25 More Life Lessons I Learned From Gardening (2016)

  1. It is technically possible to keep your hands clean. It just won’t be as satisfying.
  2. There is nothing like the scent of fresh rosemary.
  3. Some things need lots of sun and some need lots of shade. What makes one flourish makes another fade. This is also true of people.
  4. There can be order in chaos—and vice versa.
  5. You can breed for prettier colors, but they will never smell as good.
  6. Watch out for cat shit.
  7. Every garden is beautiful in bloom.
  8. There is peace in accepting the dirt under your nails.
  9. Not all dirt is created equal, however. Choose the right kind for the things you want to grow.
  10. Life will find a way.
  11. Some roots once they take hold can never be pulled. Consider wisely what you plant in your garden.
  12. Bugleweed has roots like that.
  13. Sometimes you will know that the rosemary could not have overwintered. You will water it anyway in the spring, hoping. This will not have been the worst waste of time in your life.
  14. Abundant water is a blessing.
  15. Cats are vile, wretched creatures.
  16. They will nevertheless make you happy when they roll in the catnip.
  17. Catnip. See No. 11.
  18. You can’t have ladybugs if you don’t have aphids.
  19. Worms are people too. Try not to disturb them.
  20. Call 811 before you dig.
  21. Avery with flowerSometimes you will wonder why other people pay someone else to do their yard work and then drive to the gym for exercise.
  22. Gardens are like living rooms, meant to be reorganized every once in awhile.
  23. Some of the things your dad has told you were wrong.
  24. A hobbit hole would make everything better. Even the cats.
  25. Not every time, but sometimes, when you’re gardening and the phone rings, go ahead and answer it. There is room in gardens for friends and family.

Read last year’s list here.

Hot Processed Salt Soap Bars

salt bars diagonalSometimes when I want a new recipe, I browse handmade soaps on Etsy for inspiration. I always like the look of hot processed soaps the best, and my favorite often turn out to be salt bars. They have a pale marble look I find lovely, and I’ve been meaning to try my hand at a recipe for ages.

The salt is supposed to contribute to a harder and longer lasting bar, as well as provide exfoliating and moisturizing qualities. And healing. Everything in homecrafting supposedly has healing powers. As with all the other folklore, take it with a grain of salt. Heh heh. See what I did there?

If I’m being honest, I might just like the look and the concept of salt bars. In any case, I did four separate batches: one cold processed; two hot processed and made with distilled water; and one hot processed and made with beer. The results were great, I love the bars I’ve tried so far, and the following is how I did it.

What Type of Salt? From what I can tell, you can use any type of salt you like, table salt, sea salt, Himalayan pink, fine, coarse, kosher, whatever.

But not Dead Sea Salt.

Apparently, Dead Sea Salt contains a lot of other minerals, which have a tendency to turn the soap into a weepy or gooey mess.

I haven’t seen any recipes where people use Epsom salt either. Since it seems to have minerals other than what’s in regular salt, I wouldn’t recommend it.

For my first batches, I used coarse grained Sea Salt that I bought at the grocery store.

How Much? The range I have seen is from 50% of the total oil weight up to 100% of the total soap weight (oil plus liquid plus lye). I chose to try 100% of the total oil weight in my first batches because I had read that less than that sometimes turns out too much like an ordinary soap bar.

How To Size the Recipe to Fit a Mold? In Part II of my original soap tutorial, we went over how to fit your batch to your mold. This link has additional methods for sizing a batch of soap to cylindrical or irregularly shaped molds. Briefly:

For a normal square or rectangular mold: 1) calculate the volume of the mold in cubic inches by multiplying the length by the width by the height; 2) multiply the resulting volume by .40.

For a cylindrical mold (many people use PVC): 1) multiply pi by the radius of your circle squared; 2) multiply that by the height of the mold; 3) multiply that by .40.

So if your mold has a diameter (width) of 4 inches, its radius is 2 inches. 2 squared is 4. Multiplying that by pi (3.14) = 12.56. Times 12.56 by the mold’s height (length) in inches. Multiply that result by .40.

For an irregularly shaped mold: 1) fill the mold with water; 2) measure the water in ounces (an ounce of water by volume is also an ounce by weight); 3) multiply that number by 1.8; this is the cubic inches of the mold; 3) multiply that number by .40.

As I have said before, the numbers that result are your total oil weight in ounces. You don’t have to worry about accounting for the lye and liquid. Either room for the lye and liquid is already accounted for in the calculation or those components fill space between fat molecules in a way that does not increase the size.

But what about the salt? We’re adding (potentially) 100% of the oil weight in salt. Won’t that substantially increase, perhaps even double, the size of the batch?


Here’s the part where you have to get a little bit experimental. As you can see on this LovinSoap.com tutorial, you can just play around with the numbers until you get something close to your mold size.

If you want to be more scientific, figure out the percentages of the total that each component (oil, liquid, lye and salt) comprises. Derive them by running the recipe through SoapCalc for any size batch (the percentages will remain the same) being sure to add in the salt you intend to use. For the recipe that I made (using salt at 100% of oil weight), they worked out like this:

Oils 40%, Liquid 15%, Lye 5%, and Salt 40%. Using those numbers, if you have a 5 lb. mold, your oil weight needs to be 40% of 5 lbs. in order to accommodate the 40% of 5 lbs. that will be filled by adding the salt.


I hot processed all but one of my salt bar batches. Hot processed soap mixture is so fluffy that adding salt did not increase the size of the batch in the way you might expect. In fact, the visible volume of the cooked soap did not appear to increase at all when the salt was added. It just got denser. Not bigger.

That being said, it did add a small amount of volume. I had just used the normal amount of oils that I would use to fill one of my 1.9 lb. molds. I had other molds on standby in case the salt made me go over. It did, just not by much. I couldn’t get the whole batch into one 1.9 lb. mold. But nor could I come anywhere close to filling a second one. The overflow amounted to about one thick bar of soap.

NOTE: I did make one batch of cold processed salt soap. Cold processed soaps are molded before going through the fluffy, expansive phases of hot processing. So I could see how adding salt at that pre-expansion point would make the recipe bigger. But then again, no one takes hot v. cold processing into account when sizing batches. I used a slab mold that was plenty big to handle any extra depth contributed by the salt, but I can’t say I noticed any difference in the size.


The best I can say is play around with your numbers, stick with small batch sizes at first, and keep standby overflow molds on hand until you get a feel for how the added salt affects the volume of your batch.

What Method of Processing? To briefly review:

In cold processing (CP), being mindful to keep the temperatures of the components low (say under 100 degrees F), you combine them without any added heat; blend until they have reached the point of “trace” (emulsification); mix in any additives, including salt, hurrying to keep the soap from reaching the next stage of saponification; and pour the mixture into the mold. Ordinarily, you would unmold it the following day and cut into individual bars if necessary (it still has to cure for awhile before it is safe to use). With salt added, you will need to unmold it more quickly, potentially within an hour of pouring into the mold, so that it doesn’t get too hard to be cut.

NOTE: As explained in this discussion of “trace” at the SoapQueen blog, in cold processing, additives may be blended at the point of a thin trace and the soap molded while it is still a smooth, easily pourable consistency. Alternately, it can be stirred further to the point of a thick trace, which allows for various decorative techniques. I believe the main allure of cold processing is those various decorative techniques.

With hot processing (HP), you don’t have to worry as much about the temperatures of the components; you are going to cook the mix anyway. You bring the batch to trace the same as with cold processing. Certain additives can be blended at that point (I always add sugar syrup). Then you let it cook. Other additives can be mixed in after the cook, which protects them from undergoing the saponification process. The final consistency of hot processed soap is thick and fluffy. It does not pour into a mold so much as get glopped into one. It does not take the fine details of an ornate mold. It does not permit the fancy techniques that can be used in cold processing. But it is safe to use that day (although it will get harder if allowed to cure).

