Pardon my French: Hand Milled Soap (Rebatched Soap) verse French Milled Soap

Have you ever looked at a bar of soap that claimed to be “French-milled”

And wondered what in the world that meant? According to Cameron Delaney in the  eHow article “What is French Milled Soap?”, French milled soap is a commercially manufactured  product that is created when large stainless steel rollers crush pre-made soap bits together in order to extract the glycerin from the soap. The end product is a hard, uniform bar of soap like you would get in a semi-nice hotel. I like that they call it “French” milled  to make it sound extra special. It’s from France: ohh, la, la.

Normally, I would buy into that. I mean, I bought Meaningful Beauty because the guy who created it had an awesome French accent, but in the case of soap, French doesn’t necessarily mean better.

Hand milled soap is the handcrafted equivalent to French milled soap, except that the maker doesn’t have the luxury of a giant steam roller.

To make hand-milled or rebatched soap, you must first start with a high quality regular soap. In my case, I usually make it, that’s why it is also called rebatched soap but some people purchase it. Then you use a grater to shred it. If you’ve ever made Cole slaw for a few dozen picnics then you get the picture. (Food processors never work for me, they just create gummy messes, but if anyone has any suggestions, please share them 🙂 After a while, there is something a bit Zen about the shredding. You get into a kind of hypnotic rhythm. You are one with the sssoapppp…

But, be sure to pay attention to how much of the soap block you have left before you actually do leave a part of yourself (your fingertips) in the soap base. That’s never a good idea…Yuck.

There are two (probably many more) schools of thought when it comes to melting the soap.

  1. Over a double-boiler
  2. In a slow-cooker

My personal favorite is over a double-boiler. You can purchase an actual double-boiler or, if you’re like me, you can rig one up with a bowl (stainless steel and not aluminum) on top of a large stock pot.

You add the soapy shreds to the top bowl with a small amount (usually about 1/4 cup per 8 cups of soapy shreds) of liquid while the water underneath boils. This creates a gentle heat that melts the soap evenly.

Grated soap over the double boiler

In the case of this soap, the liquid was a hibiscus and pomegranate herbal tea.  When I first brewed the tea, it was a very bright red, but once it met the soap it turn slightly purple. It was still pretty, but not exactly what I wanted. Next, comes the stirring. Every few minutes the soap mass needs to be stirred to insure that the unmelted soap on top gets a little of that steam bubbling from the bottom.You know you’ve stirred enough when the soap looks like slightly lumpy mashed potatoes. This takes about 30 minutes.

The 'mashed potato' stage

Now doesn’t that look like mashed potatoes?

At this point, it’s time to add fragrances or essential oils. This soap received a nice tangy pomegranate scent to match the tea I added earlier.

Hand Milled Soap

And now it looks like purple mashed potatoes

I then halved the batch and added purple colorant to the second half. Since it wanted to be purple I decided to help it fulfill its destiny.

Then I added the soap in scoopfuls  to a lovely, professional, expensive mold…an empty milk carton.

Despite the many actual molds I now own, I decided to use a milk carton  after reading about it in Smart Soapmaking by Anne Watson. I don’t know why I didn’t buy it earlier, but it is a lovely little book, and using a milk carton as a soap mold is clever, especially for new soap makers.This is the soap once I ripped the milk carton away. (It looks a bit like a purple tiger, doesn’t it?)

Hand-milled soap is always a little irregular in texture and this soap was no different. I had to trim the edges and straighten up the sides to make the soap presentable.

Finished Hand-Milled Soap

In the end, this milk carton soap turned out well, but that leads us to the question: “Why hand-mill soap in the first place?”

As I have already mentioned it is fun. It also allows the antioxidants and benefits in fragile oils and teas to remain in the soap instead of being destroyed by lye.The soap retains the glycerin lost during French milling, thus creating a more moisturizing soap. You get amazing deltoids from grating all that soap 😉

French Milled soap may have a fancy name, but hand-milling creates soap with added health benefits and that wins my vote every time.