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About 700 different kinds of plants contain useful essential oils, and there are several methods employed to extract them, the most common of which are water and steam distillation. We'll focus on water distillation here.
Essential oils can be costly to buy but they are relatively inexpensive to distill at home. Some botanicals store their essential oil within their leaves or flowers while others may store the oil within their rinds, seeds or other plant parts.
What Are Essential Oils?
Essential oils are highly concentrated, volatile oils that are extracted from aromatic plants. Essential oils have been used by many cultures around the world for centuries. Essential oils have been used for cosmetic purposes and for their spiritually and emotionally uplifting qualities.
How To Make Essential Oils
- Harvest the raw plant material
- Dry the plant material (optional) (we’ll need to check with emmet but i think the plants are typically best processed as fresh as possible)
- Add your plant material to the still
- Add water to the still
- Heat the still
- Collect oil and hydrosol
- Separate the oil from the hydrosol
- Pour the oil into a container for storage
- Clean the still
1. Harvest Plant Material
Start the process with careful collection of your plant material. The concentration of essential oils within a plant ebbs and flows throughout its life cycle, making the timing of harvest a critical factor. Each plant species has its own unique timeline for optimal harvesting, so do your homework on each plant you're planning to distill.
The way you handle the plants during harvest can significantly impact the quantity and quality of your essential oils. Mishandling, harvesting the wrong parts, or even harvesting at the wrong time of day can lead to a decrease in the yield and quality of your essential oils.
Most plants are best processed immediately upon harvest with no drying or preservation. If you’re not able to distill them immediately, they should be properly dried. If not properly dried the plants can rot. The size of the plant pieces you use for distillation also plays a key role.
Take lavender, for example. It's best to harvest lavender just as the blossoms start to wilt, cutting about three-quarters of the plant. Post-harvest, you should hang the lavender upside down in small bundles to dry for around three days. If you're dealing with a large quantity of lavender, you can extend the drying period and distill them later. This requires a dry room with good airflow and no direct sunlight for optimal drying. After 2-4 weeks, the plants will be dry enough to be stored in an airtight container. At this stage, it's easy to separate the dried blossoms from the stems if you prefer to distill the blossoms only, a practice common among professional lavender distillers.
2. Prepare The Boiler
Clean the still before use if you haven't already done so (see step number 8 for more info). Next, fill thestill with distilled water. Make sure you have enough water in the still to complete the distillation. The heating element should be covered at all times and the still should never run dry. Depending on the plant and on the quantity, distillation can take anywhere from a half-hour to six hours or more after the water boils.
3. Add Plant Material To Still
Do not chop or cut the plant material as doing so will cause you to lose some of the oils from the plant material.
4. Add Water To The Still
Next, you'll need to add water to the still. The water serves as the medium through which the heat is transferred to the plant material, facilitating the extraction of the essential oils. Ensure that the water level is sufficient to cover the plant material but not so high that it risks boiling over.
5. Heat The Boiler
Turn the heat to high in the boiler and adjust as necessary once boiling temp is reached. As the still is heating up turn on the water for the condenser. It is recommended to turn the condensing water on at 150 Fahrenheit. Once the water is boiling and the condensing water is flowing the essential oils should begin to come through the drip-arm and into your collection vessel. The distillation process is pretty hands-off, but you will want to make sure that you do not run out of water in your still as this will damage the distillation equipment.
6. Collect and Separate Oil and Hydrosol
Distillate should be directed into a separatory funnel that is equipped with a stopcock at the bottom. Once your distillation is complete allow the hydrosol and oil mixture to sit for at least 12 hours, then drain hydrosol into one container and oil into another.
7. Store the oil
Once the oil has been harvested, store the oil in an airtight, tinted glass container, leaving as little headroom as possible. Store hydrosol in a clear glass container. Keep both in a cool dry location to achieve maximum shelf life.
8. Clean the still
Once you're done distilling, rinse the still thoroughly and wipe out any residue. Next, use a food grade, professional cleanser to rid the still of any additional trace of the oil that was just distilled. We recommend Professional Brewers Wash or PBW. It's food grade and works great on copper and stainless steel. It can be used at normal strength for stainless steel. We actually contacted 5 Star Chemical, makers of PBW and asked them about using their cleanser for cleaning copper. They approved and suggested that the cleanser be diluted to about 50% - 75% of the normal strength, as the copper won't need a normal strength dose.
