Preparing to Make Soap

We have wanted to make soap for over 20 years. It appears that this dream will finally be coming true very soon, and we are both very excited. In preparation for this venture, we have done a lot of research. This research resulted in a list of things we needed to be able to successfully and safely make soap. Over the past several weeks we have gradually accumulated those things we need, and now it is just a matter of time, and I will admit, courage. 

In compiling information about making soap, I have read numerous websites and a couple of books. I want to link a few sites that provided some very useful information. Some of them deal with lye, and some outline the techniques used during the process.

One of the first things you will read on any site is how important it is to handle lye in a safe manner. And rightly so. Here is a video  that specifically deals with handling lye safely.

One of the difficulties I had in my research is finding a recipe and appropriate techniques that match the ingredients we are going to use. You see, our soap will only have three ingredients: goat milk, lard and lye. That’s it. There are a gazillion sites that make soap, but the vast, vast majority of them use other oils, liquids and fragrances. We’re not. Why? For a couple of reasons. One, if we are going to make soap, we want

it to be as pure and simple as possible. Two, if need be, we will be able to produce these three ingredients ourselves. We will be getting the milk from our goats. We plan to be able to render our own lard from the pigs that will be arriving here in the next few months. For now, we are using store bought lard. We can also make lye from wood ashes, but again, we are using purchased, food grade lye for now. And speaking of wood ashes and lye, I found this video to be really fascinating. We have read many things about making lye water, then using it to make soap, but my question has always been, how do you know how strong your lye is? I know you can float an egg or potato just right, but lye is a caustic and I’m not sure I would trust my skin to this technique. This video gave us a different option. Instead of lye water, make lye crystals.

I’m going to list some other videos and sites that I used to learn about the steps for making soap, even though none of them use the recipe we are going to try, I still learned a lot from them.

  • This is the first video I watched on actually making soap, and it is very informative. Becky uses water instead of milk, but this is a basic lard soap. She also uses the lard she rendered from her own pigs.

Once we completed all of this research, we realized there was some equipment we needed to get before we could dive in making soap. I had one book on making soap that I have probably had for more than 20 years, that’s how long we’ve had this in mind. I ended up ordering two more books, but they are mostly geared to recipes that don’t involve goat milk and do involve a lot of other ingredients we are not going to use. 

We already had some aprons and rubber gloves on hand. And I have a number of thermometers I have accumulated for making cheese. We decided to acquire what I call a point and shoot thermometer that can be used for soap or people.

We have a manual scale that is used to weigh out produce for canning. But the emphasis on being able to weigh out soap ingredients to the ounce, prompted us to invest in a digital scale that can be easily zeroed out after your bowl or container is placed upon it.

Then there was the question of mixing the oils, milk and lye until it comes to trace. Trace, a new vocabulary word for us. We’ll get into that much more throughout the process. Most folks I read or watched used a stick blender or mixer. Everyone had the admonition of not running the mixer too long so the motor wouldn’t overheat or burn out. Well, we don’t have a stick blender, and really didn’t see a need for one. Instead we searched for a while and found a mixer whip that would fit in the chuck of an electric hand drill, in this case battery operated. Sound funny? It probably is, but it is what we are going to use. I think it will be more durable, and we won’t worry about it overheating or burning out. And if the battery dies before the soap goes to trace, we have extras that we can use. We ordered a couple of different types of whisks, whips and beaters to try in the drill. I’m sure once we make the first batch of soap, we will figure out which one works the best. 

I have seen where some people use plastic to mix their ingredients and some use stainless steel. Most will tell you to only use soap equipment to make soap and nothing else. The first video I watched where the lye and water were mixed in an old butter tub surprised me. Especially when they discussed how hot the liquid will get when it interacts with the lye.

My question was, what keeps the chemicals in the plastic from leaching into the lye solution? If the temperature of the mixture gets really hot, won’t that release some of the chemicals of the plastic? And, since lye is a very caustic substance that will pit the surface of the plastic, won’t that release some of the chemicals of the plastic? I didn’t find any definitive answers to these questions, but they have lead us to use stainless steel. We had these two extra 13 quart bowls in storage waiting for something to come along, and think they will work fine. I had also purchased some silicone spatulas a while back to replace the rubber ones I’m using now when they wear out, so now they will be assigned soap making duties.

