Don’t fret too much over your first batch of soap. When I first began making soap, I stirred for hours with a wooden spoon, dressed like some crazed astronaut petrified of burning myself with lye. Nonetheless, the final product was, indeed, soap. It had barely any lather, took forever to harden and didn’t feel that great on the skin. The batch turned rancid long before I ever thought about trying to use it all. In fact, I was so disappointed with my creation that it was another five months before I attempted to make soap again.
Let’s go over the simple and inexpensive equipment you will need to begin the art of soap making.
SCALE: This is perhaps the most important piece of equipment you will need to begin making soap. If you have, or can get, a digital scale – even better. Precise measurement of ingredients is what creates a superior bar of soap. Measuring by weight, instead of volume, gives you complete control over what your finished product becomes. You can find quality digital scales at your local office supply store for as little as $20 to as much as $300 or more. More expensive does not mean better, though, as long as the scale does the job it is meant to do.
LARGE, LYE RESISTANT POT:
An 8-quart pot is a good size to begin with. Be sure to use either stainless steel or an enamel-covered pot. Aluminum pots are NOT meant for soap making, as it reacts with the lye. This will be the main pot you will use for mixing all the ingredients together when you reach that phase: the lye/water mixture, the oils, the fragrance, botanicals, etc.
Wear these to protect yourself during the soap making process as lye will irritate and burn the skin if you allow it to come in direct contact.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and there is nothing more precious than your eyesight. Wear goggles while dealing with lye and mixing your soap.
Thick plastic is preferable for mixing the lye/water solution. One with a pouring spout is ideal. You can usually find these for as little as $1-$2 at discount stores. To protect your family, take a large, black marker and write “LYE PITCHER – DO NOT USE” on the container. Once again, better safe than sorry.
Long, heavy plastic ones are a good choice for mixing the lye/water solution and for mixing ingredients into your main pot.
2 CANDY THERMOMETERS:
One is for the lye/water solution; the other is for your melted oils. One aspect of making soap is getting these two mixtures as the same or very close to the same temperature before pouring the lye/water solution into your oils. (We will cover this in more detail later)
You can use something as simple as a shoebox lined with a thick garbage bag or even a hard plastic storage box that you have greased and lined with wax paper or freezer paper. This master mold will create your soap “loaf” or “log” from which you will later cut out your bars of soap. A new kitty litter pan works well.
WAX PAPER or FREEZER PAPER:
As mentioned above, used in lining hard plastic molds, making un-molding your soap a much easier task. Lately I’ve found that garbage bags make excellent liners.
Oh, what an invention! The first time I made I stirred it with a spoon. The second time I used a stick blender. I never looked back! These handy little gadgets can make the difference in your soap coming to trace and being ready to pour into molds in as little as 10 minutes versus an hour or more of hand stirring. Additionally, a stick blender ensures better blending of all the ingredients. They can range anywhere between $9 and $35 and up. I found that my “cheap” stick blender outlasted the more expensive model by more than two years.
OLD TOWELS OR BLANKETS:
These are used as insulation for wrapping your molds during the cooling process.
COFFEE GRINDER or FOOD PROCESSOR:
You can also opt for the old-fashioned mortar and pestle. These are for finely grinding any herbs and botanicals you would like to add to your soaps as well as for powdering oatmeal.
Lye can be found in the supermarket next to the drain cleaners. Be sure to use 100% lye (sodium hydroxide) for soap making. A well-known brand in the U.S. is Red Devil Lye, although, it is getting difficult to obtain. Do not simply purchase regular drain cleaner as many of these products also contain small elements of metals and other chemicals. You want ONLY 100% sodium hydroxide. It can also be purchased in bulk from local chemical suppliers.
Distilled or spring water is usually preferred, but many soap makers use water directly from the tap. Only you will be able to determine if this is best for your use, depending on the quality of your local water supply. Soap makers that are more “rustic” like to collect rainwater for the process. I have even heard of Northern soap makers bringing in snow from outside and letting it melt.
