My experiments with soapmaking began when I was first interested in making soap at home, such as making my own sourdough starter, painting my kitchen cabinets, and fixing my clothes. Although it was time-consuming, I found doing everything immensely satisfying. I gained a greater appreciation for the products that came my way and was able to be more aware (in a positive way) of the quality ingredients.
My hobbies fell by the wayside as my life became more hectic. However, soapmaking stuck around. Although it was difficult at first and can be frustrating for some, I have found that soapmaking has one of my favorite effort-to-reward ratios. It’s similar to knitting in that it is a creative outlet and a meditative activity. But, unlike knitting, a few nights or weekends of work can bring great rewards and provide me with lots of gifts for my loved ones.
You don’t need much, other than a few tools and an understanding of how everything works together. Making soap isn’t difficult. They can be as delicious as freshly baked treats and fill your home with wonderful scents. Once you have the base recipe, you can add shapes, colors, and other additives to make each batch your own.
Notes about safety, lye, and sourcing tools
While making soap is relatively simple and safe, it is important to exercise caution when handling lye. Lye, also known as sodium hydroxide, is a caustic salt that can cause skin and eye irritations. Wear gloves, eye protection, long sleeves, and ventilated areas such as your garage or driveway to protect yourself. As the soap cools, keep your face and eyes away from the lye. Don’t worry about soap becoming unsafe – all the lye will be eliminated in the saponification (the reaction between the lye and fat which makes soap and renders it safe to use) and none of it will remain in the final product.
I would recommend soapmaking with lye that is either “pure” (or “food-grade”) and shopping online instead of in stores. It might contain other ingredients. I wouldn’t recommend purchasing lye that is specifically designed to be used as a drain opener. There are many forms of lye, such as little beads and flakes. It doesn’t really matter what form you choose. (Interestingly, lye can also be used for some recipes. Although I haven’t made it yet, I’ve always wanted to make these Bavarian-style soft pretzels.
While soapmaking is cost-effective when you make it frequently, the initial batch of soap can feel like an investment. The tools cannot be used for cooking and can only be used once. This is why it’s important to make soap repeatedly. The tools I have linked to are budget-friendly, and thrift stores can also be great places to find items such as the pot and pitcher. If you make more than one batch of soapmaking oils, it is possible to purchase them in 7-pound bags.
Mix the lye
You will need to wear safety goggles and rubber gloves. You can go outside if you have access to a garage or driveway, patio, balcony, or patio. Set aside 201 grams of sodium hydroxide using your measuring cup and scale. Next, pour 19 ounces (or more) of distilled water into a glass pitcher or another heat-safe container. Next, add the sodium hydroxide to the pitcher of water and stir for a few seconds until it dissolves completely. This chemical reaction heats the water to more than 200 degrees F. It also produces strong fumes. I try to keep my breath on the table while I stir. Safety note: Never add water to the lye unless you know how. Do not add water to hot lye. This can cause spattering or explosions.
To cool the lye below 100 degrees F, I place it outside on my porch. It can take anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes for the cool lye depending on the temperature outside.
Your soap should be cut and cured
Your soap will be ready for removal when your clock shows 24 hours. Many wooden loaf molds come with fold-down sides and removable bottoms that make it easier to remove the soap. You may need to use a knife if you have used a baking dish to remove the soap loaf. Use a sharp knife to cut the loaf into bars.
You don’t want soaps to break when you cut them. Soapmakers have many ideas about the tools they use to cut soap. Some people use guitar strings while others use butcher’s knives. Others choose to use special tools such as this (and that). Some DIY-ers even make their own tools. To ensure everything is straight and even, I use a ruler to score the top of the loaf using a sharp knife. I prefer generous bars so I cut them to an inch thick.
Now your work is done. The bars must cure for at least 4 to 6 weeks. (Remember what I said about patience?) before being used. This allows the soap to dry completely, making it harder and milder. The soap should be left to cure in the same location as the baking rack or paper bag. Use a paper bag to hold the soap.
Only the pitcher, measuring cup, spatula, and spatula need to be rinsed thoroughly with water. I the pot that has raw soap residue in the bottom I wipe out with paper towels, before washing it with dish soap. To avoid any confusion, keep any tools that have touched the lye aside from the kitchen.
Create your own recipes
This is just one example of the many combinations of fats, oils, lye, and other ingredients you can use when making soap. Exploring new soapmaking recipes is part of the fun. My favorite soap combinations include orange and sandalwood with poppy seed, lavender, and clary Sage with dried lavender blossoms, rosemary, and cedar wood, and dried thyme.
To make soaps with different properties you can change the ratios or types of fat. Online oil charts, and Lye calculators are available to help you complete your recipe. Susan Miller Cavitch’s The Soapmaker’s Companion provides the proportions for this recipe. It is a great resource to learn about soapmaking science, exploring options for ingredients, and troubleshoot problems.