Monday, October 6, 2014

Guest Post: Making Soap

-- by Renee Williams

(Editor's Note: This article was submitted for our writing contest.)

Renee's preferred avatar. 
Over the course of 30 years of being a medievalist, one of the things I learned -- and based a home business on -- was soap making. It's cheap; it's easy; and some incredibly fine soaps, formulated for your skin type and the qualities desired out of the finished product, are readily within your reach. If you have a properly formulated recipe, you can use the finished product within a couple of days, rather than having to let them set for months on end to mellow, dry out and finish reacting.

This series is going to focus on teaching you in easy steps how to make your own soap at home for a minimum of cost or equipment investment. I will only be covering the Cold Process Method of soap making. It is much more commonly used, much easier to learn with a significantly lower learning curve, and is actually the safer method of soaping.

First up

Most of what you'll need for soapmaking you probably already have on hand in your kitchen, garage, or workshop. What you don't have can be easily aquired for little to no investment, often from thrift or second-hand stores. There are a few items on this list for which I will name alternatives, since they're on the high-tech side and may not be as easily available (or practical to use) in a SHTF scenario.

 Outside of SHTF scenarios, all of my soaping equipment is dedicated duty. Soaping is all it does. Since that isn't always an option in life and death situations, choosing equipment which is easily cleaned and doesn't readily hold on to bacteria (in this case stainless steel, glass, and heavy duty plastics) are given a high preference over wood as long as they're available. Aluminum, while cheap and readily available, is not an option! 

No Matter What The Circumstances, Never Ever Use Aluminum For Soap Making - it is Highly Reactive, and Will Contaminate Your Soap, Making It Unsafe For Use. 
The actual hows and whys of this will be further explained in the forthcoming "Chemistry of Soap" article, but the short version is that aluminum, as a metal, reacts very rapidly with strong base solutions and therefore it leaches rapidly out of the alloy, leaving little bits of Sodium Aluminates floating in your soap and destroying your pan. The creation of the aluminates will consume some of your strong base (lye) and throw off the delicate balance of fats and lye.

Necessary Equipment


These days, battery-operated digital scales that have a Tare function and read to 1/100th of a gram are readily available both online and in various stores such as office supply houses. (A tare function allows you to weigh something, leave it on the scale, and zero out the weight before you add more to it.) Having a scale with a Tare function means not having to weigh your pot, and your measuring cups, and keep that information written down so that you can do the math yourself while measuring out ingredients.

While a simple non-electric ounce/gram kitchen scale will do the trick, the more accurate your scale, the more accurate your recipe, and therefore the more accommodating your finished soap. As an alternative, recipes can be converted from ounces or grams into cup measurements, and a simple set of plastic kitchen measuring cups can be used instead. This won't lend you the sort of accuracy even a cheap scale can provide; however, you never have to worry about replacing batteries or the technology failing!

Please don't ever rely on a "best guess" or "eyeball" measurement of ingredients. Doing so pretty much guarantees one of two unpleasant scenarios: first, if you underestimate your fat (acid) to lye (base) ratio, then you will not have a complete acid/base reaction, and your soap will be harsh, lye-heavy, and not safe for use. Alternatively, If you overestimate your acid (fat) to base (lye) ratio, what you'll end up with is a greasy mess that oozes excess fats, and rapidly succumbs to rancidity and spoilage. Yes, those really are the only two likely outcomes when you "guesstimate" your measurements while Soaping! 

Large Pot
Stainless steel or ceramic pots work best. Yes, they're expensive, but you get what you pay for. You want something that's going to be easy to maintain, easy to clean, non-reactive, and easy to locate. Stainless steel, while costing you on the initial expense, can pull double duty in the kitchen and will last practically forever as long as it's well taken care of. Enamel-glazed cast iron pots are much cheaper (especially if you frequent thrift stores!) and are often easier to come by than stainless. They will work as long as you're absolutely, positively, 150% certain there are no scratches in the enamel coating deep enough to expose the cast iron. (While nowhere near as reactive -- in a bad or contaminating way -- as aluminum, cast iron or hammered high carbon steel still reacts with the lye. It will corrode away and have to be replaced much more rapidly than stainless or ceramics.) 

