advice for a newbie soap maker
April 11, 2013 3:23 PM   Subscribe

I just made my first batch of soap. Now what?

I just made my first batch of successful soap! IT WAS AMAZING.

I have no idea why -- for some reason this is the hobby/craft that I've found most satisfying thus far. I got Basic Soapmaking and am looking for other resources, particularly regarding recipe suggestions, safety tips, and techniques. The forums I've seen so far have seemed to be really out of date, and while there are a few blogs (I found a great one on beer soap! What won't they think of next??) I've been stymied in finding, like, a forum or something like that. Even the last Ask on this is from 2008. :(

Where else should I be looking?

Questions I'm particularly concerned about:
1. What are some safeguards I should take when making cold process soaps when I have a cat? I figured keeping her out of the room while making the soap and cleaning up would be enough, but should I do more?

2. What are the recipe differences between solid shampoo bars and soap?

3. What are some absolute no-nos for soap making?

posted by spunweb to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (12 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh! Another question I had was about blenders. I've seen contradictory advice about using an immersion blender vs a regular one, I'm assuming because you hit trace a lot faster with a regular blender? Is there a real difference in quality or safety concerns?
posted by spunweb at 3:30 PM on April 11, 2013

Best answer: I have made soap for years, and the best advice I can give you is use the lye calculator at MMS to invent new recipes.

I never used a blender, I use a stick blender, but never bring it above, and alternate between stick blending and hand blending. I personally would not use a regular blender because of the potential for hazard.

What I do now is prep: weigh my lye, using say, a tall plastic container such as an old deli container. Mix it into distilled water (always think of snowflakes on a lake), and stir it a bit with a silicon spatula. I have a heavy duty 8 cup plastic measuring cup from Bed, Bath and Beyond that I use for the lye mixture, and I use a silicon spatula and lay that onto a ceramic plate.

Then I will weigh my liquid oil, namely, olive, and pour it into my crockpot. After that, my coconut and/or palm, etc. I do hot process now in my crockpot, but when I did cold process, it was a large speckle lined stock pot, the kind you can get at Walmart or a Fleet Farm type of store. 12 quart.

After all of my oils are together, melted either in the big pot or a crock pot, I pour the lye mixture in slowly and stir. If you are using the cold process method, stir and then use the stick blender for a minute or two, then pull that out and lay it on a plate or heavy layers of newspaper, and then stir by hand, pulling the lighter material up. Just take your time.

Unless you are adding anything thick like beeswax, if you are using olive, coconut and palm, it will start to thicken and get more white-ish yellow as you go along in the alternate stick blending and stirring. The only reason I use the crock pot method is that it "cooks" the soap right away and I can use it right away. But cold process is just as good, except you have to let it sit longer.

I use a 6% reduction, that is, using the above calculator, I use that much of lye to make sure there are 6 percent of fatty acids leftover in the soap. I tried 8 percent but found my soap spoiled or got rancid too fast. Probably due to the olive oil.

Some good suppliers I have found are Soapers Choice for oils.

For soap molds, Candles and Woodcrafts are fantastic (you line them with freezer paper and then cut with say, a metal pasty cutter).

The thing about cats and kids is, when you are measuring lye crystals, if they could jump up and get them on their paws, it would be really bad. Because think about Drano, which has lye in it, pretty nasty, huh? So keep them out of the room and off the counters. I used to lay down rolls of excess newsprint paper (with nothing on it, blank), and even tho' I thought I had measured my lye without any spilling, I would see little yellow dots on the blank paper on my counter top. So if they are counter surfers, keep them out of the room, and keep yourself away after mixing the lye with the water, for about 10 minutes.

Good luck and let me know if you have any other questions! It's so much fun and really, consider hot process with a crock pot, because then you can use it right away. There are some great hot process tutorials online. Happy Soaping!
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 4:07 PM on April 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I used to make soap and a regular blender seems way too small to make even a small batch of soap in. A regular blender also seems like it would be really dangerous - too full, too top-heavy, too liable to erupt. I used drawer dividers as soap molds, but it looked kind of amateurish - they were never *quite* the right shape.
posted by mskyle at 4:11 PM on April 11, 2013

Best answer: Solid shampoo bars are generally detergent bars, rather than soap. You can use soap to wash your hair, but many people, me included, really hate the way it feels. Making non soap cleansers is a whole other world of ingredients, that I have never been very interested in trying.

I use a stick blender to mix mine, too. I kind of alternate blending with stirring with the blender, and even slow to trace recipes trace up a like a treat with the blender.

I hear that doing your lye in pyrex is a bad idea, it can have little fissures and the lye hurts it and one day it'll just fall part or explode or something. I use plastic for lye, but I melt my oils and mix my soap in pyrex.