The vast majority of salt soap recipes and tutorials are for cold processed soaps. Other than the aforementioned Etsy ads, which contained little information about the process used, I could only find a couple of tutorials—mostly by people like me who prefer hot processing so strongly they had to make the attempt.

The big question for me was does the salt have to go through saponification for the concept to “work?” If so, could you still hot process the mixture after adding salt at trace? Was hot processing salt soap even, like, a possible thing?

Mixing the salt into a batch of beer soap.
Mixing the salt into a batch of beer soap.

The couple of hot processing tutorials that do exist all added the salt after the cook, so I decided to go with that. I did one batch of CP to compare (of course, the whole aggravation of CP in the first place is that you have to wait for it to cure before you can even try it). I did NOT try adding the salt at trace and then attempting to cook it. I have no idea if that’s a viable thing.

Which Oils to Use? Technically, you could just add the salt to any old soap recipe. The problem is that the salt acts against the lather. To overcome the lather-killing effect of the salt, it is better to use a recipe designed specifically for that purpose.

One of the bubbliest oils used by soap-makers is coconut oil. Almost all the salt bar tutorials recommended 70-80% minimum coconut oil to ensure the soap still lathers despite all the salt. I chose to go with 80%.

Weighed against coconut oil’s bubbly propensity is the issue that it is considered by many people to be potentially drying. Soaps with high coconut oil content are often heavily superfatted to compensate for this. Most of the tutorials recommended 20% superfat for a salt bar, and that’s what I used.

After playing around with the results on SoapCalc, I came up with: Coconut 80%, Olive Oil 10%, Castor 9%, Mango Butter 1%.

Other Lather-Related Considerations. Besides choosing the oil combination, there are two other tricks (that I know of, there might be more) to maximize lather.

One is to add sugar (just ordinary white table sugar). The usual rate given is 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of sugar per pound of oils used. There are various methods for incorporating it. The one I use is to reserve 1-2 ounces of my total water measurement for the recipe and dissolve 1 t. per lb. of oils into that water. (If I’m using a liquid other than water, I use 1-2 ounces less of that liquid than the recipe calls for and dissolve the sugar in 1-2 ounces of distilled water to make up the difference). I mix it into the batch at trace.

The other possibility I considered was to use beer as my liquid. The best and bubbliest soaps I have ever made are beer soaps. I used to think this was from natural sugars in the beer. A home-brewer friend of mine recently pointed out that there is no sugar left in the final product of beer (also no yeast, which is sometimes cited as the source of the benefit to soap-making). I therefore no longer have any clue as to the chemical explanation for what beer contributes to soap making.

However, I remain convinced that it does add something.

The most profuse compliments I get are for my beer soap batches, and I have personally observed the difference in lather. After my conversation with the home-brewing friend, I considered the possibility that the difference was just a product of my imagination and expectations. However, in cooking the various batches of salt soap for this tutorial, I tried one batch using beer as the liquid. The difference was so pronounced that I have gone back to believing it is real and not imagined.

This is the batch where I used beer as the liquid. Although the batch was the same size as in the pictures below where I used water as the liquid, it did this almost continually throughout the second, "expansion" phase of the cook. I had to stay right there next to it and stir it back down each time this happened. Eventually, it moved into the third, more settled phase and stopped doing this.
This is the batch where I used beer as the liquid. Although the batch was the same size as in the pictures below where I used water as the liquid, it did this almost continually throughout the second, “expansion” phase of the cook. I had to stay right there next to it and stir it back down each time this happened. Eventually, it moved into the third, more settled phase and stopped doing this.

NOTE: One word of caution about using beer as the liquid. Beer and lye generate an even hotter chemical reaction than water and lye. Not only could this lead to a volcano (of the lye-liquid itself or of the whole mixture after it is added to the oils), but burned beer lye-liquid stinks. The smell will fade from the soap as it cures, but it is better to avoid it altogether; soap cooked with non-burned beer lye-liquid has a distinct and (to me) pleasant scent. It is vital therefore to follow all the precautions for keeping the temperature of the lye-liquid low.

Rather than getting the liquid just on the brink of freezing, I actually let the beer freeze. When it was frozen, I took it outside and set it in a snowbank before adding the lye. The lye instantly melted the frozen beer. I kept it in that snowbank until I could remove the container without having it feel warm to the touch. After adding the lye-liquid to the oils, I had to stay right there at the crock pot as it cooked. It would have overflowed otherwise. I had to repeatedly stir it back down to release heat. At some points, I turned the heat off altogether.

Putting It All Together. I think I mentioned I had decided not to worry about fitting the salt into my mold. I just used the normal weights of all the other ingredients for my 1.9 lb. mold. I didn’t know how much volume the salt would add, so I just kept a second mold on standby for any overflow. The recipe came out as:

Coconut Oil 24.32 oz.
Olive Oil 3.04 oz.
Castor Oil 2.74 oz.
Mango Butter 0.30 oz.

Liquid 11.55 oz. (of which 1.5 were reserved to make the sugar syrup)
Lye 4.21 oz. (20% superfat)

Sugar 1.9 t. dissolved in the reserved water and added to the mix at trace

30.4 oz. salt (equal to the total oil weight) mixed in at the end of the cook

The Process. I followed my usual hot processing method.

This is before trace. you can see that some of the liquid and/or oils is not yet fully emulsified.
This is before trace. you can see that some of the liquid and/or oils is not yet fully emulsified.
  1. Measure the oils into the crock pot on high to get them melting.
  2. Measure the distilled water into a container and put it in the freezer to get it cooling.
  3. When the water is on the brink of freezing, take it outside and put it in a snowbank (or tub of ice water) and add the lye. If you are using beer, go ahead and let it freeze first. Avoid breathing the fumes while mixing the lye and liquid together. Let the lye-liquid cool in the snow bank or ice water.
  4. When the oils are fully melted, turn off the crock pot.

    This is after trace. Everything is fully emulsified.
    This is after trace. Everything is fully emulsified.
  5. When the lye-liquid container is cool to the touch, pour the lye-liquid into the crock pot with the melted oils.
  6. Mix with a stick blender until trace is reached. Some soapers recommend only turning the stick blender on in brief pulses to avoid burning out the motor. I have never worried overmuch about this, as most of my recipes reach trace quickly. Then again, I have burned out a stick blender too.
  7. When trace is reached, mix in the sugar syrup made by dissolving 1 t. sugar per pound of oils into some reserved distilled water. Mix with the stick blender until it is fully incorporated and a nice thick trace, re-achieved.

    The first, "separation" phase. Note that this is how the mixture looked during this phase immediately after I remixed it. Before I remixed it, the edges had started to climb up the sides of the crock and fall back in on themselves and the separated liquid/oils were pooling in the middle.
    The first, “separation” phase. This is how the mixture looked during this phase immediately after I remixed it. Before I remixed it, the edges had started to climb up the sides of the crock and fall back in on themselves and the separated liquid/oils were pooling in the middle.
  8. Turn the heat back on, cover the pot, and set the timer for 45 minutes. DON’T STOP WATCHING. These mixtures can overheat and volcano out of the pot if you turn your back. If it starts to creep up, do any combination of the following: 1) keep mixing it to let some of the heat out and tame it back into submission; 2) turn down the heat; 3) turn off the heat altogether, the chemical reaction occurring generates its own heat and may be enough to cook itself; 4) keep the lid off the crock pot. This is especially a concern if you used beer for the liquid.
  9. During the cook, the soap will go through different stages. First, it might try to separate a little and you will see separated oils or liquids pooling. Feel free to blend it back together when this occurs (arguably, you don’t have to, but it might make you feel better and will also release some heat). It might look like runny apple sauce during this phase.
    The second, "expansion" or mashed potato phase.
    The second, “expansion” or mashed potato phase.

    Second, it will stop separating and go through a fluffy, expansion phase. This is when it is very likely to overflow the pot if you forget to pay attention. Just follow the steps listed above to deal with it if this starts to happen. It might look like expanding mashed potatoes during this phase.

