can infer from the word itself, oleic is the primary fatty acid in olive oil), and when saponified is responsible for the filmy trace that soap can leave on the skin. It yields a low, fast-fading lather. Many gents here have tried more than a couple of lousy shave soaps that contained olive oil, and it has gained a reputation as a known lather killer.

Okay, so back to tallow not mattering. We speak of soaps as tallow-based, or formerly tallow-based, but few great ones truly are. Palmolive soap, for instance, is IMO one of the gold standard soaps, latherwise. For ages I have thought of it as a tallowate soap. It sort of is. The first ingredient listed is potassium hydrogenated tallowate. But hydrogenated tallow isn't really tallow in terms of its fatty acid content. Although tallow and lard are thought of as saturated fats, they contain a good percentage of oleic acid. Indeed, the single most prevalent fatty acid in both tallow and lard is oleic. Hydrogenation, however, effectively converts oleic acid into stearic acid, i.e., the magic ingredient. Tallow contains, on average, 28% palmitic acid, 22% stearic, and 36% oleic. Hydrogenate it, and you’re looking at 58% stearic acid, plus the palmitic acid, which behaves in virtually the same fashion. (Chris, lard has slightly more oleic and slightly less stearic acid than beef tallow on average, but hydrogenating it as is done for shelf-stable versions sold at supermarkets will, of course, mitigate this somewhat). The next ingredient on Palmolive’s list is, indeed, sodium tallowate (followed by sodium cocoate; these three comprise the entirety of saponifiable fats listed in Palmolive’s ingredients save for a tiny fraction of olive and palm oil, less of each than there is fragrance in the soap). More on this tallow later.

Looking at other well-regarded shave soaps, the pattern holds. Chris, you were the first person whom I heard refer to Tabac as a stearate soap rather than a tallowate soap, and rightly so. Speick's ingredient list is nearly identical to Tabac's in content and order, close enough in fact that one wonders if they are produced by the same soap firm. Potassium stearate is the first ingredient in both, then sodium stearate. Tallow turns up, but in what amount? Less than the amount of pure stearic acid, certainly. In fact, there is little enough tallow that, due to the predominance of potassium rather than sodium hydroxide in the soap, the amount of potassium cocoate exceeds the amount of sodium tallowate.
Here are the ingredient lists for Tabac and Speick (which are so similar that I believe they are in fact the same soap, made by the same manufacturer and tweaked slightly in the amount of water added during processing):

Tabac – potassium stearate, sodium stearate, potassium tallowate, potassium cocoate, water, sodium tallowate, parfum, sodium cocoate, glycerin, potassium hydroxide, tetrasodium EDTA, sodium hydroxide

Speick – potassium stearate, sodium stearate, potassium tallowate, water, potassium cocoate, sodium tallowate, sodium cocoate, parfum, glycerin, tetrasodium EDTA, etc. (i.e. a bunch of aromachemicals and artificial colors)

There are additional examples among current production soaps. For instance, current Harris soap lists palmitate first; this is not “palmate,” i.e., saponified palm oil, but rather saponified palmitic acid, which as mentioned earlier acts like stearic acid in soap (it is significantly more expensive to buy isolated palmitic acid, at least as a home soaper, than it is to buy stearic acid; I assume that pattern holds in the bulk market, but I do wonder – and hope to learn by experimentation – whether one might use palmitic and stearic acid interchangeably in soapmaking) I will refer to stearic acid repeatedly here, but really I think palmitic acid might do just as well, and I think of palmitic and stearic acid as interchangeable, largely because Valobra lathers so well and so like stearate-first soaps. Talking of which, Valobra’s base lists sodium tallowate first (more on this later, too), followed immediately by potassium palmitate and potassium stearate.

Years ago, the predominance of stearates in UK soaps was even more pronounced. In a thread here a couple of years back regarding “the best shaving soap ever made,” Chris (El Alamein) posted the ingredient list of vintage Floris soap (ca. 1980), which he pointed out was nearly identical to the TOBS lavender soap he was using (since reformulated). Here’s the list of ingredients:
Potasium Stearate,
Sodium Stearate,
Potasium Cocoate,
Sodium Cocoate,
Aqua (Water),
Parfum (Fragarance),
Glycerin,
Sodium Chloride,
CI 77891 (Titanium Dioxide),
Tetrasodium EDTA,
Sodium Silicate,
Magnesium Sulfate

Once you get past glycerin, everything in there is either a mineral chelator, preservative, or coloring agent. There’s nothing to the soap but stearic acid, coconut oil, and two varieties of lye (more on potassium and sodium hydroxide later, too…there’s a lot to say later).