We debated and thought long and hard about soap molds. There are a million and one different molds out there people use. Specialty shops sell all kinds of molds, and some folks use cardboard boxes with a trash bag liner. Silicone seems to be a favorite of many folks, and we ordered one loaf pan just to see how it does. We’re also going to line a regular loaf pan and see how it works as well. I seldom use this loaf pans anymore since I started using cast iron loaf pans for bread, so this pan has been volunteered for the job.

There is also a wide variety of mechanisms used to cut the soap into bars. Some contraptions are quite sophisticated, some use a wide cutter blade specifically made for cutting soap, and some are as simple as a knife. We are going to try out this cleaver and see how it works.

As you can see, it has taken time and effort to research and acquire the needed materials and equipment for this project. We have already learned a tremendous amount and we haven’t even started making soap yet. I have the distinct feeling that the learning has just begun. And you know what? I’m glad. It’s great to learn something totally new and be so much closer to another dream come true. We don’t know anyone that has ever made soap from only goat milk, lard and lye. I can only think of one person I know that has ever made soap period. Just like most other things in our lives, what we know and do, we basically teach ourselves. This time we have the blessing of the internet which has allowed us to do a lot of research, and even watch videos of demonstrations. 

Our next soap post will be a demonstration of our first attempt. We will cover much more detail about the equipment we use, and especially the safety aspects involved in making soap. Never take safety for granted. I know there are a lot of folks out there that have been making soap for years. Any advice you can share before we get started will be greatly appreciated. Keep in mind, we are set on our ingredients. I know there are many other things that can be added to soap and for good reasons. But we want to make a soap that can be replicated in a sustainable fashion if we can never order or buy anything else besides what we can raise and make on our own. It is another giant step for our continued sustainable life style. And we’re excited!

Until next time – Fern

39 thoughts on “Preparing to Make Soap

  1. How timely! I've been saving our wood ashes for a while now, and have gotten a plastic barrel which I will be modding to be the lye leaching vessel. As soon as it warms up a bit, I will start the experiment ( outside of course). I absolutely agree, try to make it with what you have around. I saved pig fat in the freezer from last fall, and will be rendering that as well. Can't wait to see your follow up post on your results. Good luck.

  2. I appreciate the time to you took to share this information with us. We've discovered we need to accumulate a few more things before we get started so it will be another week or so before we make the plunge.Fern

  3. Hi, Fern. I'm excited for you about your soon to come adventure with soap making. I started making soap with our goat's milk a few years ago and it was a lot of fun. I actually have so much soap from back then, that I haven't had to make any for a few years, and probably not this year, either. It's lasts so long!I didn't have time to watch your soap making tutorials, so I'm sorry if this was covered in the info you have read. However, when I make my goat milk soap, I freeze the milk in 1 pint sour cream containers, which equals one pound of milk. Then, I pop out the frozen milk and directly add the lye, slowly, to the top of the frozen milk. The heat reaction melts the milk and then I don't have to worry about anything over heating. I know some people like to use slush milk, but I don't have the patience to wait until the milk is slushy. Usually I would get busy and forget about it and then the milk was all thawed out by the time I remembered. There is another reason I make soap with the frozen milk. If the milk gets above 115 degrees F., it will turn orange, and then will cure to a tan soap. To keep the soap milk white, you have to be sure the milk doesn't get above 115. There was a group of us who were trying out the recipe together and it was funny when three of us ended up with orange milk, and one didn't because of how slowly she added the lye to the milk (letting it cool down before she added more and I don't have time for that). I did make lard soap before, but honestly my dog kept sniffing at it (like she thought she was going to get a meaty snack). Also, I and my friends who made it with me agreed that we thought the lard soap was drying to our skin, instead of moisturizing. I understand that you want to know you can make the soap with ingredients available to you. Kudos to you for that! However, once you have tried it, I encourage you to venture in to making soap with some of the other oils. Because of the fumes of the lye, and not wanting to ruin my wooden floor, I only make soap outside. If you do this and choose to use the frozen milk, be sure to make soap on a day that is not too cold. I have done that and the soap goes to trace too soon. On the other hand, if you make it on a day too hot, it takes forever to go to trace.Have fun and I look forward to reading about your experience.

