This is the second post in a four part series on getting started with natural soapmaking using the cold-process method. In this post I'm introducing the basic equipment you'll require and the safety precautions you'll need to take when making soap. The next part in the series will be on basic recipes and how to formulate your own.
Much of what you need to make soap you might already have in your kitchen. You could have an old pan that you don't get much use out of or some spare spoons, whisks, and plastic jugs. Before you start ordering items from specialty shops have a look around your home and local thrift/charity shops. After you've collected all you can then have a look at investing in some additional items. You don't need to spend a lot of money to get started with making soap but you should have the bare essentials in order to make sure that your soap turns out well and that you and your family are kept safe. Making soap, no matter how natural, is chemistry and you should take it as seriously as you did in those labs you had in school.
Goggles & Gloves
Making soap is a creative and fun process but if you're making it from scratch then you will be handling Sodium Hydroxide. This extremely alkali substance, also known as Lye, is very dangerous if not treated with respect. Unless you're going to be using 'Melt-and-Pour-Soap' in which the chemical processes have already been done for you, then you cannot avoid the use of lye in soap making. Soap is the result of a chemical process between an acid (oils) and an alkali (lye) but is in itself its own compound. That means that when you're finished making your soap, there will be no lye left in your bars. However, when handling lye you must make sure that you're wearing protective gear.
When you make soap plan to wear a long sleeved shirt, trousers, sensible close-toed shoes, an apron, goggles, and a a pair of rubber or latex gloves. If you wear glasses you still have to wear googles and I have a pair that I bought in a hardware shop that will fit right over them. If you don't wear glasses then the most comfortable goggles to use are the 'onion glasses' you can purchase in kitchen shops. These glasses work to keep vapours out so that you don't tear up when chopping onions. They work great in protecting your eyes in soapmaking and I wear mine whenever I have contacts in.
Another safety item you might want to consider using is a face mask. Lye water can throw off some pretty potent vapours and you don't want to be breathing those in. Personally I don't wear one but I always make sure that my lye water is mixed and cools in a well ventilated place.
If for some chance you get some lye water splashed on your skin you will need to rinse that area thoroughly. It's only happened to me once and let me tell you that even a tiny drop will make itself felt!
You will need a variety of containers of which the absolute essential are listed below. Ensure that all your containers are heat-proof and that any metal pans or bowls are stainless steel since other metals will react with the lye and soap. Any containers that come into contact with Sodium Hydroxide must be kept for soapmaking purposes only.
- Deep stainless steel pan for heating your oils
- Container for measuring your Sodium Hydroxide granules into. Glass, Pyrex, or Polypropylene (PP)
- Container for measuring your water into and for mixing the Sodium Hydroxide into. Needs to be heat and lye resistant. Glass, Pyrex, or Polypropylene (PP)
- Container for measuring your liquid oils into - Ceramic, Stainless steel, glass, Pyrex, or plastic
- Small containers for measuring small quantities of oils for superfatting, and for additional ingredients like essential oils, botanicals, and powdered ingredients
Scales & Measurement tools
Don't even think about trying to make soap without a digital scale. They're easy and inexpensive to come by in the UK/Europe and I know for a fact that you can buy them in North America too. Soapmaking recipes are exclusively in weight since trying to measure in volume (cups/teaspoons) is far too imprecise. They're fine for making cakes or muffins but not for soap.
Scales work by measuring how much something weighs and if you use one then your soap (and food recipes I might add) should be consistent each time. That saying, I do use some tiny volume measurements for some of my powdered ingredients- namely my mineral pigments. Even so, I measure the contents of my 'pinch' and 'dash' measuring tools just to make sure. You'll also see that I've put a stainless steel measuring cup in the image above and might be wondering about it. The only thing I use it for is for scooping Sodium Hydroxide out of its bucket. I do not use it for measuring any of my ingredients.
Being able to accurately measure the temperature of your oils and lye-water is very important. When you mix them together they should be at the same temperature, give or take a degree, so without a decent measurement tool you might lose a batch. It's possible to use standard glass thermometers if you have any but I've heard of so many soap makers breaking them on a regular basis that I haven't bothered myself. Instead I use a relatively inexpensive digital kitchen thermometer. I can dip its stainless steel tip into both my oils and my lye-water and it's also very easy to clean. If you do plan on using glass thermometers make sure to get two so you can keep one immersed in your melting oils and one in your jug of lye-water.
The old fashioned way to make soap involved standing over a pot and stirring for a long time. If you want to try making soap this way then give it a go, but be prepared to be stirring, and stirring, and stirring. Do you remember me mentioning my first batch of soap in part one of this series? That batch went straight into the bin since even after an hour and a half it still had not come to 'Trace' (set). For my next batch of soap I made sure to have a stick blender, also called an immersion blender. It literally helps your oil and lye-water to chemically bond in less than a few minutes.
My own stick blender is shown above in the photo but if you're planning on purchasing one I'd recommend buying one that has holes in the head to let the air out (like this one). The reason being that the holes minimise the amount of air that's taken down into your soap. You don't want soap with lots of air bubbles in it so if you have one like mine you have to give it a good tap once it's immersed in the liquids. No biggie but the next time I'm in the market for a stick blender I'll know what to look for.
You'll need various utensils for making soap but my essentials are the ones shown above. Note that all are stainless steel and/or silicone.
- Stainless steel spoon: I use this for stirring liquid oils
- Large Stainless steel spoon: used for stirring lye water
- Stainless steel whisk: recommended for blending in botanicals, essential oils, and minerals
- Stainless steel sieve: to pour your lye water through and into your oils. It helps to ensure there are no lumps of un-dissolved lye making their way into your soap
- Silicone spatula: for getting as much soap out of your pan as possible
Soap moulds come in all shapes and sizes and in a variety of materials. My favourite are silicone since they're easy to pop the soap out of and don't require any prepping. I also have a few plastic soap moulds but have found them sometimes difficult to get my soap out if not using additional hardening ingredients.
The traditional soap mould is a wooden box lined with wax paper and this might be the best solution for beginners since a lot of people will have a box around the house. Box-style moulds will create a loaf of soap that you can then cut up into individual bars. Wood also helps to insulate the soap so that your end product won't have as much of an issue with cooling too quickly on the outside and staying too warm on the inside. If you've ever made soap that looks opaque towards the outside and has a darker spot in the centre then insulation is your issue.
In a pinch it's also possible to use a cardboard box well lined with tape and wax/freezer paper. If you're wanting to save money you can also use food containers that are heat resistant like the two examples below. Another professional soap maker that I know uses plastic (PP) storage bins to mould her soap in!
Recycled heat-proof containers can be used as soap moulds
Where to purchase your Soapmaking Equipment
Firstly I have to state that I'm in no way being endorsed by any of the companies listed below and that I've not yet had experience with some of them - in particular the North American suppliers. In addition to these sources I encourage you to pop into your local kitchen supply shop, charity/thrift shops, and other places that sell second hand equipment. One other point that I'd like to emphasise is that it's easy to spend a small fortune when starting out making soap. You don't need much to get started so try to resist purchasing expensive oils and equipment until you've made a few batches and have decided that soap making is for you. For your first batches you won't need more than I've outlined in this post.
Suppliers in the United Kingdom
The Soap Kitchen
Just a Soap
Suppliers in the United States
Mountain Rose Herbs
Suppliers in Canada
This is part two of a four-part series:
Natural Soapmaking for Beginners Series
2. Equipment & Safety
3. Basic Recipes and Formulating Your Own
4. The Soap Making Process: Make, Mould, and Cure