Soapmaking is a fun, simple and low cost hobby that is a great activity for the entire family. While many people choose to buy their soap from retailers and stores, making your own soap has a lot of advantages. First you can easily control the ingredients in the soap you make at home, eliminating chemicals, dyes or artificial ingredients that may lead to skin allergies, dry skin and minor or severe skin irritations. By adding different natural ingredients and essential oils you can create beautiful colors and scents with your home made soaps that are completely unique and distinct. You can also create soaps that have moisturizers, antibacterial properties and even soothe irritated and dry skin all to your very own customized recipes.
Second but no less important is the cost saving factor in making your own soap. Base material is readily available in hobby stores as well as through online craft and soap retailers, definitely decreasing the cost per bar over commercially available soaps. Since molds can be reused and the oils, fragrances, colors and special ingredients can likewise be purchased in bulk beautiful soaps are easily created as needed, keeping color and fragrances fresh and vibrant not old and stale like so many commercially available soaps.
Soapmaking is a very old process that was originally part of the daily routines in a home. While many of the same processes are used in home soapmaking today, there are several ingredients that can be used to simply the process. Different shapes of molds, various ingredients and even herbal or other types of natural exfoliants can be added to make wonderful gift soaps for any time of the year.
Soap Making Processes
The most popular soapmaking process today is the cold process method, where fats such as olive oil react with lye, while some soapers use the historical hot process.
Handmade soap differs from industrial soap in that, usually, an excess of fat is used to consume the alkali (superfatting), and in that the glycerin is not removed, leaving a naturally moisturizing soap and not pure soap. Additional processing of this glycerin containing soap produces glycerin soap. Superfatted soap, which contains excess fat, is more skin-friendly than industrial soap, though if too much fat is added, it can leave users with a "greasy" feel to their skin. Sometimes an emollient such as jojoba oil or shea butter is added "at trace" (the point at which the saponification process is sufficiently advanced that the soap has begun to thicken) in the belief that it will escape the saponification and remain intact, or in the case of hot process soap - after most of the oils have saponified so that they remain unreacted in the finished soap. Superfatting can also be accomplished through a process called a lye discount, where, instead of putting in extra fats, the soap maker puts in less lye.
Cold-process soapmaking takes place at a sufficient temperature to ensure the liquefication of the fat being used. The lye and fat may be kept warm after mixing to ensure that the soap is completely saponified.
Unlike cold-processed soap, hot-processed soap can be used right away because lye and fat saponify more quickly at the higher temperatures used in hot-process soapmaking.
Hot-process soapmaking was used when the purity of lye was unreliable, and this process can use natural lye solutions, such as potash. The main benefit of hot processing is that the exact concentration of the lye solution does not need to be known to perform the process with adequate success.
Cold-process soapmaking requires exact measurements of lye and fat amounts and computing their ratio, using saponification charts to ensure that the finished product is mild and skin-friendly. Saponification charts can also be used in hot-process soapmaking, but are not as necessary as in cold-process soapmaking.
In the hot-process method, lye and fat are boiled together at 80–100 °C until saponification occurs, which before modern thermometers, the soapmaker determined by taste (the bright, distinctive taste of lye disappears once all the lye is saponified) or by eye; the experienced eye can tell when gel stage and full saponification have occurred. Beginners can find this information through research, and classes. It is highly recommended to not "taste" soap for readiness. Lye, when not saponified is a highly caustic material. After saponification has occurred, the soap is sometimes precipitated from the solution by adding salt, and the excess liquid drained off. The hot, soft soap is then spooned into a mold. The soap lye is processed for recovery of Glycerine.
A cold-process soapmaker first looks up the saponification value of the fats being used on a saponification chart, which is then used to calculate the appropriate amount of lye. Excess unreacted lye in the soap will result in a very high pH and can burn or irritate skin. Not enough lye, and the soap is greasy. Most soap makers formulate their recipes with a 4-10% deficit of lye so that all of the lye is reacted and that excess fat is left for skin conditioning benefits.
The lye is dissolved in water. Then oils are heated, or melted if they are solid at room temperature. Once both substances have cooled to approximately 100-110 °F (37-43 °C), and are no more than 10°F (~5.5°C) apart, they may be combined. This lye-fat mixture is stirred until "trace" (modern-day amateur soapmakers often use a stick blender to speed this process). There are varying levels of trace. Depending on how additives will affect trace, they may be added at light trace, medium trace or heavy trace. After much stirring, the mixture turns to the consistency of a thin pudding. "Trace" corresponds roughly to viscosity. Essential oils, fragrance oils, botanicals, herbs, oatmeal or other additives are added at light trace, just as the mixture starts to thicken.