Essential Oil Distiller Systems
Steam distilling essential oils at home is an easy, safe, & highly effective way to extract essential oil from your favorite plants. Essential oils are valued for their aromatherapy and medicinal purposes, however, buying essential oils from a retailer can be very expensive. That’s why we created our 120v Essential Oil Distiller Kit and our 240v Essential Oil Distiller Kit. Both systems can distill high-quality essential oils for a fraction of the regular retail price.
120v Essential Oil Distiller Kit
The 120v Essential Oil Distiller Kit is your go-to for those just dipping their toes into the world of essential oil production or running small-scale operations. It's as easy as plugging it into your standard household outlet, making it a breeze to set up.
Advantages of Steam Distilling with 120 Volts
Distilling essential oils with 120 volts of power comes with perks:
- Plug and Play: The 120v system is as user-friendly as it gets. Just plug it into your standard household outlet, and you're good to go.
- Perfect for Beginners and Small Operations: This system is your best bet if you're just starting out in essential oil production or running a small operation. It's a great way to get your hands dirty without breaking the bank.
Disadvantages of Steam Distilling with 120 Volts
The main disadvantage of the 120v system is slower heat-up and extraction times compared to the 240v system.
- Patience is a Virtue: Compared to a 240v system, the 120v system takes its sweet time to heat up and extract the oils. So, you might need to wait a bit longer to get your hands on those precious oils.
- Not for the Big Leagues: While the 120v system is a champ for small-scale operations, it might not cut it for larger, commercial operations. For those, you might want to consider its big brother, the 240v system.
Tips and Tricks for Steam Distilling with 120 Volts
Here are some nuggets of wisdom for getting the most out of your 120v system:
- Keep it Shipshape: Regularly check your system to make sure it's running like a well-oiled machine. This includes checking for leaks and making sure all components are up to snuff.
- Tweak Your Process: Don't be afraid to play around with your distillation process. This could include adjusting the temperature and pressure, or trying out different types of plant material.
- Manage Your Energy: Consider getting on board with an energy management program to help cut down on energy costs. This could include keeping an eye on energy use, pinpointing areas for improvement, and putting energy-saving measures into action.
240v Essential Oil Distiller Kit
The 240v Essential Oil Distiller Kit is a more powerful and efficient system, designed for those who want to take their essential oil production to the next level. It's three times as powerful and fast as the 120v system, making it more efficient for small commercial applications.
Advantages of Steam Distilling with 240 Volts
There are many advantages to distilling essential oils with 240 volts of power as opposed to 120 volts such as:
- Faster heat-up times: With 240 volts, a boil can be started in around 15 minutes. Please note that this time will vary depending on your elevation.
- Faster extraction times: A 15-30 minute run will capture as much as 95% of the essential oil in the plant material. However, a long run is still fine and will produce more hydrosol faster than our 120-volt system.
- Better efficiency: We compared the yield of 120 volt and 240 volt systems when distilling lavender and found that the 240 volt system produced slightly more oil.
Faster heat-up times and faster extraction times mean you can do many runs in one day. This is important during harvest season since time is of the essence!
Disadvantages of Steam Distilling with 240 Volts
There is only one disadvantage to steam distilling with 240 volts. You will need access to a 240-volt outlet, otherwise known as a dryer outlet. Therefore, if you have a dryer, you already have one of these. These can also be installed by an electrician if needed. Another disadvantage is that it’s quite a bit more expensive.
Tips & Tricks For Distilling With 240 Volts
Fill your boiler with more water. Since our 240 volt system produces much more steam, it’s important to fill the boiler with more water in order to keep the element submerged. Never turn the heating element on when it is not submerged.
Turn down the power on your controller if you notice steam escaping from your condenser. You do not want steam escaping from the condenser, only essential oil & hydrosol. Steam is a sign that the condenser is too hot and therefore the temperature needs to be reduced
The Ideal Setup: One Boiler with Multiple Kettles for Plant Material
The best way to run the still is by using one boiler and having multiple kettles for plant material. This allows for continuous operation as one kettle can be emptied and refilled with new plant material while the other is being used in the still.
Whether you're a hobbyist or a small business owner, steam distillation is a great method for producing your own essential oils. With the right equipment and techniques, you can create high-quality essential oils at a fraction of the cost of store-bought oils. Remember, the key to successful distillation is patience, practice, and a good understanding of the process. Happy distilling!