Monday, March 18, 2013

DIY Beautiful Soap Bars: Surprisingly Easy

Almost four years ago (wow, already!), as part of our switch from plastic wrapped pump to bar I attempted to make soap. My memories are that of terrible clumpy messes, lye burns and entire afternoon spent in soap making. The results were weirdly misshapen clumps that looked more like a high school art experiment gone wrong than soap.

I resigned myself to spending between 4-6$ a bar for high quality, palm oil-free, handmade soap. And then she stopped making soap.

While I frantically scoured the farmer's markets and crafter's fairs for palm-oil free, quality, affordable handmade soap, a few high school friends in my childhood village started making their own. After my friend Amy gifted me a few bars one Yulemas I realized they were as amazingly wonderful as my long lost soapmaker's.

To my complete disbelief, Amy claimed it was EASY as pie to make soap.

Three weeks ago, I finally bit the bullet and armed with a few supplies, a recipe and friends, I realized she was right. Making soap by hand IS and should be easy.

(This is vanilla orange, or creamsicle!)
Here's how we did it:
Steph, Heather and I spent a few weeks gathering supplies. (Steph also took many of the fabulous photos!). We used a basic recipe provided for by Amy and supplemented it with a few DIY how-to's found on The Nerdy Farmwife. She has a Soap Making 101 post which is informative, if a bit overwhelming (it really isn't that complicated) and a Customizing Soap post that is very helpful.

(the chai soap! the beautiful colour came from the tea)

One stumbling block that proved essential was the soap boxes. I was fortunate enough that Amy's dad makes and sells these boxes (out of cedar) for 10$ a piece. They are simple to make, and I think the actual cost of the wood would be about 10$. If you purchased them online they are much more expensive, so I highly recommend making your own if you have a table saw, or finding a friend who can make them for you.

(the cedar soap box handmade by Amy's dad!)

What you need to source or purchase ONLY for soap making
(cuz of the lye, they shouldn't be used for food):
- wooden boxes
- a handmixer (Heather donated a cheap one she had never used)
- two bowls (I have a small plastic bowl for lye & medium stainless steel for oils)
- a mixing thingy (spoon, spatula, whatever)
- a bucket (to mix lye and water)
- gloves, masks and eye protection (for the lye)
- parchment paper

(you also need a digital scale if you don't already have one. You can get them for super cheap)

Ingredients (makes 12 bars or one batch):
Lye: 4.8 oz
(in Halifax the ONLY place to purchase lye is at Home Hardware... trust me, we checked)
coconut oil: 10.5 oz (unrefined is best)
castor oil: 2 tbsp
olive oil: 21 oz (1 lb 5 oz)
essential oil(s) of choice: 4 tbsp (not measuring, real spoons)
water: 12 oz (with tea steeped overnight for extra scent and colour)

 (steeped tea for our citrus-licorice soap. This is David's tea that had a lot of chamomile, I'm hoping some of the healing properties will have transfered in the steeped water)

(we added two vanilla bean bits to our third batch)

(If you want to replace some oils, please check out this handy lye calculator)

(Lining with parchment paper, I cut then guesstimated and folded the edges)

1. Line your boxes with parchment paper. This took LOTS of finagling for me and involved a lot of swearing and loud grumbling and crumpling. Andrew wisely stayed away. Finally, I figured out that you need to fold the paper on both edges, lining width first and length second.

2. Digitally weigh out your coconut oil and in a double oiler, melt. In a large ceramic bowl, add the digitally weighed olive oil, coconut oil and bit of castor oil.

3. Digitally weigh out your water. A trick we learned- steeping the water in tea overnight adds scent and colour.. for us it was chai. Add the water to the bucket.

(Mixing the lye, really much less "Breaking Bad" than it looks)

4. Donning your gloves, masks and eye spectacles, step outside to digitally weigh out the lye in a plastic bowl. Slowly stir in the lye to the water. It should start to smoke (chemical reaction) and heat up. Leave the bucket outside in the cool air (or in a sink filled with ice) once the majority of the smoke has cleared so it will cool. If it's inside- keep a window open.

(see the trace?)

5. Slowly add the water to the oil with the handmixer already in the bowl and start mixing. Continue until the mixture thickens, add the essential oils of choice. Mix until it comes to trace, which when you raise the mixer it should leave a circle imprint in the oils.

6. Pour mixture into the box and place in the oven at 170 degrees for 1.5 hrs. Afterwards, remove, wrap in a towel for 24 hours (or the following evening).

