Homemade gift series #2: homemade soaps

The second in a series on elegant homemade gifts, here's a tutorial on how to make 'designer' soaps - the kind that retail for $5 to $15 apiece. Just DON'T do it with children around.

By , Guest blogger

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    Samples of homemade soap made by the author and his wife. Similar homemade bars of soap are sold in designer stores, making this a classy but cheap (to you!) gift. The shape of the final bars reflects the containers you pour it into. Note the 'Union Jack' pattern and circular soaps on the right, both created by reused yogurt cups.
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Let’s just start this one off with two big, giant warnings!

Warning #1 Making soap at home can be very fun and rewarding, and if done right, it can be an inexpensive way to make gifts. But it can also be very dangerous if proper precautions aren’t taken. Before starting any soap-making project, please familiarize yourself with the dangers, and I would strongly encourage any soap-makers who have children (and even those who don’t) to read this account of a child who was burned by lye in a home soap-making accident. Then, be sure you have someplace you can send your kids while you make soap—preschool, a grandparent’s house, a friend’s house, etc. If you can’t get the young children out of the house, don’t make soap!

And if that wasn’t clear enough…

Warning #2 The purpose of this post is to demonstrate that you can, in fact, make very high quality hand-crafted homemade soap at home and to describe how we make homemade soap. However, before you even consider making your own, you should thoroughly read the additional soap-making resources included in this post, understand thoroughly what you are doing, and take every possible safety precaution. If you choose to make your own soap, you do so at your own risk, and neither The Simple Dollar or Trent Hamm takes any responsibility for any accidents or damage that may occur during that process.

Here’s the scoop, folks: making homemade soap at home is a lot of fun and results in some great soap that not only works well for your own use, but makes for a great gift, too. However, you do use some harsh chemicals in the making of this soap and you absolutely need to take precautions when making it to keep yourself safe and others safe. I hate having to warn people so directly about it, but lye can be dangerous and I don’t want anyone getting hurt by it. Be safe, people.

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Now that we’ve got that out of the way, we made a lot of soap this year…

My wife, Sarah, has made many batches of homemade soap over the years and has even conducted classes where she has taught others how to make their own batches of soap. To put it simply, she’s an old hand at this, and she’s turned out some very impressive homemade soaps over the years.

This year, for our homemade gifts project, we decided to make a large batch of homemade soap. Sarah took charge of this project – I mostly served as an assistant to her, doing things like taking our older children to preschool and caring for our baby on the other side of the house and offering hands-on help during the period when the baby slept or when she needed to be around for feedings. She also documented our procedure quite well, so much of this post is made off of her notes.

Before you consider doing this yourself, we both strongly encourage you to read other soap-making resources carefully. Sarah highly recommends the following websites:
http://www.millersoap.com/soapdesign.html offers details on designing your own soap
http://www.soap-making-resource.com/saponification-table.html (and the whole Soap Making Resource website) provides specific details about soap ingredients
http://www.countryfarm-lifestyles.com/saponification-chart.html provides more details about various possible soap ingredients

Soap Ingredients
Here are the basic ingredients we used in our soap recipe.

Sodium hydroxide (a.k.a. lye) – this can be fairly hard to find. We have had success finding it at Lowe’s Hardware, where we purchased a 2 pound container (with substantial leftovers). Look for it in the drain cleaner section.
Olive oil – we purchased a three liter bottle and used all of it
Coconut oil – we used the entirety of a 14 ounce jar
Lard – we used a one pound block of lard

The three oils (olive oil, coconut oil, and lard) each serve a different purpose in the soap: the olive oil is the base, and is a good soap for your skin but doesn’t lather well and it makes a relatively soft soap. Both the coconut oil and the lard will make the soap harder and improve its lathering. The coconut oil makes a fluffy lather, and the lard makes a stable lather. Overall, this soap would be considered a “castile soap” because it is mostly olive oil. Other recipes that you can find online will use different oils and in different amounts. We chose these oils because they should make a good soap, and they are easy for us to find locally.

These are the two basic ingredients you need for soap – an oil and sodium hydroxide. Everything else that follows is either equipment or is intended to “spruce up” the soap.

