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Monday, June 6, 2011

Homemade soap - Soapmaking 101

I got together with a friend today to make soap.  It’s a hobby I started several years ago, and I haven’t bought soap from the sore in probably 7-8 years now.  The process of making soap is a little difficult to cover in a single post, but I’m going to give it a try.  For this post I’m just going to focus only on Cold Process (CP) soap.  At the end of this post I’ve included a glossary of soapmaking terms and a link for more.  If I say something here you don't understand, look there.  Cold process uses lye, but don’t worry it’s not as scary as it sounds, its easy, and safe as long as you follow some simple safety precautions.  The end product does not. Did you hear me? Does not. Really DOES NOT! Have lye in it.  It gets all used up in the saponification process, and is completely gone when the soap is finished, leaving behind a nice conditioning bar.  Really, REALLY, I promise!  It is wonderful!  You’ll love it, trust me!  Are you ready? Go on, give it a try!

What you’ll need:
  1. A stainless steel, enamel or Pyrex pot (Nope don’t even try anything else, it will melt or rust, trust me just don’t)
  2. A scale accurate to 0.1 oz or 0.01 grams, that can go up to 10-20# and has a tare feature –A typical food scale won’t be accurate enough. This is really the most important tool you will need for making soap.  Your measurements need to be precise to make safe soap.
  3. Lye – Sodium Hydroxide or (NaOH), this can be hard to find now thanks to people who make meth.  I used to be able to find Red Devil lye in the store, but not anymore.  I was able to find a 50# (will last you and your friends a lifetime) of lye at a plumbing supply store in Anchorage (Yep had to go 360 miles to get it).  Potassium hydroxide will not work in this recipe, it’s for liquid soaps and I have no idea where to find it.  And Drano or other drain cleaners are not the same as lye and they won’t work and would be harmful, so don’t try it.
  4. Water – just plain ole tap water is fine, but get fancier if you want
  5. Something to mix your lye and water in – I use either a glass Pyrex measuring cup or a canning jar, anything stainless, or heat resistant plastic or glass (has to withstand 200 degrees).
  6. Utensils – Stainless steel or heat resistant plastic, a large spoon, smaller spoons and a spatula to scrape the sides of the containers.
  7. Oil(s) For my recipe, olive, castor oil, and coconut – There are endless choices here
  8. Safety gear: Gloves (long kitchen gloves are great, lye burns, you don’t want it on your skin), goggles (lye could cause severe eye damage and sight loss, protect your eyes!), long sleeve shirt, and wear clothes you don’t care about, it may bleach or damage your clothing).  Vinegar, if you do get lye on your skin (and believe me, you will know when you do), the vinegar neutralizes it. 
  9. A mold to put your soap in – There are special molds you can purchase for CP soap, my DH made me some wooden ones that I’ve been using for years now.  To just get started, try a shoebox or a priority mail box from the post office. (Do, not use anything that isn’t stainless, heat resistant plastic, glass or cardboard.  
  10. Liner for mold – I use butcher paper (shiny side facing the soap), but plastic wrap would work too, do not use wax paper.  You must line your mold (unless it’s a special one made to not be lined), or you will, never, ever, get your soap to come back out.
  1. Scents essential or fragrance oils – Most of mine have been ordered from Bramble Berry, but you can probably find fragrance oils at craft stores and essential oils at health food stores.  You can leave your soap unscented. You cannot scent it with food products, like juice, coffee, vanilla etc… It doesn’t work.
  2. Colorants – I color my CP soap with oxides (which are kind of like a clay powder) purchased from soapmaking suppliers, but have also used spices from my cupboard, and would start with that first or leave it au naturel.  What doesn’t work is food coloring, it just gets eaten up by the lye and will not change the color at all. Your soap will be a pleasant creamy pale yellow color if left uncolored.
  3. A stick blender (optional but I would never make soap without it.  I tried once,  and took FOREVER, trust me, it sucks, don’t bother trying.  
A little about oil properties
Different oils have different properties, and it would be worth some time to research this a bit before soapmaking.  I wanted a gentle and conditioning bar, but one that lathers well and is hard enough to not just melt in the shower.  I use olive oil because of it’s conditioning properties.  You can make pure olive oil soap bars,called Castile soap. It is very gentile and conditioning and would be wonderful for sensitive skin.  It will not lather well and is not very hard so will not last as long.  Coconut oil (and palm kernel oil) add hardness and lather to soap, but  it is drying, so using too much, makes your soap more harsh and less conditioning. I don’t recommend using any more than 20% coconut or palm kernel oil.  Castor oil also boosts the lather factor.  There are endless types of oils with different properties, you can have a lot of fun with it.  Here is a link for oil properties. Plain vegetable shortening works very well, is mild and cheap and can be used up to 50% of your oils and makes a nice hard, good lathering bar without being drying.  I used to use it, but since I’ve learned more about GMO soybeans (and American shortening contains GMO soybean oil, I choose to not use it).

