Making cold pressed soap - focusing on the process

20 May 2009
I made a batch of soap last weekend. For me, soap making is one of those defining tasks of a simple life. Like bread making, it is a powerful reminder that the products needed in the home can be made better, and often more economically, than those bought at the supermarket. Those two tasks, more than any others, also connect me to my past. Making soap and bread would have been a normal part of our ancestors' lives. Now let me qualify what I just wrote. You can buy soap cheaper than you can make it, but that soap will contain almost no glycerin - the moisturising and nourishing part of soap, and it will contain a lot of chemicals to make it smell good, and to make it lather. When you make your own soap you need only three ingredients - fat, caustic soda/lye and water. So homemade soap is not cheaper than commercially produced soap like Palmolive, but it is cheaper than the "natural" soaps you buy in the organic shops. All soap, no matter what the label says, even the "natural" ones, have been made with caustic soda/lye. The process of soap making neutralises it and after having the soap sit on your shelf for a few weeks, you will have the finest soap money can buy. Caustic soda/lye is Sodium Hydroxide (NaOH).

I have written about this in the past and there seems to be a reluctance by some to take up soap making, mainly because of the safety issues. And you are well advised to be cautious of this process - you need to work with caustic soda / lye and that will burn your skin, your benches or floor if it falls from your container. It is wise to be cautious, particularly if you have children or pets around. So I thought that it might be helpful if I focused on the process rather than the recipe. Seeing it being done in steps, might help some of you work out a way you can make soap that you feel safe and confident with.

My soap is made with olive oil, rice bran oil, copha (solid coconut oil), water and caustic soda/lye. Here is my soap making tutorial. There is a soap calculator here. Basically, you find what you have in the cupboard, or buy your preferred oils, enter them in the calculator and it will estimate the amount of water and caustic soda/lye to add. Soap making safety, read this.

So now let's focus on some of the issues you might encounter when making soap.

Before you start, make sure there are no children or pets around. Put on your safety gear. Work in a well ventilated space. When you add water to the caustic soda/lye, it will emit fumes. Traditionally, soap making ingredients are measured as solids, not liquids. Get yourself a good scale and weigh your ingredients according to the recipe. Remember that as soon as moisture is added to the caustic soda/lye, and that might just be a bit of moisture on your hand, it will start to burn.

I use a Pyrex jug to mix my caustic soda/lye and water. As soon as you add water, it will start to heat up. You do not have to add heat, it heats up itself. I place my pyrex jug on a board so it doesn't damage the bench top. I use rain water from my tank. If you only have tap water, measure out a bit more that you need and let it sit in a bowl for 24 hours. That will allow the chlorine to evaporate off.

As soon as you add water, the reaction will start. You can see small bubbles in the water here as soon as the caustic soda/lye was added.

And less than a minute later, the solution has reached 90 C (180F).

This photo shows the combined oils before the caustic soda/lye was added. The mixture is clear. Basically, soap is made by mixing the caustic soda/lye with water and letting it cool down. While this is happening, you heat up the oils on the stove. The aim is to get both solutions at the same temperature. When that happens, you mix them together, then start mixing. It's really a simple process, made more difficult by the danger of burning.

When the caustic soda/lye is added, the mixture is opaque.

My bowl was very full, so I placed some tea towels around the mixer to prevent splash damage on the bench.

After mixing for about six or seven minutes, I reached trace. Trace is the stage of the process when ripples made on the surface of the mix, stay there. You can clearly see this in the photo above. When you reach trace, you stop mixing. If you want to add an essential oil, you add it when you reach trace. I then poured it into the moulds, covered them with a few towels and left them over night. You don't want it to cool too fast.

The next day the mix was solid, so I took it out and cut it.

I like to cut my soap into long bars instead of square or thin bars. I like a solid piece of soap that will last a while. You can cut the soap any way you like or you can use various moulds to shape the soap. Leave the soap on a rack to cure for a few weeks. This also hardens the soap so that it will last much longer.

So I have made 20 good bars of soap at a cost of about A$17.40 or 87 cent a bar.

When the soap is cured, wrap it in greaseproof paper and store in the cupboard until it's used.

For those of you who kill your own animals or poultry for food, Carla Emery has some fine recipes for soap making using tallow - page 615 (updated edition 9). Her soap making section contains a lot of good information, including info on water and fats and how to make your own lye. It starts on page 610.

