Top Soap Making Tips

Top Soap Making Tips

If you are new to soap making here are some tips for you that you may find useful. Since we are constantly experimenting to strive for the perfect bar we never stop learning, so whenever we come across something of use we’ll add it here.

Preparation is king

Prepare your work surfaces ensuring they are free from clutter. If you are making cold process soap, put a bunch of old newspapers down onto your work surfaces to protect from any lye water splashes.Make sure the floor of your work area is free from obstacles and clutter;Have all of the equipment you will need cleaned and ready to hand;Get a pen and paper ready – you’re going to need them to make your notes;Open a window or two and close the doors to your work room (to prevent any unwanted intrusions from pets and people);Whatever you are making have all of your ingredients ready to go before you begin. Melt and pour soap making starts out at quite a leisurely pace as you chop up the base and melt but then usually requires you to act quickly as you add your fragrance and botanicals and pour into moulds before your soap cools and ‘skins over’ too much;

Depending on the the type of batch you make, cold process soap making can also require you to act quickly as you add ingredients at ‘trace’ before the mixture thickens up too much to be comfortably poured into moulds (trace is the point where your mixed lye water and oils begins to visibly thicken). The process is further complicated with the use of lye water, a potentially dangerous mixture of water and sodium hydroxide. You don’t want to be frantically searching for an implement or bowl when handling lye water!So measure out your botanicals, colourants, and fragrance / essential oils and put to one side before you begin. Have your moulds ready.

Take note!

Take notes, take more notes and then take some more. Practically nothing is worse than producing the batch to make you proud only to discover that you can’t re-create it again at a later date because you didn’t make detailed notes about the ingredient quantities employed and the methodology you used. A good set of notes will also help you understand where you went wrong when you make that inevitable disastrous batch.

It’s also an easy thing to forget to make notes on your batches after they have been stored for a few weeks. For a host of reasons soaps can change their properties during storage: changing colour (vanilla EO/FO will usually discolour soap anything from a cream colour to dark brown, for example); changing weight (finished soap can attract or lose moisture depending on storage conditions); reacting with botanicals (sometimes botanicals can appear to go mouldy or leech unexpected colours into the soap); diminishing fragrance strength etc. Make a note of the environment you store your soap in – cool and dry places are best.

Experiment with small quantities first

If you’re new to soap making or trying a new recipe begin with one pound batches and work your way up. Cold process soap generally takes longer to trace in smaller batches but if things don’t turn out as expected you won’t be wasting costly amounts on ingredients.The same holds true for melt & pour soap making – experiment with new essential/fragrance oils, botanicals, micas and colurants one bar/small mould at a time. We’ve had poppy seeds leech blue colouring into a goat’s milk base and vanilla fragrance oil turn goat’s milk soap a purple hue before now!

Strictly no pets & youngsters (cold process soap making)

While melt & pour soap making is relatively harmless (although care should be taken with the hot melted base of course) and a fun way to introduce children to soap making, cold process soap making requires a chemical process using Sodium Hydroxide.Sodium Hydroxide (Caustic Soda) is a highly reactive alkali that can be fatal if ingested and will readily ‘burn’ through surfaces far tougher than skin. Attention to the care and safety of yourself and others is therefore essential. When starting out it can be quite intimidating making your first batches of lye water (a mixture of Sodium Hydroxide and water) but provided you take adequate precautions you should have nothing to fear.

At Bakewell Soap we now manufacture in premises but when we first started out it was in the classic mould of the soaper in the kitchen. We have two, lazy house cats that love nothing better than to stick their little inquisitve noses into everything we do and yes, lye water sitting on the kitchen table giving off fumes would have been no exception! So, during soap making, the kitchen was strictly off limits to Dudley & Fletch with doors remaining firmly closed. Sorry Duds & Fletch, but that’s the way it goes, we’ll make it up to you with a slice of chicken later.

Adding sodium hydroxide granules to distilled or bottled spring water creates an ‘exothermic’ reaction. Simply put it gives off heat, and depending on the size of your batch, it can give off a lot of heat (temperatures can rise to around 92 deg C / 200 deg F). As the water heats up fumes are given off which can be harmful if inhaled in significant quantities. So if you have small children about choose your time for soap making wisely. Better to make soap knowing you have 2 or 3 undisturbed hours than to juggle between your soap and the needs of children. Always make your lye water in a well-ventilated room by ensuring that you have one or two windows open to allow the fumes to escape. If you begin to feel overwhelmed by the fumes step out of the room for a few minutes. Adding the sodium hydroxide at a fairly slow rate can reduce the amount of fumes given off.

Safety first

If you are making cold process soap, invest in one or 2 pairs of safety goggles to ward off splashes of lye water and keep fumes from getting into your eyes;Wear rubber gloves (Marigolds work well);Have a bottle of vinegar handy to neutralise any spillages on work surfaces;Work in a clean environment clear of obstructions;Ensure you have one or two windows open to allow fumes to escape;Before you begin, inform other members of the household that you will be making soap and keeping the doors to the room you’re working in closed, after removing any pets from the room, of course!Only use toughened glass vessels such as Pyrex to mix your lye water in, other vessels might not be strong enough to resist the heat or could react to the corrosive effect of lye water;NEVER add your water to the sodium hydroxide ALWAYS add your sodium hydroxide at a fairly slow, even rate to your water. If you add water to sodium hydroxide the mixture is liable to boil over and out of your vessel in an explosive fashion.

