making soap. . . part one

when p and i lived in maryland we lived in a tiny little fishing village right by the nanticoke river.  down the street from us lived a soapmaker.  he was an odd man, that always looked as tho he was going for a bicycle ride through the french countryside in the 19th century, wearing breeches, a chimney sweeps hat, and a jaunty little cravat tied around his neck.  although an enigmatic dresser, the man made great soap, and still does!  so after moving to detroit i was very interested in learning how to make soap, but it always seemed very intimidating along with the added potential for hurting myself.  along with loving soap, i also have a deep love for hippie books that are handwritten.  so one year for some holiday p gave me alicia bay laurel’s book ‘living on the earth’.  the book was written by alicia when she was 17, and is about her life growing up on a hippie commune.  i have the revised edition that came out in 2003.  it is a delightful book full of hippie how to.  there is a soap recipe in the book that i came across a few years ago.  it made soap making seem less scary than it had in the past, and i decided to give it a try.  my first batch of soap came out kind of hard and crumbly, but had a wonderful lather and didn’t dry out my skin.  so i decided to give it another try, and the second time it came out much better.  so now p and i prefer our homemade soap to any store bought versions, and make enough once a year to give as gifts and last us all year (in fact this year we are going to make two batches).  so i should state that i am in no way a knowledgable or professional soap maker.  there are lots of good resources out there about making soap,( books and the internet) as it is a precise chemical process that came burn you if you are not careful.  i am more of a one trick pony, i have a recipe i like and am sticking to it!

so on to the process.  so a few things you will need for making soap.  rubber gloves, safety glasses, and a nose and mouth mask or respirator, glass pitcher, a non metal pot (enamel or ceramic), a slotted spoon, immersion blender (optional) and a soap mold (although a cardboard box will works in a pinch), a scale, and a thermometer.  you need to procure some lye.  lye is sold as drain cleaner or tile cleaner, its other names are sodium hydroxide or caustic soda.  remember that lye is caustic and will burn you, and since it is caustic you should keep a bottle of vinegar close to as an antidote to lye burns.  always purchase lye that is ONLY sodium hydroxide, red devil is a brand that is consistently additive free.  also worth noting is that all soap measurements are done by weight, even the liquids are all measured by weight.  in a glass pitcher add 12 ounces of lye to 32 ounces of water.  you may want to do this outside, since you DO NOT want to breath in the fumes, this is also where those glasses, gloves and mask come in to play.  stir the lye until it is completely mixed with the water.  lye and water combined create a lot of heat, so i usually prepare the lye about 3 hours before i plan on making the soap to let it come down to temp (between 80 and 100 degrees fahrenheit), but if you mix it the night before and it cools down too much,  you can warm it up in a sink of hot water.  make sure you do not leave the lye where any animals, kids, or adults will drink it or mistake it for a pitcher of water!!

warming up the lye in a sink of hot water

next you want to prepare your fats.  you want 42 ounces of hard fats ( solid fats) and 42 ounces of liquid fats.  i use 26 ounces of coconut oil and 16 ounces of palm oil (because this is what is suggested in the book!) in a regular pot over a low flame melt both fats until they are liquid.  they will need to cool down to 80-100 degrees F.  while they are cooling mix up your liquid fats, once again by book suggestion i use 38 ounces (by weight) of olive oil and 4 ounces of other oils like almond or apricot kernel.  i like to hasten the cooling process of the hard fats by mixing the liquid fats with the hard fats.  even so it may take a bit of time for those both to cool to temp.

pouring liquid fats into liquified solid fats

once these guys are at the right temp pour them into that large non-metal pot.  you will also want to add 1 tablespoon of grapefruit seed extract or vitamin e oil (they are natural preservatives).  put on your lovely rubber gloves and glasses again and slowly pour the lye into the fats while stirring in a figure 8 motion.  (p and i couldn’t find safety glasses so we donned stunna shades in the kitchen at 7pm) be careful not to splash any on yourself or any companions.

fats and lye combined

from here you either keep stirring for up to an hour (in that figure eight motion), or use and immersion blender (often called a stick blender).  i always use the stick blender.  keep blending in short bursts, and then stir in a figure 8 motion afterwards until you get trace.  i am not going to explain trace because that will talk a while, but here is a link explaining what it is.

stirring with the blender, seeing the mixture get lighter colored and thicker

once you have reached the trace stage it is time for the good smelly stuff to go in! you can use any combination of essential oils you want!  i just keep adding a little at a time until it smells good.  it is always better to add a little than to dump in too much.  i wanted a textured soap, so i added a quarter cup of lavender flowers, but before i added them i mixed them with some liquid oil so they wouldn’t clump.  mix in you scent(s) and any texture you want (oats are nice too!).

we have trace, and are now adding lavender flowers

our next steps are pouring the soap into the mold, but i will cover that in . . .soap making part two!!  i know the anticipation is killing you, but this is already wordy enough.  so until then au revoir!

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4 responses to “making soap. . . part one

  1. Pingback: cold and sunny | Stacey Malasky

  2. Pingback: photos from the first week in december | little house on the urban prairie

  3. Pingback: homemade clothes washing soap | little house on the urban prairie

  4. Great reading on soap-making. I like your style. Van Gogh-ish. Helpful. Thanks.

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