Sharing my passion for handcrafted jewelry, paper making, and living a creative life.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

How to Make Handmade Soap

I've been making my own soap for over 30 years, starting with the birth of my youngest child.  These were the back-to-the-land days and we had just bought our dream property, 80 acres with a very rustic old shack and a spectacular view.

We had no telephone and had to haul our water from a lake 3 miles away but we were so happy to have a place of our own.  We raised pigs, chickens, a couple of cows and 3 children there.  We hunted moose (one year it was me who bagged our moose), grouse and deer, caught fish, chopped wood, raised a garden and learned old-fashioned home arts with the help of my in-laws, our rural neighbours and some good books.

My first soaps were made with the lard and tallow I rendered from our pigs and cows.  I would grate it up to wash diapers in the old wringer/washer and delight in the fresh, clean smell of the sparkling white diapers coming off the clothes line.  Those really were my good old days.

Well, life has changed and so has my soap.  I still use only natural ingredients but no animal products.  My oils are all vegetable based and I use pure essential oils for their scent and beneficial properties.  The colours come from herbs, spices, or cosmetic grade clays.

The single best thing about making your own natural soaps is that you are in control of the ingredients that go into something you use on your skin every day.  Superfatting the soaps, leaving excess oil in the bars, adds further benefits to your skin.  The shelf  life of natural soaps is limited due to the absence of artificial preservatives but the trade off is worth it!  You can use natural preservatives with limited effect but 6-12 months is the normal shelf life for superfatted, natural soap.

Soap is a salt produced by combining an acid (the fatty acids in your oils) with an alkali (the sodium hydroxide) in solution through a chemical reaction called saponification.  In cold process soapmaking, glycerine is the byproduct but it remains in the soap adding its own beneficial properties to your natural soap.

Since each type of fat has its own unique molecular structure, different amounts of alkali are required to saponify different fats.  This is why you can't just arbitrarily substitute one fat for another. 

Making up your own soap recipes, taking into account the properties you want your soap to have, is the really fun part.   You can combine as many different oils as you wish as long as you adjust your sodium hydroxide accordingly.   Smaller test batches are a good idea when first trying out a new formula.  I love creating a sensuous new blend of pure essential oils and then picking a great name for my new creation.

I will list some resources for free lye calculators at the end of this post.  Using these calculators you can easily design your own unique soap formulae with the qualities that you desire, including the quantity of free fat you want the soap to contain.  I like to work with 5-6% superfatting but you can use more.  I don't recommend less.

Don't skip these important precautions.  Raw soap, and the sodium hydroxide used to make the soap, are extremely caustic.  They will burn holes in most surfaces including your skin, clothes and furnishings.  Before starting, always:
- wear safety goggles
- wear protective clothing such as a big old shirt that covers your other clothing and your arms
- wear long pants, shoes and socks (no open toes)
- wear latex or nitrile gloves
- cover all surfaces that may be damaged by spills, including flooring.  Be sure that there are no obstacles that you might trip over while handling caustic materials
- work in a well ventilated area
- do not allow children or pets in the room while soapmaking is taking place or when the raw soap is initially curing.
- familiarize yourself with treatment for ingestion or burns from lye before starting

Do not inhale fumes from the lye while mixing it with the water.  I recommend using a chemical respirator to handle caustic fumes but  here is the method I use, as suggested in my favourite soapmaking book.  Hold your breath and stir while adding the lye to the water (never add water to the lye as it will spit).  After the initial stir to keep the crystals from solidifying to the bottom of the bowl, leave the room to breathe, then return after a few minutes to finish stirring until the crystals have dissolved.  You'll see some little floaty bits that are not lye and will not affect your soap. 

Soapmaking is not recommended for children.  (Not recommended for adults with a limited attention span, either!).

Don't use the same tools that you use for soapmaking for food preparation.

- an accurate scale that weighs in grams.  Spring loaded kitchen scales are generally not accurate enough.  Measurements need to be precise.
- measuring spoons
- a candy thermometer
- plastic containers for weighing the fats, the lye, and the water
- a large mixing bowl - glass, ceramic or stainless steel
- a smaller stainless steel or glass bowl for mixing the lye
- a stainless steel or wooden spoon for stirring the lye
- a stainless steel pot for melting fats
- a plastic tub or cardbox box for setting your bowl in for mixing to contain some of the mess
- a hand held electric mixer (works so much better than a wooden spoon for mixing the soap)
- waxed butcher wrap for lining your mold (regular waxed paper is too flimsy)
- a wooden or pyrex mold - a 9x13 pyrex dish will work for a single batch (about 15 bars)
- blankets or towels to keep soap warm during the initial cure
- heavy cardboard or a board to cover the mold

The following two recipes each make about 15 regular sized bars of soap.

