Miller Soap Company, Cleaning up with handmade soap
Lance Creek — Producing a wide variety of recipes and fragrances, Miller Soap Company operates from the Miller family ranch west of Lance Creek.
Company owner Tricia Miller fills her time with soap production when she isn’t working as a medical transcriptionist/proofer from home, helping with her families cow-calf operation, working in her garden or keeping up with her three children, Megan, Colton and Blake.
“Last summer my husband Justen and I were talking about all the things our grandparents and great grandparents knew how to do that we don’t anymore. If we couldn’t run to the grocery store to get it, what would we not know how to make that was commonly made at home in the past? A couple items that came up were soap and cheese,” explains Tricia of how her business started.
“Out of curiosity I got books on soap and cheese making and learned how to do both. I enjoy making cheese, but it’s very time intensive and I’m stuck in the house for a good half-day watching temperatures and other things.
“I enjoyed that, and still make it on occasion, but making soap is just really fun and kind of addicting. I just kept making more to the point we either needed to quit making it or try to move some of it. I was giving it away to friends and family and they really liked it and kept encouraging me to sell it,” says Tricia.
She wrapped and labeled a variety of what she had on hand and took it to the Lusk Christmas Bazaar, where she says it did extremely well.
“It just kind of took off from there and I’ve just been trying to keep up with it ever since,” notes Tricia.
To market her soap Tricia relies heavily on online tools like Facebook and word-of-mouth, in addition to selling some products through Hometown Country in Lusk. She also attends an occasional craft-show and says her customers typically choose a bar based on the fragrance rather than the recipe.
“Almond scented soaps typically sell well. People get really excited about fragrances,” she notes.
Soap varieties include hand and body bars, shampoo bars, shaving bars, dog shampoo bars, felted soaps, grease buster hand soaps and loofah soaps, to name a few. Tricia says she enjoys trying new recipes, which results in a lot of product choices for her customers.
“I primarily make a soap using a cold process technique, which just means you combine your oils and lye and don’t add heat to it. When your grandparents made soap it was called a hot process because they would put the oils and the lye water together, then cook it. The difference is you can use hot processed soap immediately, where cold processed soap has to cure for three to four weeks, and sometimes longer,” explains Tricia.
She adds that some people hesitate to use a product made with lye, but explains that if you make it correctly the chemical reactions eliminate the presence of lye in the final product.
When making a batch of soap Tricia combines her oils and heats them to a specific temperature. In another bowl she mixes lye and water.
“I use rainwater that I catch because the water has to be soft or distilled and hard water like we have isn’t ideal for making soap. I catch the water and use coffee filters to clean it,” explains Tricia.
When lye is added to the water heat is generated, so the mixture must be set in ice water or allowed to cool. When the temperatures of both bowls are between 90 and 110 degrees the lye water is added to the oils.
Tricia mixes the ingredients with an immersion blender until they reach a “trace” state, saying different recipes go to trace at different rates.
“Trace is when the mixture gets to a light pudding consistency, at that point it’s ready to pour into molds. The first batch I didn’t have an immersion blender, but I was anxious to try making soap, so I ended up spending an hour and half stirring a batch before it went to trace,” comments Tricia.
A variety of molds are used, including rectangular loaf molds in multiple sizes and purchased individual shape molds. Tricia also uses PVC pipe to create round soap bars and shaving soap rounds, noting she tries to use things she has on hand whenever possible.
Once in the mold the soap is covered with plastic wrap to prevent soda ash from forming on top and allowed to set for 24 hours. Next the soap is popped out of the mold, measured, marked and cut to size if it wasn’t poured.
“They’re all hand cut and a little different and the weight varies, but I try to get it as close as I can. Weight is important. I weigh by the half ounce. If I put four ounces on a bar, it has to weigh at least four ounces. It can weigh more, but not less than what the label says,” explains Tricia.
After cutting the bars are allowed to cure for at least three weeks. To keep track of the multiple batches curing at any given time, Tricia keeps a post-it note with each batch that details the recipe and the date made. After three weeks a handmade label is added to each bar and it is ready to be shipped.
Tricia also makes milk and tallow soaps. She renders her own tallow, which comes from Douglas Grocery.
“That’s a lot less expensive than having it shipped in,” she notes.
A computer program helps Tricia figure her recipes, keep track of inventory and shows when more of each variety is needed.
“It shows how much of each oil to add and has graphs showing hardness, lather and moisture content. I know what kind of bar it will be before I ever make it,” she says.
Miller soaps are shipped everywhere from Iowa and California to Arizona and Texas. Tricia recently joined Wyoming First and her soaps will now be available at Cheyenne Frontier Days and at the Wyoming State Fair, as well as various conferences.
In addition to soap Tricia also makes lip balms and lotions, which use many of the same ingredients.
“It seemed silly not to make them when I had all the necessary equipment and ingredients. I enjoy it, but making soap is the what I love the most,” says Tricia of her ever-expanding business.