I heard about this big bubble thing people do, from a Radiolab podcast episode, “Bigger than Bacon” (jump to the section Bigger Better Bubbles at 23:13). On a whim I bought the Bubble Thing (bubble-making wand) and the Big Bubble mix from David Stein featured in the podcast. This Bubble Thing became the highlight of a pool party. One thing led to another, and more big bubble demonstrations were demanded on other occasions. But it turned out that “bubble juice”, as the solution is affectionately called by bubble fanatics, was quite expensive to buy, and one could easily go through a gallon of juice in less than an hour. I did some research online for better and cheaper bubble juice. Then I experimented with a few different recipes. And after only a few iterations I hit the jackpot. Thus this article.
My Big Bubble Recipe
You don’t have the patience to internalize principles of the fine art of big bubble making. You just want to make some bubble juice, go out and have some fun. But please, read at least the following key points, before you get distracted by pictures you find further down.
The first thing you should know is that all these great recipes require that the prepared solution sit in a container for 24 hours for best results. So I am sorry to break it to you – you probably can’t just mix it now, and go out to blow bubbles right away. In any case, you still need to buy bubble wands. I hope you found this blog at least a day before your outdoor party.
The second thing is, this recipe is only my layman’s best attempt at making bubble juice. I’ll update the recipe as I refine it… if I do. But it is probably already better than 90% of recipes you find out there in the interwebs. Most of them are just outright wrong anyway. Some are posted by people who have no clue. Others are posted by professional bubbleologists or makers of commercial bubble solutions. The latter have no interest in telling the general public the one key ingredient in their bubble juice. They’ll, however, be happy to provide a menu of mediocre recipes as alternatives for the plebeians, so poor plebeians can ooh and aah at the professional stuff in comparison.
The third thing is, weather affects bubble-making greatly. In general you want to blow big bubbles in cool weather with very high humidity – it’ll be easier to generate big bubbles and close them without bursting them. If you don’t know what I mean by “closing them”, just go out and try to make big bubbles. You’ll then get what I mean. Also, a little bit, but not too much, wind will generally help bubbles stay afloat. I’ve made huge bubbles that float for what felt like minutes.
Before you make the juice, however, order this bubble wand online. You can find the Beeboo® Big Bubble Pro Wand for about $17. Of a few big bubble-making tools that kids and I have tried, this one is the absolute favorite of everyone. You can buy and try many different tools in order not to miss out on the best tool, if you are like me. But I can already tell you that everyone in the party will be fighting for this wand once they slowly but surely get better at making big bubbles.
The first ingredient you buy is the most important one that professionals try not to let you in on. You can read on past this section to find out why a polymer is important for big bubble solutions. When you look at this product on Amazon, you’ll find that “Customers who bought this also bought”… drum roll, please… Dawn dishwashing liquid, bubble wands, stainless steel speculum, silicone nozzle enema attachment, and adult toys. J-Lube is apparently useful to three different communities: big bubble fanatics, veterinarians and a third group. This third groups is why most bubbleologists hesitate to tell enthusiastic parents about this ingredient, in front of their kids. You can get a bottle of this powder for $18, and it is good for making some 100 gallons of bubble juice. Unless you are a real bubble fanatic, a bottle will probably last you your lifetime.
The second ingredient is optional. Most online recipes calls for glycerin as “the” key ingredient. This is not really true, unless you are ready to lavish order of magnitude higher proportion of this expensive ingredient. And even then it is not clear you’ll get even close to what half a teaspoon of J-Lube can achieve. I use glycerin to mix J-Lube which would otherwise clump if dumped directly into water. You can also use light corn syrup instead. Some people report success mixing J-Lube with detergent first. But I don’t want to stir up tiny bubbles when mixing. Thus glycerin. One quart of this glycerin sets you back $11, and is good for making some 43 gallons of bubble juice.
Then you need baking powder. Note “powder”, not “soda”. This is used to control the pH level of the solution for stability. Mix the above glycerin + J-Lube goo with warm water. Then you need to dump baking powder into the solution and stir it quickly. You don’t want the CO2 to simply fizzle away. The 12 oz powder costs $6, and is good for roughly 12 gallons of bubble juice.
The last ingredient is dishwashing soap. Now, this is really the only ingredient you need in order to make bubbles, and everyone knows that. Without soap you can’t make soap bubbles. On the other hand, you can forgo all other ingredients mentioned above, including water, and you will still be able to make bubbles with detergent alone. The downside is that you will be making very expensive bubbles, and I haven’t got that much dough to burn to experimentally find out how big a bubble one can make with just detergent soap. Even when used at diluted form in my recipe, soap is still the most expensive part of the juice. Normally you can get 56 oz of Dawn Ultra for $13. And that bottle lets you make some 7 gallons of juice. But it seems that Amazon started to sell two bottles of the same 56 oz Dawn Ultra for $12. I can’t vouch that you’ll in fact get two bottles. But judging by shipping weight the box appears to contain two bottles. (updated 2016-08: the two-bottle deal for $12 is real. But it is only for Prime members, and it sells out so fast the deal is almost always out of stock. Stock up whenever you see it in stock.)
Mixing the Ingredients
To make one gallon of juice you need these ingredients:
- 1 teaspoon: Jorvet J0109 J-Lube Obstetrics Lubric Powder for Pets, 10-Ounce
- 2 tablespoons: Glycerin Vegetable Kosher USP – 1 Quart – net wt 43 oz
- 2 tablespoons: Argo Baking Powder – 12 oz
- 1 cup: Dawn Ultra Dishwashing Liquid Original Scent, 56 Fluid Ounce, 2 Count
- 1 gallon: Water
1. Measure 1 teaspoon of J-Lube. Mix it with 2 tablespoons of glycerin in a plastic cup. Stir the solution into a uniform goo using a coffee stirrer. Or if you are Chinese, use a chopstick. If you can’t tell a teaspoon from a tablespoon, refer to the image of various spoon sizes.