We will cover in more depth the properties of carrier oils on our CARRIER OILS PAGE. Some of the oils used in soap making are olive oil, vegetable shortening, coconut oil, palm oil, cocoa butter, sunflower oil, safflower oil, canola oil, jojoba, and castor oil. Lard and beef tallow are used by many soap makers.
Soap isn’t just for getting clean. Some love it for the fragrance it imparts; others make soaps that include herbs that are known for their healing powers or by using ingredients that are known for promoting healthy skin. Some additives are used for their exfoliating properties to aid in removing dead skin cells. There are several other ingredients you can add to soap to make a gentler, more emollient bar. Honey is quite popular in many soaps as well several types of clays, extra added glycerin, goat or cow’s milk, powdered milk and even such luxuries as pureed cucumbers, mashed bananas and egg yolks.
Essential oils come from plants and are used to fragrance soaps and other toiletries, especially if you want natural ingredients. Essential oils are also what is used in aromatherapy and have different healing values. For example: lavender is for relaxation; peppermint or spearmint energizes; sweet orange lifts the spirits; tea tree is cleansing and cooling, etc.
They may not have the aromatherapeutic values such that essential oils do (at least on a medicinal level), but fragrance oils come in a wider variety of scents. These are man-made fragrances of a chemical compound and are often the main ingredient for creating perfumes. Some examples of fragrance oils that have gone beyond natural scents are: cucumber melon, mango, strawberry, sweet pea….well, you get the picture. Be sure to purchase fragrance oils from a reputable supplier who can let you know whether or not their oils are skin safe. SEE OUR SUPPLIER REVIEW PAGE. Many fragrance oils are made specifically for candles and incense and should not be used on the skin. Furthermore, not all artificial fragrances work well in the soap making process. Some have a tendency to “seize” your batch of soap, meaning, the soap becomes hard in the pot before you have time to pour it into the mold. Some essential oils can have the same effect such as large amounts of clove and cinnamon. Unfortunately, the only way to truly tell if a fragrance oil is going to work well is trial-and-error.
HERBS & BOTANICALS:
Many times, if you add the same botanical to a soap as the essential oil you used, it helps to “anchor” the scent and make it last longer. Oatmeal is known to be soothing, while cinnamon, used to stimulate the beard in shaving soaps, can be an irritant for those with sensitive skin. Adding poppy seeds or almond meal can act as an exfoliant. Only use dried herbs; never fresh.
There are many options for adding color to your batches of soap. Powdered clove or cinnamon adds a warm, earth tone; powdered parsley brings out a pale green tone, as does powdered peppermint. Just keep in mind that using natural colorants usually imparts some of the fragrance and/or qualities of those additives. In addition, there are many powdered pigments and micas on the market made just for soap making that come in a wide variety of colors: bright blues, pink tones, violets, yellows….even black. Just remember that a little colorant usually goes a long way so experiment as needed. Food coloring works sometimes but the results are unreliable, especially when dealing with reds. The lye reaction changes something when you use food coloring and yellow seems to be the only one that gives good results. Never use candle dyes or clothing dye in your soaps. Not only do they contain other ingredients that may not be gentle to your skin, but your white washcloths won’t be too happy with you, either.
The chart you will find below is known as a saponification chart. Basically, this means that it takes a certain amount of lye to turn a specific oil into soap. Each oil has its own characteristics and one saponification value. The sap value of each oil measures the needed amount of sodium hydroxide (lye) required to turn that particular oil into soap. Confused? Let’s make it easier. Multiply the amount of oil you are using in ounces by the value for that oil found on the chart. That total is the amount of lye (sodium hydroxide) needed. If using a combination of oils, multiply for each and add all the sums for the total of all the oils used in your recipe.
Example: 32 ozs. of vegetable shortening x 0.136 = 4.35 ozs of lye needed.