There are many recipes online for soaps, but I find that almost all of them have too high of a percentage of hard oils, which does not make a conditioning bar, so I have always made my own recipes.  This may sound hard, but it really is easy, and once you learn how, you have endless possibilities, and can adapt your soap recipe to anything you have on hand or anything you want to try.

My basic recipe is:
Olive oil 70%
Coconut oil 20%
Castor oil 10%

How do you know how much oil to use to fill your mold?  Here is a calculation for that: 

Take the Length of your mold x the Width of your mold x the desired height of your bar x 0.4

  • My mold is 7” long, 3 ½” wide, and I want my bars 2.5” tall
  • So  7 X 3.5 X 2.5 X 0.4 = 24 oz of oil to fill my mold.  
  •  If I want the measurements to be in grams 24 X 30 = 720 grams of oil to fill my mold. 
To figure out how much of each oil I need: Round up or down, it doesn't really mater which you choose.

To get 70% olive oil 24 X 0.7 = 16.8 (I round up to 17 ounces, to make grams 17X30 = 510 grams
To get 20% coconut oil 24 X 0.2 = 4.8 (I round up to 5 oz, to make grams 5 X 30 = 150 grams)
To get 10% castor oil 24 X 0.1= 2.4 (I round down to 2 oz, to make grams 2 X 30 = 60 grams)
Now you know how much of each oil, what's next?
For the next step I use a lye calculator to figure out how much lye I need to turn my 24 ounces of oil into soap.  Every oil has a different saponification value, therefore it takes a different amount for each oil.  Here is the calculator I use I use. There are directions on how to enter your own recipe.  You must choose either ounces or grams, grams because I think it is more precise with my scale.  It will be defaulted to sodium hydroxide which is what we will use for CP soap so don’t change this. You can either fill in or Ignore everything else at the top of the form, further down, you will find different oils and boxes next to them.  Enter the value for either the ounces or grams into the box next to the oil you are using in your soap.  When finished, click “calculate lye” at the bottom. 

You will get a form this looks like this: 

  • The first section is water. The range of water, for my recipe that would be 195-292 grams or 6-9 oz.  I find that using the lower end of the water makes a bar that hardens much quicker.
  • The next section to the right will list your oils, the grams or oz and what percent they will be in your recipe, double check and make sure it is what you wanted and total correctly. 
  • The third section to the right is the lye table.  It has two columns.   The % excess fat, means how much oil will be left behind when all they lye is gone, the extra oil is called superfatting.  0 is none, less than 4% superfat is a harsh bar, 10 means there are 10% oils left behind, too much superfatting can make the bar go rancid.  I aim for a bar that is 5-6% superfat so for this recipe will be using 98-99 grams of lye.    
Getting started:
Now you know how much total oil, how much of each oil, how much water, and how much lye you need.  Now you have everything you need and it’s time to get started making your soap!  

