Soapmaking Photo Walkthrough, Part One: The Setup

Soap, soap, soap! It’s been so long since I last made some, and the soapmaking pressure was building so that I had a real head of steam going. Yesterday I finally had the combination of an assistant present, no child in the house, and a little allocation of spoons, so away we went!

Since I had my assistant there to help setup and cleanup and fetch and carry, I also put him to work doing photos for this four-part photo walkthrough series.

oils melting in a pot

This walkthrough is intended for general interest for non-soapmakers, just me sharing what a soapmaking week looks like and how I go about it; and as a glimpse for other soapmakers into another soapmaker’s kitchen, which is something we almost never have an opportunity to do. The pictures aren’t fancy – I have a point-and-shoot camera, and no lighting equipment. But they do give an insight into what soapmaking looks like in a regular kitchen, rather than in a photo studio!

[Below the cut: bazillions more images. This will kill dialup or mobile connections!]

Getting the legal-ish stuff out of the way: PLEASE NOTE: This walkthrough is not intended as a tutorial. I am not a soapmaking teacher. What you will see here will not prepare you adequately to begin making soap from scratch, and above all it will not train you to adequately formulate soap recipes or engage in appropriate safety procedures. Lye and essential oils are seriously hazardous substances that require a thorough knowledge of safety procedures and very careful handling. If you intend to start soapmaking, please do your own research, and please also enrol in a soapmaking workshop from an experienced cold process soapmaker before you start. I am not responsible for any injuries or problems you may encounter if you decide, against my advice, to follow what I’ve shown here.

Also, do not start soapmaking with an eye toward selling your soap. Making to sell requires a lot of experience – we’re not talking months, we’re talking years – not just to make the soap in the first place, but to understand the curing process and how soap behaves with your particular formulations and in your particular climate. In addition, the business environment for soapmaking can be very complicated. Some countries require chemical registration as well as business registration, liability insurance is complicated and can be expensive, and there are regulatory frameworks in place with the use of lye and essential oils.

That said – here we go! This first instalment is just the equipment and setup process, and not at all glamorous. Stay tuned for the fun stuff in a day or three…

My first step is to figure out what I’m going to make! Then I lay out the fragrances and colours, in a container in case of spills or leaks.


This batch is going to be a 4 kg batch (oil weight, not final soap weight) split into two 2 kg batches, and a 3 kg batch split into three 1 kg batches. There’s nothing magical about these weights – they’re just what fits well in my two stainless steel soap pots.

I write down what I’m going to make in my soap diary.


Here I also record exact recipes, so I can refer back to them at a later date to see why a soap turned out so great – or so not-so-great. I run the numbers through OzCalc to get the necessary lye amounts. I soap at a superfat of around 5%, meaning I put in 5% more oil than is necessary to completely combine with the sodium hydroxide (lye). This ensures that small changes in oil batch or tiny losses in the process won’t result in a lye-heavy soap, and creates a soap with some free oil in the final product for extra moisturising properties.

I also calculate and record my water amounts using the DWCP water calculator. “DWCP” stands for “Discounted Water Cold Process”, my favoured soapmaking method. Cold Process just means that I won’t actively cook the soap: I combine body-temperature (approximately) oils with body-temperature (approximately) lyewater. Discounted Water means that I use a more concentrated lye solution than is conventionally recommended. This technique is not for the faint-hearted: it is more dangerous (concentrated lye solutions are NO fun to be around), it is more difficult to dissolve the lye, and it means that the soap will move through trace [where the liquid of mixed oil and lyewater thickens as it saponifies] faster, giving less time to work with the soap. However, it also means that the soap will move through trace faster (the buggishness or featureness is in the eye of the soapmaker), and that the soap will set up hard quicker and cure slightly faster. This time I didn’t do a very heavy water discount; I worked at a lye concentration of 37%, because I’m using a recipe with more butters than I usually use, and I’m not sure how that’s going to behave.

On to the ingredients! You probably know already that soap is made from oil, water, and lye. That’s all you need to make soap – all else is tweaking around the edges. I work only with vegetable oils. Here are my favourite liquid oils: extra virgin olive oil, pomace olive oil, and rice bran oil.


I’m a huge fan of olive oil. The soaps I make that aren’t castile (100% olive oil) or nearly-castile (90-95% olive oil with 5-10% “luxury” oil or butter) have around 50% olive oil and/or rice bran oil, which is a reasonable and cheaper substitute. Extra virgin olive oil is lovely of course, but it does trace very slowly, it is very expensive, and it imparts a greenness to the finishes soap (which, again, can be a bug or a feature). Pomace olive oil is cheap, light in colour, and traces up nice and fast. I wouldn’t eat it, but it’s just fine in soap. Rice bran oil is a light-coloured liquid oil which is fairly cheap and gives a similar finished result to olive oil.

