Soap making - General Instructions
Soap making is not hard to do if you are armed with just a little
bit of information. Read this page carefully and you shouldn't
have any problems turning out a great batch of soap.
Jump within page to:
Fats and Oils
The Soap Setting Tray
Final Curing and Storage
Soap Making Tips
The Lye/Water/Fat Ratio
Mixing Order Of Ingredients
Soap Setting - Doing it Right
The Curing Process and Your Part In It
Using Your Soap
Water: For best results, use rain, distilled or soft water. You should
generally use 6 oz of water to 16 oz of fat.1 Another way to figure the same thing is: water wt=fat wt X 0.38.2 Don't worry too much about getting it exact, however, as this
measurement isn't terribly critical.
Lye: You should know a little bit about lye, sodium hydroxide. Lye
is a very strong base and if you get it on you, you will find
it's bad stuff. (Be sure to store lye where kids or pets can NEVER
get at it.) You must use care in determining what utensils and
mixing containers you use when handling lye. Use wooden or plastic
spoons and enameled, plastic or glass bowls for mixing. (Lye will
eat up Aluminum in a hurry. Also, lye instantly and permanently
takes the shine off Formica. Formica is so sensitive to lye that
it left timeless streaks across the table where I wiped a few
dry crystals off with my hand. Now, with our table top and kitchen
counter top ruined, Brendy ushers me outside when I mix my lye.)
You would be wise to wear eye protection and rubber gloves when
handling the lye crystals or the lye solution after you have mixed
it into the water.
Dissolve lye in cold water. Never pour the water into the lye
or it could possibly explode all over the place. If you don't
stir it immediately as you pour the lye into the water, the lye
will settle to the bottom and quickly solidify. This isn't a problem
as tapping it with the stirring utensil will break it up. As you
mix it a chemical reaction takes place between the lye and the
water, heating it up. If you are making a large batch of soap,
the lye can possibly start the water boiling - with little droplets
of lye water splattering all over the place. If this starts happening,
stop stirring it until the bubbling stops. Generally, it doesn't
take more than a minute to dissolve the lye crystals in the water.
You know this has happened as the water will become relatively
clear. The lye water will now have to cool below 100 degrees F
before pouring in the fat.
Fats and Oils used in soap making. In my experiments I have learned almost any fat or oil can be
used to make soap. Fats for soap making include animal fats such
as tallow (fat from beef), lard (fat from pork), and the various
plant derived oils. Traditionally animal fat has been used, with
beef tallow making the best soap, pork lard in the middle, and
chicken fat the worst. It's generally accepted that the harder
fats make better soap.
There are a multitude of fats and they each bring their own unique
qualities to soap. If you want to know what a particular fat will
do, make a small batch of only that fat and see what it does.
Armed with this knowledge you can mix fats to give your soaps
the qualities you want. And this is how soap recipes are born.3
Whatever type of fat or oil you use, you must ensure it is clean
and free of impurities. It shouldn't be rancid, have excess salt
in it, or any solid particles. (Many people remember the soap
'grandma used to make,' and have unpleasant memories of nasty
smelling stuff. If Grandma had used clean, fresh, fat, her soap
would have smelled clean and fresh. But we can't blame Grandma
as she did the best she could with what she had.)(You will notice
that Mrs. Mertz disagrees with me on this point in her 'how we
used to do it' page.)
Rancid and dirty fat can be cleaned by boiling it for a few minutes
in a large pot with four parts water to one part fat. Set it aside
and let it cool. After it has solidified, remove the fat from
the pot in one piece. One way to do this is to run hot water around
the outside of the pot, melting a thin layer of fat next to the
pan. It should then slide out. Scrape all the foreign matter off
the bottom of the fat. If it is still dirty, repeat the cleaning
process again. It is also fairly easy to render your own fat.
What are your best fats for soap making? Amazingly, the soap making
professionals feel that lard beats tallow and vegetable oils for
gentleness to your skin. However, soap made with 100% lard doesn't
lather very well. But it cleans beautifully. There is a predominant
idea today that you have to get bubbles for the soap to do it's
job. Soap making professionals have told me this is not the case.
But if you want bubbles, you can have the kind of bubbles you
want by using different oils.