Looking at the Italian soft soaps, their ingredient lists are all nearly identical, and all of them are something like this:

Stearic Acid, (Tallow in some), Coconut Oil, Potassium Hydroxide, water, fragrance

The above, sans tallow, is also the ingredient list of Martin de Candre. I could go on, but you get the point. Stearic acid in large quantities, coconut oil (or, if you want to spend an arm and a leg, pure myristic and lauric acids), lye, glycerin.
Regards,
Tim

Why should we not meet, not always as dyspeptics, to tell our bad dreams, but sometimes as eupeptics, to congratulate each other on the ever-glorious morning? - Henry David Thoreau

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Post by TRBeck » Sun Apr 28, 2013 6:58 am

Of course, tallow does turn up in a lot of beloved shave soaps. I think there are three reasons:
1. Tallow is cheap
2. Tallow contains a lot of stearic acid and palmitic acid, and before these fatty acids were identified and isolated, the best-lathering soaps were probably largely tallow-based.
3. Many large soap manufacturers buy a generic “80/20” tallow/coconut base, usually sodium saponified, and then alter it to suit their needs: add ¼ moisturizing cream, say, or add a lot of glycerin and some skin goodies to make a beauty soap, or add stearic acid and palmitic acid and make shave soap. I believe this is what Valobra does with its hard soap, and maybe Palmolive, too. Here’s the ingredient list for Valobra sticks: sodium tallowate, water, potassium palmitate, sodium palmitate, sodium stearate, sodium cocoate, potassium cocoate, glycerin, etc. Note that there is no potassium tallowate. At the very least, then, the tallow would seem to be saponified separately from the palmitic acid which is saponified with a mixture of potassium and sodium hydroxide, and more of the former than the latter. The coconut oil is also saponified with both sodium and potassium hydroxide, but more sodium than potassium, which leads me to believe that there are really two soaps being made separately and then combined, one comprised of sodium tallowate, stearate, and cocoate, and the other comprised of potassium and sodium palmitate (and possibly cocoate). Palmolive likewise has potassium hydrogenated tallowate, followed by sodium tallowate and sodium cocoate, then water, glycerin, etc. It seems possible, given that Valobra sticks and Palmolive sticks have been made from forever, that they are using an old-school approach of buying a soap base (note that older-production Harris soaps actually listed “soap base” as their first ingredient) and then altering it or combining it with another soap to make a finished product. I’d suggest an added purpose of doing so is to create a harder soap than they could otherwise make: pure sodium tallowate and cocoate soap is very hard and would offset the softer texture of a purely potassium-based soap. I don’t know that Valobra or Palmolive does this, of course, but I suspect they do, and I wonder if Harris does, too.
I think there may be another reason tallow is so often used, which is that oleic acid does have some skin-conditioning properties. I find some soaps, like Klar Kabinett – and many creams, too – that are made up almost entirely of coconut oil and stearic acid, to be a bit harsh on my skin, especially with repeated use. Both stearic acid and coconut oil tend to be skin-drying when saponified. Theoretically, added glycerin could offset some of this, but saponified tallow contains loads of natural glycerin, plus skin conditioning fatty acid salts. Pure fatty acids don’t contain glycerin (or any other unsaponifiable ingredients). Thus it must be added to the soap when whole lipids aren’t used. There’s a whole lot to be written about glycerin, probably, but I don’t have time or energy for it right now. Regardless, tallow would seem to be a potential intercessor, not a “pure” lathering agent, and its contribution to a finished shave soap may have more to do with its effect on the skin than its contribution to lather.

So when I said tallow doesn’t matter, what I meant is really that it isn’t magic. Consider Mitchell’s, a great performer for those for whom it performs, but abysmal for me. The lather falls apart with my water before I finish a pass:
Sodium Tallowate, Potassium Stearate, Sodium Cocoate, Sodium Stearate,
Aqua, Potassium Cocoate, Glycerin, Parfum, etc., Lanolin, etc.