Up until this point, after the initial first time, should only take an hour of prep and then 1.5hrs of waiting, so easily one evening of minimal effort. If you had two boxes like we do, while the soap is cooking in the oven you can quickly wash out your utensils and whip up another, different scented, batch.
(wrapped and ready for 24 hour warming)

7. Remove the towel, gently remove the soap by pulling on the parchment paper and score (12 for us) 2cm bars. Using a large knife, cut bars. Line them somewhere where cats can't eat them and allow them to cure for two weeks, turning every other day. If you can let them cure 3 weeks that would be even better.

(First cut, by Andrew since I'm terrible at it, of our licorice-lime soap!)

The start up cost of soap can be pricey. It will cost about 100$ to start, so going in with friends can be helpful. Afterwards it's only the cost of ingredients (and the lye should last forever). I've calculated with the cheapest ingredients (not always ideal but to start) a batch equals about 1.50 to 2.00$ a bar. Which compared to 4-6$ that we were paying is pretty darn awesome.

(the curing place. Be prepared for your space to smell like whatever scent you chose. As the soap cures, though, the scent does fade)

This weekend I tried the chai soap for the first time. It is perfection! I'm already scheming on what to do for my next batch of soap (oils to replace, scents to try) and have found the cheapest essential oils are in Yarmouth... most likely due to all the soap making.

So gather a few peeps together, split the cost and making a soap making weekend- you'll be surprised just how easy and fun it can be!


  1. Great post! While I can't see myself going through the process (and $4-6 a bar to me isn't bad considering how long one bar lasts & that it equates to the cost of a grande chai), it's way cool to see how it's done. I wonder, is there soap that you can make that's not from lye? (I'm always worried about anything that is made with an ingredient that requires eye protection, ya know?)

    1. ah yes. well- we do usually have three bars of soap going at one time in our house, since we have no pump soap (bathroom, shower, kitchen) and andrew isn't the easiest on soap- so we quickly go through it.

      re: lye- well all bar soap has lye in it and from what I have read you can't make bar soap without lye. you can MELT already made soap, but that probably had lye in it.
      Once the soap is cured, the lye isn't a problem. :)

    2. here's a little recap that i posted in 2009 about lye: In order to make soap a base needs to react with a fat or oil in a process known as saponification (so clever, I know!). In cold process saponification the lye and oils (castor oil or vegetable oil which is what we used) are reacted together through hydrolysis (water molecules chemically reacting with the lye and oils) to create a substance that is non-corrosive: SOAP. This chemical reaction needs to continue after the soap is poured into the molds for 18 to 48 hours. Afterwards, it is removed, cut into bars and usually set to cure (or harden) for 2 to 4 weeks. For more info check out wiki :)

  2. Can't wait to try it in our new place!

  3. This is amazing! I am terrified of lye though, weird I know. When are you going to start selling them, and shipping to SC??? ;)

  4. Wow, you are seriously eco. I cannot claim to have a totally liquid-soap-pump-free household, but I do use olive-oil bar soap in the shower. My go-to brand is Kiss My Face. Natural ingredients but, yes, large company and made far from where I live...

    1. it was definitely a tricky process- but it was the fancy schmancy handmade bar soap that did it for me... :) there most certainly would be some fabulous local to you handmade soaps- you could check out etsy.... :)

  5. This actually looks do-able (is that even a word?). I have been wanting to try making soap for some time now. And thank you for saying where in NS you found the lye as I also live in NS.

    1. i know!! i was so surprised!
      yes- Andrew and I searched the following places for lye (to ONLY find it at hh): Kent, Home Depot, Canadian Tire, Michael's, Wal-Mart (ugh i know)... everyone looked at us like we were bonkers.

      in any case, the rest of the ingredients are pretty easy to find- castor oil is sold at planet organic and pete's frootique in Halifax....

  6. The bars look awesome! Not to mention I am sure it was a lot of fun to make them! Thanks for posting this. I think I will give it a try... :)

  7. Made soap (peppermint) tonight for the first time, with Amy in fact. It was fun. Can't wait to cut it tomorrow.

  8. Soap making virgin here, just started looking at Tutorials. So please excuse me if this is a silly question. In your photos there seem to be "toppings" is this something that you add, or does it rise up while soap is baking? If this is something that you add, when do you add it? I love the way it looks.

    1. Hey! Yay soap! It's definitely not a silly question, I really should have explained that part: yes they are toppings we put on after. The first is raw sugar- most of that fell off during curing or in the shower. Although it looked the coolest. The second is loose tea bits. Most of that fell off during showers. We put them on after the oven bit, during the overnight curing (before cutting).

      We also sprinkled cinnamon, which kinda got everywhere too. But it sure does look pretty!

  9. I made my first hot process soap yesterday and I plan on doing a cold process today. Thank you for posting this and saving me from driving to all kinds of hardware stores to find lye. I found it in 2 seconds in Homehardware in Sackville.


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