Soapmaking Tips

Want to Make Your Own?
Soapmaking is a time-consuming process, and requires protected space (away from children and animals who might be injured). It also requires special care on your part as you work with the materials. However, soapmakers agree it is a satisfying, rewarding process. The end product, bars of soap much better than any you have purchased at the supermarket, is well worth the effort.

You can make soap at home from easily found ingredients if you want to do this as a hobby. The best way to start is to find a recipe you like (we’ll include a couple variations here), and begin assembling utensils. You will need the following items:

  • two thermometers which measure between 80 and 200 degrees
  • a large pot (I keep this solely for soapmaking use)
  • a pitcher or large glass measuring cup
  • scale that will weigh from .1 oz. or .2 oz. up to 7 or 8 pounds
  • a large rubber scraper
  • newspapers or old tablecloth to cover work area
  • rubber gloves, protective clothing, nose and eye protection
  • assorted small items such as bowls to mix additives
  • heavy waxed paper
  • a cardboard or plastic box to use as a mold

Start your project on a day when you have a couple of hours to spare. Once you start the mixing process, your attention will be required for an extended period of time.

Note that all measurements are provided in weight, not fluid measurements. Therefore, if a recipe calls for 8 oz. of oil, you will need to actually weigh out that amount. Do not use fluid ounces marked on a measuring cup.

Handmade Soap Pumpkin Pie Spice

Anna's EsSCENTials Handmade Soaps

PREPARATIONS: Accumulating materials

From the local market, look for lye crystals in the cleaning department. Shake the can to be sure the lye is still in crystal form and is not old and soggy. Accumulate the oils and any supplements, as well as gathering preparation utensils. Place newspapers on the floor around your work area and an old tablecloth on the work area. Get yourself dolled up in your protective clothing.

Prepare your mold (cardboard or plastic box) by lining it with heavy waxed paper. You can spread shortening on the bottom and sides so the paper sticks to the container. Make “hospital” corners by pressing the paper into them and folding. Set aside.

STEP ONE: Combining water and lye

Weigh the water called for in the recipe. This must be an exact measurement, so be careful. I place a glass bowl on the scale, calculate its weight and subtract it, or if you have a digital scale (which is preferable), allow it to reset to zero with the container. Next, I put a small plastic bag inside the bowl to catch lye crystals, and discard it later.

Measure the amount of water called for in your recipe into a plastic or glass pitcher. I save this pitcher for use only in soapmaking. In a slow stream, ADD THE LYE TO THE WATER, not the other way around! If this can be done outdoors, all the better, because fumes will be overpowering at first. Stir with a rubber scraper or non-aluminum spoon as you slowly add the lye crystals.

If you have to do this indoors, cover your nose and eyes, add the lye, give it a good stir with the rubber scraper, and walk away. Return in a few minutes and stir until it is well-combined. Be sure to place the container where it cannot accidentally be spilled! (Keep a bottle of white vinegar nearby to neutralize any accidental spills.)

The lye and water will undergo a chemical reaction that will heat the water to 200 degrees. It will have to cool before it can be used, so set it aside, or if you are in a hurry, stand in a sink of cold water. Use a thermometer to check temperature as it cools.

STEP TWO: Preparing the oils

If any of your oils are solid (coconut and palm are likely to be solid), weigh them and place in a large pot, melting slowly. Add liquid oils and check temperature.

The temperature of the oils and the lye water should be the same before combining, usually between 90 and 130 degrees, depending on recipe! This is tricky, but you will get the hang of it. If the lye water has cooled too much, warm it in the sink by surrounding the container with warm water. Keep checking the thermometers until they match.

STEP THREE: Combining the oils and lye water

This is where the process gets fun. When the two are at the same, correct temperature (see recipe), slowly add the lye water to the oils, stirring with a rubber scraper as you do so. Be sure you are wearing protective clothing as this is where spills and accidents can happen. As the lye and oils react together, you will see a cloudiness develop in the mixture.

STEP FOUR: Stirring until it traces

Find yourself a warm room and a good place to sit and stir. At this point, soapmaking rules say that no one can bother you! Stir the mixture continuously, keeping the ingredients moving so that the process called “saponification” can take place. This is a chemical change during which a slight thickening happens. It may take an hour or more (or maybe not). Don’t be discouraged because it WILL happen if everything has been done correctly to this point.

You are looking for “tracing” in your soap. This means a thinnish pudding stage where when you drizzle the soap mixture from the rubber spatula onto the surface, the drops leave a trace before they sink back into the whole. Sometimes this is hard to see, depending on the light or shadows.

If your room is not warm, some batches have been known to take a day to trace. If this is the case, stir every hour or so to keep oils well blended, or leave it overnight and stir well in the morning.

For a faster process, use an inexpensive hand (stick) blender after stirring until you are tired of the process. Keep it well submerged except for mixing the oils at the top occasionally. You don’t want to mix in too much air.

STEP FIVE: Adding extra ingredients

Before pouring into the mold, add essential oils for fragrance, spices, herbs, coloring, or supplements for skin toning qualities. When saponification takes place, it is time to work quickly, however. Add ingredients and pour! Cover with cardboard or a plastic lid.

STEP SIX: Waiting for the good stuff

Find a safe warm spot to place your molded soap, out of the way of small hands. Cover the mold with several towels or an old comforter. Let it sit and be warm for at least 24 or 48 hours. Then you can peek.

After a day or two, your soap should be soft but not liquid. If you must touch it (I always seem to do this!), do so with rubber gloves as it is still caustic. After one or two days, turn the mold over and let the soap block fall out of the mold onto some freezer paper. Cut a piece of cardboard or use a straightedge to guide your knife as you mark where you will make cuts. Cut the soap into bars when it is soft but firm (some people use wire, but I just use a stainless steel knife). Again, place in a safe spot where it can dry for about six weeks. Turn occasionally so that all sides have a chance to dry. When it is completely cured, you can trim with a potato peeler or knife to even up rough spots. You may want to remove a thin layer at the top if a white film has accumulated during drying.

Basic Soap Recipe

This is a basic soap recipe. You can purchase most of the ingredients at a supermarket, and you can adapt it in many different ways (fragrances, supplements). Remember that all measurements are in weights, not liquid measure.

  • 201 grams sodium hydroxide (lye)
  • 1 lb. 3 oz. distilled water
  • 1 lb. 5 oz. sunflower oil
  • 1 lb. coconut oil
  • 14 oz. palm oil
  • 12 grams grapefruit seed extract (an optional preservative)
  • 7 teaspoons essential oil or fragrance oil, optional

Follow directions listed above. Enjoy!

Here are a couple of variations to try. As supplements, try adding bits of orange peel and some sweet orange essential oil to the oil mixture just after saponification (tracing) has occurred. Another variation is adding calendula blossom petals. Oatmeal and honey are also popular, easy-to-find and good-for-you additives.

A new batch of handmade soap in the mold.

A new batch of Anna's EsSCENTials soap in the mold.

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