Soapmaking Basics

Why make your own soap and body products?

You control the ingredients.

Making your own often is less expensive than purchasing ready-made products retail.  These personal care items make great gifts for family and friend.  You can treat yourself to “spa treatment” at home


Soap is the standard product used to clean our homes, our clothes, and our bodies. Soap making has a long history in our culture and is considered an artisan craft that carries on traditions passed down to us from our ancestors and prior cultures. Soap making is one way to keep us in touch with those arts that provide for our basic living necessities.
Soap “wets” surfaces (called a surfactant) enabling better emulsion so that dirt can be caught up in the lather and removed through rinsing with water. Soap can be made from a variety of ingredients including vegetable, animal, and natural products.
What is soap? As taken from Cavitch, page 2 The Soapmaker’s Compnion, 1997. Soap is the result of, in chemical terms, an acid (fat) and a base (lye) combining and reacting to produce soap and glycerin. This process is termed saponification. The mixture upon brisk stirring will thicken into a uniform thicker consistency. When a bit of soap drizzled onto the surface leave a trail (a pattern) for a moment before disappearing beneath the surface, the soap is ready to be poured into molds. This trail is known as “trace” since only a trace of the pattern remains when the soap is ready.
Soap can be made in a variety of ways but for home use “cold process” is practical using easily accessible materials without the addition of added heat to complete the process.

Two key things to keep in mind when making soap: Have lye and fat mixtures at the correct temperature when mixing, as listed in the recipe, and stir briskly to keep the fat and lye in contact with each other so they can react resulting in saponification.

  • Heat the fat(s) to specific temperature as listed in the recipe before mixing with lye.
  •   Make sure the lye solution has cooled to the correct temperature as listed in the recipe before mixing with the fats.
  •   The mixture must be stirred to bring the acid and the base together until the ingredients have been evenly dispersed in a thick stable emulsion.
  • Saponification continues during the curing phase if the ingredients have been properly mixed, completely removing free lye from the soap making it gentle to use.

Primary Ingredients


There are numerous fats and oils used to make soap. Each fat or oil imparts characteristics to the finished bar.

Standard fats: tallow-cleans, coconut & soy oil (vegetable shortening)-conditions & increasing lather, olive oil, palm oil, and lard-hardens.  Choose fats by availability, price, and character in soap.
Sodium Hydroxide- otherwise known as lye

  • Due to homeland security measures, lye must be purchased on-line through a registered vendor.
  •  Use caution when handling lye because it is VERY caustic to skin and tissue. Do not allow lye mixed with water to touch any unprotected skin, eyes, or breath fumes.
  •  Keep stored in a tightly sealed container to prevent rock-hard clumping.
  • Do not substitute Drano as lye.
  • Beads or flakes are most practical for home made soap.

Optional Ingredients

Nutratives- various items added to increase conditioning, moistening, healing, or otherwise nurturing skin.

  •  Examples: almond (sweet) oil, beeswax, egg, honey, lanolin, milk, tea tree oil.

Scents and Colorants-products added to scent or color soap.

  • Recommended scents- essential oils. Do not use any product with alcohol, as it will ruin your batch of soap.
  •  Use only scents or colorants listed for soap use. Use to desired scent or color.

Exfoliates- added to remove dead skin, stimulate, and smooth skin.

  •   Example: cornmeal, flaxseed meal, oatmeal, poppy seed, tapioca pearls, or kelp (sea weed). Note kelp will also affect the smell of the soap.

If you want to embellish a recipe consider the following:
1) How much lather do you want?
2) Hard bars melt slower than soft bars.
3) Scent should be pleasant but not overpowering, and should enhance the use of the soap.
4) Design your soap for the intended purpose: laundry or bath use? Personal use or used as a gift? Soften, nourish, exfoliate, relax, etc.
5) Will color enhance the product?
6) Remember that colorants and scents may irritate sensitive skin.

Equipment Needs

  1. Electric mixer (low speed only) or long handled plastic spoon with large paddle & wisk.
  2.   2 Large enamel or stainless steel pots (at least 8 qt)- one for fat, one for lye
  3. 2 heavy rubber or silicone spatulas or plastic spoons
  4. Reliable scale-measure in grams and ounces
  5. Reliable thermometer (0-220F), quick read is preferred
  6. Flexible purchased molds or cardboard/ wood box to hold up to 5 pounds soap (standard batch size)
  7. Liner for cardboard/ wooden box- heavy duty freezer paper works well
  8. Sharp thin paring knife or soap cutter to cut and trim bars.
  9. Safety goggles and gloves (rubber or latex)


When making soap always wear protective eye goggles and gloves to protect from splashes or spills.

Work in a well ventilated space because lye fumes when mixed with liquid. Open windows, work outside, or use a fan to exhaust fumes. Adding lye slowly and stirring until completely dissolved between additions will help reduce fume production.

Have all ingredients and equipment ready for use.

Think about safety concerns of yourself, your family, your pets, and your environment.

Prevent splashes by pouring slowly.

Keep pots well back on counters to prevent accidental spills.

Be available to monitor the process from start to finish or try another time.

Keep young children and pets or unsuspecting people away from work area.

Let others in the house know what you are doing and where you will be working.

Know how to handle lye safely and how to properly dispose of unused product.

Batches that don’t saponify correctly the first time can generally be heated over low heat with added water and stirred to complete the process. Do not dispose of an unsaponified batch in garbage, down the drain, down the toilet, or dumped outside.

