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Making Soap

So, I had this grand plan to finish 12 projects this year.  I have actually only finished a couple.  I might make cheese next month, but 12 was an overreach.

My first project was making soap.  It actually worked, so I took some pictures and prepped a description of the process.  It might not be helpful for you, but I am posting it here so I can look it up again when I decide to prepare another batch.

Getting Started

January 6th, 2013:
My introduction to making lye-based soap was an article over at The Art of Manliness: “How to Make a Manly Bar of Soap

To be completely honest, my first thought was, “Isn’t lye how murderers dispose of a body?”  I probably read too many mysteries.  My second thought was, “Coffee and walnuts sounds good, but I wonder what else would work.”

So, the next step was simple: visit the library and Google soap recipes.

If you’re following these steps, I can save you some time.  The Dewey code you’re looking for is 668.12.  If you prefer the Library of Congress system, as I do, you’re looking for TP991.  Library of Congress really is a better system, but we can leave that discussion for another time.

At the local library, I picked up the following:

As you can see, post-colon subtitles are the order of the day.

West LadiesI got these home and quickly reviewed them all.  The first two books have not proven useful at all.  The DVD was unusually helpful, as well as being amusing–the West women are sincere and serious, but just a little quirky.  Which is okay.  Honestly, that DVD was probably about the best resource I found, even considering the information available on the internet.  Finally, the last book, Soap Maker’s Workshop, does a great job of breaking down the differences between Hot Process and Cold Process soaps, as well as providing a whole slew of helpful recipes.

And of course, the internet helps.  Two sites have proven particularly useful:

As I write this, my next step is to settle on a recipe (or two) and to identify and source the necessary supplies and ingredients.

Creating a Recipe

January 15th, 2013:
So, I settled on some recipes.

The main questions I had to answer in order to develop some soap recipes:

  1. What liquid do I want to use?  There are some limits.  For instance, lemon juice is acidic, and would neutralize some of they lye, leaving me with a bunch of un-saponified oil.  Milk has a  fair amount of sugar, and can create all sorts of interesting results (including separation and browning).
  2. What oils do I want to use? 
  3. How much lye will you need?  Caution here: lye is dangerous.  If you intend to use the information on this page, you accept the responsibility for using it safely.  You want to avoid the fumes, you want to avoid skin or eye contact, you definitely want to avoid ingestion.
  4. What additives do you want?  

So, I decided to make two batches of soap.  For the first, I am going to use double-brewed coffee and for the second, green tea.

January - Making Soap (2)I chose coconut oil, olive oil, and shea butter.  Coconut oil helps make the bars of soap hard, and can create a nice lather.  Olive oil provides less lather, but is great for conditioning.  Shea butter mixes the best of both, making for a hard, conditioning, lather-rich bar.  Miller’s Homemade Soap has a great article describing the properties of the various oils available here.

I probably worked backwards when it comes to the lye.  I decided that I was going to use 16 oz. of lye for each batch, because that’s the amount in which my local Menard’s sells the stuff, and I didn’t feel like measuring it out.  Deciding the amount of lye first meant adjusting the weight of the oils to match.

As far as additives, I decided to keep it simple.  I’m going to add oatmeal to the coffee bars and honey to the green tea bars.

Since Walmart sells coconut oil in 31.5 fl oz (30.2 oz) jars for a very good price, I knew how much coconut oil was going into each recipe.  Smellgood out of Atlanta sells raw shea butter in 16 oz increments.  Using the Mountain Sage Lye Calculator, I was able to input these two amounts and identify the necessary amount of olive oil using trial and error.  The final result was that I needed 73 fl oz (69.25 oz) of olive oil.  To convert oils from fluid oz to weight, you can use the calculators over at {Convert To}.

You are welcome to download and use my recipes at your convenience.  Before doing so, please ensure that you have double-checked my measurements and make doubly sure you know what you’re doing with the lye.  Again, it is a dangerous substance, and you are responsible for using it safely.

Here are links to the two recipes:

My next step is to gather my supplies and make the soap.

Making Soap

January 26th, 2013:
And now it comes together.  The shea butter has arrived (quick shipping by Smellgood!), the lye was in stock at Menard’s, and I have a free Saturday.

The following steps and pictures are meant to describe the process I used in some detail.  Don’t hesitate to post questions and I’ll answer them as well as I can.

Step 1:  Gather the materials

January - Making Soap (1)For the two batches of soap, I needed:

  • Two measures of 73 fl oz of olive oil
  • Two 31.5 fl oz bottles of coconut oil
  • Two measures of 16 oz of raw shea butter
  • Two 16 oz bottles of 100% lye
  • 4 tbsp of honey
  • 2 cups of ground oatmeal (I ground this with a coffee grinder)
  • Two five gallon buckets
  • Hand mixer
  • Two wooden spoons
  • Rubber gloves & safety glasses
  • Food scale (Most recipes insist on a digital scale, but I converted the weights to fluid oz for the coconut and olive oils.  The scale was only necessary for the shea butter.)

January - Making Soap (3)Step 2: Prepare the forms

I went with the simplest, cheapest forms possible.  I lined several Amazon boxes with parchment paper.  I wasn’t sure how much space I’d need, but these boxes proved perfect.