Different Fats that create bubbles:4
Coconut Oil gives big, fluffy bubbles. 100% coconut oil soap is
sometimes used around maritime operations as it will even lather
in sea water.
Olive oil gives very fine, silky bubbles.
In your soap making, use at least 25% of these fats as part of
your overall fats to get the desired effect you are seeking.
Saponification (Sap) Value: Each fat requires a different amount of lye to change the fat
to soap. See our Lye to Fat Ratio Table Page for a short discussion
on this and a listing of different fats and the lye required to
convert them to soap.
The temperature of the fat you pour into the lye water is important.
It needs to be a bit above it's melting point. This is 130 degrees
F for beef tallow, or 85 degrees F for pork lard, or about the
same temperature for vegetable oil.
Mixing: With the lye water and fat at the right temperature, gently pour
the fat into the lye water. Stir gently, pulling the lye water
up through the fat. This may take several minutes. You should
insulate your mixing pot with old rags, etc, to prevent the fat
from hardening before the process is complete.
Saponification and it's role in the mixing process: Simply stated, saponification is the name for the chemical process
that happens between lye and fat as they turn into soap. It doesn't
happen all at once, but actually takes days to complete. There
are different levels of this process, and the most important one
for you to know about is the "Trace" stage. This is the point at which your soap has thickened up
somewhat. As you let the soap run off your mixing spoon back into
the mixture, the falling soap stays on top and doesn't blend in,
but leaves it's "trace" mark on top. Another way to know when
trace occurs is it's thickness, much like the thickness of pudding
after you have mixed it.5
It can take a long time to get your soap to the trace stage depending
on the type of fat you are using. The lighter the fat (or oil)
you are using the longer it will take for it to trace. You can
expect a wait of anywhere from 30 minutes for animal fats to several
hours or even days for the vegetable oils. Does this mean you
need to sit and stir your soap for several hours until it traces?
I don't. After mixing it for about 15 minutes, I do other things
and mix it back up every 15 or 20 minutes when I happen to go
by it. (You may wish to set your timer so you don't completely
forget it!) I say mix it back up because as it sits it separates
into two or three layers of fat and lye. And this is why you have
to wait for it to trace. At the trace stage of thickness it won't
separate out into layers when you put it in your setting trays
A False Trace can happen when making soap with fats that are solid at room
temperature, such as tallow, lard, or shortening. If the temperature
of your soap mix drops below the melting temperature of your fat,
it will start to solidify. As it does, your batch will start to
thicken up just like it was tracing - but it's not! To prevent
this from happening, be sure that the soap you are mixing stays
above the melting temperature of the fat. In fact, the warmer
your soap, the quicker it will saponify (one of the reasons I
like to cook it). It wouldn't hurt to keep your soap up to around
115 degrees F to speed this process along a little more quickly.
At 120 degrees F lanolin will curdle your batch.6
Vegetable oils can also be used for making soap. These oils are liquid at room
temperature and without employing a trick or two usually require
many hours of mixing before they trace.
Trick 1: Use a blender. The more finely the lye and fat molecules are intermixed the
faster it will saponify. Hours (and even days, sometimes) can
be reduced by using a blender. Don't use an upright blender unless
you don't mind millions of tiny air bubbles being permanently
whipped into your soap. Use the hand-held type instead. With one
of these, even your most stubborn oils should trace within 20
minutes. And you will get a trace with animal fats within seconds.
Anyone who has sat around for hours stirring a batch of soap will
be ecstatic with this.
Trick 2: Cook it. There are a couple of processes that I have developed
myself yet are rather unorthodox. And this is one of them. If
you don't have a blender, perhaps cooking your soap is for you.
See our soap cooking page for more details. After it has cooled,
pour or spoon it into the soap mold or tray and treat it like
you would for the no-cook recipes. Even though it has been cooked,
the chemical reaction that slowly turns vegetable fats into soap
will take much longer than for soap made with animal fat that
has been cooked. But I expect you will be just as pleased with
your finished product.
When your soap has traced you can add your superfatting, coloring
and perfume oils.
Avocado Oil: Feels very soft to the skin and makes an excellent shaving soap.