To calculate water/liquid: Use 6 ozs of liquid per pound (16 ozs) of oil/fat.
Example: 32 ozs of total oils/fats ÷ 16 = 2 x 6 = 12 oz of liquid.
In our SOAP RECIPES SECTION you will find a number of recipes where everything is already calculated for you. While you are still in the beginning phases of learning to make soap, don’t let the saponification chart confuse you, as there are plenty of recipes on our site to keep you busy.
Oil Sap Value
Almond Oil, Sweet .137
Apricot Kernel Oil .134
Avocado Oil .132
Canola Oil .123
Castor Oil .127
Cocoa Butter .136
Coconut Oil .178
Grapeseed Oil .134
Hazelnut Oil .135
Jojoba Oil .065
Kukui Nut Oil .135
Macadamia Nut Oil .137
Mango Butter .134
Olive Oil .133
Palm Kernel Oil .155
Palm Oil .139
Safflower Oil .135
Shea Butter .126
Shortening (veg) .136
Sunflower Oil .134
MAKING SOAP – THE STANDARD INSTRUCTIONS
To begin, I am going to take you through the standard process of soap making; the same instructions everyone follows when they learn they process. When we have finished learning the standard way, I will go back and tell you how I make soap, short cuts included.
Each recipe is on its own page with a “notes” section below it. While I have never been a fan of writing in books, I realized it could be helpful.
First things first. Remember that lye can be a dangerous thing and deserves your respect. Never put your hands or fingers in the lye water to check the temperature. You are dealing with a chemical mixture that will cause a chemical burn and can be fatal if swallowed. Keep lye and your lye mixture away from children and pets. NEVER add water to lye. The proper procedure is to add the lye to the water. The best way I’ve found to remember which one is the right order is something I read several years ago: “the snow falls on the lake”. Adding water to lye can cause an eruption. Once again, always add the lye to the water, exactly in this order!
Put on your latex gloves and safety goggles when you are ready to make your lye/water mixture. When you mix lye into water, it will heat up right away jumping to over 200 degrees. Many people choose to mix their lye solution outside or perhaps in the garage. I’ve always kept my plastic lye pitcher in the sink while mixing, making sure to hold my head back away from the pitcher the whole time — away from the mixing process and away from the fumes.
Now that we have handled safety concerns in the use of lye, we can begin.
Set out all utensils you will be using. Measure any essential oils/fragrance oils you will be adding to your soap as well as any herbs, botanicals, colorants, etc.
Line your soap mold(s) and have it ready. Once your mixture becomes soap, you will have to move quickly and this needs to be ready.
Don gloves and goggles. Using your scale, measure into a Pyrex cup or disposable plastic cup the amount of lye you will need for the recipe you will be using. Set the lye aside. Now, with your lye pitcher on it, set your scale back to zero and measure in the amount of water you will need into your lye pitcher. Set the pitcher in the sink (or outside) and slowly pour the lye into the water and gently stir with your hard plastic spoon until the lye dissolves. The water will be cloudy at first then turn clear. Set your lye mixture aside in a safe location where in cannot be spilled by children, pets or you.
Measure out the oils you plan to use in your recipe directly into your soap pot. Melt them on medium to medium-low heat. Do not overheat. You want the oils to simply be melted – you are not making french fries! When melted, set your pot aside. Both the melted oils and your lye/water solution need to go through a cooling down period. Get out your candy thermometers and place one in each of your mixtures. You are waiting for both the melted oils and your lye/water mixture to reach the neighborhood of 100 – 120 degrees. Many books will tell you they have to be the EXACT same temperature or the process will not work. Nonsense! As long as you stay within the temperatures we talk about above and they are close to the same, everything will be fine.
In fact, this is something that stumped me the first time I made soap. I was wondering how I would be able to get both at the exact same temperature since they were two completely different compounds. A cool or warm water bath, depending on what you are trying to achieve, is often helpful. If my lye water is cooling down much faster than my oils, I will put the pot of hot oils into a sink filled with cold water until the temperatures reach the acceptable range.
