Science, Business and Soap

December 01, 2010
Jordan C. Marshall '11

TextbookHere at Hampden-Sydney, one can take a variety of interesting and challenging classes. One of these classes is Scientific Soapmaking. The class is offered through the Chemistry Department and is taught by chemistry professor and avid soapmaker, Dr. Kevin Dunn, who also wrote the textbook.

The concept of the class is to explore the chemistry behind the making of soap and to gain insight into problems and concerns in the handcrafted soapmaking community. The class is run like a market with competing groups.  Each group is its own firm. The firms are a partnership with each member having the same stake. The partners each contribute fifty dollars to the firm to buy supplies. The firm is responsible for making the soap and packaging it for sale in a juried soap sale at the end of the semester.

The soap manufacturing process is fairly straightforward. In order to make soap you need three ingredients: oil, water, and lye. Lye is a solution of water and sodium or potassium hydroxide. When the lye comes into contact with the oil it forms soap, the salt of a fatty acid and glycerol. It is critical that you get the oil to lye ratio correct so that all of the oils will turn into soap and to ensure that your soap will not be too alkaline.

Testing SoapEach firm makes several test batches of soap in order to formulate the best soap recipe. Firms choose from a variety of oils, colors, and fragrances in their soap recipes. Once a firm chooses a recipe they begin to make it on a large scale. The batches are weighed out and recorded before being mixed and poured into a mold to cure. Each firm tries to produce as much quality soap as they can for the soap sale.

The firms are run in a business fashion with managing, accounting, and recording partners. The accounting partner records all the transactions that occur in the soapmaking process. The recording partner records the contents of each batch and the amount of materials used. These records will be used at the end of the semester to determine the best firm, based on their return on equity. After all the soap sales are tabulated, return on equity is calculated. The firm with the highest return sets the grading scale for the rest of the class. The firms are also responsible for creating an analytical project and turning in a quarterly report on the status of their firm.

Scientific Soapmaking is the perfect blend of class work and a hands-on exercise. Roughly half of class time is spent in the lab making soap and the other half is spent in the classroom learning the chemical processes that go into making soap. The class seeks to answer why the reactions occur as they do and to address some of the common problems that occur when making homemade soap. A heavy emphasis is put on the chemical makeup of the soap. I would highly recommend this class to anyone interested in soapmaking or to those who enjoy a more hands-on and interactive class.

Charley Suds and teh Bubbly Lather

Jordan Marshall (far Left) and his company, Charley Subs and the Bubbly Lather.