  4. KJB, thank you for your in depth explanation. I really appreciate it. I ran across the site you shared when looking for SAP values and found another one very similar to it, as well. They both have some great information. Thank you again for sharing.Fern

  5. Hi Tewshooz. Thanks for the information about the wooden spoon. I have extras so I can dedicate one to making soap.Why use milk? Goat's milk is very moisturizing and has other benefits as well. This site is one example of some of the benefits. think we will have plenty of milk to go around. This week when I start penning the kids up at night, our milk supply will increase dramatically. When I start making cheese, we are usually over run with whey pretty quickly, even with the dog, cats and chickens drinking some everyday, not to mention the pigs that will be arriving before long. I will probably be milking four does for a while this spring/summer and have more than enough milk to go around.Keeping a soap journal is a very good idea. I will get out a notebook for that. After I looked at MMS lye calculator, I went searching for information that I could use to calculate my own and ran across this site. you for your information and questions.Fern

  6. Kathi we plan to talk to one of the local butchers the next time we are in his shop to see if we can buy beef or hog fat for rendering. That will increase our supply until we have piglets old enough to butcher. I figure that will be about a year from now.It's good to know that once you have a successful recipe it can be replicated easily. I thought, and hoped, that would be the case. Thanks for sharing!Fern

  7. It's very encouraging to hear your soap making experiences, Vickie, but hamburger grease and turkey fat?? Were all the neighborhood animals following you around? (-: Thank you for sharing your encouragement and interesting ingredients!Fern

  8. I am so excited to see how your soap turns out! I have also jumped into the soapmaking venture recently and have found my new hobby. It is so much fun! I wholeheartedly agree that you should make soap (or at least know how to) with ingredients that are readily available to you. Soaps made with coconut butter and shea butter are nice, silky soaps, but those ingredients will not be available once the SHTF. They really aren't sustainable or planet friendly, either. I have also been experimenting making my own lye in plastic buckets. Quite an experiment! A few weeks ago I made soap out of hamburger grease and turkey fat, and it actually turned out great, though I didn't choose my essential oil scents very carefully. 😉 Have fun!

  9. Sorry – I meant to say that you would probably be ok not using the lye calculator every time if you were only using one fat. Instead above, I said you would probably be ok not weighing the ingredients.

  10. Fern, you can definitely do this without the internet. I will put a link at the end of this comment – go to the saponification table at this link and you will see the saponification values of many oils. lard is on there – it has a sap value of 0.1399. The 3 formula calculations you need to make are also there. Once you know the sap value, you can either use a calculator or Excel, or just plain manual math calculations to figure it out. I always use Excel – that make it very easy especially using multiple oils. I would print out a page with all the pertinent details – including the date and any colorants or other added ingredients (like ground oatmeal, for example). I would store the printed paper on or under the tray so that a few weeks later I could make ingredient labels and make notes about how I liked the soap. Those notes became very valuable to me to help me hone my recipes. The idea about using the same recipe and not weighing the ingredients would work -but you will be surprised at how much the weight will change when adding a very small amount of fat. When the weight of the lard changes, the amounts of water and lye will also change. That's why most soap experts (which I'm not, I just like to make soap!) will tell you to weigh the ingredients every time. All that being said, with using just one fat – lard – that would make it much more likely to work successfully, I would think. When using multiple oils, here is what I do:Put a large empty stockpot on the scale and zero it outAdd the first oil. Write down the exact weight on a notepad.Zero out the scale again.Add the next oil to pot. Write down the exact weight on the notepad.Keep doing the above steps until I have all the oil added that I wanted to use.Take the notepad to the computer and enter the weights for each oil in my spreadsheet. The spreadsheet has the formulas in it that calculate exactly how much water and lye to use.Then I go back to the scale, use a smaller pot, zero it out.Add icy cold water to the pot until it reaches the weight I need it to be. Remove the pot from the scale and set aside. Place a small bowl on the scale and zero it out.USING ALL OF THE SAFETY PRECAUTIONS – scoop or pour the lye crystals into the empty bowl until it reaches the weight I need it to be. Then carefully add the lye crystals to the water. Stir it to help dissolve. The set it aside in a safe place for it to cool. It will become quite warm. It all sounds complicated until you actually do it once. Then it all makes sense!I use wooden molds and line them with some kind of plastic. I've used lightweight trash bags and regular plastic wrap – not much difference in them to me.