If you are new to soap making and are still apprehensive about it, I encourage you to go to your library and get Carla's book. The ability to make your own soap is a fine skill to have. When you get over the first soap making session you'll realise it's quite a simple process that, when combined with prudent safety precautions, produces soap that is much better than what you buy at the supermarket.


  1. Hi Rhonda,

    This was such a helpful tutorial and so full of information. I must admit that I'm one of those that have be apprehensive but this is something I will definitely be trying. Just one question about extras you can add. Could I shred some fragrant geranium leaves or other fragrant leaves and add to the soap or would they spoil the soap? I'm not so worried about the appearance but would love the fragrance of some of the scented geraniums. Would I need to add essential oils as well? Have a good day. Raining here in Sydney this morning.

    Blessings Gail

  2. Hi Rhonda,

    Like most of your readers I've wanted to make soap but was really worried about working with lye.
    Your tutorial with pictures makes it look very easy and SAFE.
    I've been reading your blog for some time now and you have enspired me in so many ways. One of which is chickens. Right now my husband is putting together a chicken coop. I refer to your "biggest kitchen table - Keeping chickens" post often and I've read all the comments. I'm so happy to have access to such a bounty of information. So chickens right now and then will come the soap. I'm so very excited.
    Keep well.


  3. I have to admit, I am rather a sissy when it comes to using something that could burn! Hence, I have not as yet tried my hand at soapmaking. I have had Carla Emery's book since the 1st edition came out, around 1978! I found one a couple years ago at a tag sale and snapped it up...not sure what edition it is, tho. I think her book should be on the shelves of anyone who desires a simpler lifestyle. I used to sit for hours on end reading of her life.
    Perhaps now would be a good time to go back and re-read her chapter on soapmaking!

  4. Fascinating process. I'm wondering how long a supply of soap like this will last with a two or four person family.

  5. Rhonda,

    Thanks for the great post. As a beginner soapmaker, I am reading everything I can find on the subject. I made my first batch of soap 3 weeks ago using your recipe and I can't wait to use it. I am planning on making more this week. Just another way to being more self sufficient.

    Best Wishes,


  6. Beautiful soap Rhonda, some of my fondest memories are of soapmaking with my frugal mentors, similar to a quilting bee, only with soap and lots of talk!

    Homemade cold process soap lasts so long, it really is very economical.

  7. very interesting... you've almost made me think i could do this!

  8. Rhonda

    Thanks for the soap tutorial. I used to make all my own, but I've gotten away from it. I'm going to dust off my caustic soda can and get to work!

  9. I'm glad you bought up soapmaking today. Some time ago you mentioned in a post that you wanted potassium hydroxide for something, but couldn't find it. I've just found out about a company that sells soapmaking supplies near me who have potassium hydoxide: Heirloom Body Care link I haven't actually bought anything from this company, but my sister has & had no problems with them.

  10. Rhonda Jean~ you have touched on a subject that I truly love~soapmaking!
    I have made tons of soap and agree wholeheartedly...
    We just love homemade soap around here!

  11. I love making soap, though I've not made more than a handful of batches. I made goats milk soap when I had my dairy goats.

    Interestingly, perhaps to your readers, the goats milk soap was left out in my studio to cure for a year. I had made quite a lot and had enough to last over two Christmas seasons.

    What was so intriguing was that the mice ate it all year long before I went to go get it. There were no dead mice anywhere.

    Just another 'testimonial' to the health of natural bars of soap. Apparently, though I would not advise it, you can even EAT the stuff. LOL


  12. Enjoyed reading about your soapmaking again. I really want to try to do this as I love the way your finished soap looks. Must admit I am a little scared about working with lye.Have been trying different ways of making my own pizza crust and this weekend I hope to try making a loaf of homemade bread.Wish that I just lived down the road from you so that you could help me! Our garden is coming along so good and our corn that is growing in our front yard is gaining attention from friends and neighbors(and a cute little cotton tailed bunny.) You are such an inspiration to so many of us from far and wide. Will be thinking of you as you work on your book. Good luck! Carolyn from Florida, USA