When it comes to what size you should get, there is no standard other than "something large enough to hold your melted oils, plus hold your lye water, and leave a bit of room to guard against splashes". I use a 16 quart pot because I generally do 15 to 25 lb batches at a time.

Large Long-Handled Spoon
The choice of a spoon really comes down to two criteria:
  1. Is it long enough to comfortably reach the bottom of the pot, while still leaving enough to grasp comfortably (without your hand being in the processing mixture)? 
  2.  Is it non-reactive? 
Non-reactive is critical, so go with either wood or sturdy plastic. If you choose wood, be prepared to replace your spoon on a semi-regular basis, as the wood eventually wears out from contact with a strong lye solution. You will need to have several on hand; one is for mixing the lye solution, another is for dealing with your oils as you heat them to bring to temperature (and melt any solids) etc. It is always better to have more than fewer -- better to have to wash up several at the end of the day than to have to be running back and forth to your water source several times at what could be a critical point in processing.

Be comfortable with your spoon. You'll be seeing a LOT of it. You'll be spending hours with it, once you mix your lye and oils, so by the time you're done, you'll know that spoon intimately!

Alternatively, you could have several long-handled spoons on hand in order to mix your lye solution, and keep your oils well mixed while coming up to temperature, and use what most Artisinal Soapers use for the actual processing; an immersion blender! While unusable if you're dealing with a SHTF scenario that lacks electricity, it can be a huge time saver at any other point. An immersion blender (or stick blender as they're sometimes called) can turn a five-hour stirring chore into a 15-minute stirring chore. Most stick blenders are plug-in, but there are a few out there nowadays that take batteries. If you're going to invest in one for a SHTF soaping use, definitely go with the more expensive battery operated type. A regular blender can be used, but it becomes a tedious process of filling the blender container, pulsing it for several minutes until it reaches the correct point, and emptying it into your mold, only to refill and repeat. Unless you're making a particularly small batch of soap, it's not really practical in terms of time/mess vs end results.
You will need one to monitor the temperature of your lye solution. The second will be to moniter the temperature of your oils as you melt any solids.

Safety Glasses/Goggles
These are not optional. Lye is a strong corrosive substance. You will be stirring it, which introduces a splash risk. Getting it into your eyes, even at the low ratio solutions typically used by home soapers, WILL PERMANENTLY BLIND YOU. Like most of life, working with potentially dangerous chemicals carries some risk. Be Smart -- Minimize The Risk.

Glass Pitcher or Long-Necked Jar
This is for mixing your lye solution. Heavy-duty plastic can be substituted in place of glass. Make sure the neck of your pitcher is wide enough for a plastic or wooden spoon to fit comfortably into it to stir your lye solution.

Saran Wrap/Plastic Wrap/Plastic Sheeting
This is to line your mold if you intend to use the same mold more than once. It can be ignored if you're using something disposable.

Heat Source
This will be used only long enough to bring your oils and fats up to temperature, melting any solid fats you happen to be using with your recipe.

Long Rubber Gloves
Much like the safety goggles, these are Not Optional. Splashing lye solution onto your hands hurts. Spilling sufficient quantities of it can cause some nasty chemical burns.

Long-Sleeved Shirt, Long Pants, Close-Toed Shoes, Apron
While these are, technically, optional, you're taking an unnecessary risk if you wear shorts, a tank top, and sandals while soaping. Remember that splash risk I mentioned? Getting lye solution on your clothing -- which creates at least a temporary barrier between you and the lye -- is preferable to having tiny scars all over your arms and legs from splashing lye solution on your skin and getting a multitude of tiny chemical burns. Take this advice from my personal experience and learn from it. That being said -- this is frequently a rather messy process, so an apron can save you a lot of time in the long run on laundry!

Soap molds can be almost anything. I've used everything from emptied plastic butter tubs to lengths of PVC pipe to waxed cardboard milk containers for quick and easy disposable molds. For something more permanent, use a stout wooden box (preferably with a lid that fits easily) or specialty fancy plastic soap/candy molds. For practical reasons, I prefer my wooden box molds for durability, cleanability, and reusability. As an artisan soaper, I've got a wide variety of box molds that hold anywhere from 3 pounds all the way up to production molds that have a 25 pound capacity.

Next:  Basic Chemistry and Ingredients

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