I put some hard oils in this batch too. Around 30% of the oil weight is coconut oil. Copha can be used, remembering that it does have a little soy lecithin in it, but I used bulk coconut oil from my soapmaking supplier. I decided to trial a higher level of butters in this particular batch of soap – a mix of mango butter and cocoa butter totally around 20% of oil weight. Shea butter is nice too, but it can trace up really fast. I like the finished result from a mix of mango and cocoa butter – really silky on the skin. Here are my hard oils with my BadArse Heavy-Duty Stick Blender and gloves. I use non-latex gloves; not only am I sensitive to latex, but I believe these last longer, and they’re not susceptible to perishing from contact with oils used to fragrance the soap. The coconut oil is in the top bucket, the mango butter in the bottom, and the cocoa butter in the bag behind.


Next up: lye. Drano and similar stuff can’t be used, because it has aluminium shavings and other extraneous additives. Mechanix lye is 98% sodium hydroxide. Diggers used to be around, but I haven’t seen it for a while. Word from the wise: it’s best not to buy this in the same shopping trip as you buy fertiliser, nail polish remover, kitty litter, and matches.


What was the other ingredient? Water! Rainwater is delightful:


But Brita-filtered tap water will do.


You can use high-quality tap water in a pinch. I also use ice, to make up around 50% of the water I’m going to need. This stops the lye solution from getting to really high temperatures, and I also believe it reduces the amount of lye-saturated vapour coming off, which is very bad for various body parts.


That’s the ingredients sorted. Then there are various bits of equipment: the various Pyrex jugs you see in the butters/gloves/blender photo, for a start. Trying to stir lye in a Pyrex jug that it only just fits is a right pain, so I’ve splurged on a couple of three-litre jugs. I also have smaller ones for measuring out the dry lye, and for mixing teeny soap batches for swirls.

Moulds! I love these simple divider moulds. I also have a silicone log mould (bakingware) and various heavy-duty individual cavity moulds from MIlky Way.


Heavy-duty moulds are essential for cold process soap, as it will heat up quite a lot through gel phase [I’ll explain later]. The little light soap moulds you see around the place are for melt-and-pour soap, a fun way to start playing with soapcrafting without dealing with the intense lye and heat of soapmaking-from-scratch. Silicone bakeware muffin trays are a great substitute for purpose-made soap moulds. Be careful with the red ones – some release dye onto the soap. Blue is safer. These must be stood on a firm surface before pouring.

Scales – I use these digital scales. Lye and oils must be measured very accurately to avoid inadvertently getting a lye-heavy soap. This is part of what differentiates old-fashioned harsh lye-‘n’-lard soap, where the ingredients were measured approximately at best, from modern soap. Scales that measure to the nearest ounce are not accurate enough. Scales that measure to the nearest 2-3 grams are needed.


Little pails, which I call “split pails”. I use these to pour the mixed oil and lyewater into. I split the big batch, at around very light trace and just before, off into these little pails for mixing with fragrances and colours. One must be very careful to use a good-quality plastic pail without a dimple on the bottom. Because chewing that dimple off with a stick blender leads to all kinds of no fun.


Lye spoons! These must be simple in design so they don’t hold bits of lye, long enough that you can stir without risking contact, and made of stainless steel or heavy-duty nylon. These are great for lye:


These are not, but they are useful for manipulating the oils at the beginning.


Paper towels. I use a fair few of these in a session for various bits of cleanup. I get out a stack of 20-30 towels at the start and have them at the ready.


An instant-read thermometer. This one was sold for coffee steaming, but is perfect for soapmaking. I use it to check that the oils and lyewater are both around 40 degrees before I mix them together.


Some people are playing with “room temperature soapmaking”, which is where they pour very hot freshly-mixed lyewater over cold, unmelted oils, letting the heat of the lywater and the saponification melt the oils. I haven’t tried this yet, and it still gives me the side-eye. I only use it for castile, where the oil is all liquid.

That’s most of the equipment, apart from the safety bits and pieces which I’ll mention below. I also lay newspaper on the benches, and of course I have my two big steel stockpots for mixing the soap in, which I didn’t photograph separately. Aluminium cannot be used! Only stainless steel.

I measure my oils, hard oils and liquid oils in together, and melt them up. Here they are just starting to melt:


And here they are nearly done.


That process takes a fair while, as it needs to be done under very low heat. I do it over a diffuser plate on a very low gas point. If the oil gets very hot, it takes forever to cool down. For.Ev.Er. I know this. From experience.

While that’s happening, I lay things out – moulds lined and on the bench ready for pouring:


and split pails laid out with fragrances and colours. In this four kilo batch, the first two kilos will be a three-colour swirl, green orange and white, with Neroli (orange blossom) fragrance oil. The second two kilos will be a lavender and lemongrass batch.