  13. Rhonda, I agree... soapmaking is nothing to be afraid of as long as the lye is handled with caution. Here in America we call this type of soapmaking "cold process". I have been making all of the soap we use for several years now because it's just so much better than the store-bought soap. My favorite soap (and the one I make the most often) is made with goat milk... I use a blend of olive, coconut, and palm oils, superfat with jojoba, and use a stick blender to stir the soap mixture. I make my soap in six-pound batches and usually make at least two batches at the same time. My favorite molds are simple long wooden molds that my husband made for me... they make a long block of soap which I then cut into bars with a wire cheese slicer. Can you tell I REALLY like to make soap... I love bread making too!
    Shirley at

  14. I have used this recipe with success. Thorougly enjoy soaping up in the shower knowing the product is deliciously good for my skin and my family's. Something very liberating about not taking the easy option of buying those cheap soap products on the supermarket shelves. When you make it yourself (applies to most homemade items) I find you are much more mindful when you use it which is important when living a life of awareness. Cheers.

  15. I was one of those who avoided making soap because I was afraid of the lye, but your previous tutorials convinced me, and I've done it three times now. We'll definately never go back to commercial soaps again! Even the 'natural' soaps have so much added, and with my family's senstivie skin, we need something wtihout added fragrances/colours etc.

  16. Good morning Rhonda. I think you have all us scaredy cats thinking "I could do this". When I go to markets I race to the soap making stall wishing I could make such beuatiful stuff. Well, why not? This has been the year of the sewing machine for me, it can also be the year of soap.

  17. I'm excited to try this. I realized I will need a scale. Where is the best place to purchase this???

    I baked two loaves of bread for my family today~ a new recipe! The children told me it (the recipe) was a keeper! They know home made is 'better' than store bought :) We are planning to make our compost bin this weekend when Daddy is home with us. Now, soap making is on the to do list! Maybe my husband and I can have a date and make soap together!!!

  18. Hi Rhonda,

    I have been reading your blog for about a year now, but this is the first time I have posted. I have afew questions so I am sorry if this is a long post.
    I came across your blog as I was researching soap making due to my boys having dry skin and I found your tutorial.
    You made it seem so easy I decided to give it ago and I have made about 6 batches over the last year however it seems to have a film/skin on the top even though I cover it with towels, I wanted to know what causes it or am I doing something wrong.
    Also the last time it didn't come to trace so I put it back on the stove to reheat it all then I start mixing it again and it then reaches trace. Do you think thats Ok or would you dispose of it.
    Thanks Renae

  19. Hi Rhonda,

    I am so glad you wrote about this today as I tried your recipe yesterday and it didn't work. By the way it was very simple to do but for some reason it never reached the trace just stayed liquid exactly the same as when I first poured the two ingredients together. Do you have any idea what I did wrong? I measured everything carefully and reached the correct temperature and I was so disappointed when it didn't reach trace. Any suggestions would be helpful as I really want it to work!

    Thank you!


  20. That is interesting and I don't mean to take you away from the soap making but I made my own liquid laundry detergent yesterday and I have a feeling I didn't do something quite right. At first it seemed thin so I just left it to cool. When I looked at it, the sides looked sort of clear and the center and bottom seemed extra thick and clumpy. With nothing to lose, I mixed it all up as well as I could and when I looked at it again (and used it like this) it is quite thick and gell like. I don't suppose you could show a picture of what laundry soap should look like. At any rate, it cleans the clothes well and I intend to use it as is. I am just really curious if this is normal. Love your site. I read every day.

  21. i like the shape of your bars...i make mine using pvc pipe so they are round. they are a pain to get out...we lube the pvc with non-petroleum jelly and then shove it out with an empty wine bottle.

    out of curiosity, how big are your molds and how many bars does your recipe make and how many oz is each bar? (i'm trying to judge what size container i'd need for my recipe).

    the first time i made soap, i insisted on stirring by hand...3 hours later it finally traced. i then invested in a stick blender. in 3 minutes, i was adding essential oil and pouring it. needless to say, i won't do it by hand again unless i absolutely have to!

  22. This is on my to-do list. I've got the lye and a few other supplies sitting out in my husband's shop waiting for sometime when we have a couple hours to spend on it--have to ship the kids down to Grandma and Papa's.