The Dish Forum (google is having a nervous malware detected breakdown about it for me today) is excellent, with a LOT of info, and very experienced members. It isn't the gentlest forum I've ever been to, but it is an excellent resource. Miller soap is another place with great info and instructions, also recipes. I use Soap Calc for my recipe and lye calculation needs.
posted by Kaleidoscope at 5:29 PM on April 11, 2013

Response by poster: Does the grade of lye matter? We used food-grade at GLO, but all I've found locally is industrial strength.

....I'm assuming it matters, lol, but just wanted to make sure.
posted by spunweb at 5:30 PM on April 11, 2013

Best answer: The Soapmaker's Companion is another good book. And, yeah, stick blender or hand mixer -- none of the soap I make (and I make what I consider pretty small batches) would fit in a regular blender.
posted by hades at 5:37 PM on April 11, 2013

Best answer: I always kept some vinegar around, because it neutralizes the lye. Lye is really base, and the acid of the vinegar will balance it out, preventing lye burns, etc.
posted by annsunny at 5:37 PM on April 11, 2013

Best answer: The CDC doesn't recommend vinegar, for what it's worth. If you get dry lye on you, brush it off while still dry as much as possible, and then flush with running water for 15 minutes (eyes for 30 minutes). If you get lye in solution on you, just go straight to the running water. Vinegar may partially neutralize the lye, but you'll still have the exothermic reaction to worry about (meaning you might avoid a chemical burn while giving yourself a scalding burn), and unless you've got an awful lot of vinegar to pour over the exposure site, it doesn't seem like it would flush it away from your body as effectively as running water.

(I say this as a layperson; maybe the reason the CDC doesn't mention vinegar is that you aren't likely to have large supplies of vinegar just lying around to use at emergency sites. But they do say "Neutralizing substances should not be used" in the post-decontamination instructions there.)
posted by hades at 6:06 PM on April 11, 2013

Best answer: The grade of lye is probably not that relevent - call the manufacturer and ask for a certificate of analysis. Most of the stuff likely to be in there needn't concern you at all (potassium, calcium, magnesium, chloride) but you'll want to watch out for mercury because there may still be some manufactures out there using the mercury cell process.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:16 PM on April 11, 2013

Best answer: I use Rooto 100% lye from my local ACE Hardware and it works fine. Can't get Red Devil anymore, which is what I used to use. I only buy one or two at a time because once it's opened and if there is any left, it is subject to the extreme humidity we get in the summer.

The Soapmaker's Companion is good, but I found that superfatting at 8% made for mushy bars that tended to spoil faster. Don't store bars in the hot humid bathroom, if you have some shelves that are in a cool dark place they will keep longer. Using a 6% reduction works better for me.

Adding bits of herbs and vegetable matter can be interesting. Lemon peel, for instance, turns bright orange, and lavender turned purply dark. The best I found was using spearmint tea for the water (chilled in the fridge) and throwing in a tiny bit of the leftover spearmint herb. Then some spearmint oil at the end, just before putting into the mold. But too much herb matter and you will be washing it off in the shower.

I did try a shampoo bar, using nettle tea for the water and adding rosemary extract, but found rubbing a bar on my head to wash it pretty annoying. If it's superfatted at all, it can leave a residue on your hair.

After pouring the soap into the mold, everything in the big pot in the sink with hot soapy water (Dawn) and rinsing and cleaning the stick blender right away so the lye won't degrade the plastic.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 7:43 AM on April 12, 2013

Best answer: If you're not using eye protection when you're handling the lye, please start doing so! Even if you wear glasses usually, get something that fits over them. My husband makes soap every so often, and--I forget the exact circumstances--managed to splash some onto his face a few years ago. The drops gave him minor burns and etched the lens it landed on. He normally wore it, but was doing some minor thing and just didn't put it on for what he thought was routine. He realized after the fact that (a) lenses cost a lot to replace and he was just lucky it got his blind side and (b) if the splash had somehow made it under the lens, it could have been a whole lot worse.

As far as fun things, one year he bought a bunch of Star Wars figurines and made surprise soaps for our friends--buried the figures into opaque bars so you had to use the soap to find out what you got. Do warn people if you do that, or try to use figures that don't have sharp bits: one friend discovered he'd received a Gamorrean guard when its axe scratched his side in the shower!
posted by telophase at 1:30 PM on April 12, 2013

Response by poster: You'll be pleased to know that after two unsuccessful pours, I finally achieved SOAP! It's setting now.
posted by spunweb at 7:49 PM on May 31, 2013

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