    Third, it will stop expanding and settle down and just cook for awhile. It might look like vaseline or glossy mashed potatoes during this phase.

    The third, vaseline-like or "glossy mashed potato" stage. The mixture will stop expanding and settle down to just cooking.
    The third, vaseline-like or “glossy mashed potato” stage. The mixture stops expanding and settles down to finish the cook.
  10. Once you’ve reached both 45 minutes and the third phase of the cook, you can test for doneness. There are scientific ways of doing this, using pH test strips or phenolphthalein to confirm a range of 7-10 pH, or you can just do the “tongue test.” Use a tooth pick to swipe up a little of the mixture. Blow on it to cool it off. Spread it over the tip of one finger like warm candle wax. Touch it to your tongue. If it zaps like a battery, it’s not done yet. If it doesn’t give an electrical zap but just tastes like soap, it’s done.
  11. Turn off the heat.

    I forgot to snap any pics of the batches made with water as the liquid after they had been put into the loaf molds. I did snap this one of the beer & salt batch in the slab mold
    Forgot to snap pics of the batches made with water after they had been put into the loaf molds. I did snap this one of the beer & salt batch in the slab mold
  12. Mix in any additives. This will of course include the salt. You could also add colorants or essential oils. You have to work fast here. The more it cools off, the harder it will be to mold into one uniform slab. It will start to break apart into crumbles that won’t stick together.
  13. Get it into the mold fast, ideally while it’s still quite warm.
  14. Check it in an hour. With normal hot processing, you let it sit in the mold overnight. With salt, the mixture hardens quickly and may get too hard to cut. salt soap bars

    As soon as it feels solid and not squishy to the touch, unmold it. An hour is a good estimate of when this might occur. Now is the time to slice it into separate bars.

  15. Try it. The bars will harden the longer they cure, but the soap can be used as soon as you like. Take pictures of all those suds so you can show your friends.


Debriefing After the New Star Wars

  1. StarWars_ForceAwakensThe new Luke Skywalker is a girl. Way less sulky than the old one though.
  2. The new Han Solo is super young. Too young to have any sort of crush on like I did the old one. I would mention he has nice lips, but it seems age-inappropriate. #Apophasis.
  3. The chemistry between the new girl Luke Skywalker and the new super young Han Solo was pretty cute.
  4. So were the old Han and Chewy.
  5. The new Darth Vader is not a girl, but still kinda effete.

    Left to right: New Han, new Luke, new Darth.
    Left to right: New Han, new Luke, new Darth.
  6. The new R2-D2 is roly poly and cutie patootie and expressive.
  7. Stormtroopers still shoot wide.
  8. Princess Leia’s face is not the same.
  9. She might be a smoker.
  10. The new Emperor Palpatine is Gollum.
  11. A thing happened that made me feel feelings. Even though we knew it was coming, I wasn’t ready. I will, in a meaningful sense, never be ready.
  12. Something else happened that started out seeming kinda sexist and I was imaging how if even I (who wrote all those sexist things above; see 1, 5 and possibly 8) was annoyed, then the shrill legions must be losing their heads. Then it got gratifyingly unsexist.
  13. You know how we’ve been saying “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for” for the last twenty-five years? Well that line has its own new incarnation, and my daughter repeated it twelve times on the way out of the theater.
  14. The family sitting next to us consisted of five members each one decked out in full, top-to-bottom Star Wars character regalia.
  15. The visual effects were pleasing, and the film managed to evoke the originals in style and ambience.
  16. There was a hurdle to overcome in getting the old audience to care about new characters and their relationships without a lot of time spent on back-story and buildup.
  17. I think it worked. It probably did for younger audiences, and I felt like I had gotten there by the end. I wanted more Rey, Finn and Poe and I wanted them all to be together.
  18. Also more Chewy, R2 and BB-8.
  19. I thought the final scene was in Scotland, but it was Ireland and very beautiful.

Soap Tutorial Part III: The Process

oil combo meltingIn Part I: The Components, we covered necessary and optional ingredients of soap. In Part II: The Recipe, we covered how to create a recipe and calculate the measurements. In this Part III, we cover the supplies needed, the technique and how to put it all together.

We’ve reached the part where you’re actually going to make soap!


In addition to the ingredients (castor oil, cocoa butter, olive oil, palm kernel oil, shea butter, distilled water, sodium hydroxide, salt or sodium lactate, sugar and essential oils), you will also need:

Long sleeved-shirt
Rubber gloves
Safety goggles
Crock pot
Kitchen scale
Plastic or wooden mixing spoons/spatulas
Containers for measuring things into (preferably heavy duty plastic)
Measuring cup to hold the liquid (stainless steel or heavy duty plastic)
Microwavable container for small amount of liquid to mix the sugar
Stick/Immersion blender with plastic guard (so it doesn’t scrape the enamel off the crock pot)
Small condiment container for mixing EOs with arrowroot powder
Mixing bowl to blend cooked soap with EOs
Soap mold(s)

The Process

The best way to explain hot processing (HP) is to compare it with cold processing (CP) and a hybrid called cold process oven processing (CPOP). I have done both HP and CP, with great results, but have not yet tried CPOP.

Cold Processing (CP). In cold processing, you bring your mixture to trace (the point of emulsification, explained below). Then pour it into the mold and wrap it in a blanket or towel to keep it warm. Saponification completes while the soap is in the mold. You unwrap and remove it from the mold the following day, cutting it into individual bars (if the mold didn’t already make individual bars). Then the bars cure until they are ready to be used. Methods of testing for readiness include pH strips, phenolphthalein or, literally, touching your tongue to the soap to see if it “zaps” (kid you not).

Things to note about cold processing:

  • There seems to be a greater need with this method to control for and correlate the temperatures of the oils and lye-liquid to each other at the time they are added together. I think the issue is that you are trying to keep all the ingredients as cool as possible so that the soap doesn’t get too far along the cooking process before you get it into the mold. As soap cooks, it goes through different stages and for cold processing you don’t necessarily want it reaching some of those stages before it’s in the mold.
  • Cold processed soap is generally in a fluid, liquid state when it is poured into a mold. Therefore, it is easier to mold and allows for more detailed, elaborate molds than can successfully be used with hot processing.
  • Any additives (EOs, clays, powders, colors, etc.) have to be added before the mixture is poured into the mold—which means before saponification is complete—which means they are going to be subject to that process. That can affect the scent, color or characteristics of some additives.
  • Even after being removed from the mold/cut into bars, the soap has to “cure” until it is safe to use.
  • If there is a problem with your lye ratio, you won’t know it right away. You won’t know it until your soap bars fail to reach the point of being safe to use (using one of these tests).

Hot Process (HP). With hot processing, there seems to be somewhat less need to correlate the temperatures of the oils and lye-liquid to each other before adding them together. You are going to be cooking them anyway.

You do still need to cool the lye-liquid. This is to prevent the mixture from getting so hot it overflows when you pour the lye-liquid into the oils. I cool the lye-liquid until the container feels cool to my touch. If you want something more scientific, aim for under 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

I also cool the melted oils before pouring the lye-liquid into them, but this is because I include sugar in the recipe. Sugar can increase the natural heat generated by the chemical processes. I don’t measure the temperature. I simply cool the crock containing the melted oils  in the same ice-water bath as the lye-liquid until the lye-liquid container feels cool to my touch.

Then I put the crock back into the crock pot base and add the cooled lye-liquid. Bring the mixture to trace (emulsification). Rather than pouring into the mold at that point, you stop stirring and let the mixture cook. It’s done cooking when the saponification process is complete at which point the soap is safe to use.

Again, you can use pH test strips or phenolphthalein for this. I always use the tongue test. I use a toothpick to remove a little bit of the mixture. Then (blowing on it first to cool it off a little), I rub it onto my finger until it forms a coating like warm wax. Then I touch that two my tongue. If it “zaps” like licking a battery, it’s not done cooking. If it doesn’t zap, but just tastes like soap, it’s done cooking.