If sodium hydroxide or lye water is ingested by someone have them drink a cup of water and take them straight to the hospital. If sodium hydroxide or lye water comes into contact with the eyes, irrigate and flush for several minutes with cold water and seek medical attention. Do the same if it comes into contact with the skin.

The dishwasher says enough soap already!

The residual soap in the vessels you use willl turn your dishwasher and the area around it into Sud’s Land! So if you’re going to use your dishwasher to clean implements and vessels (by the way, we always clean them separately by soaking in boiling hot water in the sink) ensure that you have scraped off as much soap residue as you can before putting them in the dishwasher.

Use a good lye calculator (cold process soap making)

You can easily calculate the amount of Sodium Hydroxide you will need for your batch oils manually using the ‘sap’ (saponfication) values known for each particular oil you will be using. We will put up a Sap Value Table at a later date and demonstrate how Sodium Hydroxide quantities are calculated for those interested. If you prefer to use a program that works out the values for you you can do a lot worse than try this online lye calculator (SoapCalc) which works out the amount of water and Sodium Hydroxide you will need for a wide range of fats and oils. You can also print off or name and save your batch sheets (you will need to enable cookies in your browser).

Make use of what’s at hand

When you first start out it’s easy to spend heaps on equipment but apart from a good set of weighing scales (we use electronic scales that are accurate to 1g or .1 Oz), some protective eye goggles and optional, disposable face masks practically all other equipment you need for soap making can be found in the house. Plastic food containers, jelly & ice moulds, snack containers (such as pringles containers), shoe boxes, cardboard boxes (you might need to reinforce the edges for the last two) plastic CD boxes, wooden boxes etc. all make excellent moulds for creating blocks of soap.

Make sense with scents

Fragrance oils and essential oils are usually the most expensive ingredients in a recipe. It’s easy to be tempted to cut back on fragrance as you pour out that concentrated, fantastic smell from the bottle but beware! That strong smell you poured out to begin with can disappear with almost no trace in your finished bars if you undercook your fragrance. Between half an ounce to 1 ounce per pound of soap base or oils seems about right. Each fragrance varies for strength so it will take a bit of trial and error to get the strength of scent just how you (or your customers) like it.

It’s also worth pointing out that fragrance in the finished bar always diminishes over time. Most citrus fragrances tend to weaken at higher temperatures, mixing them with ‘fixatives’ sucha sclarysage, vetiver, sandalwood, patchouli, peru & copaiba balsams & benzoin etc. can help to retain their fragrance.

Melt a little more base than you need (melt & pour)

If you want to ensure that you fill your moulds up completely melt a little extra base to compensate for the residual soap you will lose when it solidifies in your container. We add an extra 5% of base to any batch that we make.

True colours shining through?

Beetroot powder appears pinkish/red in colour but don’t expect it to colour your soaps a shade of red any time soon or you’ll be disappointed. If you want a nice shade of yellow/brown then beetroot powder will do the trick. This was one of our first lessons as we introduced ourselves to using botanicals as natural colourants – all too often nothing is as it seems as they react with soap at hot temperatures.

In cold process soap making you can gain a clear impression of the colour your dried botanical will give off and whether it’s better to add it to vegetable oils (for oil soluble colourants) or to the lye water (for water soluble colourants) by testing a small amount. Take a teaspoon of the finely chopped/powdered, dried botanical and add it to 2 tablespoons of a warmed vegetable oil and see how deep the colour that is given off is. Repeat the process this time adding the same quantity of botanical to a small amount of lye water (add 1 teaspoon of sodium hydroxide to 2 tablespoons of water) and compare both liquids for colour intensity. If the botanical appears to react more readily with the vegetable oil resulting in a more intense colour then you should infuse your botanical in warm vegetable oil to create your colourant. Conversely, if the botanical appears to give off colour more readily with the fresh lye water then add the appropriate amount of botanical to the lye water you make for your soap batch.

Curing & storing your soaps

Cold process soaps generally take between 2-4 weeks to cure. During this time your curing bars will lose their excess moisture and reduce in alkalinity. We line our curing soaps up on one end, placed on racks and set about 1 inch apart to allow any air to circulate around them. The soaps are turned every week ensuring air gets to all parts of the soap. When choosing a place to cure and store your soaps the general rule of thumb is – cool and dry.

Know the weights of your mixing containers

Some weighing scales automatically switch off after a period of time. If you’re weighing out relatively large amounts of ingredients and this happens, by knowing the weight of the vessel you are using you can simply subtract the known vessel weight from the total weight when you re-weigh. So make a note of the weights of each vessel you use.

Further Reading

If you haven’t come across ‘The Soap Maker’s Companion’ by Susan Miller Cavitch you can do a lot worse than to pick up a copy. Her book explains in easy-to-understand terms not just how to make different types of soap, but the chemistry behind soap making; how & why common botanicals react with soap; troubleshooting advice for failed batches; how to store soap correctly and what you can expect from different storage environments; she also provides dozens of essential oil blends that work well together and practical advice on starting a soap making business. We have found her experience and know-how to be invaluable time & time again.

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