  11. My wooden soap spoon has lasted for years! No, your spoon will not dissolve in the lye mixture; it might get a little rough, but that won't hurt anything. However, you will have to use a dedicated spoon just for soap. OK, my next question is: Why use milk at all? It is a valuable asset for your farm to feed yourself and your animals. Another thing is to write down everything that happens as you make your soap. Make notes about how the soap traces, how fast and what you did. Also notes about the finished product…smell, lather, hardness, etc. I used to have a book that I gave to a friend on how to figure the correct amount of lye to fat ratio. What you need is a SAP (saponification) table as each oil or fat needs different amounts of lye to make a safe soap. I calculated all my soap recipes before I had a computer. I will try to find a link.

  12. If you stick to the same recipe, you don't have to use a lye calculator each time. It's a fixed part of the recipe after you look it up the first time.We render our own lard too, when we have it to render. I'm looking forward to doing more this year since we have Ham and Bacon. I render tallow too – I get that from the local butcher in exchange for soap.

  13. Thank you for your encouragement, Goodwife. I asked Tewshooz the question about wooden spoons. Does the lye eat away at the wood after a time? That was one of the things I read. We are excited, a little nervous about the safety aspects and using lye, but excited. Thank you again for sharing your experiences.Fern

  14. We are nervous and excited, but I know it will go well just because there are so many other folks that successfully do this everyday. There are things that can go wrong that could cause permanent injury, but with the knowledge and practice of appropriate safety precautions, this can be avoided. Fear has prevented many an experience from occurring, but it can also be overcome. We'll let you know how it goes. Thank you for sharing.Fern

  15. Thank you for the information, Anne. I went to the MMS lye calculator this morning. It is very easy to use and comes with directions for making the soap, as well. It's a good site to know about.Fern

  16. Thank you for recommending Anne Watson's books. I loaded them on my Kindle this morning and will be reading them soon. I'm ready to be at the non-fretting stage.You'll notice in my response to Tewshooz that the motivation behind using only lard for the fat content is the ability to produce our own in a survival situation. There are so many different oils and fats that are available for soap making, but this is the only one I know of that we can actually produce ourselves by raising pigs. Thank you very much for your encouragement.Fern

  17. Hi, Sandra. What does your soap book recommend? And why not loaf pans? And are milk soaps different for some reason. Thank you for a comment that prompted more questions and thought.Fern

  18. I have read both ways to weigh out ingredients, Tewshooz, ounces and grams. You bring up a couple of other issues that we are going to work through. Yes, we know that store bought lard has preservatives, but we're not to the point of rendering lard yet. Yet. That is another project we hope to accomplish before long. Not only to use in making soap, but to use in cooking as well.All of the sites I have read or watched recommended freezing the milk then putting the milk/lye container in a sink or tub of ice water to prevent the scorching of the milk. But. You knew I was going to say that, didn't you? (-: What we are trying to replicate is a survival scenario where we won't have access to a freezer and maybe not any kind of refrigeration. With that said, we won't be freezing the milk or using ice. We will use cold tap water and refresh it as it warms up to try to alleviate the scorching process, but if we end up with brown soap, that's okay with me, as long as it is soap and doesn't stink like burnt milk.I went to the MMS lye calculator. I have looked at the one on Brambleberry as well. My next challenge is to find a way to figure lye without using the internet – back to that survival scenario. But if we get our recipe down to the ounce or gram, we should be able to follow it without using a lye calculator each time. I think.I have a question about wooden spoons. Both you and Goodwife said you use them, but I have read that the lye will eat them up after a while. Do they last a long time if you make soap regularly? I cook with wooden spoons everyday. They're great. I just don't want them to 'disappear' into the soap. (-:Thanks again for sharing your wisdom and experiences, I always enjoy your comments.Fern

  19. We bought some wood to make a soap mold, but we are going to try the loaf pans first. One of the things I read about wooden soap molds is that they need to be lined or covered with Vaseline to keep the soap from adhering into the surface of the wood making it very hard or impossible to get out.Your recipe sounds very interesting, and so does your husband's results. I can only use certain things on my skin, so I am really looking forward to seeing how a simple, natural soap works out. Thank you very much for sharing.Fern

  20. Thanks a lot, Kathy! Yes, we will let you know what our mistakes are, because we are probably going to make some. It's one of the best ways to learn, through experience. Stay tuned and we will let you know how it goes.Fern