2. A plastic mixing container would be useful for the next step. So is a plastic funnel. If you don’t know what these things are, maybe watch Breaking Bad first. Pour some hot water from the faucet into the container. Use distilled water if you can, else soft tap water. Hard water is not good for bubble making. Then pour in the goo from step 1 into the container through the funnel, as you stir the solution in the container with a chopstick or a stirrer. Pour more hot water through the funnel to rinse goo into the container.
3. Get a one-gallon milk jug. Fill a quarter of it with hot water. Pour the solution from the mixing container into it through the funnel as you swirl the content of the jug. Then add more hot water to about 4/5 capacity. Measure 2 tablespoons of baking powder, and pour it into the jug. Close the jug lid, and gently swirl it to dissolve the powder. Let some CO2 vent out of the jug by peeling the lid away gently.
4. Measure 8 FL oz of Blue Dawn Ultra (about 1 cup, or 1/16 gallon), and pour it via the funnel into the jug as you swirl it gently. Try not to make a lot of small bubbles. Fill up the jug with more hot water to get to one gallon.
5. Leave the jug without the lid for half an hour to let most bubbles burst away. Then close the lid. Let the solution sit overnight for best results.
Updated 2016-10-08: originally I used 12 FL oz of detergent which yielded a water-to-detergent ratio of 10:1. I’ve since experimented with lighter solutions of 16:1 and 20:1. Honestly I couldn’t tell these solutions apart. They appeared to yield the same colors. So I now just go with exactly one cup of detergent (a ratio of 16:1).
Three Gallons at a Time
For parties you may eventually need to make juices several gallons at a time in those big water fountain bottles. I fill a 5-gallon bottle with 3 gallons of water. Here are the same ingredients, for a 3-gallon bubble juice:
- 1 tablespoon: J-Lube
- 1/3 cup: Glycerin
- 1/3 cup: Baking Powder
- 3 cup: Dawn Ultra (half a 56-oz bottle)
- 3 gallons: Water
Giant Bubble Flier
Here is a convenient PDF flier you can download and print out for events. Click on the PDF thumbnail. If you want to include the flier as a picture for social medium you can use the PNG image instead. I made the flier for a local fall festival I was invited to. Hundreds kid got a kick of out popping these big bubbles.
Details for the Curious
There are useful resources online. You should check them out. You’ll learn the basic principles of big bubble making from these places.
Wayne Schmidt’s Monster Soap Bubbles. Just look at the picture. The guy went through a meticulous series of experiments to find the best bubble juice recipe of his own, and wove his own rope. I am not using his recipe yet, as I found this blog after my own simple experimentation. He lives in a desert. Not every recipe works for everyone’s environment and particular brands of detergents. He also uses Surgilube which I wasn’t aware of until reading that blog. As a true fanatic, he naturally insists that an electric mixer be used to mix stuff. His best formula is described at the very end of the article. He actually uses a 20:1 ratio of water to detergent. It’s not clear whether he used the Ultra version though.
The Soap Bubble Wiki was started by some bubble fanatics. You will find a lot of useful information here. This is where I found out about various polymers such as J-Lube, and how a polymer contributes to a great bubble juice. In fact, Wayne Schmidt relied on basic information from this wiki to kick-start his own experimentation. But this website slows down your web browser and grinds your computer to a halt. I don’t know what ads or scripts they run on that site. It’s pretty annoying. But I put up with it.
In particular, check out these useful pages:
- What is a bubble juice?
- Explains all ingredients in a bubble juice
- All about polymers
- How to mix polymer
- Youtube video showing the right stringiness to aim for when mixing polymer
- Why baking powder is useful for maintaining the right pH
- Mike Miller’s famous “Gooey Mix”, among many other recipes
- Some people like Guar Gum better than PEO
- Is glycerin useful at all?
In addition, check out these:
I am no chemist. But after my little foray into bubble juice making, it appears to me that David Stein’s Big Bubble Mix is basically J-Lube and baking powder. It clumps when mixed with water, as one would expect of J-Lube. It fizzles when added to water as one would expect of baking powder. It is five times more expensive to buy the mix than to buy J-Lube and baking powder yourself. But it is convenient if you are just getting started.
Here is a technical summary of what each ingredient contributes to the bubble juice:
- Detergent reduces surface tension, allowing bubbles to form. Adding more detergent causes bubble walls to become thinner. Wall thickness determines the color of bubble. Desirable thicknesses that generate the most colorful bubbles are found between 150nm-700nm. Consult this color chart. In general, more detergent yields thinner walls thus better colors, until the ratio hits the Critical Dilution past which one gets drastically diminishing returns.
- Baking Powder is used to neutralize the alkalinity of the detergent, and to keep the pH level at 7.4, resulting in thinner and stronger bubble walls which yield more colorful and longer-lasting bubbles.
- J-Lube and its active ingredient polyethylene oxide (PEO), in the right quantity, lend elasticity to the bubble juice, making it much easier to close giant bubbles. The elasticity allows bubbles to self-heal, meaning that large bubbles under stress split into smaller ones instead of bursting.
- Glycerin is not a key ingredient, as explained earlier… unless you want to squander money adding huge amounts of glycerin. When glycerin concentration is in the 10%-30% range (by weight w.r.t. the juice), it lends longevity and elasticity to bubbles. But the same effect can be achieved cheaply by applying a tiny amount of J-Lube. Glycerin is used here to mix J-Lube with water, without clumping.
Some more Pictures