by Ronnie Ugulano
To me, soap seems almost magical, every time I make it. When oils and lye are properly combined in exact proportions, they will consume each other and become something entirely new, what we know of as soap.
In Europe during the Middle Ages, soap was very expensive, and in some locations, it was heavily taxed. Only the rich could have much of it, and few people knew how to make it, because the guilds kept tight control of their recipes and the market for soap.
Things changed on the American Frontier. There were no guilds or taxes to prevent the making of soap by the common person. Enough people came to what is now the US that knew how to make it, and eventually every household had their own recipe, but consistency was a problem. Eyeball-made measurements or lack of enough of fats or lye sometimes resulted in either overly fatty or harsh soap. Eventually, businesses were started in towns that made and sold soap, but many housewives still made their own. The ratio of home-made vs. shop-made soap fluctuated widely, depending upon location and materials available, for many generations.
Around WWI, businesses became the primary soapmakers, not so much because they felt an obligation to keep Americans clean, but because making soap is the primary process to make glycerine, a highly profitable product used widely in both cosmetic and military industries. The idea was to make the soap to create the glycerine, sell the glycerine to the cosmetic and military industries, and then sell the 'waste', the soap, to the public as a second profit stream. Intense marketing and social changes made soapmaking at home a rare event, but change is again on the horizon.
Soapmaking at home has become popular again for many reasons. Items such as digital scales, and chemically pure lye, make consistent results possible for the home soapmaker. The fact that commercial soapmakers are known for putting many inexpensive additives such as detergents in their "soap" bars makes the idea of making soap at home attractive.
My own trek into soapmaking began when the stash of several boxes of soap that I bought at a discount store began to run out. About that same time, we were entering the High School years of homeschooling, and projects, particularly science projects, were always desirable. An online friend in a homeschooling forum that I shared in managing, was a soapmaker. I was intimidated by the idea of actually handling lye, but the more I thought about it, the more the idea intrigued me. I had decided to try making soap, and started shopping for soaping utensils and materials. After researching for quite some time as to how it was done, and learning safety procedures, I made my first batches.
While my husband had a record of wanting only one brand of soap, I had always been happy to use whatever was on sale. But no longer. I was amazed at the difference between store bought soap and hand made. My home made soap felt absolutely wonderful! Even Mr. Safeguard had to agree. I knew I could never go back to store bought. Over the next few months I perfected my recipes and streamlined my procedures. I made lots of soap, using different ideas for molds and eventually using essential and/or fragrance oils for scent. With all this soap, I started giving some away, and other people started loving it too. Over time, we've been able to sell enough to cover expenses for this surprisingly addictive hobby.
Soapmaking is not the kind of lab project you do without careful calculation. All ingredients must be measured to, at least, the tenth of an ounce, and protective gear, such as goggles and gloves are required. However, if you want to try your hand at it, a basic recipe follows, that will make 2 lbs. of soap.
You will need dedicated soapmaking supplies. After a bowl, spoon, etc. has come in contact with raw soap it should not be used for food preparation, because the NaOH (lye) could etch its way into the utensil and then later leach back out into food. If you don't have extra things in the kitchen that can be donated to soaping, you should be able to find most of the things you need at a thrift store. Clearly label these implements so that they don't find their way back into the kitchen cupboards.
- Soap ingredients (oils, liquids, NaOH (lye))
- Mixing container - glass or plastic bowl, or a 2 gallon plastic bucket;
- Mixing spoon - not wood
- Containers for weighing ingredients (2)
- Accurate scale for weighing ingredients
- Heatproof container for mixing NaOH solution
- Molds (heavy plastic, no aluminium)
- Rubber gloves
- Plastic apron
- chemical splash goggles
- Notebook for recording recipes/observations
PRECAUTIONS: If you pour the lye into the water too fast, the stuff will explode and you'll have lye solution all over the ceiling, and everything else. In this case it will be especially important to have on eye protection unless you want to damage your eyes. If you do it backwards, pouring water onto lye crystals, it might (probably will) explode. If you work with lye crystals without rubber gloves, be prepared to get tiny crystals stuck under a fingernail where it can't be dug out; when you wash your hands the lye will burn itself into your finger and hurt for weeks. Make sure you don't leave your soap where someone might inadvertently think it's food and eat it. BTW, it's a good idea to post poison control's phone number by your phone before beginning, just in case.
