A Soapmaking Journey

I've realized from some of your comments on earlier posts that maybe you were hoping for specific recipes this week. Sorry to disappoint.

The rest of soap week posts:

This week was an experimenting week for me, inventing a shampoo bar and a holiday gift soap. I'm not willing to share those recipes till they are tried and true and the thing with soap, unlike a food recipe, I won't know for weeks how well they turned out.

I'm always changing my soap recipes. Mostly tweaking the carrier oils I use. I started years ago with a very simple recipe - vegetable shortening, coconut and olive oil. That was a great place to start, the ingredients were easy to find and cheap. But I found the bars to be softer than I liked. And vegetable shortening is primarily soybean oil and I don't like how that is conventionally grown (all that gmo nonsense).

So I switched to a combination of coconut, olive, and palm oil. Then I started to become aware of the deforestation issues surrounding palm growing. I didn't want to be a part of that but didn't really know what to use instead.

I used my last bit of palm oil this summer and am now switching to shea butter. Way more expensive and I have no idea what kind of bar it will produce.

I share this with you, not because I'm some eco-certified soapmaker. This last batch of soap oils I bought is all conventionally grown, not organic or even fair trade. In moving to Canada, I currently feel priced out of that market. Yes, things really are more expensive here.

I simply share this with you because soapmaking for me is a journey.

It's also a bit of an ongoing experiment. There is a science to it definitely and "theoretically" if you get all your measurements correct and are very precise it will work out.

But soapmaking is also an art. Especially when your desire is to create something of beauty for the senses.

I like the predictability of the science but I like the creative part also. It's the unknowns that excite and intrigue me. I have never made a recipe exactly the same way twice. This is one reason I don't plan to be cottage industry soap manufacturer. I'm always trying new recipes, different combinations of carrier and essential oils. Adding herbs and natural plant matter.

I have no interest in standardizing my recipes or making the same thing over and over. Soapmaking would lose its creative joy if I did that.

What this means of course is that with every batch of soap I make there is the risk it won't turn out. This risk is minimal if I've done the lye calculations correctly, but it is a risk.

Here's a few creative mishaps that have happened over the years:

One of my first batches of soap, which I made to give as gifts was so incredibly goopey when it lathered. Like mucus sliding off the bar. It still worked (ie: cleaned skin) and was very moisturizing but it was kind of weird.

One summer I had an idea to make a bar of pink soap using beets. Beets are one food none of us really like to eat and I was forever trying to figure out how to use our farm beets. I made pink paint for the kids and I thought why not make deep burgundy beet water and mix that with the lye? Voila... a pink bar.

There's a reason why you don't see any naturally dyed pink soap bars.

The lye reacted with the pink water to turn a gross shade of brown. But the soap still did what handmade soap does - clean and moisturize our skin.

Then there was my Peppermint Mocha Cheesecake with chunks of organic, fair trade dark chocolate. That was going to be a decadent bar of soap. Talk about smelling so good you wanted to eat it!

But I knew as soon as I cut it (about 24 hours after pouring) that something wasn't right. It was too hard and flaky. I let it cure four weeks and tested in on my skin to confirm that yes, something had gone wrong and this bar would not become the Christmas gifts I had intended it to be.

Instead it became liquid dishwashing soap. Expensive liquid dishwashing soap.

The soap I made just yesterday - my tried and true Simple Soap with only vegetable shortening, lye and water - gave me grief. As the fat cooled it hardened more than I remember happening before. It was quite viscous when I mixed in the lye & water. Sure enough it "traced" weird and it was fast becoming solid by the time I dumped it in the cardboard box mold.

I think it will turn out all right though, it's just for cleaning anyway.

Here's the point of all this. There's a small risk with soap making but I've never experienced any total loss because I just used the soap anyway. Either as a funky body bar or grated up and used to wash our clothes.

