Project Nov-Dec 2014: Making Soap

Why make soap?

So much of what we do as software developers is intangible - you can’t taste, touch, smell or feel code! I wanted to make something that was all of those (well, maybe not taste).

In 2011, I took a trip to the Middle East, where I visited a soap factory in Sidon, Lebanon. The same trip I bought some soap from Aleppo, Syria, and thought it was the most wonderful soap I’d ever used. Deep green, with a thick brown patina, it felt exotic to use and wonderful on the skin.

I decided that I would try my hand at soap-making. I’d never done much practical chemistry, and the thought of turning something you eat into something you could wash with was fun.

How does it work?

At one level, soap is Chemistry 101. You mix an acid with a base, you get a neutral salt. Soap is made up of two main components:

  • Lye (NaOH), which is a base
  • Some sort of oil, which is full of fatty acids.

With the right proportions and a good stirring arm, you’ll end up with soap!

This isn’t mine.

Did you learn anything?

Apart from how to make soap, I did learn a few things.

Be Prepared

Like lots of activities, soap-making works best if you have everything you need before you start. You also have lots of choices: what kind of oils will you use? Will you scent it? Will you follow the “hot” process or the “cold” process?

Because I’d thought ahead about my answers to these questions, I was ready when a block of time became available. I had what I needed, and I didn’t need to run out and look for an ingredient because I was ready.

Be Precise

Soap recipes are quite precise. I actually found the precision required comforting, for two reasons:

It helped me to concentrate on what I was doing.. Knowing too much lye or not enough stirring would ruin my batch scared me into focusing, being fully present.

It told me what to do next. I didn’t have to make lots of decisions on the fly, and I could concentrate more on executing instead.

Be Patient & Persistent

I knew what I wanted to do, and what I thought it would look like at the end. I still needed to do all the work required to go from ingredients to finished product. Following through and finishing gave me the real pleasure and satisfaction of a project completed. I got to use what I made, and I had pleasure in giving some away as gifts.

I’ll take these insights into my software projects, and my approach at work. I’m going to spell out what I need to do before I start, eliminate more distractions, and be thorough so when it’s done, it’s done.