Swirling and Marbling Soaps

The creation of beautiful designs through swirling and marbling is an art in itself. Getting the soap to just the right texture, stage of trace, and temperature takes practice. Learning how much to stir (not too little, not too much), understanding the relationship between the direction of a “pull” and the way you cut the soap, and endless variation, chance, and willingness to embrace the unexpected are hallmarks of a successful application of these techniques.

Vanilla Hazelnut Cappuccino
The unused half-pound is not needed for this recipe — Scent, color, and mold for a later project!

  • 2 batches of your favorite 1-pound cold-process recipe, such as Basic Cold-Process Soap, 1-Pound Batch
  • Dark brown colorant
  • Vanilla fragrance oil
  • Cappuccino fragrance oil
  • Hazelnut fragrance oil
  • White colorant
  1. Make 2 pounds of soap, tinted brown and scented with vanilla, cappuccino, and hazelnut fragrance oils. Blend the fragrance oils in equal amounts to make 1 teaspoon per pound of fats in the recipe.

  2. Pour into a block mold suitable for a 4-pound batch. Let cure overnight.

  3. Make 1 pound of soap. Color half white and leave unscented. Save the other half for another use. Pour over the brown layer in the mold. Insulate well and let sit for 2 more days. Unmold as usual.

You can control the swirls and marbling effects by the heaviness of the trace at which you pour the colors together. You'll get a more fluid, thinner swirl if you pour at a thin-to-medium trace. If you pour when the soap batter is more heavily traced, you'll get bigger portions of color.

Swirling

Prepare all colorants ahead of time and stir them before using in case they've settled while you've been setting up.

Be sure that you know if the scent material you use will accelerate trace. If it does at one temperature and doesn't at another, use the temperature that won't contribute to the acceleration.

If you want to work with a thin soap batter to get tiny details in the swirls, you must be sure it is actually traced. Experience is the only way to be able to make this determination. The line between not traced and lightly traced is thin, and it's not easy to recognize until you've had some experience. Refinement of technique comes through experience. When you are working on something challenging, try to go through with it and don't fear “failure.” The worst thing that will happen is that you'll lose a batch of soap. Keeping batches small can help you maintain perspective.

Using shallow molds — two bars thick, for example — helps ensure that the swirling pattern goes all the way through the soap. Be sure to cut the soap so that the design shows on the long, broad sides of the bars.

To make the swirls, working in a set pattern makes them more specific. Look at the way a Napoleon pastry is frosted — parallel lines dragged through with a toothpick in all the same or alternating directions. Depending on the thickness of the soap batter, use a chopstick, flexible plastic spoon, narrow spatula, or other tool you find useful. Drag the tool back and forth lengthwise through the soap, making sure to get to the bottom of the mold. Then do the same thing widthwise. This should do it. There is a temptation to continue to work the pattern, but it may just blend the soap colors, leaving you with a muddy effect.

For more advanced patterning, make a “comb” with which you can drag a number of lines simultaneously. Fasten about six chopsticks together tightly with a series of rubber bands, spaced at even intervals. Break the chopsticks to a length that will allow you to get to the bottom of the mold and keep your hand above the surface of the soap. Insert your fingers between the chopsticks, spaced evenly.

Beginner's Recipes

Because you have to divide the batter into smaller portions for scenting and coloring, you'll need to blend the lye and oils at about 110°F. Higher temperatures can help to delay trace. Superfat the entire batch before dividing.

Lavender Geranium Ribbon
The less you stir, the more solid areas of color you'll have.

  1. Make a batch of your favorite cold-process recipe. Pour at 110°F to be sure you have enough time to divide and color the batch. Add the essential oils.

  2. When it is still at a light trace, divide the batch in half. Color one half with the violet ultramarine and the other with pink ultramarine. Stir both batches to medium trace and pour the pink into the purple.

  3. Without stirring, pour into the mold. Insulate well and let sit for 2 more days. Unmold as usual.

Cloudy Skies
For this recipe, scent the entire batch and then color half with the blue colorant.

  1. Make a batch of your favorite cold-process recipe. Scent the entire batch and then color half with the blue colorant. Pour both parts back into your soap pot.

  2. Do not stir. Pour in a circular motion into a block mold. The pouring action will cause the soap to marble.

Swirling in Bar Molds

As you've seen, swirling in block molds creates soaps you can cut into bars or even form into spheres if you cut the soap when it's soft enough. The results are unpredictable and cutting the bars is always like opening a surprise present.

You can also make swirls and marble effects in individual bar molds. Finding just the right combination of mold, color, and intensity of swirl can create a magnificent bar! It can take some time and trial and error, but even an “ugly” bar is still a treasure.

