Soapmaking is a homestead craft I had long wanted to try, despite my unfounded perception that it was difficult and dangerous. My ancestors made soap during the Depression using primitive methods – hardwood ashes and rainwater to make lye, fat rendered to make lard – and no one died, went blind or was burned (though a bar occasionally got stuffed into my mother’s mouth when something came out of it that shouldn’t have). The old-fashioned method of hand stirring – sometimes for hours – combined with the unpredictable strength of lye made from ashes resulted in soap that was highly variable and sometimes harsh on the skin of the person using it.
Modern methods and conveniences have taken just about all of these unpleasantries out of the equation. Though I’m usually a big fan of old-timey methods, I’m not quite so excited when chemical reactions are involved.
When I got serious about learning how to make homemade soap, I turned to a friend who’s been doing it for years and requested a hands-on demonstration. Sandra Johnson, a librarian in Baldwin City, Kansas, knows the craft inside and out. She happily agreed and sent me away with instructions to get the “only book I’d ever need,” Smart Soapmaking by Anne L. Watson – and read it cover to cover – and the supplies for one of her foolproof soaps.
When I showed up on the appointed lesson day at Sandra’s house, the schooling commenced. As a former schoolteacher, Sandra is exacting with her instructions, always stressing the importance of exact measurements, exact temperatures, and following instructions exactly.
This is precisely how you’d want a soapmaking teacher to be. By establishing the simple truth that if you follow procedure and use common sense, your soap will turn out, and no one will be harmed – just like home canning.
We began by gathering up all the needed supplies – food scale, glass bowls, measuring cups, pots, rubber spatula, stick blender, etc.
We staged the two necessary areas – the lye-mixing area and the main work area – and we prepared the mold for the soap using a free plastic bag from the grocery store. We then made Olive Palm Soap (see recipe on later in this article).
Thirty minutes later, we were finished with the process, and I had a perfect batch of soap setting up. My reaction, which is common, was “That’s it?” I couldn’t believe it! It wasn’t complicated and it wasn’t dangerous. Ingenious conveniences, like a stick blender, have made soapmaking easy as pie, so keep reading to understand for yourself.
“Soap” is the result of the chemical reaction called saponification that occurs when combining fat with lye. The method detailed here is known as “cold process,” the most common technique for making soap by hand. (Cold process simply refers to the fact that with this method you don’t add heat once the ingredients are combined.)
Fats used for soapmaking can be animal (lard, tallow) or vegetable based (olive, palm, coconut); mineral oils cannot be used to make soap.
Lye is an alkali, the opposite of an acid, and a strong base. Today, the type of lye sold in hardware stores is the dry form of sodium hydroxide, or caustic soda, which is what we use for soapmaking. If your family has a tradition of making their own lye from leaching wood ashes, that’s a great history, but it’s not recommended anymore. Use the industrially produced kind with reliable and safe strength.
Before embarking on soapmaking, gather or purchase (better yet, borrow to see if you enjoy it first) the following items:
Digital scale with a “tare” or “zero” button, that measures to tenths of an ounce or grams (or both)
Digital, waterproof, instant-read thermometer
Stick blender (immersion blender)
Soup pot with a minimum 8-inch diameter (stainless steel or enameled steel)
Stainless steel saucepan
Steel, stainless steel, or Pyrex glass roasting pan or deep dish that your saucepan fits into with room around all sides
Large glass measuring pitcher
Glass bowls or measuring cups
Two long-handled steel or plastic spoons, one slotted
Mold (quart- or liter-sized waxed cardboard milk carton, or rectangular glass Pyrex baking dish)
Do not use any aluminum equipment – it reacts chemically with lye.
A note about gloves: Bulky rubber or PVC gloves can severely limit your dexterity – not a good thing when working with chemicals (or bees); some experienced soapmakers opt not to wear them. Use your common sense – find a pair that will allow you to press buttons on a scale and grab things with ease, while still protecting your hands and arms from accidental splatters.
Soapmaking is simple, but there are many details that you should know about before making your first batch. I urge you to get Smart Soapmaking and read it completely – it should take about an hour – to inspire and inform you further.
Allow yourself plenty of time – at least two hours to make soap the first time. Gathering the supplies and cleaning up will take the most time. Wear long sleeves, pants, socks and shoes; tie back long hair and keep all pets out of the work area.
Set up in the kitchen or other well-ventilated area with running water and a sink (perfect if you’ve got a window above your kitchen sink).
For the main work area, assemble the following: scale, saucepan, soup pot, glass measuring pitcher or large glass bowl, glass bowl for measuring lye, glass bowl for measuring fats, small glass bowls for fragrance oil (if using), stick blender, long-handled spoon, rubber spatula, soap mold, paper towels, vinegar (for clean-up), plastic dishpan (in which to toss all used utensils), and all recipe ingredients.
Tip: Here’s an easy way to prepare the soap mold if you’re using a glass pan. Cut a plastic bag open and secure it in place using tape around the outside of the pan. Make sure to get as many wrinkles out as possible and get it nice and flat against the bottom and sides.
For the lye-mixing area, assemble the following: roasting pan, instant-read thermometer, long-handled slotted spoon, pitcher of ice-cold water, bowl of ice cubes and paper towels.
From Anne L. Watson’s book Smart Soapmaking (Shepard Publications, 2007).
This is a slightly harder soap with good lather and moisturizing properties.
18 ounces (510 grams) olive oil
12 ounces (340 grams) palm kernel oil
9 ounces (255 grams) distilled water
4.1 ounces (116 grams) lye
0.6 ounces (17 grams) fragrance oil, optional
Olive oil: Use the inexpensive kind from the grocery store, not extra-virgin. It happens that the worst choice for cooking – olive-pomace oil – is best for soapmaking.
Palm kernel oil: A solid fat. Use good-quality, like that sold by soapmaking suppliers (see Sources).
Lye: The label should say “100% lye” or “100% sodium hydroxide.” Do not buy a drain cleaner that lists multiple ingredients – these cannot be used to make soap. In some communities, lye may be hard to find on store shelves because of the unfortunate fact that it’s also used to make illegal drugs. If you cannot find it locally, buy it from a soapmaking website.
Fragrance oil: Fragrance oils are different from essential oils. Essential oils are natural, but some people are allergic to them and many intricacies are involved in using them. Fragrance oil is an artificial aroma in a carrier oil, and the product is supposed to be nontoxic, even though some people are still allergic to them. Search for “fragrance oils for soapmaking”; further, make sure it’s suitable for cold-process soap, which should be stated by the seller.
Yes, you read that correctly. Some people believe that soap “made with lye” is harsh on the skin. However, all soap is made with lye, even glycerin soap and luxury soaps that fetch upwards of $8 a bar in boutiques. Lye is necessary for the chemical reaction that creates soap, called saponification, to occur. In soap that has been made properly, no lye remains in the final product.
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