Once it’s done, remove it from heat and mix in any additives. Then mold it. You don’t have to wrap the mold. The next day, remove the mold and cut the soap (if necessary). It is safe to use immediately, but it will get harder the longer it cures.

Things to consider about hot processing:

  • Once you’ve reached trace and stopped stirring, you still have to monitor this mixture closely. It can overheat and volcano out of your pot. If this starts to happen, don’t panic. Lower the heat setting or turn it off altogether. Use your blender to release some of the heat and blend it back down.
  • Sometimes, depending on ingredients, the mixture can be so hot it doesn’t need any heat applied and can just cook itself. (It’ll cool off when it’s done).
  • Even if it doesn’t volcano, the mixture will expand. Use a pot that is plenty big for your batch so that it has room to do this without overflowing.
  • You can’t really overcook it, so don’t worry about that.
  • When you remove the mixture from heat after the cook, it is going to be very hot. Some of the additives “take” better if the mixture is cooler—but the longer it cools, the more it hardens, making it harder to blend and harder to mold.
  • By the time you are putting it into the mold, it may well be the consistence of clumpy mashed potatoes. It does not pour into and accept the form of a mold as beautifully as cold processed soap. It has an entirely different look.

    Washing the dishes in the soap I just made with them.
    Washing soap making dishes in the soap I just made with them.

I prefer hot processing to cold processing for the following reasons. I like being able to blend in the additives after “the cook” (the saponification process) is complete on the theory that their beneficial qualities (for me, it is mainly the scent) survive better that way. I like knowing the recipe has “worked” and having soap that is ready to be used safely that day. I like being able to wash all my utensils in the lovely, warm, safe-to-use soap that I just made.

NOTE: I use a crock pot to cook my soap, but you could hot process soap in a double boiler or even a regular pot. I have never done either, so please do additional research before attempting.

Cold Process Oven Process (CPOP). I have never tried this one, but I will soon. In this technique, you bring the mixture to trace, mix in any additives, and pour into the mold(s), just like with cold processing. But instead of wrapping the mold in a blanket, you put it in a heated oven and let it cook in the mold for awhile. I guess you would need to make sure your mold is designed to withstand whatever heat you are using.

It is very much an individual preference. You will want to read about and try both. Also, there are other methods of hot processing that don’t involve a crock pot. But mine does, and this is how you do it:

Putting It All Together

This is before trace.
This is before trace.

Before starting, let’s talk about “trace.” Trace is the point when the oils, the lye and the liquid are emulsified. It’s an important “before and after” point in soap-making so you need to know what it looks like. Before trace, if you pull the blender out of the mixture, there is a smooth, unbroken surface. After trace, if you pull the blender out, it leaves indents behind in the mixture. Before trace, if you shake drops of the mixture off the bottom of the blender, they disappear immediately into the liquid. After trace, they will be visible on the surface for at least a little while before sinking back in. With that in mind:

  1. Measure your liquid into a container and put it in the freezer. It’s better not to let it actually freeze, but rather get right to the brink of freezing. Trying to mix lye into frozen water can be a pain. Remember to reserve (put into a separate container) a couple of ounces to use for the sugar water.
  2. Measure the oils/fats/butters into your crock pot. Turn the heat on and let them melt. I usually use the high setting.
  3. Fill the sink or a plastic tub with ice water. Add some vinegar and keep the jug of vinegar nearby for any emergencies.
  4. Measure the lye into a suitable container. Wear long sleeves, rubber gloves and safety goggles. Review lye safety rules here.
  5. When the lye water is on the brink of freezing, take it outside. Bring a plastic tub of ice water and vinegar or use a snow bank if one is available. Also bring a spoon or spatula (made of stainless steel, wood or plastic) for stirring. Take a separate trip for the lye so you can carry it with both (gloved) hands.
  6. Sprinkle the lye into the water—never the other way around—while stirring. You’re wearing your long sleeves, rubber gloves and safety goggles, right? Fumes will be emitted. Avoid breathing them in as you stir. Once the fumes are released and the lye is fully dissolved, you can bring the container back inside the house if you want or just let it continue cooling outside. Either way, it should sit in the ice-water bath or the snow bank as it cools.
  7. Keep one eye on the lye liquid as it cools. It is capable of creating a little, miniature volcano. This is most likely to occur when the lye is first added to the liquid and/or if you are using a liquid other than water. But it pays to be vigilant. Have it near a place where it can be dealt with quickly if necessary (i.e., poured down the drain or into the ground or tipped into your vinegar and ice water).
  8. Make the sugar water. While the lye is cooling and the oils are melting, use the microwave to heat the small amount of distilled water reserved for this purpose. Stir in the sugar until it is dissolved.
  9. Add the salt or sodium lactate. Once your lye-liquid container is cool to the touch, add your salt or sodium lactate and mix until dissolved.
  10. Pour lye-liquid into the oils. Once your oils are melted and your lye-liquid container (with the salt/sodium lactate stirred in) is cool to the touch, turn off the heat on the crock pot and pour the lye-liquid into the oils. Wear long sleeves, rubber gloves and safety goggles.

    This is after trace.
    This is after trace.
  11. Mix with the stick blender.  Some people do this in short pulses. I think this is to preserve the motor on the stick blender. I just go for it. Keep mixing until you reach “trace.” As explained above, you have reached trace when the blender leaves visible trails or tracks in the mixture and/or drops remain visible on the surface rather than immediately disappearing into the mix.Whether you turn the heat back on while you are mixing depends on a couple of factors. If the mixture is getting too hot (wanting to creep up and over the sides of the crock pot), leave it off. If the mixture is taking too long to reach trace, you might turn it back on to help speed up the process.
  12. Pour in the sugar water. Once you have reached trace, pour in your sugar water and mix well.
  13.  Let it cook. Stop mixing and set the blender down. (The mixture on the blender is probably still caustic, so set it on a paper towel or plate or plastic container.) Put the lid on the crock pot and turn the heat on low (unless the mixture seemed to get too hot when you added the sugar, in which case give it a little while to see how it goes before turning on the heat).
  14. EOs and Arrowroot. While it’s cooking, measure your EOs into a little condiment or sauce container. Blend in the arrowroot powder in an amount that feels Maybe…a couple tablespoons for this 5-pound batch…?

    This is the "mashed potato" phase of cooking soap.
    This is the “mashed potato” phase of cooking soap.
  15. Don’t stop watching it. If you stop watching it, is guaranteed to do this thing where it creeps up the side of the crock pot and spills out from under the lid and over the sides and all over your kitchen. If this starts happening, you will do any combination of the following to get the heat back down: 1) blend the mixture back down with the stick blender to release heat; 2) keep the lid off the pot; 3) turn the heat back off.
  16. Cooking stages. I have seen two different approaches to letting the soap cook. They are both fun in different ways. I have done them both. Both work. I’m not sure there’s any meaningful difference.
    This is the glossy mashed potato phase. I would start testing for doneness after this point.
    This is the glossy mashed potato phase. I would start testing for doneness after this point.

    The first involves setting a timer for say 50 minutes and watching for three phases. In the first, the mixture keeps wanting to separate. You will see clear liquid or clear oils separating from the rest. When you see that, use the blender to blend it back in. Keep doing that until it stops separating. Second, it stops separating and become a cohesive, mashed-potato-like mixture. Now it’s going to start expanding and getting fluffier as it cooks. Just make sure it doesn’t go over the edges. Third, it will being to look more like vaseline or like glossy, translucent mashed potatoes. When you hit the 50 minute mark AND reached the vaseline phase, test for doneness.

    It may be hard to tell, but there is a layer of clear liquid or oil on the top of this mixture. This is the "separation" phase. You can see how one side has started climbing the wall and falling back in on itself. If I had let it go, it would have eventually created an island around the separated liquid until it was swamped over, at which point you would blend and test. In this batch, I blended back together each time the mixture separated.
    It may be hard to tell, but there is a layer of clear liquid or oil on the top of this mixture. This is the “separation” phase that preceded the mashed potato and glossy phases in the two photos above. You can see how one side has started climbing the wall and falling back in on itself. If I had let it go, it would have eventually created an island around the separated liquid until it was swamped over, at which point you would blend and test. In this batch, I blended back together each time the mixture separated.

