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Making Soap the Old-Fashioned Way

soap supplies
Cover Lye with lid, and avoid inhaling caustic fumes.Once dissolved, here's how it looks.Soap mixture is just about at trace--it is like runny pudding.Use a sieve to add powdered oatmeal, to prevent clumping.Cut bars when firm, but still soft. Bars will harden and get darker as they cure.


Nothing says a “wholesome country home” better than its owner busy in the kitchen making a batch of hand made soap. The very act evokes cherished images of long-past pioneer days when Grandma kept the many secrets of survival close to her heart.

Soap-making was once just another item on a long list of necessary skills. The woman of the house would have rendered her tallow, and blended her lye and other ingredients, according to recipes passed down from her own mother. A harsh soap would have been grated and added to the laundry, or a milder soap cut in bars to cleanse the body.

The art of soap-making, and other hand-made arts, is currently seeing a revival across the western world, as many people recognize the wisdom and value of the old ways, and attempt to preserve the knowledge for future generations. Soap-making has moved beyond a purely utilitarian activity to one which may aspire to the heights of creativity, utilizing color, form, and composition. It may incorporate the arts of perfumery and natural healing, giving a whole new status to the once humble bar of soap.

What is soap?

Simply speaking, soap is what results from a chemical reaction between oil (or lard/shortening/tallow) and lye (Sodium Hydroxide).  A mixture of dissolved lye is slowly added to the oils when both are at approximately the same temperature (100-110 degrees F), to facilitate their integration. After a period of time, which varies according to the type of oils used and the amount of lye, the liquid mixture begins to thicken and “trace”. This is the beginning of soap. The mixture must cure, anywhere from four to eight weeks, in order for all the lye to completely bond with the oils. At that point, the result is soap, with a bit of moisturizing glycerin as a by-product. If the proportion of lye to oils was correct, your soap should contain no lye and should be safe to use on your skin. It may contain an excess of oils, 5 percent being the most common for use on skin. Any more than that, a soap can become rancid over time. A good recipe will be balanced.

What makes a good soap?

Good soap depends on the ratio of lye to oils, and the types of oils used, as well as the addition of botanicals, aromas, or other additives such as oatmeal, milk, abrasives, or any number of good things.

The more lye one uses, the harsher the soap is. This might be desirable for a hand made laundry soap that can be grated up and tossed into the washing machine, or used in bar form to rub onto stains.

Different oils engender different qualities to a bar of soap. For example, Olive oil will produce a soft soap that is excellent for sensitive skin, but has little lather and takes a long time to saponify. Coconut oil will give you a harder soap, but tends to be brittle if used on its own. Tallow also yields a harder soap, but is not as inclined to splinter. Hemp seed and Rosehip Oils are excellent choices for skin care, as is Emu or Ostrich Oil, while the addition of Castor oil in small quantities will add lather to soap.

Many soap recipes call for a combination of oils to get the perfect balance between hardness, gentleness, conditioning, and lather. Each oil has its own “saponification value”, which will determine how much lye is required to turn it into soap.

How to make hand-made soap:

In ancient times, people not only made their soap, they made their own lye from the washing of wood ash. This was a tedious process. Today, lye is obtainable through soap-making suppliers, and sometimes at the hardware or grocery store, as are a whole variety of ingredients one could desire (such as colorants, essential oils, abrasives, and exotic oils). 

While soap-making is a skill one would like to pass on to their children, it is, unfortunately, not a suitable activity to undertake with pre-teen children.

Lye is caustic, and must be treated with extreme care. A number of precautions absolutely must be taken when working with the chemical.

Here are a few tips on how to handle lye:

         1. Firstly, never touch lye directly with your hands, even in its dry form, as it can dissolve skin.

         2. Make sure that water is kept away from the lye as you are measuring it out for your recipe. Once lye and water come into contact, the chemical reaction is quick. You must maintain complete control over when the two meet.

