Thursday, April 11, 2013

Soap Making

Making soap is one of those things most people think is hard to do and not worth the time. Soap is so fast and easy to make, it is definitely worth making your own. If you make your own soap you have control of every aspect from hardness, lather and scent among other things. I hope I can convince you to give it a try.

DISCLAIMER: Making soap involves handling lye (sodium hydroxide) which is a very strong alkali that is water soluble. When water is mixed with lye it creates a very caustic basic solution. This means it will seriously burn your skin, eyes or lungs if handled improperly. Please do your own research before you make soap. This post is for informational purposes only, not a 'how to' make your own soap.

Okay, with that out of the way let me tell you a little bit about the history of soap making.

The earliest known soap making formula dates back to 2200 BC from ancient Babylon. The Babylonians would boil animal fats and wood ash to produce soap for cleaning wools and cotton. As time went on the art of soap making was perfected and most cultures produced some form of soap. Ancient Egyptians around 1550 BC had writings referring to the use of animal and vegetable oils mixed with alkaline salts to produce soap like substances. Around the 8th century soap making was well known in places like Italy and Spain. France started making soap with olive oil instead of animal fat around this time as well. Fragrances were added to soap eventually, and modern handmade soap took shape. 

Soap is really a salt of a fatty acid. Here is a chemical drawing if you are interested.

Soap is simple to understand when you break it down to what you need to make it. Water, lye and fat. Thats it. The ratios and measurements have to be very precise, but if you can bake a cake you can make soap. You need other items to complete the process like a soap mold pictured here, cat approved. I made this mold in about 10 minutes using scrap wood in the garage. You can use almost anything that will hold liquid. However, lye will react with aluminum, magnesium, galvanized zinc, tin, chromium, brass, and bronze to produce hydrogen gas. You should avoid anything made of those materials. I recommend lining whatever you use with plastic wrap, it is much easier to get the soap out when it is solid. 

This is our soap making kit. It all fits neatly into a tote. In order to get accurate measurements of lye, fat and water you will need a scale. I recommend a digital scale like the one pictured here. You will also need an immersion mixer if you don't want to stir for an hour. You can get a cheap one under $20 anywhere, don't use it for anything else once you start making soap with it. You will also need a dedicated pot large enough to mix your batch in safely. You will need a good thermometer as well. I find a decent meat thermometer that can be calibrated works just fine. I always calibrate mine before making soap with a glass of ice water.

Safety is very important. Always wear gloves, long sleeves and eye protection. The mix can splatter if you are not careful with the immersion mixer. If you do get some raw soap mix (not saponified yet) on you,  you should rinse with copious amounts of water. After you get the splatter off of your skin you can then rinse with distilled 5% white vinegar. I know this creates an exothermic reaction, but it will also lower the pH at the burn site. I wash with a ton of water, then treat with white distilled vinegar, then rinse again with water. Of course this is just what I do and not advice, do your own research. When you do, you will find this is a highly debated topic in the soap making world. Some say water, some say vinegar, I say both.  This size pot works for the batch size we usually make. You want the walls to be high enough to catch any splatter. 

We had some friends over for a soap making dinner party and made four batches of soap. The bottom one is a coconut oil soap with black coconut fragrance oil. Above that is an olive oil based soap with sandalwood essential oil and turmeric for color. The green ones are one batch of olive oil soap with tea tree oil and spirulina for color. And the one on the top is a hypoallergenic bar made for a friends wife. That bar is 100% olive oil with no fragrance. 

You can see the great color turmeric gives a soap. There are many things you can add to soap to give texture or color. I have made soap with coffee instead of water, worked great. Spirulina, beet juice, red cabbage water, black walnut hull and many other things can used to give your soap natural coloring. Oatmeal, ground dry herbs and coffee grounds can also be added to soap to give it exfoliating properties. 

This bar is more expensive than the others due to using coconut oil as the main oil. You can use many different fats to make soap. I like using rendered lard. It makes a nice hard bar with good lather. We use many different oils like olive, canola, coconut, and shea butter. I want to get my hands on some rendered deer tallow to make a hunting soap. 