    In the other approach to the stages of cooking, you don’t worry about doing any blending during the separation phase or using a timer. Just leave the lid on and watch. The separated liquids will begin to move toward the center. Unseparated, cooking soap will rise up the walls of the crock pot and fold over onto themselves, thus surrounding the clear, separated liquids, which will become an increasingly smaller island in the middle. When that island is gone, blend the mixture for a little bit, recover and let it cook for another 5-10 minutes. Then test for doneness.

    Using either method, I am usually to the point of testing for doneness by the 50 minute mark, but it varies from batch to batch and this is just a guideline.

  1. Tongue-test. Check for doneness by using a toothpick to remove some of the mixture. Blow on it to cool it off. Spread it over a fingertip. Touch that fingertip to your tongue. If it gives you an electric zap like licking a battery, it’s not done. Cook for another 15 minutes and check again. Keep cooking until it stops zapping.

NOTE: If the zap freaks you out, keep a glass of milk at the ready. The milk will neutralize the lye. You can rinse your mouth out with it.

NOTE: If you’ve been cooking for over an hour with these ingredients and you’re still getting zapped, there’s a chance something has gone wrong. You may be lye-heavy. If it’s been two hours, it’s time to pack it in. Turn off the heat and Google for creative options to deal with a soap mess-up. You have my heartfelt sympathy.

In the mold.
In the mold.
  1. Remove from heat. Once it’s done zapping, remove from heat. Pour into a mixing bowl and let it cool for awhile (keeping in mind it will get progressively harder to mix and mold as it cools).
  1. Add the EOs. Sometimes I stick a thermometer down into the mixture so that I know exactly when the temperature falls below the flashpoint of my EOs. Remix the solution of EO and arrowroot to make sure it is well combined. Then pour it over the soap and mix in with a blender (probably a traditional blender; the stick blender won’t work well at this point due to the consistency).
  2. Pour into the mold(s). With hot processed soap, “pour” can mean more like scoop it up with a spoon and plunk it into the mold as best you can.
  3. Cool overnight. Have some wine. You deserve it.

    Remove from the mold the next day, slice and let cure to harden.
    Remove from the mold the next day, slice and let cure to harden.
  4. Remove from mold. The following day, remove it from the mold and cut it into bars (if necessary, some molds already have dividers). The longer you let the soap sit (cure), the harder it will get. But this soap is safe to use immediately.
  1. Enjoy. You just made your first batch of soap! Now start planning your next; it’s called a soap addiction.

For Part I: The Components, click here.
For Part II: The Recipe, click here.

Soap Tutorial Part II: The Recipe

In Part I: The Fundamental Components, we covered the necessary and optional ingredients of a soap recipe. This Part II: The Recipe covers how to design a recipe and calculate measurements. Part III: The Process, will go over the supplies and how to put it all together.

A small batch of my standard recipe containing castor oil, cocoa butter, olive oil, palm kernel oil, and mango butter.
A small batch of my standard recipe containing castor oil, cocoa butter, olive oil, palm kernel oil, and mango butter.

Everything starts with the oils. As covered in Part I, it is possible to make single-oil soaps. Lard, coconut oil and palm oil are all popular options. Most soapers enjoy devising different combinations, however. They do this by perusing breakdowns of the qualities that different oils/fats/butters will impart to the soap.

How a particular combination of oils will work together can be tested on tools like this one at SoapCalc.net, which predicts how the soap will turn out on ranges of qualities such as hardness, cleansing, conditioning, bubbly, etc. Play around with different percentages of the oils you want to use, tinkering with the proportions, until you get the qualities you want.

Alternatively, you can use a recipe already created by someone else. In this case, I am giving you one of my standard combinations:

Castor Oil               7%
Cocoa Butter         10%
Olive Oil                48%
Palm Kernel Oil    25%
Shea Butter            10%
Total                      100%

But those are percentages, not measurements! That brings us to the second step.

Mold Volume = Total Combined Oil Weight. The size of a batch is dictated by the volume of the available mold(s).

There are a variety of soap molds available for sale, loaf molds, slab molds, soap molds with divides, wood molds, acrylic molds, plastic molds, etc. You don’t have to buy one though.

You can just use what you have on hand. A meatloaf or bread pan. A cupcake pan (use cupcake liners or it will be hard to get the pieces out). A cake dish. A pizza box or shoebox. Whatever ya got. Just keep the following in mind:

  • Generally you shouldn’t use aluminum for soap making because lye will react with it. If you’re hot processing your soap, it isn’t molded until the lye is fully neutralized. So if you’re certain you got it fully cooked, it should be okay to use aluminum, right? If you’re not convinced, use stainless steel or ceramic or stoneware or a cardboard box.
  • If you’re using a purchased mold, follow the directions that came with it as to whether it needs to be lined. If you’re using something that you have on hand, line it with freezer paper or parchment paper (or cupcake wrappers as the case may be) so that it is easier to get the hardened soap out. Google “how to line a soap mold” for various tutorials on how to do this most efficiently.

If you want the recipe to fit into a specific mold, you have to determine the volume that mold will hold. A purchased soap mold will specify.

If you are using a mold of unknown volume, Google “how to calculate the volume of a soap mold. What I have done in the past is: 1) calculate the volume of the mold in cubic inches by multiplying the length by the width by the height; 2) multiply the resulting volume by .40.

This is the total combined amount of oils in ounces to use in the recipe. The percentages allocated to each oil by playing around with the SoapCalc tool (or following my recipe) are percentages of whatever volume in total oils your mold is designed to hold.

NOTE: You might be thinking, “What about the lye and liquid? Don’t those have to fit too?” I can’t explain chemically or mathematically why that you don’t need to worry about them—but I never have and neither do most of the soapers I follow.

I have an acrylic mold with dividers that I ordered online from Soap Making Resource. It was designed to hold 5 pounds of soap. I find this results in bars so thick they are clumsy to use at first. Two and a half pounds results in reasonably sized bars. Obviously, it will accommodate anything between those two.

One of my small loaf molds, lined with freezer paper and filled with freshly cooked hot-processed soap.
One of my small loaf molds, lined with freezer paper and filled with freshly cooked hot-processed soap.

I also have two smaller loaf molds purchased from Michaels (I used coupons to get steep discounts on these). I see now that they are specified to hold 3 pounds of soap. With hot process, you can pile your (mashed potato consistency) soap up above the level of the mold. Still, even taking that into account, I’m skeptical that 3 pounds of soap would fit comfortably into these molds. I’ve always used the calculation described above to come up with a smaller amount: 9 inches long x 3 ¾ inches wide x 2 ¼ inches high = 75.9375 x .40 = 30.375 ounces (1.9 pounds).

I also have a loaf baking dish that I sometimes use (all of them except the acrylic one get lined with parchment or freezer paper) that works out like this: 9 inches long x 5 inches wide x 3 ¼ inches deep = 146.25 x .40 = 58.5 (3.66 pounds).

So here’s how the percentages of oil would convert to measurements for each of my mold volumes:

Oil              Percent        1.9 lbs.         2.5 lbs.         3.66 lbs.       5 lbs.
Castor            7 %           2.13 oz.        2.8 oz.          4.10 oz.        5.6 oz.
Cocoa B.      10 %           3.04 oz.       4.00 oz.       5.86. oz.       8.00 oz.
Olive Oil     48 %          14.59 oz.     19.20 oz.     28.11 oz.        38.40 oz.
PKO             25 %           7.60 oz.      10.00 oz.     14.64 oz.      20.00 oz.
Shea B.        10 %           3.04 oz.        4.00 oz.       5.86 oz.        8.00 oz.

