Is It Soap Yet?

Holly Deyo

Dear Soapers,

Currently I am unable to respond to email on soapmaking. While it's appreciated you may have questions on the topic, there is considerable free information here for your use. Hopefully you'll find what you need. Many questions are answered in the Tips and Troubleshooting section. If you've had an opportunity to look at the Emergency Preparedness portion of Millennium-Ark and the main site, which is updated daily, then you realize that making soap is truly a miniscule portion of the website. Especially with current events, we are inundated with emergency preparedness related-queries – the primary focus.

Thank you for understanding and good luck in your projects!

Holly Deyo

1. Read Safety Precautions first!

2. Lay out in order of use, the ingredients and equipment so they are readily available.

3. Familiarize yourself with the recipe and procedure so you'll only occasionally have to refer to the instructions. It beats fumbling around in critical moments and avoids mistakes. For your convenience, Metric and U.S. Conversion Charts for weights, temperature, length and volume have been provided.

4. Using the diet scales, measure the soft, rain or distilled water into any container. Make sure the water is very cold to avoid "boiling" when the lye is added. Set aside.

5. Put on rubber gloves and goggles. Again using the diet scales, carefully weigh the required amount of lye. Pour lye into the pitcher.

NOTE: You may want to cover the countertop or table area with newspapers - wherever you are mixing/stirring. Better yet, mix the lye and water outside. It saves on house "destruction" and offers good ventilation. Do not breathe these fumes; they are caustic.

6. Carefully add lye to the water. Immediately gently stir the lye solution with a wooden spoon until completely dissolved. If the lye remains caked on the bottom, it's hard to dissolve without splashing. This should only take a minute or so to dissolve and the water will appear cloudy. Hook a thermometer over the edge. The lye will not need additional heat sources to raise the temperature; the chemical reaction will provide the heat when combined with the water. In fact, the lye/water will need to cool somewhat to reach the desired temperature. Monitor the lye's temperature while melting the fats.

7. Weigh the fats/oils, place them in a non-corrosive pot and hook a thermometer over the edge of the pot. Don't allow the thermometer to touch bottom as it will give a false high reading. Place pot over low to medium heat and stir with a wooden spoon to aid melting. Heat to just melted. To help in your selection, a complete listing of common and not-so-common Useable Fats and Oils has been compiled.

NOTE: You want to get the fat and lye to within 0 - 50 F of each other, no more, and the closer the better. This is a delicate process that requires practice. It will take the lye longer to change temperature than it will the fats. To best achieve the same temperature for each, when the lye is 50F ABOVE the target temp, begin heating the fats. To speed the cooling of the fat, place that container in a water bath in the sink. Stir fats to prevent resolidification and help them cool. If they resolidify, remelt fats in a hot water bath. Don't be tempted to microwave the lye; this could lead to disastrous results.

8. When the lye and fats reach the same temperature, move the fats pot to the sink. Securely snap in place the lid for the lye pitcher and slowly pour in the lye. Stir the fats gently while pouring the lye in a thin, steady stream. If you see considerable amounts of lye floating on top of the fat, continue stirring and don't pour in any more lye until the floating portion has been absorbed. Resume pouring in the remaining lye.

NOTE: "Saponification" is the chemical process that turns water, lye and fats into soap. It begins here:

9. Continue stirring gently to avoid splashing. The fat/lye/water mixture should be kept in constant, smooth motion for 15 - 20 minutes to ensure total absorption of the lye. As the mixture thickens, it will become opaque and a bit grainy. At this point, see if until it "traces" or "trails". "Tracing" or "trailing" refers to the soap's consistency or thickness. Several ways to check for this desired consistency are:
* Trail a rubber scraper through the mixture. If it holds the line or indent for a few seconds, it is ready.
* Dribble a ribbon of soap on the top mixture. If it holds for a few seconds, it is ready. The consistency should be similar to ripples across instant pudding.

NOTE: To reach the tracing stage, it generally takes 15 minutes to one hour, sometimes longer. Test every 15 minutes. Before the soap reaches this stage, it can separate into layers of fat and lye. Simply stir again and recheck for tracing.

Two other things can affect detection of the tracing stage are the angle of looking at the soap and poor lighting. Sometimes a soap has traced but due to one of both of these two factors it can be difficult to see. Soaps containing higher amounts of liquid vegetable oil have tracings more difficult to detect. Tallow based soaps are one of the best tracers.

10. Once soap has reached the trace stage, you can add fragrance, more fats (superfatting) and/or colorings or you can go on to Step 9. You only include these items AFTER the soap has reached this stage (unless otherwise directed by a specific recipe); heat can alter color and fragrances.


SUPERFATTING refers to fats/oils added over and above that called for in the recipe. These fats are added after the trace stage has been achieved. The purpose is to make the soap richer and softer to the skin. Some of the best fats/oils for superfatting are avocado, sweet almond, castor oil and cocoa butter. If your recipe does not list a specific amount of oil for this process, use the rule of thumb measure: for every 16 oz (453.5g) of fat/oil, superfat with 1 oz. (28.3g) of additional oil.

FRAGRANCES: There are three main types Essential Oils, Fragrance Oils and Herbs. The latter is the least desirable overall, but it is personal taste. Essential and Fragrance Oils differ in several areas. For more information, see the Essential and Fragrance Oil section. As with perfume which is made of pure flower oils and no alcohol, you pay accordingly as opposed to cologne or toilet water which contain alcohol in varying degrees. Essential Oils used to be fairly difficult to find but are easily located in health food and department stores, bath and body shops, craft and hobby stores, and of course, the Internet.