Plug in your stick blender. Now that both your melted oils and your lye water have reached the right temperatures, slowly pour your lye water into your oils. Immerse your stick blender and begin blending. If you have a small batch of soap, you may need to tilt your pot just a bit in order to make the mixture deep enough to avoid splattering. Keep your stick blender deep and do not try pulling it up to the surface while on, as this could cause the mixture to splash. If any does happen to get on your skin, wash immediately with cold water and vinegar.
The way I use my stick blender is by blending a few moments, then turning it off and simply stirring with it, then blending with it again. This helps prolong the life of your stick blenders motor, reducing overheating and overwork.
Many soap makers wait until trace (when the soap mixture reaches a thin pudding-like stage) before adding colorant. I add my color shortly after adding the lye mixture to the oils. I feel this saves you some much needed time just in case your soap traces too quickly and you run out of time.
When you first mixed your lye water and oils, you noticed that the mixture still looked like an oily soup. As trace begins to occur, the mixture turns opaque and begins to thicken. As you see this slight thickening start, you will be able to take your stick blender (turned off) and drag it across the top of your mixture. If it leaves a line or “blob” for a few seconds before falling back into the mixture, you have reached trace. The consistency is something like thin pudding.
Add your essential oils/fragrance oils and botanicals and stir well. Work quickly. If your soap becomes too thick, you will not be able to pour it into the molds. Sometimes, fragrance oils, being man-made chemicals of various compounds can cause what is known as “seizure”. This is when the soap suddenly hardens in the pot within just a few seconds and pouring into the molds is no longer a possibility. Try to choose fragrance oils that have been tested for use in cold process soap making. Most essential oils do not cause such sudden seizure unless using too much. For your first batch, try using real essential oils or a simple unscented batch. (See recipes section)
Pour your traced soap mixture into the mold. You can use the oven (turned off) to place your molds in if you don’t plan to use it until the next day. You can also take a large cardboard box, larger and taller than your soap mold and turn it upside down over your mold. Now is the time you wrap the box in your old towels or blankets to retain the heat. Here is the hard part — leave the box alone until the next day. What is going on in your mold, under the box is called “gel phase”. This is when the lye is continuing to work on your soap mixture, heating it up until it takes on a gelled look of Vaseline. Slowly, it cools back down and the process completes itself.
Remove the box and put your latex gloves back on. At this point, the soap may still have a bit of a “sting” to it. Turn your mold upside down on your countertop and press the back a bit to try to get the soap to release from the mold. It can be similar to removing ice from ice trays. If you have a stubborn batch that does not seem to want to come out of the mold, place the mold in the freezer for about an hour then try again. Once unmolded, slowly peel off your freezer/wax paper and slice your loaf of soap into the size bars that you would like to have. Remember, this step occurs on the SECOND DAY.
This is the aging process. Place your soap in a well- ventilated area away from air conditioners or heaters. A shelf lined with wax paper works quite well. Leave the soap alone for at least 3 to 5 weeks. During this curing time, the soap’s PH lowers, giving you a milder bar. Also, during this time, the water is naturally dehydrating from your soap and creating a harder, longer lasting bar of soap.
Soda ash – as your soap ages, you may notice a powdery substance on the surface of the soap. This is nothing to worry about and is usually seen on the surface of the soap that was exposed to air while still in the mold. It can be scraped off of your aged soap or simply washed off. Some soap makers even find it attractive — others do their best to avoid it. One way to help prevent soda ash is to cover the surface of your mold with greased wax paper or plastic wrap before placing your box and towels over the mold.
THE FINAL STEP:
Take a long, luxurious bath or shower and brag to everyone that you used your own soap
Another great source for learning how to make soap is Miller’s Homemade Soap Pages.