Superfatting oil: When your soap gets to it's trace stage, the saponification process
is around 90% complete. Fat added at this point makes your soap
softer. There is a reason why the superfatting fat is added after
tracing instead of at the beginning with all the other fats. If
it was added at the beginning you wouldn't have any control over
which fat or oil ended up as your 'free fat' as all fats would
saponify together. This is presupposing you are going to superfat
with a different fat or oil than you used to make your soap with.
Exotic oils are generally used in superfatting. They are added
at trace to give the benefit of their desirable qualities without
having to use so much that it empties your wallet. A good rule
of thumb is to use 1 oz. per pound of total fat used in the recipe.
(That's one part superfatting oil to 16 parts total fat.) Let
me list just 2 of the more common superfatting oils:
Cocoa Butter: Makes a hard bar. It smells and looks nice, but doesn't lather.
Coloring Dyes: Several things are used to color soap. Approved items are clays,
mineral pigments and spices. You can get these items from soap
supply companies. Moving back into the area of unorthodoxy again,
I color all my soap with a piece of crayola. Be aware that crayola as a wax isn't approved for skin use. If
you are going to use a crayon to color your soap, don't sell it.
The Gov. will get upset if they find you. Just because it isn't approved, it doesn't mean that it's bad,
however. After all, it's only wax! We eat tons of it in chocolate.
I melt crayola into my soap after it has traced. Don't be tempted
to put your crayola in at the beginning as the lye will change
it's color. You may need to heat it just a little bit to get your
soap up to the melting temperature of the crayola. Even adding
a crayon at this late stage of mixing, you may notice a slight
color shift over time. I'm excited with using crayons for another
reason. I've found that my 100% lard soap will lather with only
a small amount of crayon in it. How much? About 1 inch of 1/4
in. diameter crayola per pound of fat. After a bit of experimenting,
I've also found the same amount of paraffin wax, another non-approved
substance for skin care, will do the same thing. When adding it,
be sure your soap is above the melting point of wax, then mix
your already melted paraffin well into your batch. You don't have
to pre-melt the crayola as it melts much easier. And the cost?
A piece of crayon or a little piece of paraffin is just about
free compared to the cost of coconut or olive oil. It's also available
just about anywhere.
Fragrance Oils: There are two types of fragrance oils, FO's (fragrance oils) and
EO's (essential oils). An EO is made from a distilling process
and a fragrant oil is a chemical fragrant that is steeped in alcohol.
EO's are usually used in soap making as FO's have been known to
seize soap, or turn it into a yucky ball that doesn't saponify
correctly. EO's are much more expensive and harder to find than
FO's. If it is an EO, it will most often say it on the label.
You will also know it by the exorbitant cost.7 FOs can often be used safely at trace however. Make a small test
batch first to see if your FO is going to work alright before
making a big batch. Be aware that rose and cucumber FOs are notorious
for seizing soap. If you want to use an FO that can possibly seize
soap, you can safely use it during a rebatch.8
The Setting Tray: Mrs. Mertz used a galvanized tub. Other old timers used a wooden
box in the shape of a tray with a cloth laid in the bottom of
it. The cloth was used to help remove the hardened soap from the
tray. If you are going to use a solid tray, may I recommend plastic
wrap instead of cloth as a barrier between your soap and the tray.
But there is something even simpler than this. If you have any
square edged, flexible plastic trays with lips at least as high
as a bar of soap is wide, use this. (After the soap has hardened,
a slight flexing of the tray will dislodge the soap.) When the
soap begins to harden (1-3 days for the non-cook process), use
a knife to section it into bars. After it has further hardened
(3-7 days), remove it from the tray, and break it into bars following
the knife marks made earlier. Even though your soap looks hard
at this stage, it is far from done. There's a good chance it contains
a bit of lye that should dissipate into the soap as the saponification
process continues. This will be true so as long as you had your
lye/fat ratio correct in the first place. Your soap will need
to sit for 2-6 weeks, depending on the fat you used, to dry out
and cure. Use litmus paper to test the lye content of your finished
soap. Be sure to wash off any soda ash that has formed before
testing. Soda ash has a high PH value. Your soap should be below
a PH of 9 within 36-72 hours after it has traced. The closer the
PH of the finished soap is to 7 the better. If your soap is over
a PH of 9, let it sit around for a week or two. Hopefully as the
soap continues to saponify the lye will get transformed and the
PH will drop. Your soap should be below a PH of 9 before you use
it. I may get some real flames on the following comment: If you
don't have any litmus paper and you want to know if your soap
is ready for use, taste it. Your tongue will tingle if there is
still too much lye in it. Of course, you don't want to swallow
this stuff. This was suggested to me as a possibility by Mrs.