I like that my kids have seen me go through the learning process with my soap making. Soap making is definitely interest-led learning for me, exactly what I want to model for my children. I've had many successses and a few failures. I experience joy in creating something beautiful. I show my children how I embrace new (& scary) things and am willing to risk. 

I get a lot of comments about "wanting to try soap making". I realize we all pick and choose our DIY projects, trust me I know all about that, but if you really want to try making soap why don't you just do it?

I have a 4 step tutorial, a video tutorial, a whole page of resources with recipe ideas, and finally I recommend where you can buy supplies and how to make it more affordable.

What's stopping you?

« Soap Making Supplies & Where to Find Them
Through The Looking Glass »
  • SavvyChristine

    SavvyChristine on Oct. 20, 2011, 3:37 p.m.

    Hey, thanks for linking to me today! I just delved into the world of homemade personal care products this weekend using one of your recipes as a starting point. What goes around comes around. :)


  • Vickie

    Vickie on Oct. 20, 2011, 3:43 p.m.

    I had been wanting to make homemade soap for about two years but never got the nerves and courage to do so. Than, one day I stumbled upon your blog and watched your video tutorial on simple soap making and the next day I was buying supplies and made my first batch ever of homemade soap (and it was a success by the way). So thank you for giving me that little push earlier this year.


  • Amanda

    Amanda on Oct. 20, 2011, 5:05 p.m.

    Well, I finally did do it, and I had great luck! Now I need to make more, and I'm waiting on two things - the right rainy day when we don't have plans, and a large enough tempered glass receptacle to put my lye mixture in. Last time I used a large glass measuring cup, but the recipe I'm using next (I think) requires a larger container to hold the water. I've been looking everywhere for a 1/2 gal canning jar, to no avail. Well, I could buy 6 but I only want one. I'm sure you find these details fascinating...I'll stop now!

    While I'm commenting, do you know if coconut essential oil exists? I'd love a coconut scented soap, and coconut oil doesn't leave any scent. Haven't found any EO locally.

    Anyhow, I really enjoyed my first foray into soapmaking, thanks to you! And I did use a recipe with shea butter and it turned out perfectly, but there was also a small amount of palm oil in it, if I remember correctly.


  • Amanda

    Amanda on Oct. 20, 2011, 5:07 p.m.

    oh and one last question! Do you weigh your distilled water or use fluid ounces?


    • renee

      renee on Oct. 20, 2011, 5:38 p.m.

      I weigh the water. All the recipes I've ever seen use weight not volume for measuring liquid.  Moving forward all my recipes that I post here will also be in grams (in addition to ounces). When in Canada do as the Canadians so (smile).


  • MJP

    MJP on Oct. 20, 2011, 7:31 p.m.

    Hi Renee,

    This is similar to the coconut question above. Have I would love to add vanilla to my homemade lotions, but have never seen vanilla EO. DO you know if you can use the same vanilla extract you use for cooking?



    • renee

      renee on Oct. 20, 2011, 8:50 p.m.

      What a great and timely question! I have not seen vanilla essential oil, that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.  Just this week we made our first batch of soap using my homemade vanilla extract. Celine designed a shampoo bar with orange, clove EO's and vanilla extract. The vanilla is definitely not as strong as the EO's and I think it might get lost in the curing but it sure smelled heavenly. I think Celine wants her hair to smell like cookies! If it's just lotion you're talking about, which doesn't have a curing process like soap, I say go for it. Like I replied to Elizabeth, I make a green tea extract to add to my lotion I can't see why you couldn't add vanilla extract instead. Vanilla lotion with cocoa butter, oh my goodness. Your hubs will want to eat you up (wink).  I think you've just inspired my next lotion recipe! 


      • MJP

        MJP on Oct. 24, 2011, 3:10 p.m.

        Thanks Renee!

        I'm going to give it a try. I just made a big batch of lavender lotion which is going to last me for quite a while, but next up is vanilla for sure!

        (Céline's shampoo bar sounds heavenly...)


  • Kyce

    Kyce on Oct. 20, 2011, 7:53 p.m.

