Soap Making for Beginners

by Stefani on 13-February-2013

Hello again! Look at me on a blogging roll! It feels awfully nice to be here with you again, and I do so appreciate you hanging around to chat with me.

Okay, so I have been wanting to make soap for ages and ages but every time I started looking into it I’d get to the cautionary statements about lye and think… well…. maybe not.

And then some time would go by and I’d see rows upon rows of gorgeous, creamy, smelly-good soaps at farmers markets or craft fairs, or I’d see that another blog friend had given it a whirl with gorgeous results, and I’d think…. well… maybe.

I’d read up on it all again, get to the lye and…

Rinse. Repeat.

Finally though, this last time that I got that soap-making itch, I traded a few emails with my very talented and kind friend, Alice. She kindly shared a recipe with me, along with some videos, and links. She answered my questions and most importantly gave me encouragement. I could do this.

And so we jumped.

The method we used is called “cold process” soap. That just means that you don’t bake it and so it has to cure for several weeks after the making.

We bought three 1X4s and built a couple of molds like these (only ours are half the size). This is where my children learned that mama can wield a saw and make a box, but no one said she could cut a straight line or make a box that had no gaps in the corners. Ahem.

No matter. That’s why you line the dern things with freezer paper. Alice pointed me to this video and it helped greatly in getting nice tight liners.


Soap Molds

Mind, I didn’t say they were pretty.

Next we set out to find all the supplies for Alice’s recipe, which was mostly olive oil, coconut oil, distilled water and a little beeswax. And… LYE!

The first bits were easy to find. If you’ve got a COSTCO nearby they sell big honkin’ jars of coconut oil for a reasonable price. I got my beeswax from Hobby Lobby and it melts beautifully and smells divine. I could bathe in it. Really. Ha! I will tell you though that beeswax is not the easiest thing to cut. It’s pretty hard actually. I’m sure it’s for this reason that they sell something online called “Beeswax Pastilles,” which is just beeswax already in little bits that you don’t have to cut up.

The lye threw us a bit. If you buy it online you have to have a valid passport, a clean criminal record and sign away your first born. And then you end up with 87 pounds of stuff that you can’t store or throw away and you have to live with it forever and ever amen.

Okay, I’m exaggerating, but not much.

If you call around asking people for lye they will worry that you’re starting up a meth lab in the neighborhood, and they’ll also tell you they don’t have it. For the most part, they’re speaking the truth (about the not having lye part, I mean). Sometimes though, they just don’t KNOW that they have it because the jar doesn’t do a good job of coming out and SAYING that it’s lye.

After driving all over creation and irritating a whole bunch of people with our weird request, we found it at Lowes (which, by the way, is in walking distance of our house). Look in the plumbing section for something called “Roebic Crystal Drain Opener”. On the side of the can it says 100% lye. Bam!

At this point, all we needed were the tools: a 2 quart glass measuring cup that you won’t ever use for anything else, plastic solo cups, 2 big hard plastic spoons (like for serving), a big metal pot that you will never use for anything else, a kitchen scale (Target, $24), a stick/submersible blender that you will never use for food, a kitchen thermometer that will heretofore be dedicated to soap-making (note: I used a glass candle making one and during clean up it fell apart. I don’t know if this was the lye or just a faulty thermometer, but next time I’m using a metal one).

We had all of that but the scale and I’d been meaning to get one of those anyhow, so I feel like we got going pretty frugally.

At this point, there was no turning back and nothing at all to do but go for it.

According to Alice’s directions, we carefully measure out the ingredients saving the lye for last. I measured everything but the lye in plastic cups.

We donned bandanas over our faces, goggles, and rubber gloves. We may or may not have also worn rain boots.We measured it on a table outside, directly into the big glass measuring cup. Poured in the distilled water, stirred until the crystals had dissolved and then ran back inside before it ate off our limbs or the neighbors took our pictures in that get up.