Equipment
Pictured above is the safety equipment we used to keep ourselves safe during the soap making. Keep in mind that almost all of this stuff is reusable for other purposes.

Safety goggles (for safety, use goggles, not safety glasses) – we found these at Lowe’s
Latex gloves – again, found at Lowe’s
Vinegar – keep a jug of this on hand to neutralize any spilled lye; if you’re careful, you won’t need it
Old clothes – shirt (long sleeves), pants (preferably a thick fabric like denim), socks and shoes (Don’t wear shorts, sandals, etc!)

We also needed quite a bit of equipment for the actual mixing.

Kitchen scale (it’s just generally useful to have one in the kitchen)
Large pot for melting oils and fats in (can be reused for food)
Measuring cup for measuring water or goat’s milk (can be reused for food)
Container for making lye solution in (can’t be reused for food – we used an old bowl picked up at Goodwill for pennies)
Smaller container for measuring solid lye in (can’t be reused for food – we used another old bowl picked up at Goodwill for pennies)
Spoon for stirring soap (can’t be reused for food)
Bucket for mixing soap in (can’t be reused for food – we used our homemade laundry detergent bucket)
Thermometer (should read temperatures of around 100°F) (can’t be reused for food – we have a general use garage thermometer)

Almost all of this stuff was simply around our house already, so we didn’t have to buy any of these items specifically for the soapmaking.

Soap Molds
Be creative in what you use for molds, and this doesn’t have to be expensive. As you can see, we used yogurt containers, boxes lined with saran wrap, a couple drawer organizers found at a yard sale, and a bread-shaped plastic container that Sarah picked up at a dollar store for $0.50. Other items to consider using include the bottoms of pop bottles, which make nice flower-shaped soaps. If you don’t mind spending a little money, and if you plan on making soap again in the future, you might want to purchase actual soap molds that you can find online or in hobby shops.

Add-Ins
In order to make our homemade soap unique, add some color and texture to it, and make it gentler on the skin, we used a few additional ingredients that aren’t required:

Dried lavender (or possibly sage, peppermint, or other herbs)
Goat milk (we used fresh goat milk from a local farmer)
Oatmeal
Scented lotion

What We Did
Here are the exact amounts of the key ingredients we used in our soap. You absolutely need the oils, the sodium hydroxide, and some water or other liquid.

4.5 cups goat’s milk (or 4.5 cups cow milk, or 4.5 cups water) – partially frozen
2000 g olive oil (this is less than 3 liters)
460 g lard (a 1 lb. package)
382 g coconut oil (a 14 oz. jar)
398 g of sodium hydroxide (this is your lye or drain cleaner)

If you’d like to make this recipe less expensive, leave out the coconut oil and/or the lard. If you do, that will need to change the amount of sodium hydroxide you use. 2,000 g of olive oil needs 255 g of sodium hydroxide, 460 g of lard needs 60 g of sodium hydroxide, and 382 g of coconut oil needs 83 g of sodium hydroxide. (Add all three numbers up to get my total of 398 g.) You should also use only 4 cups of goat’s milk or water instead of 4.5 cups.

Sarah largely wrote the following procedural pieces, with just a bit of detail editing from me.

The night before making the soap, we put the goat’s milk in an old Tupperware container with a lid and froze it in the deep freeze. The next morning, I took it out and let it thaw until I was ready to use it. You would want to do the same with cow’s milk or water. The goal with the frozen liquid is to get it to a slushy consistency.

Once the milk was slushy, I measured out my three oils (olive oil, coconut oil, and lard) and put them in a pot on the stove. I heated them on low heat until the solids were melted and the temperature was around 100°F. Be very careful not to overheat the fats! It won’t ruin anything, but it will take the temperature a long time to drop back down to 100°F.

While the oils were heating, I prepared the lavender and the oatmeal. I put a handful of the oatmeal into my coffee grinder and set it for the finest grind I could. This made a very fine oatmeal powder, which I then dumped into the oils. You do not have to grind the oatmeal – we chose to do it for a smoother texture, but the texture of oats in the soap may also be appealing.

