Tuesday, August 19, 2008


To go with our new Wash Cloth/ Soap Sack Kits we need lots of handmade soap so this week thats what I'm focusing on. Even though I've been making soap off and on for a year or so I still consider myself a novice and each batch is an exciting experiment. I never really know how its going to turn out. In some ways, soap making is very simple: you take fats/oils and add lye and it turns into soap. Thats pretty much it. But its also surprisingly complex. There are tons of different fats and oils that you can use and I'm only beginning to learn the benefits of them and how they can affect both the process of making the soap and the finished result. Thankfully there is a really good lye calculator at Majestic Mountain Sage (one of my favorite sources for soap supplies) so once I've decided what oils to use and in what ratios I can plug in the numbers and it tells me how much lye to use. That simplifies things a lot and so far seems to work pretty well. I've had some people express interest in the soap making process so I tried to take lots of pictures today to share with you.

Step 1: gather all supplies. once things get started you shouldn't leave, so its important to have everything you need within reach. Soap making is rather messy and the smell can be really strong. Its not a bad smell, but the essential oils can quickly become unbearably strong, especially in a small apartment. So I do my soapmaking out on our little porch.

Step 2: Measure out all your oils and fats by weight and start melting them. I used the same recipe for all three batches I made today, but with different fragrances/colors/additives. The recipe calls for Soybean Oil, Coconut Oil and Olive oil-- all very common, basic soap ingredients. I have an electrical burner and an old pot that works really well. While that starts heating, I weigh out the water and add the lye and set that aside. The lye mixture is really caustic and toxic and gets really, really hot and smelly. So I put it as far away from me as possible and avoid breathing in the fumes at all costs. When I used to make soap inside I would let the lye mixture sit outside so that the fumes didn't get trapped inside with me. Gloves and masks are helpful for this step.

Step 3: While the oil is heating and the lye mix is cooling I get the molds ready. I use wooden boxes that my mom made for me and line them with freezer paper to make removing the soap easy. Each mold is 14" long and holds about 50 ounces of soap which is about 12-15 bars of soap. Sometimes I make soap in 1-box batches, but can do up to 3-boxes at a time.

Step 4: Once both the oils and the lye mix are between 100-150 degrees (I use a candy thermometer to check) its time to mix them. I pour the oil into a bucket and slowly add the lye mixture. The next part is the fun part; using my brand new stick blender I mix the heck out of it and watch the colors swirl and change and things start to change. I wanted to get a photo of this, but I couldn't operate the stick blender and the camera at the same time. When it all goes into the bucket its clear liquid but quickly it becomes creamy and starts to thicken. You know its "done" (the technical term is "trace") when it will support drops on the surface. People say its supposed to be the texture of custard but whenever I've tried to make custard I've burnt it, so that comparison doesn't work for me.

Step 5: Once the soap has reached trace its time to add fragrances, colorants and any other additives. I've heard you can add them earlier, but I've also heard that they can prevent the soap from tracing, so I usually add them at the end. In this photo you can see where I've divided the batch up into thirds after reaching trace and added colorant & fragrance to each part. The dark brown at the top has cinnamon essential oil and ground cinnamon, the red is raspberry scented and the yellow is on its way to becoming orange scented and colored. For the other batches I made today I added Lavender EO and lavender buds to one and to the other I added Tahitian Vanilla fragrance, Pineapple Cilantro fragrance and some ground pumice for a light exfoliating texture. For the last batch I used yellow coloring for about 2/3 of it and orange for the rest. I'm hoping it will turn out as a nice swirl.

Step 6: pour the thickening soap into the molds. Its important that the soap be poured at the right time. If you are too impatient and pour it into the molds before trace has been reached, it won't set up right. But if you wait too long it becomes really thick and hard to pour. When that happens you just have to push it down into the mold and hope its not too ugly when it comes out!

Step 7: Now the magic happens. Once the soap has been poured into the molds all sorts of crazy things can happen. The chemical reaction that started when the lye was added to the oils continues in the molds. First, it gets really warm. Then the color and texture might start to change. Sometimes a crack forms on top, like a loaf of bread. I'm not sure why (another sign of my novice status), but usually it flattens back out and doesn't cause any problems. Thats what happened with the lavender batch this time. The other two blocks didn't crack, but they did have intense color changes. Above you can see the yellow tropical batch immediately after pouring. See how creamy and light it is? When I checked on it later it had become darker, translucent and covered in little oily pimples!
The Cinnamon Spice block had a similar reaction. You can see in this photo the light orange around the edges-- originally the whole surface was that color but it gradually changed to dark, translucent red with more of those little oily pimples. I've never had the pimples occur before.

Although weird things can happen at this stage, there isn't anything you can do about it and for the most part the changes aren't bad or permanent. I just like to keep checking to see what sort of bizarre things are happening.

Step 8: Once the soap has become solid it can be removed from the molds. I often hear people say it takes a day or two but in my experience I'm often able to remove the bricks from the molds after a few hours, certainly after letting them rest over night. It takes longer if you are using fancy molds, though. Once removed from the molds they are still pretty soft and need to sit for a day or two before being sliced. I can't resist cutting off a little slice from the end, though, to see how its going to look!

Step 9: Once the soap is firm enough to slice its cut into bars and then set somewhere with good air circulation to cure for...a while. I'm not really sure how long it needs to cure, to be honest. Hmm, thats something I need to look into.

Now you know as much as I do about how to make soap!


Milly said...

I usually cure my soap for 4 weeks. You want them to get hard enough that they won't turn mushy when you use them, and to be sure all the water/lye has evaporated. Have fun soaping. I find it quite addictive. :o)

Jess said...

That is so absurdly cool! I want to try it now. Have fun! :D