Line your mold:
I use butcher paper, shiny side facing out.  I cut a piece slightly wider than the width of the box, and fit it in the bottom , push it into the corners and fold the ends kind of like a package to make neat corners (as neat as possible anyway).  Then cut a second piece a little wider than needed to cover the length, and do the same. You want the whole mold covered and slightly overlapped so no soap can leak through.   Here is  a step by step link, I don’t cut just sort of fold it in, but there corners do look neater than mine so maybe worth giving this a try.  

Soapmaking 101
Gather all your supplies in a well ventilated area.  The first time it may be easier to measure everything out in separate bowls before you start.  My directions differ slightly from other directions, but they work well for me.

If you are using solid oils, measure this out and put it in your pot. (to measure oils place your bowl on the scale, hit tare to bring it to 0, then add the amount of oil you want).
My scale battery died, my sisters weight waters scale worked, not quite accurate enough, but worked on the gram setting
Measure your lye and water in separate containers. Remember your safety gear! Slowly add your lye powder to your water.  ALWAYS add lye to water not water to lye (picture exploding caustic volcano, you DON’T want this!)  Stir as you add the lye.  It will get very hot, up to 200 degrees, don’t hold the container and you will need a potholder to handle.  When dissolved, add to the pot with your hard oil and let sit to melt.  If not using hard oils, wait for your lye to cool to about 110 degrees before adding to your liquid oils.
When the hard oils are melted, the solution will be cool enough to add your liquid oils.  I measure the olive oil, hit tare, then add the castor oil into the same bowl.
If you are using a color it is easiest to dissolve a little color into some oil first, so hold back some, a few tablespoons or so in a separate bowl and add the rest to the pot. Coloring will take a little experimenting.  For my oxides I use maybe 1-2 teaspoons, for spices, I’ve used nutmeg, cloves, & ginger. Try maybe 2-3 teaspoons to start, and then next time add more or less depending on how that turned out. Mix this into the saved oil and set aside.

Now your lye and all oils except  fragrance or essential oils should be in your pot.  If making by hand, stir, stir stir.  If using the stick blender (really, you really want this if you have electricity, I bought mine used for cheap on ebay).  Place the blender all the way to the bottom of the pot before you turn it on.  Keeping the blender on the bottom, move it around slowly, try to avoid pulling it in and out of the liquid. (You really don’t want flying lye solution all over you). 
Yes mine has duct tape on it, long story, but hey it still works
It should turn from a clear liquid to a cloudy homogenized liquid after a couple minutes. 

Stop and use your spatula to scrape the sides and bottom.  Then resume blending (or stirring) until trace is reached.  The picture below is what trace should look like. This can take less than 10 minutes or even less sometimes, it depends on what oils you use. It will start to look kind of like vanilla pudding, you will see a trail behind the blender in the liquid, and when removed from the liquid (stop the blender first) it will cling to it.  You want to to still be a thinner pudding, because it can thicken quickly when your scent is added.
Photo Credit
Now add scent.  Warning, some scents, especially fragrance oils (FO) can speed up the saponification, and suddenly your soap can turn very thick or seize.  I use about 1 oz in this size batch, I just kind of sniff and stop when it smells how I want, you have to smell around the lye (the stinky lye scent will disappear, I promise).
Beyond trace, work fast you are in trouble, your soap is gonna seize

Once your scent is well blended, you can either add in all your color, which is easiest for a beginner, or add it and swirl it around with a spatula, leaving some unmixed.

By now it should be a thickish pudding texture, and it’s time to pour it into your lined mold.

Tap the bottom of the mold on a hard surface a few times to make it settle and to remove air bubbles.
I place a piece of paper or plastic over the top, and cover.  My mold has a lid, but a piece of  cardboard or a book would work also.  I think it could just be left open too.

The saponofication process will continue, and the soap will first cool off and firm up, then may heat up and become kind of translucent like Vaseline, then again harden up.  You may wrap your mold in a couple of towels to hold in the heat to make it stay hotter, speeding up the saponification process.