COLORANTS: More fun! If there's anything that gives a soap a nice touch (right behind fragrance) is a lovely color. There are nearly as many color choices and sources as there are scents.

Unless you are using really strong colorants, if a soap is already tending toward a certain color, adding an opposite color will produce a muddy shade. By adding brighter hues you'll enhance the natural tendencies and end up with a light or bright eye-pleasing color. Colorants should be added at the same times as Fragrances and Other Additives, at the early soft-trace stage. For more information on coloring your soaps, click Colorants.

OTHER ADDITIVES: These ingredients are added when soap has been grated and remelted to make hand-milled soaps. Depending on the ingredient added, various type soaps can be made. For example, adding oatmeal or juniper berry meal will make a good exfoliating soap while adding avocado makes it moisturizing. For a more complete listing of additives and their benefits, see Hand-Milled Soap Additives section.

Certain additives can impart their own coloring and scents. You might want to keep this in mind and use only complimentary fragrances and colorants to enhance these natural tendencies. Unless otherwise directed, these substances are added immediately before the fragrances when the soap if just barely tracing. If you wait longer than this, it will be a race to get the additives thoroughly mixed in, not to mention the fragrances, before the soap becomes too hard to pour.

11. Gently pour or ladle the warm soap into prepared molds. Unless you are absolutely certain the soap on the sides of your pot have been thoroughly mixed, leave it. Adding unmixed soap can blow your whole batch causing it to separate. For additional ideas for shaping soap, go to Molds.

12. Immediately cover your soap molds with newspaper or whatever insulating material you have chosen. The insulated soap needs to be undisturbed for at least 48 hours, allowing for a slow cooling process to take place. Soap cooled too quickly is prone to separation.

After 2 days have passed, gently uncover the soap. It should still be a bit warm and only touch it wearing gloves as it is still caustic. Examine the soap STILL IN THE MOLD for obvious problems like separation or curdling. If your finger leaves a dent in the soap, it is still to soft to unmold. Leave soap to dry for another 24 - 48 hours, uncovered.

13. When the surface is hard, the soap is ready to unmold. Protect the surface where your are unmolding as there might be some remaining lye inside. Loosen the sides first and carefully turn upside down over the sink. If the soap refuses to budge, allow more drying time, but not rock-hard. Cutting very hard soap will produce splinters. Forty-eight hours drying time is usually sufficient.

14. Unmold onto butcher paper or sheets of rigid plastic. Avoid using newspaper or cardboard as the soap will absorb color from these items. If you poured the soap into individual molds, the process is nearly complete but for the final curing. During this curing stage, you may see the soap "sweat" as moisture evaporates. This is normal. Expect the soap to shrink as it cures as well as some warping or irregularities. Also hairline cracks may become visible, but these problems can be lessened as suggested in the Tips and Troubleshooting section.

Allow 2 - 6 weeks for complete curing, depending on the ingredients used. The soap should be placed on the butcher paper or rigid plastic, not touching. When hard to the touch, give it the skin test. Take a cured bar of soap and wash your hands. If your skins stings, lye is still present and the soap is not ready. Allow to dry until stinging is no longer felt.

15. If you have chosen one large mold, you need to decide if you want to slice it for individual bars or turn it into hand-milled soap. If you've opted for Hand-Milled Soap, go to that section. If you've decided to cut the block into finished bars, you can do this one of several way.

Method One is to take a short ruler and paring knife and lightly score the soap. When the lines are uniform, cut down through the soap using the ruler as a "backstop". Another tool that works well is a 4" (10 cm) putty knife.

Method Two is to make templates out of flexible cardboard. If a standard bar of soap is 2" x 3-1/2" (roughly 5 cm x 9 cm), cut the templates 1/2" (1.27 cm) bigger. This will allow for some shrinkage.

Take the longest template and place it lengthwise against the edge of the pan. Score with a paring knife down the opposite edge, along side of the template. Move the template over to the scored edge and make a second scoring next to the template. Continue sliding the template over until the entire block has been marked.

Then take the shorter template and lay it across the block's width. Use the same procedure until the entire block is marked into rectangles. Heat the knife in hot water, hold it exactly upright and cut through the soap. If the knife is allowed to be other than upright, the soap will end up with sloped sides.

Another handy cutting tool is to take a thin gauged wire and wrap it around the ends of two wooden dowel rods or pencils placed about 2" (5 cm) longer than the longest side of the soap block. (If the longest side of soap is 13" (33 cm) allow for a 17" (43 cm) piece of wire stretching between the dowels and an extra 4" (10 cm) to secure it around each dowel, totaling 25" (63.5 cm) of wire. Make sure the wire is wound toward the bottom of the dowels or pencils to allow for the deepest cuts in the soap. Hold firmly onto each end of the dowel rods with the wire taut. Align the wire over the score marks and gently "saw" through the soap. Sometimes this method works better than the knife. Finish as per instructions in Step 14. Turn the bars once the tops sides have fully hardened so the resting side can equally cure.

NOTE: Be sure to keep all splinters and scraps as they can be used for
Soap Balls.

For the advanced soapmaker, a Lye-to-Fat Ratio Chart has been designed by Al Durtschi to help you select the correct amount of each. Or go on-line and use Mountain Sage's Lye Calculator.

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