Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Soapmaking 101

Well, here is it:  a post about how we make our handcrafted cold-processed soap.  We get so many questions about how our soap is made I thought it would be fun to take pictures during the process and write a little tutorial on how soap is made - the old-fashioned way.  Yesterday I made four batches - Oat and Wheat Bran, Cedarwood and Cornmeal, Raspberry, and Cinnamon Spice.  These pictures primarily show the Oat and Wheat Bran Soap.
First I weigh out the oils using a digital scale.  We use palm oil, coconut oil, soybean oil, castor oil, and olive oil for special recipes.  The oils are mostly solid so we have to melt them on the stovetop.  We add blocks of beeswax during this time, since beeswax helps create a hard, long-lasting bar of soap.  The beeswax is from our own beehives - (how I clean it and get it into these little bars is another post - for another day).
Here is a picture of what the oils and beeswax look like when they are almost completely melted.  At this point we take it off the stove and use a kitchen thermometer to check the temperature.  We let it sit and cool until it is about 100 deg. F.  

The next step involves sodium hydroxide (the fancy term for lye).  Real lye is made from wood ash, and this is what was used in the old days.  We buy our sodium hydoxide in pelleted form, and it is caustic so you have to wear rubber gloves and goggles when handling it.  I didn't take any pictures during this step because I couldn't hold the camera and do the step at the same time.  Basically what I did was measure the lye on a digital scale, and then measure the distilled water in a pitcher on the same scale.  It is very important to follow recipes and use a good scale to ensure the soap will come out like you want it to.  Too much lye can create a harsh, abrasive bar of soap.  
I slowly added the lye to the water and stirred (I do this outside - to prevent inhaling the fumes).  This is a picture of the water after I added the lye.  The chemical reaction causes it to heat up very quickly, so we leave it outside to cool.  We also wait until it reaches 100 deg F so we can mix it with the oils.
Once both the oils and the lye/water mixture have reached 100 deg F it is time to mix them together!  This is a picture of what the mixture looks like right after I added the lye.  Now the stirring begins.  When we first started making soap we stirred it all by hand, and it took us HOURS of stirring to get it completed.  Finally, we wised up and bought an electric hand mixer, which saves us tons of time and makes beautifully blended soap.
Here I am mixing with the blender.  I am blending until the soap reaches "trace" which is when it gets to a pudding/custard consistency and you can see a trace of soap on the top of the mixture when you stir it.  At "trace" we can begin adding the fun ingredients - exfoliants, essential oils, and honey.  
Here I am adding honey to the soap.  Honey is great for it's anti-bacterial and moisturizing properties, and also adds a hint of sweetness to the scent.  Luckily as beekeepers we have honey in abundant supply.
Here is a picture of the exfoliants I am adding to the Oat and Wheat Bran soap - all pre-measured with the scale.  Pictured here are Oat Bran, Wheat Bran, and Whole Oats that I have turned into a fine powder with my food processor.
Here I am adding the exfoliants.
The next step is to pour it into the molds, which I have lined with parchment paper.  I am lucky enough to have a husband handy enough to make all of our wooden molds and soap cutters.  They work great!  This is the final step for the evening.  After the soap has been poured, I put another sheet of parchment paper on top, cover it with the wooden lid, and let it sit and harden overnight.  Twenty-four hours later I can take it out of the mold and cut it into bars.
This is what the block of Oat and Wheat Bran looks like the next day.  That is one big bar of soap!  We cut these blocks into two long slabs (pictured below) using a soap cutter made from a guitar string.  
Next we cut these slabs into individual bars using another soap cutter that Becky made (also with a guitar string).  Pictured below are individual bars of soap as they are curing.  They must sit and harden for four weeks to ensure that the bars have completely saponified.  This means that all the lye has combined with the oils to create soap - no more active lye is present in a fully cured bar.

Aren't they beautiful?  The possibilities are endless when it comes to creating scents.  Have any ideas of scents or exfoliants you would like to try?  Post a comment or send us an email!  We would love to hear your ideas.