DIY Artisanal Soap
Updated: Jan 30
We get asked a lot about where we get our soap. We get compliments on how soft it feels on the skin, and how good it smells. And actually, we make it ourselves!
I started out making soap 8 years ago with a friend. Her and I have always bonded over DIY, crafts, and cooking. At the time, my daughter was having issues with her skin. She would scratch herself bloody in the night, itching, and my first thought was to switch to more natural products to see if it helped. Maybe you are like me, and always have a long list of DIY projects to try. Learning how to make soap was already on there, so this was a good reason to get around to it! I was a bit nervous at first. It seemed really intimidating, and I was worried about using sodium hydroxide (lye). Every time I looked up “soap making” online, I felt overwhelmed by the vast amounts of information, the complicated recipes, and the ingredients that were really expensive and hard to find. But it turns out it’s not that scary or complicated once you dive in, and so we spent a successful afternoon making our first batches of soap, just in time for Christmas gifts!
My preference for soap making is to use a simple base recipe. One that uses only a few ingredients, and whose ingredients can already be found in my pantry. However, if you want to go all out and use a wide variety of ingredients, have at it! Plus, with online shopping now, you can find ingredients more easily than when I first started out! Once you get comfortable with a base recipe, it’s easy to make different variations. Honestly, once you’ve done it once or twice, making a batch of soap takes no more than the time it takes to make dinner. So, if you’re interested, here is how I make my soap…
First off, equipment. Most of these items I either already had, got at the thrift store, bought on sale…or traded with my mom. Not really any need for brand new or fancy equipment unless you plan on doing larger scale.
Scale - which I did buy new from Costco. And yes it is absolutely necessary to measure by weight when making soap. It Is chemistry and needs to be measured correctly in order for it to work. If weighed amounts are off, your soap can turn out lye-heavy and be harsh and drying, or it can be oil-heavy and turn out greasy and soft
A hand blender/immersion blender - on sale at Canadian tire on Boxing Day (which my mom then traded me for her old one 😐)
Thermometer - something I already had on hand also from Canadian Tire
Safety gear - you’ll need goggles, gloves, long sleeves, a mask (which after covid, you should all have easily on hand!) Make sure you read the label on your lye, so you know what to do if you get any on your skin before starting
Vinegar - It’s always good to have vinegar on hand. It neutralizes the lye. You can use the vinegar and a damp cloth to wipe up any accidental lye or raw soap batter splatter. Ideally go easy, so this doesn’t happen though
Plastic jug - to measure and pour your liquid, which I picked up for .25 at the thrift store
Tupperware with a lid - I use an old yogurt container (which I have artistically marked as dangerous!) to measure the lye. Something with a lid that is clearly marked and can be used just for measuring lye
Mixing spoon and spatula - also from the dollar store
Mold - There are all sorts of DIY ideas online or you can order something a bit more professional looking. In my case, Marty (who hates woodworking, but is very handy), kindly made me a wooden soap mold box for my birthday!
Parchment Paper - to line my soap mold
Stainless steel pot or large plastic mixing bowl - depending if you’re doing this in the microwave or on the stove top. After my microwave broke a few years ago, I switched to the stovetop, which as it turns out I like a lot better. I find it easier to control the temperature. If you decide to do the stovetop method BEWARE of the type of metal your pot is made of.. Certain metals (aluminum, tin, etc) will cause a reaction with the lye, so you must always use stainless steel! Mine is 8/10 which works well
Laptop - in case you need to use a lye calculator
And now on to our ingredients. These will depend on what recipe you chose to use. Every oil requires a different amount of lye to turn it into soap, so make sure you are following your recipe exactly. If for whatever reason you have measured ingredients and realize you are short on something, you will have to run your “new” recipe through an online lye calculator (https://www.soapguild.org/tools-and-resources/product-price-calculators/lye/?action=calculateand) and perhaps redo your lye water solution. This isn’t like grandma’s spaghetti sauce recipe, where you can make substitutes willy-nilly, and use ish as a unit of measurement. Follow the recipe’s measurements!
Sodium Hydroxide (Lye) - which is used in ALL soap making, even the natural ones. You can’t make soap from scratch without it. It’s sometimes not listed in the ingredients on natural soap, as once it has gone through the saponification process, it has transformed and become soap, and is no longer hazardous. Depending how deep you want to go in the DIY rabbit hole, you can actually make lye yourself, using ashes from hardwood, for example. I’ll let you research that more on your own if that interests you, as I have to draw the DIY line somewhere!