Supplies for a 6% superfatted Olive Oil Soap
The lather from this soap is very silky and fine and it's a lovely creamy colour.  It's beautiful as is so I don't add any colour or scent to my olive oil soap (also known as Castile soap for its origins in Spain).
-1200 gm pomace olive oil (not virgin or extra virgin)
-152.79 gm NaOH (sodium hydroxide = lye)
- 356.51 gm water (distilled water is recommended because of impurities in well or tap water)

Supplies for a 5% superfatted Vegetable Oil Soap
- 500 gm pomace olive oil
- 350 gm coconut oil
- 350 gm palm oil
- 174.99 gm NaOH (lye)
- 409 gm water
- 6 tsp (30 ml) pure essential oils (optional)
- natural colour (optional)

Instructions (These are basic instructions for all cold process soap.  I use the terms oil or fat interchangeably.)
1.  Line your soap mold with the waxed butcher wrap and set aside on a blanket or towel on a sturdy flat surface.

2.  Carefully weigh out your fats and melt them together in a stainless steel pot.  Don't forget to add on the weight of your container!

Set fat aside to cool to 100 degrees F.  Your ingredients have to be warm enough (I usually aim for 100 to 105 degrees F) to initiate the chemical reaction.  As the reaction continues, it generates its own heat so that even after the raw soap has been in the mold for several hours, it will be very hot. 

3.  While your fats/oils are heating, weigh out your water and pour it into a stainless steel or heavy glass bowl.

4.  Wearing gloves and goggles, weigh out your lye crystals.

5.  Slowly add your lye crystals to the water following the method and recommendations in the above safety precautions (very important!!)

The lye solution now needs to cool to 100 degrees F, while your fats are also cooling (as the lye reacts with the water, a lot of heat is generated).  Some reheating may be required if one or the other cools too much.

6.  When the temperature of both the fat and the lye are at 100 degrees F, set your large mixing bowl in the containment area (box or tub) and pour in the fats.  Wear gloves and goggles! While mixing on the low speed of your electric mixer, slowly pour the lye solution into the oil.  Continue mixing thoroughly (bottom, sides) at medium to high speed.

After 5 to 10 minutes usually,  the soap will have reached "the trace".  This means that it has thickened enough that if you drizzle a small amount back into the bowl, it will form a pudding-like trail on the surface.  Once you can see this trail, the soap is ready to be carefully poured into the mold.  If you are using pure essential oils and/or natural colour, mix them in thoroughly at the trace, before pouring into the mold.

7.  After pouring, cover the mold with heavy cardboard or a board, leaving a little opening for moisture to escape.  Cover with more blankets or towels and leave at room temperature for 24 hours.  The soap is kept warm with blankets in a warm room because if it cools too quickly and the reaction is cut short, your soap will be ruined.  You cannot use a soap that has not fully reacted as it will remain caustic. 

8.  After 24 hours, the soap should be fairly hard and can now be removed from the mold.  Remove the waxed paper and cut into bars.

9.  Stack the bars brick-style or on racks so that air can flow around the bars to finish curing for a minimum of 2 weeks before using; preferably 4-6 weeks.  As your soap continues to cure, it will get milder.   More water evaporates making the bars harder and longer lasting.  The trays that bedding plants come on in the spring work great and if you are doing several batches of soap at a time they can be staggered and stacked.

It is best to store soaps in a moderate, dry environment.  Continuous exposure to heat and moisture will cause the fats in the soap to break down and become rancid more quickly. 

I have given you enough information to get started but there is so much more to know.  I recommend further reading, especially if you plan to make soaps to sell.  Have fun!

Resources and Suppliers:

The Web is full of wonderful resources and generous people willing to share their knowledge.  Just put in a search for natural soapmaking and you'll be amazed at what you can find - recipes, packaging ideas, ideas for colour and design, and mold-making are just some of the many ideas you'll find.

I have a lot of books on natural soapmaking but I am recommending just one, The Soapmaker's Companion by Susan Miller Cavitch.  As far as I'm concerned, Ms. Cavitch is the guru of natural soapmaking and this book is very thorough, covering everything from the chemistry of soapmaking to trouble shooting.

Voyageur Soap and Candle (located in Surrey, BC, Canada)
Cranberry Lane (located in Port Coquitlam, BC, Canada) - has a free lye calculator
Majestic Mountain Sage (located in Nibley, Utah, USA) - has a free lye calculator


  1. Sounds like you've had an amazing time! I love reading your blog.

  2. Oh my, some of that looks good enough to eat!!!! What a lot goes into making it, I'll never look at a bar of soap the same again.

  3. Wonderful reading...I am not sure if I ever will get int making it, but I loved reading the process that goes into it.

  4. brilliant post, Liz-Anna - your soaps look SO good ☺

  5. Thank you! Vicky, coming from you that's an extra special compliment. I strongly recommend that my readers check out Soapstar's blog and website. She is a soapmaker "extraordinaire!"

  6. Thanks for sharing the detailed handmade soap recipe. i love to read your blog. keep sharing.soap manufacturing

  7. Nice Post, Thanks for sharing this information
    Natural Is Always the Best!
    Chandan Soap


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