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I Can Do That! Soapmaking For Fun

Posted: Beauty & Body » Fun for the Family » Make-It-Yourself » Gift Giving | April 1st, 2005



By Susy Parker Goins

You see these people at fairs of all sorts: smiling, hopeful people with handcrafted wares to sell. I remember a Christmas fair in Crockett, Texas. The whole downtown (don’t blink, or you’ll miss it) was solid with crafters. Beautiful, stay-on-the-shelf bears in moiré satin, toilet paper dispensers that took the shape of wide-mouthed frogs, and the thing my husband shoved money in my hand for and said, “Just keep walking straight and you’ll know”: a cake stand in the shape of strawberry shortcake. I didn’t make a buck that day, but I made my mind up not to get discouraged.

So I embarked on the Hunt for the Perfect Craft. I have beeswax to roll into candles, old candles to remelt into new candles of an indeterminate color, ingredients for toiletries of all kinds. None of these crafts, though, has given me the emotional (if not monetary) satisfaction that soapmaking has.

Handcrafted soap is far superior, in my mind, to commercially made soap. Handcrafted soap retains the naturally occurring glycerin. You can speak to the person who made your soap and find out exactly what is in it. If you have a preference for certain ingredients, a soaper will be more than willing to customize your soap. Or if you are concerned about animal products, handcrafted soaps are more than likely to use all-vegetable ingredients.

An oversimplification of soapmaking
To make soap, take a base (fat) and an alkali (lye, also known as sodium hydroxide). Heat the fat. Add lye to hot water, cool and add to the fat. The chemical reaction the lye and fats go through is called saponification. Once saponification is complete and the water has evaporated, you have soap.

Now that is out of the way, let’s get down to business.

There are two ways you can make soap: cold process and hot process. From hot process, you can take the straight-ahead road for almost immediate-gratification soap, or you can add a solvent and make transparent soap. Then, after all your soap is made, you can start on the rebatch road.

Getting ready

1. Decide on your recipe. There are quite a few web sites that have some excellent recipes for beginners and not-so-beginners. (Check the resources below.)

2. Gather your ingredients. Many food stores will have the oils you want in the cooking section or the high-end/organic section. If you go to the grocery store, you’ll find smaller amounts of what you need. If you get really hooked, you can go to your phone book or the internet to find vendors who supply larger quantities.

For lye, you’ll look in the household chemical section. Do not use drain opener. It is a combination product that is not all lye. The brand to look for is Red Devil. Again, make sure you have pure lye. I have found at least one store near me has stopped carrying lye because it is dangerous. Keep trying. If all else fails, hie thee to the Internet.

Once you get the hang of the soaping process, you may want to add what I call “effects” to your soaps: colorants, glitter, herbs, fragrance oils or essential oils. Craft supply stores have a good selection of effects. If your taste leans more toward less commercial, more organic, check out your health food store for organic herbs and essential oils.

3. Amass your equipment. First and foremost, use stainless steel for soaping. Do not let lye touch aluminum. My most embarrassing moment occurred while I was teaching a friend how to soap. I glibly added the lye to the water in what I thought was a stainless pitcher. Imagine my surprise when the lye water began to bubble, stink and eat through my pitcher. Yup, the pitcher was aluminum. By the time the lye was finished with this 15-inch pitcher, the pitcher was four inches tall. Oh yeah, make sure you have adequate ventilation.

So on that cautionary note, you’ll need a stainless steel pot, stainless steel long-handled spoons, stainless steel or heavy plastic pitcher, safety gloves and goggles, a scale, containers to measure your ingredients and molds.

Molds can come in all shapes and sizes. I like to recycle milk cartons, juice cans (using a wax paper round cut to fit the non-stainless steel bottom) — anything that will hold up to heat. (Yup, another embarrassing moment, but this time I was alone. I was pouring hot glycerin soap into yogurt containers, which melted.) Craft supply stores have a great selection of molds. I have found that some molds can be so complicated (the rose mold comes to mind) that you won’t be able to extract your soap without much banging, cussing and stress. Keep it simple to begin with.

4. Schedule your time to soap. Because of the safety factor, I ask that my active children stay out of the kitchen (snort — the house, really) when I make soap.

5. Do it!

For soapmaking specifics, see our next soapmaking article here in NFO’s Natural Beauty section.

Internet Resources

Cosmetic Index (sources and resources)

Tons of interesting herbal and intellectual links

The Toiletries Library (recipes galore, vendors, tips, e-mail list)

Snowdrift Farms (recipes, information, ingredients, e-mail list)

Majestic Mountain Sage (lye calculator)

Rainbow Meadow


The Herbal Body Book: A Natural Approach to Healthier Hair, Skin, and Nails by Stephanie Tourles (Buy on Powells.com)

The Soapmaker’s Companion: A Comprehensive Guide with Recipes, Techniques and Know-How by Susan Miller Cavitch, Storey Publishing (Buy on Powells.com)

The Soap Book: Simple Herbal Recipes by Sandy Maine (Buy on Powells.com)

Transparent Soapmaking: A Complete Guide for Making Natural See-Through Soaps by Catherine Failor (Buy on Powells.com)

© Susy Parker Goins

An informal student of natural health for years, Susy Parker Goins received her certificate in homeopathy from the American College of Health Sciences. The self-proclaimed out-of-the-mainstream mama of three is a writer, belly dancer, actress, costumer and cook and will soon be celebrating 20 years of marriage to her husband.

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