Old Timey Learning: Making Soap

When we were first planning our big move, I had soap-making in my mental list of things I wanted to learn.  I’m not sure why exactly.  Soap and it’s cousins shampoo, body gel, and lotion had not been high on my list of priorities since the Bath & Body Works craze of 1995.  I didn’t know much about soap-making, other than what I learned from watching “Fight Club” about a hundred times throughout my 14 years spent with TS.  It’s one of his favorite movies and after I’d seen it a couple times I mostly quit paying attention to it when he’d turn it on.  It was only in the last couple years that I came to appreciate the anti-consumerism sentiment as well as some of the other themes behind the fighting.  Anyhow, sometime during the end of our first long winter here I started learning to make soap.  I’m still learning.

Soap is made when a chemical reaction occurs between a fat and sodium hydroxide (lye).  That chemical process is called saponification and if you have the proper proportion of lye and fat all the lye is used up in the saponification and none remains in the finished soap.  This is important because lye is caustic!  It will burn your skin, as will soap that isn’t fully saponified.  In the old timey days, whoever made soap (which was at least someone in every family) would take lye made from wood ashes and combine it with rendered lard leftover from cooking.  While I do render my own lard/tallow, I have yet to try to make soap with it.  I have been using a variety of vegetable oils and nut butters, mainly coconut oil, palm oil, castor oil, and shea butter.  I purchase my sodium hydroxide online because I have zero interest in trying to make it from wood ashes.  I need a more mathematically predictable process.  Yes, soap-making involves math.  Each type of fat, oil, nut butter, and the like have a different “saponification value” which is the amount of lye needed to convert it to soap.  So what you do when you create a soap recipe is decide the percentages of each ingredient you are going to use, multiply them by the sap value of each, and add it up to arrive at the amount of lye you need.  Even though I do somehow remember enough middle-school-math to do this, it is way quicker and easier to use an online lye calculator.  It’s also safer because a small error in math could mean lye-heavy caustic soap or superfatted soap that will go rancid.  A small percentage of extra fat can be good for your soap, so you can also adjust the superfat level using your lye calculator or middle-school-math.

Once you have your recipe ready and safety gear on, you mix your powdered sodium hydroxide with water.  Most recipes say to use distilled, but I’ve had great results with our tap water which comes from our mountain-spring-fed well.  The mixture will heat up due to a chemical reaction between the sodium hydroxide and water, which is at that point called lye.  While it’s cooling you weigh out your other ingredients, melt them down, and then let that cool a bit.  When both the lye and the oils are around 95 degrees, you mix them together using a constant whipping or a stand-mixer or stick blender until the mixture starts to thicken and then pour it into a mold.  It takes around 24 hours for it to get hard enough to turn out of the mold and cut and then the soap needs another 4+ weeks to dry to be fully cured and ready for use.  It sounds easy and it sort of is, except that any tiny thing can go wrong and ruin the soap.  Measurements can be off, the temperature can be wrong, the mixing may not end up complete, etc.  It takes time and practice.  My first batch came out of the mold a crumbly mushy lye-heavy mess.  I’m not sure what I did wrong, but it was bad.  My second batch turned out okay.  The third batch was squishy.  It took a lot of trial and error and recipe-tweaking to produce consistently good soap.   I’ve made 1-4 batches of soap per week in the months since and I still have an occasional soap fail.  My most recent fail was gray and off-smelling and looked like concrete.  But most of the time I get nice results and I really enjoy the process.

What do I do with all this soap?  Two things: we use it, gift it, and sell it.  We always have a bar by the bathroom sink and a few in the shower.  The kids love to pick out their own bar of soap from the drying rack.  I have gifted many soaps to family and friends who have visited in the past few months.  I also sell it at farmers’ markets.  I first sold it at the market here in Burnsville (along with my homemade bread) until the board determined that soap and bread (among other things we were selling) were already “covered by other vendors” and therefore no longer allowed.  I tried a market in the neighboring town of Spruce Pine, but the small clientele were mostly only interested in produce and the hours didn’t work well for my schedule.  Then I found out about a new farmers’ market starting up in Erwin, TN.  We are only a few miles from the NC/TN border and Erwin is not far past that.  So I joined the Erwin market and sales were good enough that I went every week up until the last couple weeks of October when it started getting cold and dark earlier and the market slowed down dramatically.  I’m excited to be going back when it starts up next Spring.  My experience with Erwin has been great!  The group of people who started and run the market are super nice and welcoming, as are the people of Erwin in general.  I sold a bunch of soap, lotion, lip balms, and salves and got some regular customers.

Now that the farmers’ market is done for the year I have a couple events lined up in Burnsville.  I’ll be vending at the Christmas Ornament Craft Festival on November 19th and the Christmas Extravaganza on the 26th, both at Burnsville Town Center.  I’m really looking forward to selling soaps here in town!  Hopefully sometime soon I will also have an online store set up so I can sell my soaps to non-locals.  I’ll share my online store as soon as I get it up and running.  If you want to buy some now, email me at serendipityfarmnc@yahoo.com.  At some point I’ll have to write another post about making LIQUID soap.  It’s a much more complicated process and my first attempt boiled out of the pot so fast it covered the floor with a hot caustic soup before I could get it under control.  Thank goodness for rubber gloves – safety first!


2 thoughts on “Old Timey Learning: Making Soap

  1. Another great post – informative and fun to read : ). Thank you, it’s incredible to believe that a year has already passed since we first came up to visit and surprise Linda for her 65th. Y’all have taken to this new life, like a duck takes to water. Hope everything is going well with the new school, transitions, schedules, etc. All the best to your gang from the flatlanders and good luck at your upcoming festivals – hope you sell lots and lots!


  2. Thanks so much!!! It has been a trip! We’ve been a lot busier than we thought we’d be and there have been some set-backs along the way, but it’s worth it 🙂


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