Liquid - I usually use water, but depending on the recipe, I have also used apple cider, cold coffee, coconut milk etc
Oils - my favourite base recipes are the ones with few oils, or consist mostly of oils I already have on hand - like olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, lard etc
Essential Oils - Like I said, I’m not super fancy when it comes to soap making. I usually choose one or two essential oils to add to my soap. I often like cinnamon soap in the winter, and citronella soap in the summer because my family does a lot of camping. However you are free to play with multiple types to get more complex aromas. The amount I use varies. I don’t really use more than 3-6 tsp total in any batch, some essential oils are really strong (like cinnamon) so I use less. It takes a bit of trial and error to know what you like, but best to put less than too much so it doesn’t cause skin irritation. If you’re following a specific recipe online though, then follow the amount suggested
Scrubs - you can also add something coarse to your soap as a scrub if you like. I usually forgo scrubs myself, just out of lack of forethought and organization. I sometimes harvest wild mint, sage from the garden etc., and hang them to dry for cooking, and have added some to soap in the past. I have also used ground coffee, old loose leaf tea in a pinch, and ground oats before. Dealers choice
Natural Dye - some people use different powders as dyes in their soap, again I like to keep things simple, and usually don’t use any. However I have used matcha powder to add some natural green to my Christmas Tree Soap, and cocoa powder to my Chocolate Peppermint Soap which added some nice colour
Here is the base recipe I use for Cinnamon Soap:
Sodium Hydroxide (Lye) 7.8 oz
Water 15.7 oz
Coconut Oil 18oz
Olive Oil 18oz
Optional additions for variations in colour, texture and scent:
1.Make sure you have your scale set to the right unit of measurement for your recipe and then measure out your liquid in the designated jug. Set aside.
2.Measure out the lye in the designated Tupperware. Lye is corrosive, so it’s important to wear your safety gear to handle this, and make sure you are doing this away from others.
3.Once each has been measured out, they will need to be mixed together. I do this step OUTSIDE (but have also done it by an open window or under the stove fan - good ventilation is key). Sprinkle the lye crystals INTO the water, and not the other way around, to avoid splash back. Stand back a bit while stirring to avoid the fumes (even with your safety gear). Pour slowly, stirring a bit as you go. The solution will heat up, and needs time to cool. This is another reason I do this outside, because the solution will cool down faster (as I usually make soap in late November - brr).
4.While waiting for the lye solution to cool down, start prepping the soap mold. I line my box with parchment paper. Two smaller pieces for the sides and one larger one for the middle, and held down with elastic bands.
5.Once the mold is ready, start measuring the oils.
6.At this point, once everything else is ready, check on the temperature of the lye solution with the thermometer. Your lye’s temperature doesn’t have to be as precise, as long as it is at least 5 degrees cooler than the oil's final temperature (oils will need to be heated to a temperature between 50-60C). Waiting for the lye solution to cool can take a while, so feel free to do another task and check on the temperature regularly.
7.Once the lye solution is sufficiently cooled (I let it get to 45C or less), start heating up the oils on med-low on the stove top to between 50-60C. Keep an eye on the temperature, stirring regularly to help melt the ingredients and keep the temperature even. It doesn’t take long, so don't stray far. It’s no fun to wait for it to cool down if you’ve overshot.
8.Once the oils have reached a temperature between 50-60C (and the lye is at least 5 degrees cooler), take the pot off of the stove and pour in the lye solution (wearing your safety gear!). Use your hand blender to start mixing the two solutions together.
9.What to look out for now, is called trace. This is when the mix thickens to a pudding-like consistency. If you can drag the (turned off!) hand blender across the top and still see the thick marks it left behind, you’re there! This process can vary in time, depending on the ingredients, and how much cooler the lye solution is. I usually mix well, and then wait a few minutes, mix a bit, and wait a few more. I have had trace take as little as 5 min, and as long as an hour before.
10.Once trace has been achieved, it is time to stir in any essential oils, scrubs, or powders.
11.Once well blended, pour into your mold, and cover with a dish towel. In this first curing stage the soap needs insulation for a day or two.
12.For clean-up, my preference is to put all of the equipment in the pot and let it sit (out of reach) on the counter for a day (to Marty’s delight! lol). This allows time for the mixture to turn to soap, so it can easily be washed the next day without worrying about getting lye solution on the skin or splashing it on the counters. Feel free to wipe down your work area with vinegar in case of any unnoticed drips as well.
13.Once the soap has been sitting out wrapped in dish towels for 18-24hrs or so, press lightly to check the hardness. If it’s too soft and you worry you will squish it trying to get it out of the mold, you can wait an extra day. If you wait too long, you may not be able to get it out of the mold though, so keep that in mind! Once it’s hard enough to pull out, you can try cutting it (again, if it’s squishing when you cut it, cover it up with the tea towel again and leave it out to harden a bit more)! Once you’ve sliced your soap into desirable widths, lay it out on some parchment paper for the next stage.
14.The soap now needs to cure like this for 4-6 weeks. Leave it somewhere cool, dry and well ventilated. I usually leave it out on the counter for a couple of weeks, until my husband complains and then I find a dresser or cabinet I can leave it out on, or a shelf in a closet etc. Flip it about half way through the curing process. When it’s done, you can stack it all and store it! For personal uses, I find I only need to make two batches to last our family the year, and that includes the soap that I often give away as gifts and thank yous. One batch of the recipe above makes 18 bars of soap.
15.After 4-6 weeks, it's ready for use and for gift giving!
Well, I hope I've got you motivated to try something on your DIY list! Once you’ve started using handmade soap, you won't want to go back to store bought!
Happy soap making :)