Secure a recipe and ingredients.

Set up workspace with required equipment and materials, keeping safely issues in mind.

Have molds lined and ready for pouring.

Make sure you have enough molds for the size of batch you are making.

Note on molds: Plastic reusable molds can be purchased from soap making vendors for a reasonable price (5-15 dollars each). Molds can be made of cardboard boxes lined with heavy duty freezer paper, mitered corners, and taped into place to keep surface smooth and wrinkle free. Wooden boxes work well and also may be purchased to create uniform bars. Be creative, but do not use metal to mold cold processed soap.

Have all nutrients, colors, scents, or exfoliates measured and at the ready prior to beginning.

Put on your safety goggles and gloves.


  • Mix and melt fats in amounts specified in recipe over low heat in a large enamel or stainless steel pot. Melt till all solids have been liquefied, then cool to 80-100 degrees F.
  • Measure liquid and weigh lye. Carefully and slowly add lye flakes to liquid stirring after each addition until completely dissolved.
  • Do not breath the fumes! Work in well ventilated space.
  • Add small amounts of lye at a time and stir till dissolved to reduce the amount of fumes produced.
  • Mixing the lye with liquid will produce heat (up to 200 degrees F). Set aside to cool in a safe a secure space till used.
  • When lye and fats are at the proper temperatures called for in recipe, slowly drizzle (small additions at a time) the lye into the oil, stirring quickly with each addition. Make sure to stop the mixer when adding lye to prevent splash.
  • Stir briskly keeping mixture in constant motion until trace. Trace takes 15-25 minutes generally but olive oil (castile soap) can take up to an hour to trace.
  • Just prior to pouring, mix in optional scents and/ or colorants and stir swiftly for 20-30 seconds to incorporate.

The Pour
Mixture should be smooth with no lumps and a uniform texture and color. Watery or oily puddles signal a poorly mixed batch.

If you are not quick enough at the pour and the mixture thickens, use a spatula to spread to corners of box or to fill molds solidly. Smooth the top as best you can.

Cover smoothly with freezer paper or plastic wrap.

Cover the filled mold (s) with a layer of newspaper or cardboard, then cover with a blanket or other suitable material to slow the cooling of the soap mixture.

Leave undisturbed for 18-24 hours. This process is important, as the insulation allows the soap to heat up and saponify further reducing free lye to soap and glycerin.

After 24 hours, or when soap is set but not hard, remove from molds.

Box molds may be inverted to remove the soap. Remove paper or wrap covering a bit at a time to prevent marring soap surface.

Box mold must then be cut to desired bar size with a sharp paring knife or soap cutter. Mold bars may need to be trimmed to remove irregularities.

Lay soap bars in single layer on plain brown paper, screed, wicker, or rattan mats to provide ventilation.

Let soap bars cure in a dry, well ventilated place, protecting from extreme temperatures.

Allow to cure for 3-4 weeks turning occasionally.

Wrap as you like, preferably in breathable material or stack in a loose weave basket lined with towels. Cover with towel for prolonged storage.

Note: Sometimes a white powder can be seen on the bar surface. This should be wiped from the bar before packaging. It is a lye powder residue that detracts from the aesthetics of the bar.

Heat and Pour Soap
Heat and pour soap is readily found at craft stores and comes in a variety of types: castille, glycerin, or soap base. It is a quick and easy process to decorate, color, or scent soap bars and requires no cure time. Once out of the mold, it is ready to be packaged, used, or given as a gift immediately. It is safe for all to handle and is a great craft idea for any group or classroom. To use, simply follow the package directions. The product is heated in a glass-measuring cup in the microwave and then poured into selected molds.

Bath Salts and Teas
Bath salts and teas are reputed to heal troubled skin, cleanse the body, and take away muscle aches and pains. There is no question; however, that a good soak in the tub with bath salts or bath teas works wonders to relax the body and revive the spirit. If you don’t take tub baths, salts can be used as a scrub in the shower or at the sink, and diluted teas can be applied as a final rinse in the shower or spritzed over body from a spray bottle. Both products are wonderful additions to foot-baths. Salts and teas are made with ingredients commonly found at the grocery, local health food stores, or on-line suppliers and require no special equipment to mix or store. They make thoughtful and much appreciated gifts for anyone!

The Soapmaker’s Companion, Susan M. Cavitch, 1997,
ISBN 0-88266-965-6

Goat’s Produce Too! Mary Jane Toth, 1993, 2833 N. Lewis Road, Coleman, MI 48618

This entry was posted in bath and body products, DIY and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Soapmaking Basics

  1. Greetings! This is my first comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and say I genuinely enjoy reading your articles. Can you suggest any other blogs/websites/forums that go over the same topics? Many thanks!

  2. test1234 says:

    My programmer is trying to convince me to move to .net from PHP. I have always disliked the idea because of the expenses. But he’s tryiong none the less. I’ve been using WordPress on various websites for about a year and am anxious about switching to another platform. I have heard good things about Is there a way I can import all my wordpress content into it? Any kind of help would be greatly appreciated!

  3. Simply want to say your article is as amazing. The clearness in your post is simply spectacular and i can assume you are an expert on this subject. Well with your permission allow me to grab your feed to keep up to date with forthcoming post. Thanks a million and please carry on the gratifying work.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s