I learned to make soap back in 1999. I’ve always been interested in DIY, homesteading stuff, forgotten skills, the way Laura Ingalls would have have done it. Unfortunately for me, I had a difficult time locating others who shared my interests and folks further along on the journey who could help me or answer questions. Books were my friends, as always; but sometimes you just need to SEE something to “get it”. This was before the current age of the awesome Internet and my good friend Google.
Fortunately for me, during the few years before Y2K, there was a fair bit of concern about the possibility of societal collapse, and the result was an increased interest in preparedness, DIY and fundamental survival skills. I suddenly found it easier to find information on some of the things I wanted to learn… including soap making.
I made an amazing batch of soap totally by hand, and the resulting 50 bars lasted our family close to a year. Due to various obstacles, it was about ten years before I made my second batch: Stirring by hand took a long time; also, I had a lot of little people who I was responsible for, and it did not feel realistic to me to work with lye when I couldn’t really banish my kids from the kitchen for the hours it took to get the soap to saponify.
As time went on, my desire to make soap again increased, in part because my skin became more and more sensitive to commercially produced soaps. I tried so many different brands, only to have my skin itch constantly. I decided to purchase a stick blender to make the soap making process go more quickly. That’s the best $40 I ever spent.
I gathered all the ingredients needed and made my batch of soap. The first time I used it, the skin irritation and itching was gone. I’m sold. I now make all our family’s soap. The process is simple and easy. With the use of a stick blender it hardly takes any time at all to mix; though there is a time delay between when the lye is prepped and when it is ready to mix with the rest of the ingredients.
First off, let me say that lye (sodium hydroxide) is ESSENTIAL to soap. There is no way to make soap without it. Some folks have expressed a worry that this is so caustic that it cannot possibly be soothing for skin. However, there is no soap without lye. The lye becomes neutralized when it is mixed with oils and allowed to “cure”. Glycerine soap is still made with lye. “Soap base” that is sold at craft stores is made with lye. Lye IS caustic, but it can be safely handled with a few basic precautions.
When handling lye only use glass, stainless steel, wood and silicone. Wear gloves, eye protection and a face mask (or just avoid breathing in the fumes). I use latex gloves. and cheapo eye protection from Harbor Freight.
Keep a jug of white vinegar near by. It neutralizes the lye if it should happen to splash on skin in spite of precautions.
Soap making is a precision event. All ingredients should be weighed out for best results.
I recommend a scale that can weigh in grams as well as ounces, if you are going to make soap with any frequency. Many recipes are written with weights in grams. I use this scale.
The first thing to do is measure out 32 oz of distilled water in a heat proof jar that is at least 5 cups capacity. I use a half-gallon mason jar like this. Next weigh out 10.75 oz of lye. I like to use something easy to pour from to weigh out the lye. A small glass measure works well. Place the glass jar of distilled water in the sink and slowly add the lye crystals to the distilled water while stirring constantly with a wooden spoon dedicated to this task. Stop stirring when the lye has completely dissolved. The lye will heat the water to well over 200°F. Cap the jar and carefully remove it to a place where it will not be disturbed as it cools. Don’t place the jar directly on a cold surface; put a towel or pot holder under it. Cooling may take a few hours. Don’t rush it. (I learned this lesson the hard way.) Every time I stir the lye or take its temperature, I very thoroughly rinse any utensil that has touched the lye to avoid the possible contamination of nearby surfaces, or accidentally getting lye on my skin.
Now get your mold ready for your soap. There are many options for soap molds. The one that has been easiest and cheapest for me is to use a cardboard box lined with a plastic trash bag. For this recipe which makes 7 lbs, a box approximately 15″ x 10″ is good. It can be a little bigger either dimension. I’m not super fussy about the exact size of my bars, so I use whatever box I have on hand, and am totally OK with my bars of soap being a slightly different size each batch.
When the mold has been prepared and the lye has cooled to about 120°F, it is time to weigh out the oils that you will use in the soap, as well as gather and measure out any fragrances, colors, herbs, or other additives (such as oatmeal, bentonite clay, essentials oils) that you want to use.
For this recipe, measure out 44 oz olive oil, 24 oz palm oil and 17 oz coconut oil. As each oil is measured, add it to a stainless steel pot. Place on stove top and on a very low heat, melt oils together and bring to around 100°F.
At this point, you need a good thermometer. I love this one. Actually, using two thermometers makes the whole process easier. You need to check the temp of the lye solution and the blend of oils, and bring them both to 98°F. This is simple in concept but is slightly tricky to do. If either item is too warm, you must wait for it to cool. If it is too cool, place the oils back on the stove for a few SECONDS only. Put the jar of lye water in a sink of warm water for a minute or so.
Once both solutions are at 98°F, you want to get your protective gear back on and slowly pour the lye mixture into the oils stirring constantly with a spoon dedicated to the task. (I use the same wooden spoon that I used for mixing the lye solution.) Once combined, pull out your handy stick blender and start blending. IF you don’t have a stick blender, you can just stir and stir and stir and stir and stir and stir for up to a few hours until the saponification process is complete. I highly recommend the stick blender, which shortens the process from several hours to just a few minutes. You need to blend for about 30 seconds, then stir for 10, then blend for another 10, then stir for 10 or so until the soap “traces”. This is something that is difficult to describe, and was hard for me, as a brand new soapmaker, to identify when I saw it. I’ve included a video which, I hope, makes it clear enough to “see”.
I’ll attempt to describe this process. You want your mixture of lye and oils to thicken slightly to the texture of soft set pudding. The “tracing” describes what it looks like if you take a spoon full of the mixture from the pot, drizzle it back down onto what remains in the pot, and you can see that line briefly before it disappears back into the rest of the soap. It really will be noticeable as a line for at least 5 seconds. You will KNOW when you see it. At this point, quickly add any fragrances, essential oils, herbs, or other mix-ins and stir gently but thoroughly.
Pour the soap into the prepared mold. Cover the soap with plastic wrap, or rest a piece of cardboard across the top of the box. (The point is to keep drafts away.) Wrap the whole mold in a few towels or an old blanket to insulate the soap. You want to keep the temperature of the soap as steady as possible for the next 24 – 48 hours.
After the 24 – 48 hour setting time is up, the soap should be firm. Don gloves and empty your soap onto a clean, flat surface. I use a cutting board. Peel the plastic bag liner off of the soap. Cut the soap into the size bar that you prefer. You can use a ruler and knife to make exact bars or just do like me and wing it.
Gently separate the bars of soap. They are not fully cured and are still a bit soft. Place, on edge, on a clean surface with good air circulation. I use a piece of plywood covered with plastic wrap. Store this in an out-of-the-way place for 3 – 4 weeks until the bars have hardened. At this point, they are ready to use.
Up until the curing time has been achieved, there is still the possibility of the lye in the soap being harsh on the skin. Thus the need for wearing gloves or for washing thoroughly if skin comes in contact with the freshly made soap. After about 2 – 3 weeks of curing, this is no longer an issue. The bars continue to harden as they age.