As you can see, soap recipes are often about percentages rather than about measurements. The measurements change depending on what volume you want to achieve based on your mold(s).

Now. What about the lye and liquid and other things?

As discussed in Part I, all but the lye are based off the oil amounts. The lye is the only complicated one. We’ll tackle that now.

Calculating the Lye. Don’t worry—you don’t have to do any of the math if you don’t want! There are various online calculators that will determine lye amounts for your recipe in a matter of moments. All you have to do is tell the calculator how much soap you want to make and what oils (in percentages or weights, depending on the particular calculator) you are planning to use.

You should at least know the theory behind the math, though.

This will prevent you from doing anything silly (and dangerous) like finding a recipe on the Internet, deciding to substitute an oil you have on hand for one in the recipe, and then using the same lye measurement as was given in the original recipe.

In fact, I never accept the lye weight given in a recipe designed by someone else—even if I’m not making changes to the oils. The reason is that if there is an error in the calculation, at best you might waste ingredients on a failed batch of soap (lye heavy soap can be recycled into laundry soap—but that’s another tutorial). At worst, you might burn yourself or someone else with caustic soap.

Some websites won’t even give lye weights for their recipes for this reason; they will just tell you to go run the oils through a lye calculator.

Even if they do give it, always double check the lye weight using at least two online lye calculators. If you do want to  know how to do the math yourself:

Each different fat/oil/butter has its own individual “saponification value.” That is the amount of lye in milligrams required to “marry” all of the molecules in one gram of that fat.

NOTE: Official saponification values are expressed in milligrams of potassium hydroxide. Sodium hydroxide is used in bar soap. Official sap values have to be converted when using sodium hydroxide (unless they have already been converted; be sure to check) by dividing the KOH value by the ratio of the molecular weights of KOH and NaOH (1.403). Of course, if you use an online lye calculator, you simply tell it which kind of lye you are using and it takes care of the calculations.

There are lists of oil saponification values on the web. Many have sap values in both KOH and NaOH, so there is no need to convert. There are variations between the lists. This is because ingredients aren’t standardized—they differ from source to source and even batch to batch. The lists are compiled using an average of reported from values from different sources. Research each list and decide which to use as a default. How to deal with the unavoidable uncertainty is discussed below.

For purposes of illustration only, I am using the following as ap values for my list of oils:

Oil                                KOH                            NaOH
Castor                           .18                                  .128
Cocoa Butter               .1918                              .137
Olive Oil                      .1876                              .134
Palm Kernel Oil         .2184                              .156
Shea Butter                 .1792                              .128

(Some of these are a little low in comparison with values given on some lists. That’s ok. We’re just using this for illustration purposes and, in connection with online calculators, to generate a range of lye weights.)

These numbers tell you how much of that type of lye you need to saponify each oil using consistent units of measurement. So .128 of an ounce of sodium hydroxide is how much you need to saponify an ounce of castor oil. Or .134 of a gram of sodium hydroxide will saponify one gram of olive oil. Or .156 of a pound of sodium hydroxide will saponify a pound of palm kernel oil.

Let’s apply those values to my recipe to calculate the total lye weight for a 1.9-pound batch of soap (because you should start small):

Oil              Percent        1.9 lbs.           Sap Value    Lye Needed
Castor           7 %              2.13 oz.          .128              0.2726
Cocoa B.      10 %            3.04 oz.          .137              0.4165
Olive Oil     48 %           14.59 oz.          .134               1.955
PKO             25 %            7.60 oz.          .156               1.1856
Shea B.        10 %            3.04 oz.          .128              0.3891
                                                         TOTAL LYE        4.2188

Setting aside the uncertainties mentioned above, we need 4.2188 ounces of sodium hydroxide to make a 1.9-pound our recipe using the percentages of oils we have chosen.

Now we need to consider the implications of those aforementioned uncertainties. We know that the ratio is not going to be exact because we don’t know the specific values of our individual batches of oils and we don’t know the precise impurity level of our lye. Would we rather err on the side of too much or too little lye?

Let us consider the possibilities: 1) heavy on the lye; 2) exactly even; or, 3) heavy on the fat.

Heavy on the lye. All of the fat molecules get married. But some of the lye molecules are still hanging out, single, watching Netflix and collecting cats. Being lye-heavy can make for an extra-cleansing soap. Some people intentionally make it that way to use in a clothes washer, for example.

Lye-heavy soap can be unpleasant or dangerous (depending on how lye heavy) for skin use, however. For skin soap, it is best if all the molecules of lye get married to a nice fat person so their lye aunts and uncles can stop pestering them already.

Which leads to one of the other two possibilities:

Perfectly balanced. I have mainly seen exact ratios of lye-to-fat come up in liquid soap-making for one of two reasons: the soap-maker wants the soap to be maximally cleansing or the soap-maker is attempting to make perfectly clear liquid soap (free oils will turn the liquid soap cloudy).

As already mentioned, due to impurities in and differences between individual batches of ingredients, it is all but impossible to get the ratio exactly right. There will be a chance of unmarried lye left at the end. People who do these techniques have ways of counteracting that (such as by adding some other acid at the end, like a citrus, to neutralize any remaining lye).

I don’t know a whole lot about these techniques. I don’t have any particular need for clear liquid soap and have never attempted to make it that way. I have painfully dry skin, so I have always been more interested in making soap moisturizing than clear. Which brings us to the third option.

Fat heavy. In this approach, you “super-fat” or “lye discount,” which means using less lye (commonly by 5-8%, but some people take it further) than would be needed to saponify all the fat. This ensures that all the lye molecules get married. It also makes for a more moisturizing final product (because some of the oils are left unattached to engage in heavy make-out sessions with your skin). It won’t be quite as cleansing though.

NOTE: Theoretically, you can influence which fat’s particles remains free. The way to do this is to reserve some portion or all of that oil/fat/butter from the mixture. Pour the lye-liquid in without that ingredient added yet. Bring the mixture to trace (emulsification, discussed in Part III). At that point, all the other oils are married. Now add your reserved ingredient. Some of it will enter into a shotgun union with whatever free lye remains. The rest will be the “super-fat” that remains at the end. (If it were me, I’d choose one of the butters for this.)

I generally make my recipes with 7-8% super-fat/lye discount without worrying about which oils remain. For purposes of illustration:

4.2188 x .92 (a 8% discount or 8% superfat) = 3.88 ounces of sodium hydroxide.

Recall from Part I that I calculate my water as 38% of total oils (1.9 lbs.) for a measurement of 11.55 ounces of water in which to dissolve the lye. Other people use 2x or 3x their lye weight as the water measurement.

Now let’s check our results by running the same recipe through a couple of online soap calculators. The two I use most frequently are the one at SoapCal.net and the one at Majestic Mountain Sage.

SoapCalc tells me I need 4.05 ounces of lye and 11.55 ounces of water.

MMS gives me 3.99 ounces of lye and 8-11 ounces of water. In Part I, I mentioned that I sometimes use sodium lactate in the lye liquid. I see that MMS gives a range for sodium lactate in ounces (.3-.91 ounces) rather than teaspoons and directs me to use the high end of the water range if I am going to use the SL (which I would do anyway given my high altitude).

So we can see that both SoapCalc and MMS came out with higher lye weights than I came up with myself. That is probably because I was using sap values from a list that had consistently lower values than other lists.

Because I trust both SoapCalc and MMS, and because I am not averse to heavy superfatting, I would feel comfortable using any amount of lye between my own calculation on the low end and SoapCalc’s on the high end. Most likely, I would go with the middle number and use the measurement given by MMS.

Now we are ready to put our recipe together. I am giving the measurements for a 1.9-pound recipe. Hopefully you now understand how to modify this for any other volume you wish to make:

Oil              Percent         1.9 lbs.
Castor            7 %            2.13 oz.
Cocoa B.      10 %            3.04 oz.
Olive Oil     48 %           14.59 oz.
PKO             25 %             7.60 oz.
Shea B.        10 %             2.13 oz.