    We can find soap recipes anywhere--notes from the soap artist are harder to come by. And thanks for the original posts you've done that have inspired so many of us. My first batch of soap used an assortment of oils that included home-rendered lard and goat milk. Not exactly an easy mix, but I just used the lye calcualtor and it came out. Thanks for the final encouragement. I'm ready to just assemble my ingredients and do it again. This time without the lard and milk.


  • Francesca

    Francesca on Oct. 21, 2011, 5:09 p.m.

    I love this post Renee. We (I?) don't really want to see perfection - if I did, I'd buy ready-made soap and not think about making my own ever. I want to know what the process of soap making is like, and learn from your experience. Yes, I will just do it! :) PS about beets - do you mean beetroot? We feel the same about it, and I used a beetroot, instead, to make foot and hand prints of my tiny premature girl's feet and hands and they faded away!!! So beetroot has never really worked for us ...


  • Elizabeth

    Elizabeth on Oct. 21, 2011, 6:13 p.m.

    I am lovin' soap week! I think your recipes are great but even more than them I love hearing about the soul of a soapmaker ;) I love hearing the journey especially since I really am just at the beginning of mine when it comes to home made personal care products. Thanks for all the great posts this week, I am just eating them up :)


  • Naomi

    Naomi on Oct. 21, 2011, 11:14 p.m.

    I love the process of making herbal remedies, learning about all the ingredients, and making something useful out of them, so I can understand your love of making soaps. One question though, can you use castor oil for a variety of cleaning purposes? I was given a couple bottles of it, and the only thing I can think to use it for is inducing labor, yuck!


  • Laura

    Laura on Oct. 26, 2011, 2:21 a.m.

    Hi! I stumbled across your site one day (about a year ago). It definitely inspired me to start making my own soap and laundry detergent. This has become a favorite hobby of mine experimenting with different recipes. I've always wanted to make shampoo bars... I currently buy them. Is it that much different than making regular soap?


    • renee

      renee on Oct. 26, 2011, 12:42 p.m.

      Nope. Very similar. Same process and even the same ingredients, just in different quantities so you get more lather, certain carrier oils yield more lather. I use my regular body bars (any old bar of soap actually) to wash my hair. But my daughter has long tresses and needs more lather to clean it well.


  • Urmila

    Urmila on Aug. 5, 2012, 4:44 p.m.

    Hi Renee.<{:))

    After using homemade soap for the first time given by a friend. I got interested in want ing to make it....So bless the internet<{:)) I studied for 2 months all about it. Having to use the lye frightened me initially to even start. but one fine day after getting all the stuff ready .. Last month I made my 1st batch of olive oil and lye with rose fragrance and little pink color strip. Now that I am using it..when wet like u said the gooey stuff comes out..and the pink color was also separating out....So big flop<{;)) Found out cos of using only olive oil. It still cleans and conditions very well. So the excitement increases and made with carrot juice and another with beetroot juice.I never dreamt that it would turn out green color.<{:))Hahaha!! i am enjoying my adventure with the soap making..I just found your blog today and couldn't help writing...Thank you for the tips...BTW I am in India so finding some of the stuff is difficult. Love Urmila.<{:))


  • Denise Dickson

    Denise Dickson on July 21, 2013, 11:44 p.m.

    Renee, do you offer courses in soap making?


    • renee

      renee on July 21, 2013, 11:57 p.m.

      To local people yes. Haven't considered offering online courses.


      • Denise Dickson

        Denise Dickson on Oct. 24, 2013, 1:46 p.m.

        I would like to attend a course on the 14th or 15th of December and i'm wondering if you could provide me and my friend Alexandra with a private class? I hope you live in ontario.


        • renee

          renee on Oct. 24, 2013, 6:41 p.m.

          Denise, I live on the Gaspe peninsula of Quebec. I offer classes to friends and locals, when asked. Unfortunately, I don't live close enough to you to offer a private class and I'm not doing internet classes of soapmaking at this time.


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