Next, I put about half of my lavender (also about a handful) in the coffee grinder on the coarsest grind setting. I put that into the oils, along with a handful of unground lavender buds (for texture).

I would recommend adding any herbs or oatmeal to the oil before adding the sodium hydroxide. If you have any essential oils, lotions, or colors to add, I would wait until the soap “traces”, which happens after the sodium hydroxide is added, which is the next step.

Put on goggles and gloves now!! Sodium hydroxide (lye) is incredibly caustic and dangerous!! Do not do this while children are anywhere nearby!!

After adding the lavender and oatmeal, I measured out the sodium hydroxide. I would recommend doing anything involving the sodium hydroxide outside, on a surface lined with garbage bags. I took the kitchen scale outside and put the sodium hydroxide into a container with a lid, so that I could seal it up if I got interrupted while measuring.

Once the sodium hydroxide is measured, I slowly and carefully added it to the goat’s milk slurry. As I mixed, the solution got very hot, which is why I got the liquid so cold to begin with. If you use goat’s milk, you’ll notice that it turns yellow, which I’ve read is a result of the sugars in the milk being caramelized by the heat. (Starting with cold milk lessens this effect.)

At the start of the sodium hydroxide addition, the goat’s milk is white and slushy

… and after adding the sodium hydroxide, the goat’s milk mixture is yellow and creamy:

After mixing, I took the temperature of the sodium hydroxide/milk mixture, and found that it was about 140°F. I had to let it cool down to about 100°F, while keeping the oils at 100°F as well. Once the two liquids reached close to 100°F, it was time to mix.

I poured the oils into the bucket first, and then slowly poured the sodium hydroxide/milk mixture into them. For safety reasons, don’t pour the oils in last. Once everything is mixed, we started stirring. We took turns stirring and kept it up for about an hour and a half before it was ready to pour into the molds. That happens when the soap “traces”, which means that if you run the spoon through it you’ll be able to see an indentation for a few seconds before it disappears. When I teach others how to make soap, I tell my students to wait for the soap to reach a consistency of mayonnaise.

Once the soap traced and before pouring it into the soap molds, I added a few squirts of some scented lotion that I have leftover from a couple of Christmases ago. I’m not sure how much of a difference it will make in the final product, but it might add a little more moisturizing.

We then poured the soap into the molds, put them in the garage, cleaned up, and went to pick up the kids from preschool.

One thing to note is that the color of the soap when you pour it into the molds will be different than the final soap color after it ages. Our soap this time was almost orange in color when we poured it (as you can see), but after aging, it has mellowed to a very light tan.

The next day I put on gloves again and unmolded the soaps that needed to be cut (mostly a matter of tapping on the bottom and sometimes cutting around the edge of the soap with a knife), since they were still pretty soft.

We sliced the large bars (the ones from the old drawer organizers) into smaller individual bars.

As you can see, the bars have a “rough hewn” look. For some, that’s a big plus as it gives a clear “homemade” effect to the bars. If it’s a negative for you, wait until the bars have aged for a month or so, then sand them down until they’re smooth.

I waited an extra day to unmold the soaps in the yogurt containers, which gave them a chance to get a little bit harder.

We particularly liked the “Union Jack” effect on the bars from some of the yogurt containers, as you can see above.

Finally, I covered the table in the garage with cardboard and set out the new soap to age for a few weeks. This allows time for the soap to finish reacting and for the excess water to evaporate, hardening the soap. I would recommend not using the soap until it has had time to age, a minimum of three weeks.

Giving As Gifts
There are a lot of ways to package soaps as gifts. Once the soap is dry, we are going to try out two different packaging ideas – wrapping them in tissue paper, or wrapping them with a strip of brown paper while leaving the edges of the soap exposed. In either case, we’re also going to put a cute homemade sticker on each bar.

Again, if you’re considering doing this, read up on soapmaking, understand what you’re doing, and use proper safety equipment without children around.

If you’re surprised by the “harshness,” remember that this is how soap is made. Whenever you buy soap in a store, some process similar to this is used, often with oils that you’d rather not think about instead of olive oil and coconut oil.

For next week’s homemade gift, we’re going to kick out the jams.

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