Homesteading: How to Make Soap - dummies

By Todd Brock

For many homesteaders, the drive to become increasingly more self-sufficient is strong. Learning how to make soap often becomes a natural “next step” (after gardening, harvesting, and animal husbandry) in homesteading.

The technique you use to make your own soaps determines the amount of time you invest in your hobby (or product). This article covers two basic soapmaking techniques: hand milling and melting and pouring. (You can also make soap from scratch by using lye, but the process is more complex and requires care in handling sodium hydroxide, which is a caustic substance.)

How to make hand-milled soap

If you don’t like the idea of working with chemicals, you may want to try making hand-milled soap. All you do is take an existing bar of commercial soap, grate it, and then remelt it with water. You can then color, scent, and mold it as you please.

Many diehard soapmakers scoff at this technique. They say that you’re technically not making the soap because you’re using commercial soap, which may be soap but more than likely is a synthetic detergent bar. (If you have a preference for “real” soap, be sure to read the label and buy soap that has ingredients such as sodium cocoate, sodium palmate, sodium olivate, and so on.) But if you want to exercise a little creativity, you can still do so when you hand-mill soap. You can craft soap that looks and smells the way you want it to- something you can’t always find at the store.

If you plan to scent your soap, make sure that you start with an unscented bar of commercial soap.

If you think you want to make soap, why not try hand-milling soap that you already have? The only special tool that you really need is a hand grater.

Here are the basic steps.

  1. Grate your soap, as shown.
    The smaller you grate your pieces, the quicker the melting time.
  2. Melt your pieces in water in the top pot of a double boiler or in a microwave.
    Use approximately 1 cup of water for every 2 cups of soap gratings. If using the microwave, heat the shavings and water in short bursts and check often, stirring as needed. Some people set their microwaves at 50 percent power when melting clear glycerin soap base or shavings. Experiment with what works best for you and your microwave.
  3. Stir your soap as it melts.
  4. After the soap has melted, stir in your color.
  5. Continue stirring until the soap is thick and creamy and then remove it from the heat.
  6. Add any other additives, such as essential oils.
  7. Pour your soap into the mold.
  8. Let the soap cool overnight before removing it from the mold.
Hand-milling soap
Hand-milling soap.

Your soap isn’t finished just because it’s out of the mold. Allow it to solidify for three to seven days.

How to make melt-and-pour soap

If making hand-milled soap sounds like cheating to you, then making melt-and-pour soap may be right up your alley. Instead of using commercial soap, you use a melt-and-pour soap base that you purchase in a craft store. The base comes in blocks, chunks, or nuggets, and you simply melt the amount you need and then mold it.

Probably more than any other soapmaking technique, melt-and-pour soapmaking resembles the steps involved in making candles. Like candlemaking, you use premade material, melt it, and mold it. If you love to make candles, chances are you’ll enjoy making melt-and-pour soaps.

Here’s how melt-and-pour soapmaking works:

  1. Melt your soap chunks in a double boiler over medium heat or melt them in a heat-resistant bowl in the microwave (see the following figure).
    You can also cut 1- or 2-inch chunks off a large 1-pound or 5-pound block of soap if you’re not using precut chunks.
    If you’re melting your soap in the microwave, melt your soap at 50 percent heat for approximately 1 minute. Stir your soap. Continue melting it at 20-second intervals until the soap is completely melted.
  2. Remove your melted soap from the heat and stir in any additives, such as color.
  3. Pour your melted soap into the mold.
    Most melt-and-pour soaps shrink as they set, so you probably don’t need to spray your mold with a releasing agent.
  4. Allow your soap to cool for approximately 1 hour.
melting soap
You can use a microwave to melt your soap chunks. Then you just need to pour your melted soap into a mold.

Although melt-and-pour soap is immediately safe for the skin, let it dry out and harden for a few days before use, so that it will last longer.

Enhance your soap with additives

Additives are generally anything you add to your soap base to enhance its color, scent, texture, skin-care benefits, or overall aesthetic value.

You stir in the additives as the last step before pouring your soap into the mold and after the soap has been melted.

If you’re adding a solid additive to melt-and-pour soap, be aware that it may separate, or sink to the bottom of your mold. To avoid this problem, let your soap cool more than you usually would, stirring the additive into the soap the entire time. You want the soap mixture to thicken in your bowl before you pour it into the mold, much like thickening gelatin. Waiting longer than usual can help the solid additive stay suspended in the soap.

The table describes popular additives.

Common Soapmaking Additives
Additive Description
Almond oil Soothes irritated, itchy skin. Also used as base. Has slight odor.
Aloe vera Relieves dry and burned skin. Can use in plant or gel form.
Apricot Softens skin. A popular bath additive. To use, place dried apricots in water for several hours and then liquefy.
Apricot kernel oil Softens skin. Especially good for sensitive skin.
Beeswax Hardens soap and contributes scent. Need to melt before adding to soap. Don’t use more than 1 ounce per pound of soap.
Clay Helps dry out oily skin. Choose finely powdered French clay.
Cocoa butter Hardens soap and moisturizes. Looks and smells like white chocolate but can be purchased in a deodorized form if you want its qualities without the chocolate smell.
Cucumber Acts as astringent. Use grated skin or liquefied.
Glycerin Moisturizes skin.
Herbs Contribute texture and color.
Honey Moisturizes skin and makes soap softer.
Lanolin Hardens soap. Moisturizes and softens skin. Can cloud soap. Don’t use if allergic to wool.
Lemon Adds texture and speckling, as well as antibacterial qualities. Use grated peel.
Oatmeal Softens and exfoliates skin. Adds texture. Use ground rolled oats. Limit to a maximum of 1/2 cup rolled or 1/4 cup ground or pulverized oats per pound of soap. A blender works well for making oat flour.
Pumice Removes tough dirt, but can be harsh. Adds texture.
Vitamin E oil Use as a preservative when you add fresh fruit or other additive at risk of spoiling.
Wheat germ Exfoliates skin, as well as adding bulk and texture. Shows up in soap as light speckling. Use no more than 3 tablespoons per pound of soap.

You can add color to your soap by using a melt-and-pour soap base or soap dyes. To add a scent, use your favorite essential oils, manufactured fragrance oils, or even spices and extracts from the kitchen or herbs straight from the garden!