Mertz and also by a more contemporary soap maker who sells soap.
Final Curing and Storage: With the soap out of the tray (or molds if you have them), stack
it up and set it in a warm dry place for at least two weeks. When
it has fully cured, place it in a plastic bag or air tight container,
and store it in a cool, dry place. You will probably notice a
thin, white powdery layer on the outside of your soap. This is
soda ash, and forms as a result of the carbon dioxide in the air
interacting with the lye in the soap. This outer layer quickly
washes off the first time you use it. "If this is a concern, cover
your setting soap with plastic wrap so the air can't get to it.
After saponification is pretty well complete, you can remove the
air barrier to let your soap dry out." 9 After all this, if there
is still a thin layer of soda ash on your soap after it has cured,
wash it off, then let the surface of your soap dry before storage.
Final Soap Making Tips:
My experience: The recipes I used left a lot to be desired. The instructions
weren't sufficiently detailed for me to really figure it all out
and so I made several mistakes which I will now point out.
The first thing I had trouble with was getting the lye/water/fat ratio correct. Often the recipe simply said 'a can of lye.' Obviously, in yesteryear
all lye cans must have been the same size. Not so any more. From
analyzing several recipes both relatively modern and old, I find
the lye to fat ratio in many recipes to be lye heavy. I suggest
you figure the lye yourself using the fat to lye table before
using a recipe. Then alter it accordingly when making your soap.
Let's not forget the 0.38 parts of water to one part fat by weight.
(Water, lye and fat are the primary ingredients for all soap recipes
I've found, and will make a good bar of soap all by themselves.)
The fat to lye ratio does not have to be overly critical, however.
You will end up with "soap" with fat/lye ratios from 2.4 oz (69gm)
to 1oz (26gm) crystallized lye to 1 cup (8oz or 210gm) of fat.
And you may actually want lye or fat heavy soap depending on what
plans you have for it. Mix it:
- 2.4oz (69gm) lye to 1 cup (8oz or 210gm) of fat for really tuff
cleaning jobs, like laundry soap. This is extremely lye heavy
- 1.05 oz (28gm) lye to 1 cup (8oz or 210gm) fat for general hand
- As far as 1oz (26gm) to 1 cup (8oz or 210gm) fat for a more delicate
- Note: For those of you who do not have a way of measuring weights,
my experience has been that 1 lb of lye (455gm) measures out to
1 3/4 cups (462ml). By volume, lye can weigh more or less depending
on how tightly it is packed. Unless you find yourself in such
unusual circumstances that you have no other option, use scales
rather than volume measurements when measuring crystal lye.
Note: in playing around with the mixture ratio, I have gone as
far as 6/10ths oz (17.3gm) to 1 cup fat (8oz or 210gm). This still
made soap, but it was very soft and would probably go rancid if
not used fairly quickly. The more lye in the soap, the harder
it is. (One of my friends told me how before the days of the automatic
washing machine, his mother always threw a bar of home made soap
into the wash during her 'manual wash cycle' then pulled it out
before the 'rinse.' The same bar of soap lasted several batches!)
The second thing I had trouble with was adding the different ingredients at the right times. I've created some real messes with this one. Here is a suggested
order to add things:
2. Sugar (Sugar won't dissolve if you try to add it after the lye, or
fat or oil have been mixed in, and tends to separate out when
the fat is mixed in. If you cook it, it separates out at about
300 degrees in the form of very hard, dark brown scales. After
making several different types of soap, I wonder why anyone ever
put sugar on the recipe list in the first place. I no longer use
it, and only left it on the recipe page to keep it intact with
what was in the book.
3. Salt (ditto) It may be of interest to know that the commercial soap
makers use salt to separate out the glycerin which is a natural
byproduct of soap making. Then they sell it as a byproduct even
though by removing it, they reduce the quality of their soap.
4. Ammonia (I didn't like this in my soap. It made it smell terrible until
it finally all evaporated out - then there wasn't any in the soap
any more. It was a waste of 1/4 cup of ammonia.)
