DIY Soap

One of the biggest barriers to DIY is the entry cost into a hobby. Whether it’s working on cars, baking bread or building furniture, to start from scratch is expensive.
To illustrate this point, let’s look into the cost of making a household staple: soap.

Using a recipe I found online, I undertook this adventure, and tried my best to keep track of the costs.

$30 digital measuring scale
$17 stockpot, stainless
$4 Stirring spoon
$13 plastic soap mold
$8 bottle of olive oil
$9 jar of coconut oil
$6 bottle of fragrance oil
$3 bottle of lye
$10 Cutting knife
$6 safety goggles

$106 Total

This recipe will yield about 10 bars of soap, depending on how you cut it. That’s $10.60 for a bar of soap, or more than I’d ever dream of spending on a bar of soap, ever.
If you drop the fixed costs, since some of this stuff can be used for other projects, and instead concentrate on the unit cost of a bar of soap, the process looks more reasonable.

$4 half bottle of olive oil
$9 jar of coconut oil
$0.50 fragrance oil
$1.50 lye

$15 Total

$1.50 for a bar of soap seems more realistic. This is still a about twice the cost of a standard bar of mass-produced soap I can buy at the store, though, so I’m still not saving any money. I could reduce the cost further by substituting the oils with something cheaper, but I’ll be hard pressed to get it to that magical $1 apiece that a bar of machine-made soap costs.

So how do I justify it?
1.       It’s entertaining
2.       I can trade it
3.       I know how to make it
4.       Handmade stuff is better

To explain:
1.       Entertainment:
If my wife and I go to a movie, it’ll cost us $40 for 90 minutes of sitting in the dark watching explosions. This doesn’t account for the $40 dinner that goes along with it. Going to a bar for the night will cost a similar amount, which means I have no problem spending $100 or so every now and then to do something new. If that something new is making soap, then cool. I have a night’s worth of entertainment, a story to tell AND homemade soap for about the same price.

2.       I can trade it:
I learned this with homemade jelly, which, after the fixed costs, is about $1.50 / pint, of which about half is the cost of the jar. I can, and have, traded two bars of soap for a 6 pack of homemade beer. I haven’t tried to trade for anything else, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be getting a bushel of peaches this summer from a coworker.

3.       I know how to make it:
To me, this is the most important part of the process. I now have an idea about what’s in that stuff I rub on myself every morning.  Since we’re talking about soap here, I can tell you that it’s a chemical reaction between fatty acids (oils) and a strong base (Sodium Hydroxide). The stuff left over from the reaction is what forms the soap. The actual soap chemical names start with “Sodium” and end with “ate,” such as Sodium Palm Kernelate, which is reacted palm oil. Everything else on the ingredient list is a scent, a dye, or a preservative. When making my own soap, I can decide how many of these additives I want to add or leave out.
I also know, from further research, that palm oil harvesting is hard on the environment, that lye is (or can be) made out of wood ashes and that fragrance oil and some colorants are added after the soap is made.  This means that green, minty-smelling soap is only green because someone colored it and minty because someone scented it that way. It’s unlikely that the soap contains actual mint, and if it does, that mint doesn’t do anything for the color or the smell.

4.       Handmade stuff is better:
Whether it be soap or stoneware, you get what you pay for. If it was made by a robot, made by a robot, made by a starving worker in an unventilated hellhole somewhere you’ve never heard of, it’ll probably be pretty cheap, possibly toxic and certainly unsustainable. If it’s made down the road by the girl who smells like patchouli and has a favorite anchor on NPR, it’s going to cost you, but you’ll end up with a higher quality, safer product that was individually inspected before it was sold to you. A bar of handmade “artisanal” soap sells online for about $5, give or take, so if you’re a handmade soap kind of person, your own soap will cost you less per unit than what you can buy.

I could write this article about any DIY project out there. I chose soap making because soap is an obvious thing that everyone uses, but the craft is esoteric enough that not a lot of people do it.  It’s ultimately about whether a hobby interests you enough to warrant the start up costs. For those who are looking to do more of this, but the space and money just aren’t there, search around and see if there’s a makerspace in your area. These are usually cooperative, subscription-based workshops that have tools and storage space for members to use. Some are niche specific, with members mostly concentrating on electronics or beer brewing, but others are more generalized. If you’re lucky, you may find a space that already has an anvil and a forge so you can make your own cutlery, or some woodworking tools so you can make a table on which to set your fancy new forks. Look around. Handmade things are cool. Self-made things are cooler.

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