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Soap Making: A Beginner’s Tutorial

Soap making is a wonderful way to bring out your creative spirit. When making soap from scratch it is best to familiarize yourself with terminology and soap making methods before embarking on this essential skill.

Learning how to make soap can be a bit intimidating – the chemical reactions to ingredients and the caustic ingredients alone are enough to make you want to stop before you begin. But, if you understand and feel comfortable with the process and follow the instructions, the creative forces set in and before you know it, the experience is more fun than scary.

I suggest you watch lots of tutorials or have an experienced soap maker present when you first begin. This can make the experience not so worrisome.

When making soap from scratch it is best to familiarize yourself with terminology and soap making methods before embarking on this essential skill. To begin with, in regards to soap making, the ingredients used as well as the soap making method result in different types of soap.

Cold Process Soap – This method combines heat from the melted oils and the heat from the lye water to cook the soap. Cold process soaps create a smoother, more attractive soap compared to the hot process. After mixing all ingredients, the soap is poured into a mold, covered with blankets or towels and allowed to sit undisturbed for 24 hours. Once unmolded and cut into bars, the soap must cure for 3-4 weeks. This will allow the bar to harden and for all the lye to neutralize.

Hot Process Soap – Once the soap has reached trace, the soap maker continues to cook the soap over a source of heat. Usually a double broiler or crock pot works well. The curing time for this soap is shorter. Rather than waiting 3 weeks with the cold process, in the hot process one can wait a few days. As mentioned, this method makes a less smooth soap, and lumps may result.

Soap Making Basics and Terminology

Making soap occurs through a chemical process of using a strong alkali (lye) and mixing it with a fatty acid (suet, lard, olive oil etc.) The chemical reaction is known as saponification.

The lye and oils react to form a soap and glycerin product that starts as soon as these two ingredients are introduced to one another. As the ingredients heat up the reaction continues and even after you pour the mixture into your molds reactions are still taking place.

It is important that you add your lye and fat in the right proportions for your soap to be good.



2 tablepoons 1 cup
1/4 cup 2 cups
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons 3 cups
1/2 cup 4 cups
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons 5 cups
3/4 cup 6 cups
3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons 7 cups
1 cup 8 cups
1 cup + 2 tablespoons 9 cups
1 1/4 cup 10 cups
1 1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons 11 cups
1 1/2 cup 12 cups
1 1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons 13 cups

Table courtesy of Carla Emery

Lye – This essential ingredient is one of the basic items needed to making soap (a true soap really only requires lye, liquid and fat).

A cautionary note about lye – this is a caustic, corrosive, and volatile chemical that can be dangerous. Follow instructions for soap making implicitly. NEVER add water to lye – only add lye to water. The reason being is that when you add cold water to lye,the liquid will heat up and could end up erupting which is not a situation you want to find yourself in. Even when you add the lye to water correctly, you should still do so with caution and wearing gloves and protective eye wear.

Lye can create undesired fumes, so make soap in a ventilated room away from children.

Lye can either be made from wood ash which is a great way to explore your pioneer skills. The downside of using homemade lye is that it can be inconsistent. Sometimes it comes out too strong or too weak, and therefore may not give you the desired results. However, when it does work, it is worth the effort for the extra satisfaction it gives you.

An alternative to making your own lye is to purchase it. When buying your lye at the store, make sure that what you are buying is lye, which is 100% sodium hydroxide, and should contain nothing else.

Carrier/Base Oils/Super Fatting Oils – The excess oils left unsaponified in the finished soap. This excess oil contributes to the moisturizing qualities of soap. Some soap makers add more luxurious oil at the end of the process to ensure the oil is the one that is the “extra oil”.

You can add extra superfat oils to a recipe to make it more effective. 1 extra ounce of shea butter, cocoa butter, etc., is fine. If too much superfatting is added to the recipe, the soap does not stick together and ends up seperating. Some super fat oils are:

Essential/Fragrance Oils – These are essential oils and fragrance oils that will enhance the smell and feel of your soap. These are added at the end of the cooking process. Many soap makers go by smell when they feel they have reached the desired amount of added oils and fragrance. Those who consider themselves purists prefer to add only organic, high grade essential oils to their soaps.

Saponification – When you mix the liquid/lye and the oils together they go through a chemical process. When that chemical process is done what you are left with is soap!

Trace – Trace is when it thickens to the point where you can drop some of the mix back into itself and it leaves a trail. At this point use any herbs, scent, or coloring and stir and pour mold(s).

Curing – This is the time your soap needs to just sit and complete it saponification. The cure time makes the soap milder and makes a harder bar that will last longer.

Flashpoint – All fragrance oils and essential oils have a flash point. This is the temperature that you will see your oils evaporate. If you add the oils when the soap is too hot the oils will hit the hot soap and immediately evaporate. So be sure to know what the flash point is of your oils. In general fragrance oils have fairly high flashpoints and you don’t need to be too concerned. Essential oils can have very low flash points and you do need to know this.

For more soap making terminology, click here.

Needed Supplies

Make sure you have everything. Setting up a soap making station can help you stay a step ahead in the soap making process. This skill is very involved and requires exact and accurate amounts.

Hot Process Soap

yield 16- 4-6 oz. bars

  • 9 oz. lye
  • 24 oz. distilled water
  • 1 glass jar (1/2 gallon size is best)
  • 20 oz. coconut oil
  • 12 oz. palm oil
  • 1-2 oz. shea butter or other superfatting oil
  • 32 oz. olive pomace oil
  • 2-3 oz. essential or fragrance oil
  • 1 oz. botanicals or grains, optional
  1. Turn a large crockpot on high and add beeswax to melt. This can take up to 15-30 minutes.
  2. Measure out distilled water and place it into glass jar. Do not use tap or well water due to high content of minerals that will react with lye. Slowly add lye and blend using wooden utensil to blend until completely dissolved. Set aside to cool.
  3. Check crockpot to ensure beeswax is completely melted. Once melted, add stiff oils – coconut and palm oil. Stir and make sure all liquids in crockpot are melted.
  4. Add water solution and using a whisk in one hand slowly add your water solution to the crockpot containing your oil solution. Blend very well until your batter looks honey golden and you can see chalky-like streaks. Switch to your stick blender and blend well until the batter is the consistency of creamy pudding.
  5. Place lid on the crockpot and allow to simmer and cook for 20 additional minutes. Do not leave this unattended as the batter can rise up and may need to be stirred to release unwanted air pockets.
  6. After 20 minutes, you should notice a bubbling affect around the edges of your batter, this is normal and what you want.
  7. Continue to watch carefully as it cooks.
  8. After 20 minutes of cooking, turn off crockpot and remove the bowl from its heating element and place on a protective surface.
  9. Add any optional ingredients like botanicals or grains.
  10. Pour into molds and allow to age for 3 weeks.


This article was originally published at Ready Nutrition™ on April 16th, 2013

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