The process we use to make soap is called cold process. You start by figuring out your amounts of water, fats, and lye for the size batch you want to make. We try to base our recipies off how much lye we use. Typically each of our batches uses 5 to 5.5 ounces of lye. We use a website called Here is a link to their lye calculator. 

A quick note. I am purposely not putting a recipe on this post. If you find a recipe please run it through soapcalc first before you try to make it. Soapcalc puts in a idiot proof variable so you do not make a soap that will burn you or your loved ones. This variable is called superfatting. Using a superfat calculation in your recipes will make your soap safe and always on the side of caution.

So, once we have figured out our amounts, we mix the lye and water together in a container. We do this first because mixing water and sodium hydroxide causes a chemical reaction that releases more heat than you need. You will have to let the lye / water mix cool down before you can mix it with your fats. You want to use a heat-resistance plastic or glass container to mix your lye and water. Do not use aluminum! The same rules I described earlier about soap molds apply to your lye / water mixing vessel.

A note of caution: Mix your lye and water outside! The fumes are very bad if inhaled! Make sure you pour your lye into the water not the other way around!

Okay, so once you have mixed your lye into the water, you will have to mix it up with a heat-resistant plastic spoon, the mixture will heat up close to 200 degrees fahrenheit. You need to let this cool down to 110 degrees fahrenheit to mix with your fat of choice.

While your lye / water solution is cooling, heat your fats up in the pot you will be mixing in. You want to bring your fats to 110 degrees fahrenheit. It is kinda tricky to get them both to 110 degrees fahrenheit at the same time, just remember you can heat and cool oil all you want. You really shouldn't heat your lye / water, we never have, so make sure your fats are ready to go when your lye / water solution is at 110 degrees fahrenheit. 

So now that you have both your fats and lye / water mix at 110 degrees fahrenheit you are ready to mix. This is a two person job ideally. One person is ready in safety gear with the immersion mixer. The other person, in safety gear, pours the lye / water mix slowly into the pot (off the heat) while the other person mixes them together. Depending on the recipe, your soap can take 5 to 20 minutes to get to trace. Trace is when you move the mixer through the soap and you see a visible trail left for more than a few seconds. You can also pull the mixer out and if the peak of soap you made takes a while to settle back into the mix you have reached trace.

You have just done something with a fancy name, saponification. Saponification is the process of fats being hydrolyzed into free fatty acids, which combine with alkali to form soap.

Once you hit trace you can add your essential oils and any other adjuncts to the soap. If you are adding oatmeal this is the time. Mix everything together and pour your soap into your mold. Clean your gear and you are done.

Wait about 3 to 7 days depending on the recipe, and remove your soap from the mold. You can cut your soap at this point. Let it sit out uncovered to cure for a couple weeks. Some people will use it before this point but we always err on the side of caution. 

If you have any questions leave a comment. If you know us personally, just ask to come over some night and we will make soap.


  1. The soap looks great!

    Is it crazy the pictures make me want to bring over a box of crackers and slice up a bar for eating?

  2. I will make you a rendered lard bar with bacon bits in it. =)

  3. Fantastic

    soap making is one of my 13 skills



  4. Awesome, glad to have someone from post a comment. I hope you have a safe and easy soap making experience. Let me know if you have any questions.

  5. love it! but my soap loose fragrance smell when cool down. I put 10 drops/lb of cinnamon essential oil, soap smell not to nice.

  6. Yeah we have had trouble with our bars losing their scent over time. I hear hot-process soap holds the scent better. We are going to try that soon. One oil that really works well is sandalwood, my sandalwood bars still smell great.

  7. I enjoyed reading your instruction form making soap. Is their a list of supplies needed? Also a recipe for the lye like food recipes? I have been searching a lot and I'm trying to gather all that I should need to start making lye soap. I already can a lot and spin my own yarn etc. I have made regular glycerine soap but a lot of the cowboys love the lye soap so I thought I would try it. I have free lard as well from show pigs. Thanks for any help.

    1. Hello,

      I have a list of supplies in this post. It is pretty short, you will need: an immersion blender, a large pot, NOT aluminum!, a digital scale, a thermometer and proper safety gear. You will also need a container to mix your lye into water, a plastic pitcher works well. Go to to make your recipe. We just played around with the calculator until we found a good ratio for a recipe.

      Hope this helps,


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