The batch is then poured into molds, kept warm with towels, or blankets, and left to continue saponification for 18 to 48 hours. Milk soaps are the exception. They do not require insulation. Insulation may cause the milk to burn. During this time, it is normal for the soap to go through a "gel phase" where the opaque soap will turn somewhat transparent for several hours, before once again turning opaque. The soap will continue to give off heat for many hours after trace.
After the insulation period the soap is firm enough to be removed from the mold and cut into bars. At this time, it is safe to use the soap since saponification is complete. However, cold-process soaps are typically cured and hardened on a drying rack for 2–6 weeks (depending on initial water content) before use. If using caustic soda it is recommended that the soap is left to cure for at least four weeks.
Many commercially available soap molds are made of silicone or various types of plastic, although many soap making hobbyists may use cardboard boxes that are lined with plastic wrap. Soaps can be made in long loaves that are cut into individual bars, block molds that are cut into loaves and then bars, or individual molds.
Purification and finishing
The common process of purifying soap involves removal of sodium hydroxide, glycerol and some impurities. These components are removed by boiling the crude soap curds in water and re-precipitating the soap with salt.
Most of the water is then removed from the soap. This was traditionally done on a chill roll which produced the soap flakes commonly used in the 1940s and 1950s. This process was superseded by spray dryers and then by vacuum dryers.
The dry soap (approximately 6-12% moisture) is then compacted into small pellets. These pellets are now ready for soap finishing, the process of converting raw soap pellets into a saleable product, usually bars.
Soap pellets are combined with fragrances and other materials and blended to homogeneity in an amalgamator (mixer). The mass is then discharged from the mixer into a refiner which, by means of an auger, forces the soap through a fine wire screen. From the refiner the soap passes over a roller mill (French milling or hard milling) in a manner similar to calendering paper or plastic or to making chocolate liquor. The soap is then passed through one or more additional refiners to further plasticize the soap mass. Immediately before extrusion it passes through a vacuum chamber to remove any trapped air. It is then extruded into a long log or blank, cut to convenient lengths, passed through a metal detector and then stamped into shape in refrigerated tools. The pressed bars are packaged in many ways.
Sand or pumice may be added to produce a scouring soap. The scouring agents serve to remove dead skin cells from the surface being cleaned. This process is called exfoliation. Many newer materials are used for exfoliating soaps which are effective but do not have the sharp edges and poor particle size distribution of pumice.
Equipment And Recipes
The basic equipment to make soap is very simple. You will need a large bowl or measuring cup to melt the base or tallow, depending on the type of soap you wish to create. Oils such as olive oil, palm oil, jojoba oil, castor oil, canola oil, soy bean oil and coconut or grapeseed oils are typically used in the basic melt and pour types of soaps as well as in cold process lye soaps. The melt and pour soaps use an already prepared base material which prevents the necessity of the lye step in soap making which can be rather challenging if this is your first time making soap.
Always carefully monitor the use of lye and avoid contact with the skin at all times until it has been mixed with oils. Lye can be very caustic and children should never be allowed to be around the lye and water mixture as they often forget safety procedures and end up with lye burns from contact with the liquid.
Although tallow or animal fat was traditionally used in soap making, there is no need to stick with this animal based material anymore. The vegetable oils mentioned above are ideal for making soap, just be sure that the recipe calls for vegetable oils rather than tallow. Animal fats in soaps do tend to create a different texture to the soap, which may be an important consideration. Lard based soaps are softer and tend to be a bit more challenging for those new at soapmaking while tallow or animal fat soaps tend to be very hard and brittle.
General cold process equipment is very simple. All you require is a glass bowl of large enough size to combine the distilled water and the lye. Use a stainless steel pot to melt the oils and slowly add the heated lye and water mixture to the oils. Start stirring slowly and watch for the "trace" to develop. Trace is a thin pudding like consistency in the mixture that shows that the soap is forming. After the trace is reached, add any essential oils, fragrances, herbal ingredients, exfoliants or other ingredients required and stir well. Pour the liquid into the prepared molds and cover with a towel to prevent drying out of the surface of the soap quickly, resulting in a dull, uneven finish. Allow to sit for about 48 hours and remove the towels, allow the soap to completely firm up in the molds, typically about three to five days. You will still need to allow the soap to fully cure, which is known as soaponification, for about six weeks. Store in a cool, dry area away from direct sunlight and heat to avoid any dulling or irregular surfaces on the soap.