Liquid 11.55 ounces of distilled water (of which I will reserve two for the sugar)
Lye 3.99 ounces
Sodium Lactate 0.30-0.91/1 teaspoon OR table salt at 1 teaspoon

Sugar 2 teaspoons (dissolved in reserved distilled water)

Essential Oils 1.43 ounces
Arrowroot in a magical, unspecifiable amount that just feels right

You’ve reached the home stretch. Now all you need are the supplies and the technique. I’ll cover both in Part III: The Process.

For Part I: The Components, click here.
For Part III: The Process, click here.

Soap Tutorial Part I: The Fundamental Components

This is Part I of my beginner’s soap-making tutorial. It covers the fundamental components of soap. Part II covers how to create a recipe and calculate the measurements—and gives you one of my standard recipes! Part III covers the supplies and the process.

sliced loaf soapTo understand how to create soap, it helps to first understand what soap is.

Soap” is the product that results from saponification. Saponification is the happy union of a fatty acid to a base, resulting in that lovely, bubbling, cleansing stuff we call soap.

Historically, the “acid” was supplied by the fat of an animal. The “base” was supplied by wood ash. I like to imagine that as our ancestors roasted an animal (shot with a long bow, in my imagination) over their wood fire, fat dripped down into the ash. Later it rained or they poured out water to quench the fire, and they noticed the resulting bubbly stuff was useful for cleaning their (magical) swords.

This could be all a figment of my imagination. Maybe soap was invented in some ancient laboratory by people wearing the ancient laboratory equivalent white lab coats. Either way, what is important for you to know (because I know you’re loving that stuff about animal fat and wood ash and longbows and magical swords—admit it) is that yes, you can still make soap the old way. I have never done it, however, and that is not the method I am covering today.

Instead we will use the same three basic components (acid, base and liquid) but we will use modern ingredients and cook our soap in a crock pot.

The Fat

Today we have many options for the fat (acid) part of the soap:

  • Traditional animal fats like tallow and lard.
  • A seemingly endless variety of oils: olive oil, coconut oil, palm kernel oil, sunflower oil, sweet almond oil, apricot kernel oil, sesame oil, avocado oil, etc.
  • Butters like shea butter, cocoa butter or mango butter.

Yes, all of these fats, oils and butters are “acids” (correlated: our skin’s natural pH is acidic). Most soap-makers refer to them collectively as “oils” or “fats.”

It is possible to make single-ingredient soaps (by which I mean a single fat or oil, not truly a single ingredient since you would still need the base and the liquid). Lard, coconut oil, palm oil and olive oil are all possibilities for soap made from a single fat. The butters would be less ideal as a single ingredient, but add lovely qualities when used in combination with other oils and fats.

So how do we choose?

Each fat is comprised of different types and proportions of acid constituents, each of which impart different qualities. You can find breakdowns of popular soap ingredients on the web. I have used is this one at the Summer Bee Meadow website many times. I found another at Lovinsoap.com by Googling “properties of soap making oils.”

A small batch of my standard recipe containing castor oil, cocoa butter, olive oil, palm kernel oil, and mango butter.
A small batch of my standard recipe containing castor oil, cocoa butter, olive oil, palm kernel oil, and mango butter.

Using these lists as a starting point, play around with different combinations on this tool at SoapCalc.net to devise a combination of oils that will impart the qualities you want.

I designed my standard combination using this tool, and know from experience that it makes lovely, bubbly, moisturizing soap: 7% castor oil, 10% cocoa butter, 48% olive oil, 25% palm kernel oil/coconut oil and 10% shea butter/mango butter.

The castor oil and olive oil I buy locally. All the rest I usually order online. I have used SoapGoods.com, Brambleberry, Soap Making Resource, Amazon, Etsy and probably some other sources I am now forgetting.

The Base

The base (or alkali) part of our modern soap recipe comes from lye. Two different forms of lye are used in soap making. In general:

Sodium hydroxide (NaOH) is used to make bar soap.
Potassium hydroxide (KOH) is used to make liquid soap.

I say “in general” because there are advanced soap making techniques—such as for cream soap—that incorporate both forms of lye. We will leave that for another day. This tutorial is for bar soap, so I will be using sodium hydroxide (NaOH). I order mine off of Amazon from a seller called Essential Depot.

Before working with lye, see these safety tips.

The Liquid

Our hypothetical early discoverers of soap, sitting around their wood fire roasting meat, used rain water or water from the (mystical) stream or river nearby. Modern soap-makers can get all kinds of adventurous. Beer. Tea. Goat’s milk. Even glycerin (for liquid soap).

I have made soap with all of the foregoing. Currently, however, I make bar soap only with water or beer. There are several reasons for this.

First, I am not convinced the beneficial qualities of something like cream or goat’s milk will survive the saponification process anyway. On the other hand, the sugar in beer is believed to contribute to a bubblier soap. The best soap I have ever made is beer soap.

Second, ingredients capable of “going bad” (e.g., anything food or beverage related, though I’m not sure about beer) increase the chances of the soap going bad.

Third (and most importantly for beginners), the substances in these alternative liquids can make your lye get even hotter—hot to the point of bubbling up into a little mini-volcano in your kitchen. Any liquid with natural sugars, for example (this includes beer), could get very hot.

For these reasons, I recommend using distilled water in the beginning and venturing into other liquids after careful research.

NOTE: To my knowledge, the majority of soap-makers use distilled water and not tap water. I have read different explanations for why that is: tap water contains impurities; tap water contains substances added by the utility company; tap water can contribute to the soap going bad sooner; etc. Other people use tap water and insist it works just fine.

The amount of liquid to use is calculated in different ways by different soapers. I’ve always used 38% of my total oil weight. Examples:

2.5 pounds of oils x 16 ounces per pound = 40 ounces of oils x .38 = 15.2 ounces of liquid.
5 pounds of oils x 16 ounces per pound = 80 ounces of oils x .38 = 30.4 ounces of liquid.

Some people use other calculations, such as 2x the lye weight or 3x the lye weight, as their liquid measurement. Others just use the measurement given by whatever online lye calculator they prefer to use. Several considerations to keep in mind:

  • At my altitude, I can generally exceed the liquid ranges given by a particular recipe or by an online soap calculator without causing any problems. In fact, I sometimes need to exceed them or the mixture gets too dry. At lower altitudes, people may have very different experiences with the amount of liquid that works best for them.
  • My bars have ingredients that make them hard. A recipe with all soft oils might do better with less moisture.
  • Different oils contribute to a faster or slower “trace” (the point at which the oils, liquid and lye are all emulsified; we will talk about it more below). My combination seems to trace pretty quickly. If you had a slow-tracing combination, you might want less liquid to help it get there faster.
  • If you want the bars to get hard faster, use less liquid.

Optional Other Ingredients

Fat, lye and liquid are the three fundamental components of soap. The list of optional additional ingredients, however, is endless. I’ll cover the ones I use with sufficiently regularity to merit discussion.

Salt or Sodium Lactate. I am not speaking here about enough salt to make salt bars. I mean a small amount of salt dissolved into the cooled lye-liquid before it is poured into the oils. This is done on the theory that it might make the soap bars get harder faster. I have used both sodium lactate and plain old table salt for this. The ratio I have always used is ½ t. of salt (or sodium lactate) per pound of oils used. In preparing this tutorial I noticed that the Majestic Mountain Sage online calculator recommends a higher ratio measured in ounces not teaspoons.

Sugar. Sugar is believed to contribute to a bubblier lather. There are three common methods for incorporating it, which you can read about here. The one I follow is to reserve (keep separate) a small amount (say 2 ounces) of the total liquid measurement, warm it in the microwave, and dissolve the sugar in it. Then I blend the sugar water into the soap mixture upon reaching the point of trace (emulsification). The ratio is ½-1 t. of sugar per pound of oils used.