    And I wanted to say, I have some loofah seeds sprouting in my laundry room right now. That is a direct response to your post about how to process loofahs. It was so fascinating that I had to try it! Had a hard time running down some seeds, but I found someone selling them and bought a few. I'm going to give a couple of the seedlings to my mom also to let her have a go at it. I've seen people slice them and pour soap into them so you have a soapy scrubby.

  23. Thanks to your previous tutorial I was brave enough to try making soap last March. Just this week I made my second batch ... I can't even begin to tell you how much softer my hands are. I garden and get them dirty at times. This soap has actually healed the constant dry skin I once had. With the last batch I made, I took a large bar after cutting it the following day, put it in the microwave for just a few seconds to soften ... then mixed in some coarsely ground rolled oats, some pulverized egg shell, tee tree oil and rosemary essential oil. I hand shaped this mixture into three lovely shaped soaps and let them dry several days. It does make a GREAT scrubbing soap to use after a day of gardening. You are so kind to encourage your readers to try this endeavor.

  24. Thank you very much, this was very helpful in defusing the fear of the dangers of it.
    Now that the kids are out of class in two days ...I have missed my window. Unless they go for a play date.
    Please tell...
    How do you use this soap to make dish soap?
    Is this the soap that You use to make your laundry soap?

  25. Hi Rhonda, I've made several batches of your soap and I have to say there is now way that we would go back to using any other sort of cleanser for baths and showers. It certainly makes skin feel softer and there isnt the 'dry itch' that my husband and I often used to feel after using bought shower gel. Ive experimented and added honey and oatmeal to the last batch I have made, and again it really is beautiful to use. Thanks for all the time and effort that you put into your life to help us with ours !

    Big hugs Babs xx

  26. I've tried twice now to make my own soap - my sister gave me a book of recipes for my birthday...

    I don't think I've quite cracked it yet as both batches had something wrong with them (the latest one reached trace very quickly and has remained caustic despite curing for many weeks). I am going to try rebatching this one.

    So, Rhonda, thank you very much for your recipe - I'll give it a try!

    Take care

  27. Thank you - the detailed process of making soap was one reason why I haven't done it yet. I've been trying to play it through in my mind to spot any problems or niggles before I start so this post was very helpful.

  28. Hi Rhonda,
    One of the first things I made when I started reading your blog was soap...Now no-one in my family will use any other soap.My husband and I also use it for washing our hair, can't convince the teenagers to though...
    Thanks for all the tutorials you put togeather to make things so much easier for your readers.

  29. thanks, i'm a visual learner so this was really helpful.

  30. In the past few weeks I have made 2 different batches of soap. A coffee one for removing odors from your hands and then a bath one. Can't wait to use them. I was actually very surprised how easy it was to do or at least easier than I thought. I want to make some liquid soap for shampoo. Have you ever done this and if so, would you mind sharing sometime on your blog, your recipe and the process? Thanks, love reading your blog each morning.

  31. HI Rhonda, I have a question about the soap making. I was told that once you use a pan or bowl or spoon in the lye, you can never use that item for food again, I see in the picture you are using your mixer. Do you have a extra pair of beater or do you use the same ones for your food? Thanks for you answer I really want to know if this is true. Thanks so much.
    Pam Watts

  32. Would you consider selling your soap?

    If I was going to make it I would need to buy a scale and a blender as well as the soap ingredients. A bit of a start up cost, I estimate about $40, plus soap ingredient costs. I think 20 bars of soap would last me a year at least (about 1 bar/month).

    I don't know what your soap smells like but it just looks inviting.

  33. Hi Rhonda!

    I have always wanted to make soap, but never gave it a try until this weekend. I had success, but my only problem was when I tried to take it out of the mold the next day. I did oil the mold with oil, but it did not come out when turned upside down. I had to hit it hard, and the soap broke apart in big chunks. What do you think I did wrong with this? They are drying nicely, and are not at all crumbly.