In order to help your soap release from the molds, you may need to tweak your recipe a little. It's very easy! Adding one teaspoon of melted beeswax per pound of oils to the warmed/melted oils will take care of any possible release problems.

You need to have enough molds on hand to hold the batch. For example, if your molds have three cavities each, and each cavity holds four ounces, you'll need four trays to hold the whole batch. Have an extra mold on hand to pour any extra soap into. Don't let good soap batter go to waste! Even if the color gets muddy by the end, you can still use it for hand milling and kitchen sink batches.

Marbling

The creation of exquisite marbling effects can become both quest and obsession. We can look to the world of paper marbling and faux-finishing for techniques. Laying out the colors then manipulating them into the elaborate swirls, feathers, and shells works for soap in a way similar to paper marbling, but instead of transferring the design to paper or fabric, you want the design to penetrate to below the surface. Getting this to happen is a matter of practice and know-how.

Gold and Blue Dolphins

  1. Make a batch of your desired recipe in a size to fit the bar molds you have. Add the beeswax to the oils when you melt them. (This will ensure ease of release from the molds.)

  2. Divide the batch into halves into containers you can easily pour from. (Pyrex measuring cups work very well.) Color one with lots of gold mica and the other with the blue coloring.

  3. Simultaneously pour both colors into each cavity of the mold. With these dolphins, you can try some where you pour the surface of each dolphin a different color.

White and Pink Roses

  1. Make the recipe of your choice, adding 1 teaspoon of beeswax per pound of oils to ensure the bars will release from the molds without too much of a struggle.

  2. Remove one half of the batter and tint it with the red coloring.

  3. Simultaneously pour both colors into the molds. The trick for seeing both colors on the surface of the soap is to have both colors hit the mold at the same time and keep the streams moving.

It's not possible to cover all variables as they vary from soapmaker to soapmaker, recipe to recipe, mold to mold, and more. But here are some observations from experience, research, and practice:

  • The more fluid the soap, the finer and more detailed the swirls.

  • The thicker the soap, the coarser the swirls.

  • Thickly-traced colored soap will sink through a less-traced base, allowing for mold-deep pattern, but it can be much harder to shape into a pattern.

  • The deeper the mold, the more difficult it is to get the pattern all the way through the soap.

  • Surface ash that will obscure the pattern can be avoided by covering the surface of the poured soap with plastic film.

  • Be sure to stir each color thoroughly just before pouring or you may end up with unevenly saponified ribbons that fall away from the rest of the soap.

Getting precise, repeatable results depends on controlling your process. Variations in amount and type of fluids, temperatures at which you blend the lye solution with the oils, and the ambient temperature of the workspace all contribute to the way you create the patterns. Use the mise en place technique to help you keep track of all the variables simultaneously by keeping your work area under control.

Selecting a Mold

To make marbled soap, select a mold and recipe size that will give you a depth of about 2½ to 3 inches. An easy way to find out how much soap to make, or how much of a batch you usually make you'll be using, is to select a wide shallow mold and fill it with water to the desired depth. Weigh that water to determine the approximate weight of the soap batter you'll need to get the depth you want.

Making a Trial Run Shallow Mold

Needing a specifically-sized mold is a good time to try out mold sizes that are uniquely yours. You can make or have made wooden molds that you'll use for years. They can be expensive in time and money, so making a trial version of the shape you think you want is a great idea. Measure and weigh a bar of soap that you want to use as a model for the bars you'll get from your mold. For example, a 4-ounce bar that measures ½ inch deep, 3 inches long, and 2 inches wide. Use a sheet of foam-core to make your trial mold. You're basically making a box with no top. Draw a rectangle in the center of the board, leaving room for the side flaps.

When you have the lines drawn, use a craft knife and a metal straight edge to cut through the top layer of paper and the foam, stopping short of cutting through the other side. (You're not actually cutting the rectangle out, just scoring the paper and foam to make it easier to fold up the sides.) You'll have a big rectangle with four flaps. Turn the board over and fold up the sides. Secure the corners with packing tape. Line the mold with freezer paper to make it easy to lift out the block without destroying your trial mold, in case you want to keep using it.

As a general rule, combining the lye and oils between 105°F and 110°F will help keep your soap fluid longer. This is not always the case; it depends on your formula and additives.

Make up a batch of your favorite cold-process formula. You don't have to limit the batch to your target mold, you can use part of it in that mold and part of it in another. This freedom from worry over getting it exactly right can be very empowering and give you a chance to try other ingredients out of the same big batch.

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