         3. NEVER add water to lye; ALWAYS add lye to water.

         4. ALWAYS add the lye solution to the oil mixture, not the other way around.

        5. Be prepared to work quickly, as there will be little time to stir the granules to help them dissolve (approximately 30 seconds). Remember that once lye and water meet, a chemical reaction will occur in which heat will be generated, and caustic fumes given off.

        6. Work in a well-ventilated area, but not directly in front of an open window where a gust of wind might push fumes into your breathing passages. Wear a mask and have a lid or covering immediately accessible to put onto the pot or container as soon as humanly possible.

        7.Keep a bottle of water nearby to apply to skin in case you are accidentally splashed by lye. Rinse thoroughly. Do not use vinegar as it will create heat due to the swift chemical reaction and will burn your skin.

          8. Make soap only when you have a block of time of several hours when you can be free of distractions, and be without children or pets in the area.

        9. Always store lye in a closed container (preferably water-tight plastic) in a dry location.

         10.Store lye OUT OF THE REACH OF CHILDREN (and pets).

What you will need:

2 Large stainless steel pots (one lidded; the other, deep); stainless steel (not plastic or wood) spoon with a long handle; digital scale; thermometer; large bowl for weighing oils; vinegar; petroleum jelly; mask and protective gloves; soap molds; and your ingredients.


    1.       Weigh the oils first, add to pot, and heat so that hard oils will melt. Set aside to cool for a half hour before moving to the next step.

    2.       Weigh the water or other liquids that will be used to dissolve the lye. You will need a heat safe container with a lid. Stainless steel or glass is ideal (a roaster also works well). It is advisable to place the pot into a sink to guard against accidentally knocking it over.

    3.       Weigh the lye carefully. Gently break up any clumps, then quickly sprinkle it over the water and stir with a steel spoon. You will have about 30 seconds before the fumes start to rise. Work quickly without splashing, and cover the pot immediately. The lye-water solution will become very hot. (Wait for a half hour before stirring again).

    4.       Use the time when the two pots are cooling to prepare your soap molds. The easiest mold is an old shoe box that has been greased with petroleum jelly, not fat. (Tip: line box with duct tape first. It will be water tight and can be reused. Then cover inside with the jelly.)

   5.       After about an hour, when the lye solution and liquefied oils are both about 100 degrees Fahrenheit or slightly higher, pour the lye in a thin stream into the pot of oils, continuously stirring.

   6.       Stir and stir and stir. If you have used Olive oil, be prepared to stir for hours before your mixture starts to “trace” (the point at which the mixture ceases to be glossy and is thick enough to show splatters or lines of soap on the surface for a moment.)

    7.       Add essential oils, colorants, oatmeal, honey, abrasives, herbs, etc. after “trace”. Stir well.

   8.       Quickly pour the runny soap into the mold. Cover with plastic or cardboard, and drape a thick towel over the mold to help incubate the soap.

    9.       Remove soap from mold once it becomes firm enough to handle. An Olive oils soap can take up to five days before it can be removed. Most other recipes will be ready to remove within 24 hours.

   10.   Cut into bars (while wearing rubber gloves, as lye will still be present). Stack the bars so that air can flow between them, and flip them over every day.

Important:  Soap must cure for at least a month prior to use.

Simple Honey Oatmeal Soap

(Using easily obtained ingredients)

48 oz. (3 lbs) Shortening

2 oz. Castor Oil

4 oz. Milk (1/2 c.)

14 oz. Water

6.5 oz. Lye  (Sodium Hydroxide)

3 Tbsp. Liquid Honey

6 T. Oatmeal Powder


Directions: As explained above. Dissolve lye in water. In this recipe, the milk is added to the melted oils and stirred well and set aside. Add honey and oatmeal to soap after trace, immediately before pouring into the molds. It may take a couple days before you can unmold this soap. Initially, the bars will be soft, but after a month they will be perfect.

     *If you are having difficulty sourcing Sodium Hydroxide, please send an email to