  34. Hello Rhonda
    I love your post on soap-making. It really looks do-able and fun. I was looking at a post from a little while ago in which you have pictures from your garden. We have been living here for almost 10 years, during which time we have brought 4 boys into the world, and are only just starting to really get a handle on our yard. We have probably almost half an acre, and are leaving most of it for the boys to run in. I have 2 apple trees, lots of flower gardens, which I need to fill with flowers, and a small plot for vegetables, which is actually two small raised beds surrounded by bunny wire. We are only just getting started, and I am hungry to learn as much as I can. However, looking at your lovely pictures of your garden, I noticed tall stakes in the ground with overturned flowerpots at the tops. Is this asthetic, or does it have a specific purpose? I've seen these before in other pictures of yours, but never thought to ask. Sorry to ramble on so much, I know you are a busy lady! Hope your book is going well! Can't wait to read it!


  35. So when will list these on artfire or Etsy so we can start buying these? :)

    Thank you so much for the tutorial, I've just added it to my list of things to do now.

  36. Those pics were so helpful. I definitely have been imagining it a lot more complicated. (maybe it's all those books with added stuff making it seem harder than it is-sigh)

    One day!

  37. To Diana!

    I've made the liquid laundry soap before and Yes, it's supposed to be gel-like. It was too messy for me so i switched to the powder version. You can find those recipes online as well. Basically, grated soap, borax and washing soda.

  38. I enjoy making soap. There are a couple of things that were suggested to me that I like to pass on to friends that I teach to make soap.

    1.) Keep an OPEN bottle of vinegar right beside you. If you spill, use the vinegar to immediately neutralize the lye. It doesn't matter if you spill on yourself, your clothing or work top, used the vinegar.

    2.) A poem to remember how to mix the lye/water so it doesn't erupt and cause problems. It goes:
    'Do what ya aughta'(aught to), add the lye to the watta (water)'. Some people have been burned by adding water to the bowl of measured lye. When that is done, the lye immediately starts to pop and fizz. When the lye is added to the water, then all the reaction is enclosed by water, the water gets "fizzy", but doesn't splatter, so no harm is done.

    And one last thing I suggest. Having grown up in Flordia, I'm bad about not wearing shoes. Or long pants. I go barefoot or wear flip-flops or sandels. When you make soap, WEAR SHOES, pants and long sleeves to go with the gloves. Want to see what happens when you splash your self on the foot with raw soap? (Looks like it smarts, but it's not the end of the world.) I've had a burn like that from cooking that I got on my arm - because I didn't follow safety procedures. The lady in the picture says in the caption that this happened because she got careless with the safety procedure.

    I've made soap before, had spills but no burns because I followed good safety procedures. I mean do I stop baking because "I might get burned?" Of course not! I just make sure I keep potholders handy when I take stuff out of the oven.

    Soap making is the same way. No more scary than a hot oven or range top. Just like you prepare your baking pans ahead of time, prepare you molds ahead of time. Just like you gather all your ingredients before you bake, gather your ingredients before you make soap. Measure carefully, just like you would with a cake. Just like when you fry something, you keep a lid handy and have baking soda or salt handy to kill a flair up of grease, so we keep vinegar handy when soap making. Focus on what you're doing and you'll be fine. Just like you wouldn't be actively frying something in the kitchen with one eye watching tv, so you shouldn't be making soap and doing anything else while actively making it.

    Soap making is No. Big. Deal. Really!

  39. Wow, Carla Emery's book goes on. I remember many years ago seeing her on tv talking about her book and I bought it then. Its out in my garage somewhere and I figured since I'm moving to the country soon, Ill finally be needing it. I was surprised to see it on a blog and that its still out there!

    And thank you for the blog about making soap. I am hoping to open and herb/antique shop once I find a home where I'm moving too and soap was one of those things I want to have in my shop. I have several custom fragrance collections Ive been working on and thought Id have to find someone to make the soap for me.

  40. Thanks for the tutorial. It looks like a fascinating and enjoyable process. I'd love to take up soap making but will probably have to wait until my little ones are just a bit older.

  41. Wow, another great tutorial Rhonda. I am going to try this one. I so appreciate this and all the other tutorials you produce. Totally priceless. I posted a flea remedy (I hope it works) on my blog a few minutes ago. I am so tired of poisoning my dogs and home with bizarre chemicals. My husband found this site, on my blog, about natural flea killers. And since it is spring/summer here in Texas we need this one. Have a great week and good luck on your new venture....maybe Hanno can pop into your blog and give some gardening tips! Best regards, Elaine

  42. I am thankful you put the pictures in to give us an even better idea if we are doing it right. I do have one question. Could you tell us the dimensions of the blue container you use to put the soap mixture in to shape it? Do you only need the one for the amount of ingredints you state? Jody

  43. Thanks for the recipe Rhonda! I would like to try this sometime in the near future so having a picture tutorial is really helpful!

