I have a problem. I am addicted to new hobbies. Its time consuming and expensive…..and so much fun! Last spring my husband, some friends of ours and I all went to Asheville, NC to attend the Mother Earth News Fair. We were all like kids in a candy store attending one talk after another ranging from composting, milk production, crop rotation, bee keeping, and my favorite of the weekend, soap making. Robin Bedford of Possum Hollow Farms (located in Perkasie, PA) gave a presentation showing how easy it was to make your own soap in only 30 minutes. 30 MINUTES! She made it look so easy and, as I mentioned before, I am always looking for a new hobby. I fell in love. We all left the Mother Earth News Fair motivated to be the best homesteaders we could be, full of new ideas and knowledge; I was especially motivated to get going on this soap making, hoping for a way to get Stout Grove on the map while we were still waiting for our previously planted blueberries and trees to produce, and to give me something to do in the spare time I don’t really have.
It took another month before I was able to gather all the supplies I needed (mainly sodium hydroxide – AKA lye) and the nerve to tackle this task that Robin had made look so easy. Ultimately I found out that the task is pretty easy in itself; it is the preparation and making sure that you have all of your ducks in a row to ensure that you are mixing your oil and lye solution in the correct ratio and that you won’t ruin any of your kitchen (or your personal self) with lye solution. Needless to say I was a little nervous my first go around. I also fell in love after my first go around and went out to the store to buy more oils so that I could make another batch that afternoon 🙂
The first thing to understand about soap is that there are few ingredients needed to make it, which is scary when you look at the huge laundry list (no pun intended) of ingredients on the back of your typical packaged soap from the store. Soap is essentially: Oil, water and lye. You can choose whatever mixture and ratio of oils you want depending on the different properties you want to come through in your soap. For example, olive oil is often used as the main base because it is cheap, easily available and makes a nice, hard moisturizing soap. I also really like coconut oil because it produces a nice lather and hard bar of soap. Each oil that is used in soap making has its own special properties and changes the make-up of the soap depending on the ratio of it used; it’s a whole science all on its own. Each oil also has its own Saponification value – meaning that you need X amount of lye to saponify (i.e. turn into soap) a certain amount of that oil. Depending on the ratio of different oils in a batch you will need a different amount of lye. If you are not careful and change your recipe a little bit, you can end up with too much lye and some very angry soap users. Luckily there are plenty of inline tools to help you through this.
Basic supplies you will need:
- Kitchen scale – everything is measured in weight, not fluid ounces
- A metal whisk
- Rubber spatula/scraper
- Stick blender – or you can use your whisk, but the stick blender will save you a lot of time and energy
- 2 large heat resistant containers (1 for your lye/water solution, 1 for your melted oils) – keep these containers as your soap only containers – do not use them for food after
- Soap mold – make sure you have this all prepared before you start making soap – something as simple as an old yogurt container or milk carton will do for your first time
- Rubber gloves and clear glasses – SAFETY FIRST!
One of my favorite recipes to use makes a 45.00 ounce batch (I use a mold that is 3.5” X 2.5” X 14”) – which is a lot of soap. I suggest not starting off too big. That is another one of my problems. I tend to dive into hobbies. Go big or go home right?! For my first batch I took a recipe out of a book and made it. I had no idea how much soap it would make and what size containers I would need. When it came time to pour the soap in the mold I was running around the kitchen frantically trying to find more containers. I have since found conversion tools that help you know how much oil to use based on the dimensions of your mold. But you can’t learn if you don’t make some mistakes right? Below is my favorite recipe downsized a bit:
A 20 ounce batch for a mold that is 3.5” X 2.5” X 6” (or anything that you want to use that has the same volume) will make about 6 bars of soap:
Everything is measured in WEIGHT. This is very important since it allows you to be more accurate and make sure you do not have too high of a lye:oil ratio.
Put all of your measured oils together in 1 of your large containers (*note: Palm oil and coconut oil are solid and need to be melted. Palm oil is not homogeneous, so when you melt your container of it to measure out, you need to melt the entire container to make sure it is thoroughly mixed. Coconut oil, however is homogeneous and can be melted as needed). With your gloves and glasses on, measure your lye and water in separate containers (I use an old tupperware to measure the lye into and the other large heat resistant container for the water). Carefully add the lye to the water – NEVER add water to lye! One method I learned to remember is that “the snow always falls on the lake” meaning your white lye crystals need to fall into the water. Mix the solution together and don’t breathe the vapors (an open window is helpful). You will see the chemical reaction that is occurring – the solution is suddenly producing a lot of heat!
Ideally, you want both your water/lye solution and your melted oils to be the same temperature as each other and around 120° F. When you get this, slowly add the water/lye solution to the oil mixture while using your stick blender to mix them up. Be careful of splashing! Lye is not something you want to mess around with. You will notice right away that the mixture turns opaque and will quickly start to thicken up. This is called “Trace” when the mixture is thickened up. Ideally, you want a medium trace where the consistency is like pudding. If you want to add any colors or essential oils (make sure they are soap safe) add them now. When you have arrived at medium trace (about 3 minutes of mixing) pour your mixture into a mold and set aside. To help the soap cure, you want to help keep it warm so that it can achieve a “gel phase” during the next 24 hours. Wrap the mold up in an old towel and cover with some old cardboard.
Now comes the fun part of waiting and also cleaning up. Remember, there is a curing time needed for the lye to react with the oils before it is safe. You need to keep your rubber gloves on during the entire cleaning process! Using hot water and dish soap (anyone else see the irony?) wash all of your dishes and equipment thoroughly. As mentioned above, keep all of your soap making equipment separate from your food tools, etc. Also, if you have a septic tank, the lye can be harmful to your system. If this is the case, find another place to wash, or wait until the next day when the saponification reaction has occurred and the lye is neutralized. You can then wash like normal – some people say this is easier since the oils are no longer oily and are soapy instead.
Wait at least 24 hours before you unmold your soap. When you unmold it, be careful of any potential lye solution that didn’t mix with or react to the oil. Cut your bars into the desired size and let them sit out to cure for at least 4-6 weeks. The longer you wait the harder the bar will get and longer it will last in your shower, or next to your sink.
Enjoy! Let me know if you have any question or need help finding information about oils, figuring out how much oil creates how soap, where to buy products, etc.