Sculpting with Hot-Process Soap
This is another technique that is to be undertaken only by an experienced soapmaker. You must have command of the hot process and be confident that you know for certain when it is neutral. If you have any doubts, then do not use this technique. And although there is a major element of play involved, this is not a technique for beginners.
One of the challenges of hot-process soap is how to form it. You glop it into molds and smash it down to eliminate air pockets and smooth the tops. Finding just the right temperature and consistency to achieve the shape and texture you want may lead you to work with still-warm soap, right from the slow cooker. When the soap is cool enough to handle, knead it and work it until it is smooth, then roll it into soap balls. Play around with other shapes; the soap will be pliable for quite some time before becoming too firm to work. Ovals, little cubes, then figures will emerge as you realize that warm, neutral, fresh hot-processed soap is an apt material for sculpture.
Test fresh hot-process soap for neutrality with phenolphthalein. When the soap is still caustic, a drip of phenolphthalein will turn pink, indicating that you need to cook it longer. Do not attempt sculpting with hot-process soap until there is absolutely no pink when you test with phenolphthalein. Your soap must be completely neutral before attempting this technique!
As the warm, even hot, soap is worked by hand, it takes on a lovely smoothness that looks and feels good in simple shapes, for example spheres, cubes, and eggs. You can work more complicated shapes — human and animal forms, logs you can make into knots, abstracts — anything that emerges as you work.
At the end of your sculpting session, you'll have an array of shapes, objects, and figures. And the feeling in your hands is incredible — the deep heat combined with the kneading is the most amazing hand massage you've ever had. Your hands may be dry after working with soap for such an extended time, so be sure to apply a rich hand lotion or cream after you've enjoyed the lather of your new soap.
Make the batch of hot-process of your choice. When the soap is almost done, gather the following tools:
1 batch hot-process soap
Newspaper, craft paper, or cardboard
Large serving spoon
Bowl of ice water to quickly cool your hands if needed
Bamboo skewers or stainless steel or plastic spoons, forks, and knives
Some additions and decorations, such as dried herbs and flower petals, coffee beans, dried white beans, large tapioca, or smooth stones to put in the center of the soap to find like treasure as the soap washes away. (Remember that this list is just the beginning of what you can use — feel free to get creative!)
Test the hot-process for neutrality. (You must not skip this step. You must be absolutely certain the soap is completely neutral.) Turn off the heat of the slow cooker or stove.
Cover your work surface with the newspaper, craft paper, or cardboard.
Cut about 10 placemat-sized pieces of waxed paper. (You'll use these as a direct work surface, and they wear out, so cut more than you think you'll need.)
Scoop out a portion of soap onto a piece of waxed paper. If you want to be precise about the size of the soaps, place the waxed paper on the scale and weigh out the amount of soap you want. Four ounces is a good starting place. If you don't want to weigh it, you can judge by eye a scoop about as big as a stick of butter.
To facilitate cooling, smash and spread the scoop of hot soap until it's about ¼ inch thick. The soap will stay molten inside even when the outside looks dry and cool, so keep smashing it with the spoon until it's warm, but not too hot.
Carefully test the soap for temperature by touching it. You need to be sure it's cool enough not to burn you, yet warm enough to work. If you're uncertain, start with an ounce or so, and familiarize yourself with how it cools.
When you have a mass of soap that is cool enough to work, flatten it with your hands. Roll it and knead it and shape it. You'll observe that it goes from coarse texture to smooth as you work it. When it starts to get too cool to work, it will become almost waxy feeling, and sometimes crumble if you continue to work it. If you're adding herbs, for example, sprinkle crushed dried herbs onto the flattened mass, then knead them into it by smashing and rolling, pushing and squishing. If at anytime it feels uncomfortably hot, put it down and smash it with the spoon to thin it out so it can cool more.
When the soap is smooth, shape it the way you want it, using bamboo skewers or stainless steel or plastic spoons, forks, and knives. Blocks, spheres, and pyramids are great starter shapes and will be able to take an imprint from a soap stamp, rubber stamp, or other embossing tool.
As you gain facility with simple shapes, others will emerge. If you find yourself getting frustrated, try to stop thinking and just let your mind and hands work together. The sculpted shapes may look rough at first, but they will smooth when you wash with them. As with all handmade soap, be sure to set your soap sculptures on a soap dish or other well-drained place to keep it from dissolving.