    I hope you, Hanno and the chooks are all faring well in the downpour we're getting in South East QLD at the moment! (2 detours around flooded roads to get home from work yesterday and much nasty traffic!)

  44. Great post Rhonda!

    And just an additional bit of info...for those who are concerned about using Lye with small children in their lives...( not just underfoot, but the mental processes which go along with smalls ;-)

    I used melt and pour soap when Compostgirl was small..

    Organic, so I knew what was in it AND I could add the essential oils, scrubs etc *I* wanted..

    but I did't need to be quite so concerned about the H and S aspects of soap making, with a small around..

    and my DD aged 7 actually helped me do it ( pouring soap into moulds cool is that!)

    Its NOT the same as cold process soap you do need to buy the melt and pour soap base from a supplier BUT it IS still economical and allows you to add what you want to the product...

    I was able to keep on making soap during a period when I wouldn't have otherwise been able to.....

  45. I have been making my own soap for a few months now and absolutely LOVE it! My son suffers from eczema and I make an oatmeal soap that has really helped his skin. It is so much better than store bought soaps and the oatmeal calms the itch.
    I was very nervous about using the lye and worked up my courage for a few days before tackling it... I also read everything I could get my hands on about soapmaking - talk about overkill!
    Don't be afraid to make soap, but DO take precautions - I personally mix my lye and water outside so that the fumes aren't in my house. Another tip is to use an immersion blender instead of a mixer. The immersion blender works very well and the soap thickens quickly.
    I have made many batches and now have a bit of an addiction to soapmaking... maybe there is help for me somewhere - or a place to sell excess soap! Thanks Rhonda for encouraging others to try soapmaking - blessings to you!

  46. Oh, I thought I would also add that I speed up the process of curing my soap in the following way... It is called cold process oven process (CPOP)here in the U.S.
    Once I have poured the soap into my mold I put it into an oven preheated to 170 degrees F. I leave the oven on for about 2 hours and then turn the oven off and let the soap remain in the oven overnight. When I take the soap out of the oven I make sure it is fully cooled and then I unmold it. The soap is ready to use at this point and the saponification process is complete. I do cure my soap for several weeks to harden it, but it can be used right away, it will just melt faster.
    I am not always a patient one and this process works well for me... I have great soap and I can use it faster!

  47. Dear Rhonda,
    Great information as usual! I have printed this out for my girls and I so we can familiarize ourselves with the steps and cautions before we start our soap making.
    We have a small corgi and she will be put in a safe location...Posey is a nosy little girl and has to investigate everything.
    I appreciate the tip about keeping children and animals far away from the process.

    Are you using a postal scale?
    Also do you have dedicated utensils and a mixer for your soap making? What do you coat your soap mold with...or do you leave it dry?

    I checked for Carla Emery's book at my local library and placed a hold on a copy. It is a huge book! There are over 800 pages!
    Wishing you a good weekend ahead!

  48. Jodi, once you do that extra step with your soap, it is no longer cold process but hot process soap making.

    Pam, while most soap information says to never use something for food again after using for soap making, I've read some that say as long as you wash up properly, there is no reason why you can't use items for both soapmaking & in the kitchen. For what it's worth, I have a cheap stick blender I use only for soap, but all the other things (except the wooden spoons) are multi-purpose in my house.

  49. Thanks for the great post. I have wanted to try soap making for some time but have been too nervous. Time to send my son to Grandma's so I can concentrate and work safely on my soap!

  50. You made it look so easy. I feel like even I could make soap. Thanks for showing it in pictures. It's so much easier to understand when you can see things.

  51. I loved the tutorial and I did burn out my stick blender. Rhonda how do you avoid your appliances burning out. As you have to continue blending without stopping don't you? Also my friend says that my soap bars will go mouldy because she once made soap and she had to throw it out. Many thanks in advance for a reply.

  52. I love this tutorial you've created and wanted to say thank you!!! I am also in the group of "wanting to try it, needing really good visuals" group. I've bookmarked you and will try this sometime soon.



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