A simple recipe that makes about 4 pounds of soap using the cold process method follows:
16 ounces of Coconut Oil
16 ounces of Palm Oil
16 ounces of Olive Oil
7 ounces of 5% superfatted Lye
16 ounces of distilled water
To this mixture add any desired essential oils or fragrances as well as natural dyes or colorings after the trace appears. Start with a very small amount of these ingredients and add more as needed with each batch. Since this basic recipe makes about 4 pounds you can easily adjust between matches for more color or fragrance.
One essential piece of kitchen equipment that can also be a time saver in making home made soap is a stick blender. These little low cost hand held blenders are ideal for stirring the combination of the lye/water and oil mixtures until the trace forms. With hand mixing with a spoon or stirring stick the process can take up to an hour, the stick blender can cut this down to under 10 minutes per batch. Using the blender helps to cool the liquid faster and increase the soap process. Unfortunately it can also incorporate a lot more bubbles into the soap if it is used incorrectly. Running the stick blender in the thicker soap mixture will also quickly burn out the motor so only use for 30 seconds or less at a time, blend by hand in between for the best combination of fast cooling and clear, bubble free soap.
There are a variety of different commercially available soap molds from hobby stores in all types of shapes and patterns. You can also make simple wooden soap molds that produce rectangular, square, diamond shaped or your own customized shapes of soaps in a variety of sizes. The larger soap molds can allow you to pop the big block out of the mold and use a miter box to cut perfectly square or rectangular sides to the bars without the need for a lot of extra trimming.
Equipment should be thoroughly cleaned between each use and, if you are using heavy fragrances, you may want to keep your supplies separate based on the oils or perfumes you are using. In addition remember that some oils and fragrances can become overwhelming when scents are combined, so it is a good idea to try out a very small sample of one recipe with any new combination. Oils and fragrances can also change over time and making large batches of scented soaps is often not a good idea unless you are going to quickly use up the supply.
Besides standard bar types of soaps there are a variety of different and very unique styles of soapmaking project. You may want to consider making soap balls, which are a great way to use up trimmings from the molds or collecting and recycling scarps of homemade soaps. Kids will enjoy this activity and the various colors in the soaps used to create the soap balls can make some interesting combinations. Simply use a cheese grater to grate up the soap left-overs, then add a slight bit of water to the mix just to moisten. Wet your hands and begin squeezing the grated soap between your palms, rolling into the desired size and shape. Allow to dry on cookie racks for several days before storing.
Liquid soap can be made using the same technique as the cold process, but you will actually use a slow cooker to heat the soap once it reaches the trace stage. The soap will continue to gently heat until it becomes translucent looking more like clear very thick liquid soap or melted lard. This typically takes about four hours, at which time add a small amount of boiling water as a test. If the soap mixture stays clear it is correctly developed and can be removed from the heat source temporarily. Additional water is added to create the liquidity you desire, at which point boric acid and water is added to the soap mixture and the fragrances or essential oils and colors are also added. The liquid soap, which is neutralized by the boric acid water mixture at the end, remains liquid and needs to be stored in a cool, dry place in sealed containers until time for use.
Kids will enjoy the melt and pour types of soaps with a bit of help from Mom or Dad. They can also decorate the soaps by adding different colors to the base or by swirling colors through the mixture after pouring. This can be done with a toothpick for a very unique and one of a kind bar of soap. Molds for candles, candies and cookies can also be used to create seasonal shapes that kids will love to give as gifts.
Layered soap bars or molds are another hit with both children as well as adults of all ages. Follow the same instructions for any type of soap process but divide the soap at the trace stage into as many different amounts as layers required. Add colorings to the respective soap bases and start with a thin to thick layer in the bottom of the mold and allow to sit for about 15 minutes. Press a fork into the surface of the poured layer and score the surface, then pour the second layer. Repeat as often as desired until the mold is full. If you pour the layers before the previous layer is cooled at the surface you can create some interesting swirls and random color combinations but the layers may not stick well together with some soap recipes. This is a bit of a trial and error method but the results are very dramatic and very unique depending on the color combinations you select. Avoid mixing too many fragrances in one soap mold as the result can be a beautiful bar of soap with a rather unfortunate scent combination.
Soapmaking is one of those hobbies that is both very rewarding as well as highly practical. While most people start by using recipes off the internet or in soapmaking books, you can also go off the basics and develop your own soap recipes. Many people have a small home business in designing and selling different types of organic, holistic and natural soaps. Oatmeal soap, flax soap and olive oil based soaps are very popular for treating and soothing dry skin, plus they are much appreciated as a gift.
While soapmaking does take time and some practice, there are classes available in most areas to help you get started with the basics. In addition the internet offers a huge variety of videos and instructional sites that are ideal for those new to the hobby and those that have years of experience. Experimenting with different types of oils, bases and methods will allow you to develop just the soap product you are looking for.