We mixed up the rest of the ingredients in the big metal pot on the stove. When everything was melted together nicely we took it off the burner and waited a while. We started testing the temperature after a few minutes and when it came down to 120 degrees when put on our safety gear and went out to test the temp of the lye. It was a bit higher so we waited a while longer and prayed no one called the cops. We certainly must have looked VERY suspicious.  Eventually,  both pots were in the neighborhood of 110 -120 degrees.

We took the oil pot outside, stirred in the lye and then took it back in where we mixed well with the stick blender.

It was like magic watching it go all creamy and smooth. Saponification! Chemistry! An excuse to call craftiness “homeschooling”! Hooray!

Eventually it looks like cake batter. If you hold up the blender and wiggle it, it makes lines on the top that take a while to sink in. That’s called “tracing.” Once it’s doing that you can add color and scent.

I added lemon to that first batch and while it smelled like lemon cake as we poured it into the molds, you can hardly smell it at all in the finished product. Apparently we either didn’t add enough, or it’s just a case of citrus oils not “fixing” real well in soap without some other ingredients. Oh well. The oils and wax smell great all on their own.

At that point, we poured it into the mold, covered with a cutting board and piled on the towels and blankets. The stuff heats up some and it needs to retain that heat to work properly. We kept sticking our hands in there to feel the sides of the mold getting all nice and warm.

Now you have to walk away for 24 hours.

Once you’ve paced and hoped and prayed and crossed everything you’ve got for all those long hours, you open it up, lift it out and slice.


This was such a proud moment. And the cutting? Oh people, it is satisfying in the most elemental kind of way. Like being a kid again with a brand spanking new tub of playdoh in your favorite color.

Soap Making - Success

Soap Making - Bars

It was so very satisfying that we gave it another go with a different recipe (originally found here)

7.9 oz Coconut Oil, 6.3 oz Lard, 15.9 oz Olive Oil, 1.6 oz Castor Oil, 10.5 oz Distilled Water and 4.5 oz Lye.

We added several drops of Jasmine and Lavender essential oil to this one, and it smells faint, but so good, like the vague scent of flowers on a breeze through the window.

Lard Recipe

Soap Making - Cutting

This time I had to share the cutting privileges. They caught on pretty quickly to how fun it is.

These bars will have to sit for 4-6 weeks and I don’t know how on earth we’re going to keep our hands off them for that long!

The lard batch turned out just as lovely as the first. We really can’t decide which we like better. The earthy rich beeswax scented first batch or the creamy white second. I guess we’ll have to use both! Work work work!

Honestly, I think we’re going to have to figure out new ways to get dirty so that we can use all the soap that we’re planning to make next.

I hope that helps those of you who have been wanting to try to get into soap making. Feel free to ask questions!

Grace February 13, 2013 at 1:09 pm

This is so amazing! I really want to try it now. Despite the lye.

Stefani February 13, 2013 at 1:43 pm

Oh Grace, you’ll love it! That very first batch is intimidating. You worry if you’ll get it right, or if you’ll blow up the house, and did you measure correctly and on and on. Once you do it though, you’ll wonder why you didn’t try it sooner. It’s really not at all as scary as I thought.

Heather February 13, 2013 at 2:41 pm

I have had the same vacillating between oh yes and oh scary! So glad you showed it truly is easy and no one lost eyes of an important limb.

Alice February 13, 2013 at 3:33 pm

They really turned out beautiful!! And your fab construction skills have inspired me to make myself a slab mold (as opposed to the log molds I normally use) to use for my dairy soaps. The only problem…. I have this ridiculous fear of power saws. Truly. And we own about one of every kind after our long history of home improvements. Well, I guess if you can tackle lye, I can tackle the skill saw? 🙂

Stefani February 14, 2013 at 11:12 pm

Oh yes, I have no doubt that you can take on those saws! It’s really very empowering!

This past summer though, the boys and I decided to build a small sail boat. Not a one of us knows a thing about building, but had a dream.

I decided to cut the parts while the boys were at camp so that we could just put it together, like a kit. The husband was away for work and I just dove in and used a saw that was WAY not the right tool for the job. It was a beast and I was holding it all wrong too.