 In about 24 hours, the soap should be cooled off and hard enough to remove from the mold.  I use the paper as handles and pull it out.  If firm enough, cut it into bars any size you wish. If not ready, let it sit till firm enough to cut.
So this is what happens when things accelerate too fast, the color didn't swirl, it ended up an unpleasant looking brick.  Oh well, ugly soap, still works as soap

It will take at least 2 weeks for CP soap to complete to saponification process and to be safe to use ( by insulating the mold with towels, I have been able to use it sooner). Letting it dry for a couple months, makes a really hard bar that will last longer.  You can tell the saponification process is complete when you lick it (yep I said it, lick it) touch the tip of your tongue to the soap, and if it zaps you (like putting your tongue on the posts of a 9v battery.  Haven’t tried it? Go ahead give it a try.), if it zaps, and believe me you won’t miss it, it is not ready.  If it doesn’t zap and tastes like soap, it’s ready.  If I think it’s ready, I try it in several places and on a few bars to be sure.  I leave it with good air circulation either standing on end or laying flat.  If laying flat I turn it over every couple days.  Don't wrap the soap, leave it open to air even when storing.

  It’s ready?  Well what are you waiting for?  Go try it! I know this sounds really complicated, but once you try it, it really isn’t as hard as it sounds, and is really rewarding. Warning: It’s addicting, and you can spend a small fortune on scents, oils, and accessories.  I spent a bunch of time reading about soapmaking on the internet, and lurking on soapmaking forums before I started.  I learned a ton, so I think it was well worth doing.  In future posts I’ll cover different additives, and coloring and swirling in more detail. 
Please let me know if something doesn’t make sense, or if you see any mistakes that need correcting.  Have tips of your own?  Please share those too.  Happy Soaping!

The following are different types of soapmaking processes. 
Cold Process (CP) - A method of soap making without utilizing any external heat source.
CPHP - Crock Pot Hot Process. A method of soap making utilizing the heat from an electric crock pot during the soap making process.
Hot Process - A method of soap making utilizing an external heat source to accelerate the saponification process, such as a crock pot, double boiler or oven.
Melt & Pour Soap - M&P is a method of handcrafting soap by melting a ready made soap base, adding fragrances and shaping using molds.
OHP - Oven Hot Process; Hot process soap making utilizing an oven to apply heat during processing.

Other soapmaking terms:
Castile - A region in Spain known for producing olive oil based soaps in the 13th century. Today, a soap made with 100% olive oil is loosely referred to as a Castile soap.
Castor Oil - Derived from the beans of the plant, castor oil is also used medicinally.
Coconut Oil - The semisolid fat obtained from the meat of the coconut. Used in soap making, it contributes hardness and lather.
Fragrance Oil (FO)- Synthetic oils formulated to mimic natural fragrances. Sometimes blended with essential oils.
Lye - The common name for sodium hydroxide. NaOH - Sodium Hydroxide.
Olive Oil - Obtained from the fruit of the tree through pressing and solvent extraction, varying grades of olive oil are available. Used in soap making as it does not interfere with the skins normal functions.
Palm Kernel Oil - Obtained from the kernels of the oil palm.

Palm Oil - Obtained from the pulp of the fruit from the oil palm.
Potassium Hydroxide - A caustic white solid, KOH, used in the manufacturing of soft or liquid soaps.
Saponification - The process or reaction of combining a base (fat) with an alkali (sodium hydroxide) to produce a salt (soap) and a free alcohol (glycerin).
Seize - The unexpected thickening and uneven hardening of the soap mixture during processing. Usually caused when adding synthetic fragrance oils to the mixture.
Superfatted - The addition of extra oils or butters that remain unsaponified within the finished soap. These excess oils and butters contribute to the moisturizing properties of the soap.
Trace - The point at which the soap/lye mixture begins to thicken. At this point the solution is about 80-90% saponified and essential oils, superfatting oils, colors, additives, etc can be added without their characteristics being changed substantially by the saponification process.

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  1. I've been reading a lot about soap making and your post has given me the courage to give it a try! I can't wait to get my supplies! Thanks for the step by step how to!

  2. Hello, I soooooo want to try this. I will print off the pages so I can sit and digest everything. I thought everything even the brown brick looked beautiful.

