Adventures in Soap Making
(A guest post by Brian Thies)
I learned to make soap from the Foxfire Series of Plain Living books. One old timer, paraphrased said “Take a pot of grease and add two cans of lye.” Rather simple, but that is really the basic idea!
Soap is the reaction of household lye and any type of fat. Whether animal or vegetable, both will work, but the proportions vary sightly. Soap is soluble in water, so either soft or distilled water is added to prevent the product from becoming soap powder. (That one happened to me once.)
Lye can be produced from dripping water through wood ashes, but the product can produce a very soft soap which can be inconvenient to use, so for the sake of convenience, we will forgo that step.
The ratio is about eight parts fat to one part lye, just a little more lye than the ratio. I used a one pound plus three additional tablespoons of lye for eight pounds of lard for my last batch of soap.
There are two methods of reacting the soap. One is the cold process, where the lye is mixed with water, and the fat ingredients (usually oils) are mixed cold and put into molds.
The other, is where the fat is heated (usually animal fats and shortening) and the ingredients are mixed warm. The reaction can generate a lot of heat, it is necessary have a thermometer and maintain control of the reaction by having additional water close by to add to the mix to cool it off, if the reaction starts to bubble excessively.
Superfat: The percentage of the fat that did not react with the lye. Typically three to five percent. Attempting to work below three percent is not recommended, as an excess of lye will actually create soap that can actually chemically burn you!
So.. back to the actual method of making my last batch of soap. I had an old bucket of lard from ten years ago that had gone rancid. “Is that OK?” you may ask.
Sure, the rancid smell will completely disappear when the soap is made. And if the fat has trash, salt or other material in it, you may boil the fat with water, and skim off the trash. In the event of bacon or animal fat from meat rubbed with salt, the water will take the salt away from the fat. The clean fat will float to the top of the water and can then be dipped out with a ladle to your soap making pot.
Pots and Utensils.
NO ALUMINUM of ANY KIND. Lye will destroy aluminum. Aluminum molds will be badly damaged by molten soap.
- Steel, cast iron, or flexible soap molds. A steel or glass cake pan will do as well.
- Cast iron or stainless steel pot, wooden or stainless spoons, rubber and plastic spatulas.
- Rubber gloves.
- Chemical goggles or face splash shield
- Long sleeve shirt.
- A chemical apron would not be excessive.
- Measure: There is a soap calculator at http://soapcalc.net
- Start small.Maybe one pound.Measure carefully, Dissolve your lye completely in warm water.
- If using the hot process, remove all heat from the soap making pot, all fat should be liquid.
- Gently, gradually add the lye water to the fat while stirring the mixture.
- NEVER add fat to the lye water! This can be dangerous!
- Mix gently without splashing and the ingredients will thicken like mashed potatoes. In the hot process, you can actually see the soap line rising through the fat as the lye reacts.
- Mix until the soap is uniform.
- Just before you add it to the molds or pour it out to harden, you can add herbs, or oils. (Check many of the blogs and websites dedicated to soap making.)
- I used a stainless steel ladle to handle the hot soap and pour it into a variety of pans and molds to harden.
- When the soap has hardened, cut the pan-poured soap into blocks or pop the bars from the molds.
- Set aside on a shelf on a cloth, paper, or towel to harden completely.
“My soap is very greasy.” All is not lost. Most likely, you did not add enough lye, If you can actually see oil or fat on the surface of the soap, this is the case. The soap will probably be fairly crumbly and easy to break up.
Put a portion of the soap back into a small stainless or enameled pot with water, Warm until the soap begins to dissolve. Hasten the process with a potato masher or similar wooden or steel implement.
Add small amounts of lye with a teaspoon (stainless or plastic). When the oil streaks in the mix disappear, remove from heat and re-pour.
Small drips of soap can be checked to see how they perform. Keep notes of how much lye you added to the small batch and treat the rest of the batch according to how much soap you are dealing with. You have a fairly wide range of excess fat that is considered acceptable by most users.
“My soap burned my skin.” This should not have happened. See if you added too much lye or too little fat.
Re-liquify the soap over heat with soft or distilled water and add vegetable oil or additional fat. Start at about six percent additional fat over the original amount. If your soap is moderately or slightly alkaline, this should salvage the soap. If you really mis-read the directions and used double the amount of lye, you might be better off buying PH paper and adding the fat a little at a time until the mixture goes neutral than keep fiddling with it.
Some of these ingredients can be expensive, so start small!
“My soap is a lumpy powder.” You heated it too long, or didn’t add enough water at the beginning.
Use as is for laundry – or put back into the pot, add the original amount of distilled water back to the powder and heat to make the soap liquid. When consistently smooth, pour into molds.
Soap making took a waste product and made a necessary commodity.
Nowadays homemade soap is considered somewhat of a luxury. Our 8 pounds of lard became enough soap for maybe five years so we will give some of the bars as presents.
You can wash yourself or pretty much anything with homemade soap. I use ours on my hair instead of shampoo.
In the words of John Stanley from his album It’s in the Book (1953), that my mother occasionally sings:
Oh do you remember, Grandma’s lye soap; good for everything in the home?
But the secret was in the scrubbing, it didn’t sud, it wouldn’t foam!
So let us sing of Grandma’s lye soap, good for everything in the place,
The pots and pans,the dirty dishes, for your hands, and for your face!
One thing you did not mention is that this can be a significant source of income, especially if you live in an area that fancies itself self-sufficient, or if there is a lot of tourist traffic.
Another thing I missed was the use of scents. That goes over big with the tourist traffic! Note the difference between essential oils, which are natural, plant-based scents obtained through distillation, and fragrances, which come from petroleum. Fragrances are much cheaper! But discriminating customers will insist on essential oils. (We won't put our name on anything with fragrances, although we use them for certain wholesale customers who insist on scents that aren't available in essential oils.) If nothing else, having a variety of scents keeps potential customers lingering at your farm stand or market booth, and the longer they linger, the more likely they're going to buy something.
Different oils add different characteristics. Castor oil (for example) makes it sudsy — we use extra castor oil in our shampoo bars and shaving bars. Coconut oil makes a very hard, long-lasting bar — great if you leave your soap where the shower hits it.
Packaging is important if you're selling into the "gift" market. It might cost you a quarter more per bar, but it's worth it if you get the sale over the lump of soap wrapped in tissue paper.
If you're going to sell, be sure to understand package labeling laws. In British Columbia, we have to list all ingredients, including the latin names!
This started out as a lark, a way to "get rid of" excess goat milk. It has turned into its own profit centre, comprising about 30% of our farm income. It's a creative and fun enterprise!