January - Making Soap (4)Step 3: Prepare the liquid

I probably should have done this the night before.  The recipes call for between 29 and 43 fl oz of liquid.  I decided to use 36 oz.  I brewed the tea until it was fairly dark, and I double-brewed the coffee to ensure that it was very dark.  It should be cooled before mixing it with the lye, so I stuck it in the fridge while I prepared the oils.


January - Making Soap (9.5)Step 4: Melt the oils

This took a bit of figuring out.  Raw shea butter needs to be melted and strained through a cheese cloth to remove any shell residue.  So I measured out just a hair over 16 oz and tried to melt down the shea butter with indirect heat.  That did not work.


January - Making Soap (14)The better approach was to add 16 oz to the other oils and to melt all of the coconut oil and shea butter down in the olive oil, and then to pour all of the oils through a cheesecloth at the same time.




January - Making Soap (12)Step 5: Mix the liquid & lye

I did this while the oil was melting over a slow heat.  Since we have such lovely winter weather, I took advantage of the cold, and mixed the lye and liquid outside.  This had the double-benefit of keeping the fumes out of the basement and allowing the mixture to cool a bit before adding the oils.  When mixing these, Rule #1 is, Always add the lye to the liquid! Never add the liquid to the lye!

This was much easier than I expected, after reading all of the warnings.  I wore rubber gloves and eye protection, and cracked open the bottle of lye and poured the whole thing in.  I stirred it carefully with one of the wooden spoons, and it began to fume and steam pretty quickly.  I left it to cool for a bit.

January - Making Soap (13)Step 6: Mix the oils and the lye solution

Once the oils are melted, I poured them through a cheesecloth into the other five gallon bucket. I added the lye, and began blending them with the hand blender (some sites call this a “stick blender”).

A couple of bits of advice: Make sure the blender is fully immersed before you turn it on.  Don’t burn out the motor.  Stir with the blender on for about 5-10 second bursts, and then stir with it for another 30 seconds or so.

After about 2 minutes, I added the oatmeal or honey, based on the recipe that I was making at the time.

You’re looking for trace.  I don’t know why they all call it “trace.”  I think a better term is, “kind of like custard or melted ice cream.”  Basically, it gets thick enough to support drops or lightly drizzled lines.  Once you have that, you’re ready for…

January - Making Soap (17.5)Step 7: Pour the soap into the molds

This step is exactly what it sounds like.  Pour the soap into the molds.  The soap will have the texture of a loose batter.

Once they’re in the molds, you’ll want to close the boxes and cover them with a heavy blanket.  The soap needs to stay warm for a night or so.

Making Soap, Day 2

January 27th, 2013:
Now we’re onto the final steps for the soap project!

January - Making Soap (20.5)Step  8: Release and cut the soap

The parchment paper molds proved to be wonderful for this part of the project.  I was able to lift them out easily and lower the sides so that I could cut the soap into bars.  I weighed the soap first, out of curiosity.  The two recipes each produced about 10 pounds of soap.  That’s kind of insane.  And then we cut the soap into two batches of 40 bars.

January - Making Soap (21)Step 9: Cure the soap

The final step, apart from using the soap, is to set it out to cure.  You want to stack it in such a way that air can get to all the different sides of the soap.  It’s best to let it cure for four weeks.

I’m looking forward to using this soap in a month–I’ll be back at that time with an update on how it turned out after curing.

Post-Project Notes

January 28th, 2013:
I had an idea of the cost for these bars of soap going in, but I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the total cost per bar (including the costs for the mixer, buckets, gloves, and spoons) was only $1.06.  Future batches will cost even less as I already have all of the necessary equipment!

March 24th, 2013:
Now we’ve had the chance to use both types of soap and I’m very happy with how it turned out!  The Green Tea & Honey soap feels wonderful–it lathers, it moisturizes, it cleans.  The Coffee & Oats soap does all of that, and it exfoliates the heck out of my skin.  I found that I don’t care to use the Coffee & Oats soap every day because it’s very exfoliating, so I keep a bar of each on hand.  Perhaps next time I’ll try instant oatmeal instead.  That might break down a little more than the old-fashioned oats.  Either way, I’m pretty happy with this project!

Happy Soaping,
Dan J.

Published inBlog


  1. Jessica Julian

    wowzer! I’m so impressed!

    I never considered making soap! …I’m still not really considering it. ha. But this makes me interested – maybe some day! Thanks for sharing all the details because that certainly cuts a huge amount of the work out of it for me when/if I do get to the point I want to try it.

    Maybe this should be your Christmas gifts this year – send everyone a bar of each type of soap! You probably already thought of that. Just so you know, I would love it.

    What are the benefits of lye? If it is so dangerous, why use it?


  2. Dan

    I’m glad it might be helpful; let me know if you decide to make a batch–I’ll happily give you any tips/info you need.

    As far as lye–it’s dangerous in it’s unadulterated form, but when it’s mixed with the oils, it turns them into a glycerin-rich soap. The glycerin is often stripped out of soap you buy at the store (not always) and can be beneficial/good for the skin. We have been enjoying our soaps more than I expected.

    As far as the gifting possibilities, you might just keep a soap tray open in the near future. ;)

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