    Sure wish I could be back home in Alaska today. It is 101 and so very hot here. Our crops are needing rain so bad.

    Hugs, Linda

  3. Thanks, I followed you both, please post when you give it a try, would love to hear how it turns out. Please let me know if the instructions are lacking or if you have other tips.

    Linda, where in AK are you from? It sounds HOT wherever you are now. We were a pleasant 70 today.

  4. What a great post!! Thank you! I've tried making soap twice and botched it up good both times. I was trying to stir it to trace. An hour later and I'm still stirring! I just found a stick blender at the Goodwill store so I'm ready to try again. I love the detail in your instructions. I re-inspired!

  5. Thanks for the detailed post! I've been making soap for a couple years now myself and would encourage anyone who wants to give it a try that they shouldn't be intimidated. I usually make small batches right on my stove top with the ventilation fan on. Frozen juice containers as well as pint and quart containers from cream or buttermilk work great as molds. Blessings, ~Lisa

  6. Betty, you'll LOVE the stick blender, it will be SO fast you wont believe it!

    Lisa, what a great idea! Do you have to line them? Or will the soap come out without lining?

  7. Can you still use the stick blender for food after making soap, or should it be used only for soap after that?

  8. I chose to use my soap pot and stick blender only for soap. I bought a used pot at a thrift store and the stick blender was bought used on ebay. It is hard to get all the soap out, and since it could have traces of lye on it, I think that is better.

  9. Is this recipe for a mosturizing soap? if not, can you recommend a really mositurizing one? i have eczema.

  10. It's pretty moisturizing, but if you use just olive oil, and use lye at the 5%-8% on the lye calculator it will make a really gentile moisturizing bar. It won't have much lather, but that is good for eczema too.

  11. Oh, this is so sad, but I'm just coming back to re-read this post for ideas about "swirling" and realize you asked me about lining the juice and cream containers. So sorry!! No. I don't line them as they are waxed; when the soap is ready to "unmold" I simply peel the paper container off the soap.

    Blessings, ~Lisa :)

  12. Dole Valley Girl, thanks so much I'd forgotten all about it! I'll post about column pouring sometime, google it, It's pretty cool.

    1. Hi

      I am from london and I have been making soap for a year but seem to have problems with molds. Also many other issues of soap your support and guidance would be much appreciated.

      My mold is 7” long, 3 ½” wide, and I want my bars 2.5” tall
      So 7 X 3.5 X 2.5 X 0.4 = 24 oz of oil to fill my mold.
      If I want the measurements to be in grams 24 X 30 = 720 grams of oil to fill my mold.

      Can you please inform me of what is 0.4 and also in the grams conversion what is 30.

      thanks for the great information

  13. Hi Hablbe I really don't know what the 0.4 stands for in the formula, sorry. I just know it works. The 30 is the conversion from ounces to grams. There are 30 grams in 1 oz. So for my mold I need 24 oz of oils, I multiply 24 by 30 and that gives me the number in grams which makes it easier for me to measure on the scale. I'm sorry I do not have a formula using anything but inches, but maybe you could find one online. If you can't find one, another option would be to measure in cm, then use a conversion to inches.

    I hope that makes sense. Please let me know if you need further information.

  14. Thank you for posting this wonderful recipe! My question is - after I pour my soap into the molds, it begins to crack as it's cooling. I've tried wrapping the soap in blankets to try to slow the cooling process, but it doesn't seem to help a whole lot. Do you have any suggestions? Thank you!

  15. Hi Tess, sorry for the slow response. In my experience cracking is from overheating, so wrapping with blankets will probably make this worse. Certain additives such as honey and milk can make soap overheat. If it starts to crack try cooling it down faster by putting in the fridge or in a cool place uninsulated and see if this helps.

  16. When you said you used 1 oz of EO in this recipe, did you mean fl oz or by weight? Thanks for the tutorial!

  17. with soap making all of my measurements are by weight. However when it comes to fragrances I often just kind of pour until I like the scent. It's a little hard as the lye smell is very overpowering at this stage.