Essential Oils. Essential oils enrich the emotional appeal of the soap. I’m not sure they add actual qualities to the soap (other than scent). Particularly in cold processing (where the EOs of necessity are added before the saponification process is complete), their qualities and scent may not survive (or may be altered by) the process. Expert soap-makers seem to agree that some EOs survive better than others.

Little treasure chest of essential oils.
Little treasure chest of essential oils.

In hot processing, the EOs can be added after the saponification is complete. I love them for their scents. However, be aware that many EOs have low “flash points.” This means that the EO evaporates or burns away at a low temperature. This can cause problems if you’re trying to add it in while your hot processed soap mixture is still warm enough to be mix-able. You can let your cooked soap cool so that won’t happen—but keep in mind that as it cools, the soap mixtures gets progressively harder to mix and mold.

Even once you get the scent firmly anchored into the soap, it sometimes fades away as the bars cure.

Does this mean you should forego EOs? No, it just means to research them to find ones that have higher flash points, long-lasting scents, work well as soap additives, etc.

The standard rate I have seen given most often for EOs is .5 oz. per pound of oils in the recipe. I’m not sure I’ve ever achieved a truly satisfying end result with this rate. The best results have been when I’ve just gone mad and poured in a shit ton of EO. I realize “shit ton” is not a very helpful measurement—but some aspects of this are more art than science. Maybe .75-1 ounce per pound of oils used?

NOTE: Fragrance oils are not the same thing as essential oils. I have never used fragrance oils for soap making. I imagine it’s the same deal as with EOs—i.e., each one has a different usage rate, flash point, propriety to the application, etc.

Arrowroot Powder. Some people add arrowroot powder to make their soap silkier. Some claim it has healing properties. I use it to “anchor” the scent of the essential oils. In other words, the theory is that the arrowroot powder will “hold onto” the EO and help prevent it from evaporating out or fading away.

The way I do it is this: I have a little condiment cup with my EOs in it. I add arrowroot powder, mixing as I go, until I like the consistency. I still want to be able to mix the EOs into the soap, so it can’t be too clumpy or it won’t mix well. But I want to feel like I’ve got all that EO “anchored.”

Again this is more art than science.

Usually the mixture separates a little while sitting on the counter waiting to get added to the soap. I remix right before adding.

Other. There is no end to the options. Some people add clay powders (like French clay). There are a variety of natural and artificial methods for adding color. You can add herbs or flowers. You can add salt. Some people add tussah silk.

It doesn’t all have to be mixed in either. You can sprinkle things over the top, or swirl them into your mixture once it’s poured into your mold. Like lavender buds or hibiscus petals or pink Himalayan salt. I have made anise scented soap bars with anise stars pressed into the center of the bar.

This is the part where you get to be an artist with the soap as your canvas.

For Part II: The Recipe, click here.
For Part III: The Process, click here.


Working Safely With Lye

working with lyeI will soon be posting a soap-making tutorial. At least one of my would-be soap maker friends has expressed reservations about working with lye. In preparation for the tutorial, I’m posting this list of thoughts about safely using lye for soap-making:

Wear long sleeves, rubber gloves and safety goggles. Things splatter when making soap. On skin, those splatters could leave burns. In eyes, they could be even more dangerous.

Use non-interactive containers. Lye can interact dangerously with aluminum, magnesium, galvanized zinc, tin, chromium, brass or bronze. Don’t use containers or utensils made of these. I use plastic containers and plastic, wooden or stainless steel utensils.

Glass may also be dangerous. I recently read that over time the lye may cause the glass/pyrex to shatter. Use stainless steel or heavy duty plastic instead.

Dry lye granules aren’t going to burn a hole in you or your countertop. If some dry granules touch your skin, you might not even notice right away. They will become progressively more irritating/painful/dangerous as they interact with the moisture on your skin. Don’t get them in your eyes or on the floor where pets or babies might encounter them. If they spill, wipe or sweep them up, throw them away or rinse them down the sink.

Lye gets hotter and more dangerous when it encounters liquid. A container of lye-liquid is a different and more dangerous animal than a few dry granules of lye.

Chemical interactions involving lye generate heat. There are two points in the soap-making process where you initiate a chemical reaction. The first is when you add the lye into the liquid. The second is when you add the cooled lye-liquid into the oils. The chemical interactions that are initiated at these points can generate a lot of heat even if no outside heat is being applied. Much attention in soap-making is devoted to counteracting those high temperatures, such as by cooling the liquid before adding the lye, setting the container in an ice-water bath, removing heat from the melted oils before adding the lye-liquid, etc.

A particularly dangerous phase of working with the lye is the time between when you add the lye to the liquid and when you pour the lye-liquid into your oils. Before that point, the lye is dry granules that can be brushed off or swept up without too much trauma. After that point the lye-liquid is poured into the oils, becomes diluted, and the neutralization process begins. Between those two points, however, you have an extremely hot, extremely caustic mixture of lye-liquid. It could cause serious burns, probably third degree, and permanent damage to eyes.

Warn family members about what you’re doing and keep children and pets out of the room.

When the lye and liquid meet, they are going to get hot. Depending on the type of liquid and other factors, perhaps really hot, even to the point of boiling over or creating a little mini-volcano. You need to take steps to prevent this from happening and have a plan of action in place to respond if it does.

Prepare a bath of ice-water in the sink or a plastic tub. This is both to deal with a mini-volcano if one occurs and to cool your ingredients.

Lye is a base. It can be neutralized with an acid. I use a jug of cheap, Costco white vinegar. Pour some into the ice-water and keep the jug nearby for any emergencies. Now the ice-water serves a triple purpose. 1) It is a bath for cooling hot containers of lye-liquid, melted oils or cooking soap. 2) It is as an emergency neutralizing bath to submerge a caustic emergency. 3) It is a place to put used utensils and containers that have touched lye.

Get the container of liquid for the recipe very cold before sprinkling the lye into it. I put mine into the freezer and get it right on the brink of freezing (but not quite to the point of freezing because mixing lye into frozen liquid is a pain).

When the lye and liquid meet, they are going to emit fumes. At a minimum, these fumes will be unpleasant; they might cause irritation in sensitive people. To avoid fumes in the house, set the container of very cold liquid into a tub of ice water, take the whole thing outside, and sprinkle the lye into the liquid out there. (Make separate trips so you can use two hands to carry the lye.) If you have snow, you wouldn’t need the tub of ice water; just set the container of liquid into a snow bank. At a minimum, open windows to air out the fumes.

NEVER POUR LIQUID INTO LYE. YOU WILL CREATE A VOLCANO. Sprinkle the lye into the liquid (slowly and carefully)—not the other way around.

Avoid breathing the fumes while stirring the lye until it is fully dissolved in the water.

Let the mixture cool off in the ice-water bath or a snow bank before adding it to the oils. I cool it until the outside of the container feels cool or cold to the touch.

Cool the oils too. Once the hard oils/butters have melted, turn off the heat and add the liquid oils. The addition of those room temperature liquid oils will cool the mixture. Sometimes I take the crock out of the base and set it in the ice water along with the lye-liquid container and let them both cool (making sure the oil mixture does not get so cool that it starts to seize/harden).

Pour lye-liquid gently into the oils. All of this cooling is intended to counteract the heat that will naturally be generated by the chemical interaction that begins when the lye is added to the oils. Be sure to wear long sleeves, rubber gloves and safety goggles. To avoid splatters, pour the lye-liquid gently into the oils.

Use a pot that is comfortably big for your batch size. The cooking soap can “boil over.” Even if it doesn’t reach that point, it will naturally expand and creep up the sides of the pot. Use one that comfortably accommodates the size of the recipe with room to grow.

Neutralize as you go. As soon as I am done with each container that has touched lye, I set it into the bath of ice-water and vinegar. When I have a break in making the recipe, I slosh them around in that water (wearing rubber gloves), wash them off and put them on a towel to dry.

Don’t rely solely on this post. There is an abundance of soap-making information available on the Internet. Each source will remember something the others missed or explain something in a slightly better way.

Good luck, be safe and have fun!