Mix all your fats together before adding them to your lye water
7. Fat or Oil
8. Lanolin (Lanolin, being oil based, mixes with the fat very nicely as you
melt the fat in preparation for mixing it.
9. Coal Oil
10. Lemon Juice
After Trace: All the following items are optional:
11. Ground Oatmeal (abrasive element)
12. Vitamin E This is an antioxidant, and acts as an anti-rancidity agent.
Poke a hole in one end of the pill with a pin and squeeze it out
into your batch.
13. Coloring Dyes
14. Superfatting Oil
15. Fragrance oils: To prevent the lye from eating up your perfume, you also need
to add this as late as possible in the saponification process.
The third thing I had trouble with was getting it to set correctly.
Three methods of getting soap to trace have already been discussed.
When I first started making soap I didn't know the first thing
about "trace." Because of this, I had several failed batches until
I developed a unorthodox way of setting soap that incidently is
a lot faster than waiting for it to trace. This method will only
work with fats that are solid at room temperature, like tallow,
lard, and shortening. And you can't color or scent your soap if
you do it this way as you should only add these things after tracing.
Professional soap makers are leery of this method as they feel
it is important to stir the batch to trace as it keeps the molecules
moving. Yet I add this last method here as I have had excellent
luck with it.
The Intentional False Trace: After all the ingredients are thoroughly mixed, set your mixing
container in cold water and continue to stir, especially the sides
and bottom. I use a big spatula to do this as the fat will solidify
first on the sides and bottom of the pan. This solidifying fat
must be remixed into the warmer mass in the center of the pot.
As the mixture cools, continue to quickly stir it while the whole
batch thickens. When it gets to the consistency of thick gravy
or pudding, (trace consistency) pour it into your setting tray.
The idea here is to get it so thick there is no way it can separate,
yet fluid enough so it will flow. With it in the setting tray,
put it in the refrigerator so the fat in the soap can continue
to solidify. After it is cold, take it out of the refrigerator
and set it aside. Unless you make the soap during very hot weather,
it won't re-melt and separate. After a day or two it is ready
to be cut into bar sized pieces. Note: Don't get confused here.
If you actually traced your soap, you shouldn't put it in the
refrigerator. The refrigerator is only used when you thickened
your soap in cold water before tracing.
Final curing: As mentioned before, it takes soap days for the saponification
process to complete, then weeks before it has cured, or all the
water has finally evaporated. My experience is that it takes about
1 to 3 days for the soap to set up hard enough to cut the soap
in the pan into hand soap sized bars without it melting back together
again. Check it once or twice a day. You don't want it so hard
you can't run a table knife through it. After sectioning the soap
in the setting tray, leave it in the pan to further harden 3 -
5 days. You want it to be hard enough so it will maintain its
shape and not break up as you are taking it out of the tray. You
can't hurt it by leaving it too long, but if you take it out too
soon you can accidentally break pieces off or put big cracks in
the bars that will later break. When it has cured long enough,
remove the now solid soap and break it up into bars from the knife
marks made earlier. If you used a solid pan lined with plastic
wrap, after the soap is removed, use your finger to smooth out
the small grooves made by the wrinkles in the plastic wrap. (If
you wait, it will be too hard and you won't be able to do this.)
It is then stacked up and left to further dry (cure) for two or
Using It: Even mentioning this may seem like over kill. When I first used
that initial bar of lye heavy soap from my first ever attempt
at soap making, I rubbed and rubbed, and didn't hardly get anything.
But I soon learned that I was just breaking it in. After I used
it a few times, it was much easier to use. If you have kids, to
decrease their resistance to using soap 'you' made, break it in
first then put it out for them to use. They will hardly notice
References: I'm extremely thankful to the following soap makers
for helping me get my soap making skills out of the dark ages.
1. Leslie Wilson at Beautiful Bubbles
2. Tina Howard at Majestic Mountain Sage
5. Leslie Wilson
6. Tina Howard
8. Leslie Wilson
Al Durtschi, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
All contents copyright (C) 1997, Al Durtschi. All rights reserved.
This information may be used by you freely for noncommercial use
with my name and E-mail address attached.
Revised: 24 Mar 97
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