As I was wielding that bad boy I looked down, and in a flash it occurred to me that one false slip and I would have plowed right into a femoral artery. There I was all alone and no one would have known that I was bleeding. The thought of that, and the idea that I had come so close to doing something so ridiculously stupid put me off tools for a good long while.

Eventually I got back on that horse so to speak. The boat isn’t finished just yet, but it’s finished enough that it floats. Not one leak!

You can do it!!!! Only maybe do it a little smarter than I did!

Cynthia | The Hippie Housewife February 13, 2013 at 11:10 pm

How fun! Did you manage to figure out an efficient way of cutting the beeswax? I find it such a frustrating process and so my beeswax has sat ignored for many months now, despite some interesting projects I’d like to tackle.

Alice February 14, 2013 at 3:48 pm

I use an old grater that has been designated for beeswax use only. I will grate a couple ounces at a time and store the shreds in a small ziploc bag so they are ready to weigh out when inspiration strikes. 🙂

Cynthia | The Hippie Housewife February 14, 2013 at 8:19 pm

What a great idea, Alice; thanks!

Stefani February 14, 2013 at 11:03 pm

Agreed, a cheese grater and doing it ahead of time is brilliant! I finally figured out that rather than trying to chop the brick, it was better to sort of shave it. We just eased off thin curls from the edges the way you would do with chocolate.

mandi@herbanhomestead February 16, 2013 at 6:31 am

i bought 20 pounds of beeswax off a local bee guy. He gave it to me in a giant brick! We had to cut off major chunks with a pick axe! Sometimes, if I need a lot, I’ll place in the oven on an old cookie sheet and warm it a bit. It becomes pretty soft and very easy to cut. Other times, my sweet husband with grate and grate like Alice does down there. That, by far, is the easiest way to use it. It melts so efficiently and smooth.

Stefani February 16, 2013 at 10:40 am

20 pounds???? Okay, I’m going to have to hunt down a local bee guy!

mandi@herbanhomestead February 16, 2013 at 6:33 am

Ok- so I found my stick blender and pot at the thrift store yesterday. Bought all of my other supplies from a soap making company (in December!). We will make the molds today! One question- what kind of gloves did you wear? And did you have to wear a giant, rubber apron? I keep thinking “grandmas in the 1800’s made soap with no rubber in sight”, but I just want to make sure!

Stefani February 16, 2013 at 10:39 am

Oooooh, it’s all over but the mixing now, huh? You’re going to love it! I just wore regular yellow kitchen gloves, and I didn’t wear any apron at all, just old clothes. Honestly it’s not nearly so bad as I imagined. When you mix up the small amount of lye and water in a big 8 cup measuring bowl, there’s not much chance of splashing. It’s going to be easier than you think. Promise! Can’t wait to see your soap!

Denny February 16, 2013 at 7:37 am

You can wear regular kitchen gloves or the tighter latex/scientific/medical gloves. Something to protect your hands from any splashes you might get from the lye or fresh soap batter. Any full apron will do. Protect your clothes from oil, lye, and colorants. I wear a cloth craft apron I got at Michael’s years ago.

Stefani February 16, 2013 at 10:36 am

Thanks for chiming in with all the great info, Denny!

Kater February 16, 2013 at 9:36 pm

What a great project Stefani! Not to mention a terrific learning experience for your boys. I think it’s great for kids to learn where stuff actually comes from (aka, not the store).

Jeana February 22, 2013 at 7:19 pm

Lowes!? I would have never thought of that. I’ve wanted to try making soap forever, now that I know where lye is, I may give it a try. Thanks!

Lois May 8, 2013 at 3:49 am

I have made both cold process and hot process now. I like the short curing time of the hot process, but I like the texture of cold process much better. BTW, I use a crock pot for my hot process. Here is the post on the hot process, post on the cold coming soon.

Stefani May 20, 2013 at 10:04 am

Thanks for the information Lois! I’ll have to try it!

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