After all that’s done, I’ll tackle my 3 kg batch: one kilo scented with Vanilla Oak fragrance oil with a white “blind swirl” in-the-pot (the vanilla in the fragrance oil discolours to brown over time); one kilo scented with sandalwood, black pepper, and mandarin, orange with a copper mica swirl; and some unfragranced soap poured into some nice fancy individual moulds.

Excuse me. I may have salivated just a little.

Lastly, before I start dealing with lye, I run through my safety protocols. Apron ON:


Covered SHOES (Crocs haters, bite me):


Glasses or safety goggles ON:


Clear path to shower with no obstructions, CHECK:


Phone ringer OFF:


Dog locked outside, child elsewhere altogether, and front door unlocked in case of a need for emergency services. The kitchen is also completely cleared before I start, with no food items lying around. I don’t like the idea of the risk of a stray static bead finding its way onto food I also read a story once about a woman who tried to cook and soap and childcare at the same time, and her toddler ended up with a jug of lyewater all over him. There’s another true story floating around the soapers’ traps of a husband who drank a jug of lyewater left lying around. Brrrrr. Nope, for me, soaping time is soaping time. It all gets done, then it’s all cleared away safely.

I think that’s all for the setup! The gear is laid out, the oils are nicely warming, and I run over what I’m planning in my head. Next up, I’ll start putting colours and fragrances into the split pails and measure out the lye – but I consider that the start of my soapmaking rather than part of the setup process, so it will have to wait for another day.

Stay tuned! And ask as many questions as you like!

Categories: fun & hobbies

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11 replies

  1. whoa! This shit is heavy duty. I will look at new-agey people with soap stalls at the market with more respect in future!
    “Front door open for emergency services” is pretty hard core.

  2. “Front door open for emergency services” is pretty hard core.

    Gotta continuously irrigate a lye burn for at least twenty minutes – I don’t fancy futzing around unlocking doors and dripping lye all through the living areas and passageway in the event of a bad spill. I don’t bother with this step if I have someone else in the house, of course.
    I work with lye solutions much more concentrated that I ever used in a chemistry lab. Sometimes the solution is 50% sodium hydroxide, 50% water. That stuff is intense. And not in the warm and fuzzy way.

  3. Wow. I knew you took very special care with your soapmaking setup, but I hadn’t really thought through exactly how much goes into that very special care.
    I bet that, in a possibly counter-intuitive way, having to pay such close attention to what you’re doing with this is actually quite mentally restful, because for a nice while you don’t have any attention to spare for any of that background worry-talk we all get stuck with.
    I used to get that out of my heavy gardening, which I haven’t been doing for the last few years. I should get back into it.

  4. Awesome. I love looking at other people’s work setups.
    That first photograph of the oil melting looks delicious and reminds me of my first job as a fifteen year-old in front of a fast food deep fryer full of chips. (I know everyone else is thinking it too).

    If the oil gets very hot, it takes forever to cool down. For.Ev.Er. I know this. From experience

    And mine, but regularly changing the cooking oil is what underpaid junior staff are for.

  5. Gah, at my place if it wasn’t a child it would be a cat getting covered in lye, or just plain oil which would be pain in the bum enough. I think my position is firmly on the sidelines admiring soap makers and purchasing their products rather than trying it myself. A little like glass blowing – very pretty, very dangerous and best left to the experts. Lovely walk through though. Looking forward to parts 2,3 and 4.

  6. Mindy: yes, animals are locked outside or crated, no exceptions. I so don’t want to deal with a nasty alkali burn in a big dog – or in me, from the distraction or the under-feet-getting.
    tigtog: unfortunately, I don’t find the need for hyperfocus restful, it’s really spoon-sapping for me. I have to run over what I’m going to do in my head again and again, and talk to myself while I do it, because I have to move fast and accurately in the crunch zone. But I’ve finally got the hand of only doing that when I need to; I relax during my fragrance and colour setup and my oil-melting (just a little burst of focus in the weighing part), and only “switch on” when the lye comes out of the cupboard.
    Having an assistant has helped ENORMOUSLY spoonwise – I only have to do the actual soaping, and he did all the fetching and carrying and cleanup. Today’s a crash zone of pain, but I expected that on day two, and yesterday I actually sat up to the family table at dinnertime!

  7. Those would be some expensive chips, Liam – there’s around fifty dollars worth of mango and cocoa butter in that pot, and that’s not even counting the liquid oils.

  8. Pretty weird tasting chips, too!

  9. Wow! Huuuuge amount of work, and even though you warned us I was a little disappointed to see that you weren’t kidding about the workload involved. This is a little different to that bread recipe of yours. I am far too lazy for soap-making, it is settled.
    Also, I enjoyed my little ‘shout out’ on behalf of fellow croc-haters.

  10. Well, it’s this much because I do large batches and complex splits! Putting together a single 1 kg batch would be heaps less. Also, some of these steps take longer to write about than to actually do.


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