  21. Great advice, Kathy. Our first batch will be rather small, just to make sure our recipe ratio is correct, and to get our feet wet. I'm glad you have found something useful here. Thank you very much for sharing this information.Fern

  22. I've made soap many times with just lye, lard, and water. I re-batch and and add the milk in, which means after your soap is made and cured hard, then you grate it and add milk in, melt it, and then pour it into a mold. Don't let it scare you, just be safe, wear gloves and goggles, and go to it! I very much enjoy making soap. You will find your lard soap is perfectly servicible soap, it just won't really make a lather. It will get you clean, but you won't be covered in suds while it does it. I also don't usually use a stick blender, but just stir with a wooden spoon until it traces. It takes longer, but works out just fine. Good luck and have fun!

  23. I too, have everything to make it (with water) but am afraid. I DO know that when I do, the windows will be open. Great post.

  24. Majestic Mountain Sage has a lye calculator on their site. You just enter your ingredients and it tells you how much lye to use. Also I use 4 inch schedule 40 PVC tubes for molds. (that's the really heavy-duty PVC) They are cut about 12-18 inches long. Tape up one end with plastic wrap and duct tape, spray with a cooking spray, pour your soap in, cover with a towel and set aside to cure. It is heavy enough that the heat doesn't warp it.

  25. Anne L. Watson has written 2 books on soap making that I highly recommend for beginning soap makers. One of them is specifically about milk soap making. It really is easy. You'll wonder why you fretted so much about the process when you're through.I hope you decide to experiment with more oils than just lard. They all have their own properties (lather, moisturizing, hardness, etc.) and can make the process more interesting and fulfilling. Adding different oils still keeps the soap natural.

  26. Good luck with your soap venture. I am curious how the loaf pans will work out. The milk soap making book I have does not recommend loaf pans for milk soaps. I look forward to hearing how everything works out.

  27. I have always weighed my ingredients in grams, which your new digital scale should do. Also, with any milk, the colder the better since the lye solution will reach a temp of about 180 degrees. I measure out my milk and then freeze it in ice cube trays overnight and the lye will heat the milk but not so hot as to scorch it and turn the soap brown. You know that store bought lye has preservatives and other ingredients besides pork fat, right? Remember that a 6% lye discount give enough leeway to make a soap that will not be lye heavy and burn you. (check out MMS lye calculator). Good luck with your new endeavor and remember not to overthink the whole thing. Your final product should be a hard soap that lathers well that is mild on your skin. The fun is developing new recipes to try. You don't need whisks…..a wooden spoon will work great and the slow stirring is soothing and relaxing, too. Can't wait to see your finished product. Silicone bread pans are great molds….the soap pops right out.

  28. You were asking about soap-making hints……When we put our soap into a plastic basin to harden, the plastic definitely suffered. It sort of blistered and peeled. Since then we haven't made it again, but if we do it again, my husband will make a wooden box to pour it into.Another thing, do not touch your finished soap with your bare fingers for a while, it needs to cure a bit.But I know that you will love it. My husband's skin condition on his hand needed cortisone shots until he wasn't allowed them anymore, and with our own soap, it was cured! We made it with a blend of beef tallow, wild boar and sheep fat because that's what we had, water and lye.Good luck

  29. I am eager to watch you do this, it is something we have planned and just not gotten to yet, please make all the mistakes and let me learn from yours!! Seriously though…I have learned quite a few things from you both so am looking forward to your lesson on this.

  30. The first time I made soap I was terrified. It's just like using a pressure canner. After you get the first time behind you, there's nothing to it!

  31. Hi Fern… I've been a soap maker for about 10 years now, and for a couple years I sold soap at a local Farmers Market. When I was in that selling phase, I found myself making larger batches, naturally. I had found a steal of a deal on large stainless stock pots, and there came a time when I was really pushing to have as big of a batch as the large stockpot would hold. What I did not take into account was that my stick blender did not reach the bottom of the pot – that batch had to be re-batched because I did not get the lye properly mixed in. You probably won't be making batches that large, but just make sure that your whisk will go all the way to the bottom of whatever pot you are using. It's also important to have your liquid (goat milk) very cold before you mix it with the lye. And don't breath the fumes – they will be very strong when you first mix the lye and the milk. I always made sure there were no pets and no children in the room with me. I enjoy your website so much – I've learned so much by reading it!Kathy in VA

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