Have vinegar available before beginning. Lye spills can be neutralized with vinegar. All ingredients should be carefully and accurately weighed. Do not go by volume.
Basic White Soap
- 12 oz. lard
- 12 oz. olive oil
- 4 oz. castor oil
- 4 oz. coconut oil
- 4.3 oz. lye crystals
- 10 oz. water
Place water in a (1qt) heatproof container. Wearing rubber gloves, plastic apron, and eye protection, carefully weigh NaOH (lye crystals). Diligently clean up any spills and put away the lye container. Carefully, gradually, pour the lye crystals into the water (using half water and half ice cubes is suggested), stirring constantly until the water and lye solution is perfectly clear. Observe the exothermic reaction. Set lye solution aside to cool to approx 120 degrees F.
Mix fats/oils and heat to 120 degrees F This could be done in kitchen equipment, since the lye will not touch this. Pour hot oils into your soap-mixing bowl. When lye solution and oils are at the same temperature, slowly pour lye solution into oils, stirring constantly.
Continue stirring until the mixture traces. "Trace" is when the mixture begins to thicken, about the consistency of honey or gravy. When a little is dribbled from the stirring spoon onto the surface, you'll be able to clearly see a trace on the surface. If you're fortunate, it will only take 15-30 minutes to trace, however three hours isn't uncommon, so be sure to do this when you have lots of time. After you have done this process by hand one or two times, you can use an immersion blender.
Once the soap traces, pour it into a mold. Many things can serve as a soap mold - plastic cookie trays, if you ever do store-bought cookies; cans from frozen juice concentrate; rubbermaid drawer liners; jello jiggler molds; whatever - a flexible container is best. Don't use aluminium for anything that the raw soap will touch.
Set the soap-filled molds in a warm, draft-free place for 24-48 hours until the soap is solid. Wearing rubber gloves again, unmold soap (if it doesn't unmold easily, set in the freezer overnight) and cut into bars. To cut, I use a stainless steel knife. Set the bars of soap aside to cure and dry for four weeks.
Fancy soaps can easily be made by modifying the basic white recipe. Different oils can be used. Look up the saponification value of each oil and calculate the exact amount of lye needed to turn that oil into soap.
- At trace, add essential oils to scent the soap.
- Vary the liquid. lemon juice in place of water yields a naturally yellow soap. Milk can be used in place of water, but be extra careful with this, as the milk tends to curdle.
- Add finely ground oatmeal for an exfoliating soap (1/4C per 1 lb. of oils) (mix with a little oil and add at trace).
- Add cinnamon, nutmeg, or cloves for a speckled look.
- Melt 1 oz. of beeswax and 1/4 C honey and add at trace.
- Experiment. predict what might happen, then test to see if you're right.
You can use any fats/oils. If you want to save bacon drippings or chicken grease, they would work, however we have access to many more oils than our ancestors had. If your local grocery doesn't carry coconut oil, check the ethnic foods section, or a health-food store. Lye is with the drain cleaners; Lewis' Red Devil Lye is in a 12oz container about the size of a soup can. Shake it to ensure that you get one with all loose crystals; do not buy lye into which moisture has seeped as it will be unusable.
More info. You'll want to keep a notebook of all soap batches. I keep track of the following information:
- Soap Name
- Saponification calculations
- Why I'm trying it this way, and what I think will happen
- What actually happens, including:
- Temperature of oils when mixed.
- Amount of time required to trace.
- General observations, accuracy of predictions, etc.
- Color change while mixing.
- How long in molds? How long required to cure?
- How well I like the soap, color changes over time, etc.
The above recipe and instructions are provided with safety in mind, however Ronnie Ugulano does not take any responsibility for any accidents that occur during your project. Sometimes people would like to jump into trying their hand at making soap and selling it right away. This is strongly discouraged. Soapmaking is a chemical process with many variables that may surprise you, even possibly damage you or others, if care is not exercised. Spend time researching those variables, and making many batches of soap before you offer any for sale.