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