Tallowate first, stearate and cocoate immediately after. There’s a mineral chelator in the ingredient list (I didn’t list everything out here, but MWF uses Tetrasodium EDTA, which can serve as either a chelator for metals in one’s water or a preservative, depending on the amount used…note that Arko, Valobra, Palmolive, Speick, Tabac, Cella, Klar Kabinett, and virtually every other well-regarded soap around use this ingredient. I have some on hand but have not used it yet as I want the rest of the formulation ironed out first). What gives? It could be lanolin, and I am anti-lanolin not only because it annoys my skin but because I believe it has some properties that damage lather in certain water conditions, a belief based not only on Mitchell’s but also on some of the artisan soaps that use lanolin. But the problem with MWF also could be tallow, or rather the proportion of tallow. The first shave soap I made contained 50% tallow and used additional stearic acid. The total percentage of stearic acid in the composition was 25% (based on recommendations from soapmaking forums). It lathered just like MWF. Looked great at first, went on my face okay, and died out by the end of the first pass. I believe, based on further experimentation, that my stearic acid percentage was not nearly high enough for a shave soap that lathers like the ones we’re all used to using. But I also believe that the oleic acid and unsaponifiables in tallow cause problems when they turn up in high proportions. I will note that there are tallow-heavy soaps that don’t lather for anything (e.g., Williams), and that tallow bath soaps don’t yield the lather I crave in a shave soap.

Obviously you can get it wrong with the right ingredients. Williams has potassium stearate first (hooray – stearates and potassium hydroxide!), tallow second, coconut oil third, then water and glycerin…and it’s awful. So there’s a lot of room to make bad soap with good ingredients. Proportions are the mystery I’m currently working on, and ingredient lists provide some clues, but not a full picture. For instance, if glycerin is assumed to be added at 10% per pound of oils (a common percentage used in home soaping, although I think experimentation is warranted here), then ingredients listed below glycerin might be assumed to be less than 10% of the formulation. On the other hand, water is typically added in home soapmaking in an amount equivalent to 38% of the weight of the oils used. The ingredient lists above don’t show water high enough in the ingredient list to constitute 38% of the formulation, so there is a difference in commercial soap production or in the way that water is accounted for in listing the ingredients. Either way, one has to make some guesses about the amount of stearic acid, coconut oil, et al.

So, this is just a bit of what I’ve been thinking about, reading about, etc. I’m still playing around with proportions of stearic acid, coconut oil, and sodium and potassium hydroxide (I tend to believe potassium hydroxide should be in higher proportion than sodium, and there are some soapmakers who insist that potassium hydroxide reacts better with stearic acid to produce stable, creamy lather), but I think these ingredients are all that are needed, and perhaps all that should be in a good shave soap. There are “x” factors, such as using tallow, palm oil, or other lipids (kokum – high in stearic acid and becoming less expensive) to round out the formula and provide skin-conditioning benefits, or adding fat above and beyond that which will be saponified (“superfatting” the soap), again to condition the skin, or using castor oil (made up almost entirely of ricinoleic acid, a fatty acid that when saponified makes lather both more bubbly and creamier, but with other effects on the soap), or…

But in the end, all it takes is this: Potassium and sodium hydroxide in some proportion, stearic acid, and coconut oil. Anything else is gilding the lily, or else destroying the beauty of such a simple formula. That Floris base made the greatest shave soap ever according to two well-traveled wetshavers – Buzz and Chris – and the same ingredients are the only ingredients in the beloved ABC soap, Vitos, etc., that many guys love. Throw in Speick, Palmolive, and Tabac, all of which are stearate-first and not much else in them – and the all-time greatest hits of shave soap wind up being just like classic rock radio: three chords played a hundred different ways. I may try making a soap purely out of stearic acid and coconut oil soon, but for now I’m still using some tallow, mostly because even though I don’t think it’s magic, I think it’s magic, but also because I do want to avoid the harsh or drying effect I get from some soaps made strictly from those two saponifiable ingredients. Really, I don’t think the ingredients are the mystery. It’s the proportions thereof, and, perhaps, the willingness to leave everything else out.
Regards,
Tim

Why should we not meet, not always as dyspeptics, to tell our bad dreams, but sometimes as eupeptics, to congratulate each other on the ever-glorious morning? - Henry David Thoreau

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