introduction to soapmaking
this page is not "soapmaking 101" -- it's merely a presentation of some
facts about soapmaking and an overview of the various processes. i'm not
offering complete and detailed instructions on all of the processes
here [on this page]. |
the topics covered below are:
i do, however, expand on "my" approach to the various soapmaking processes on their respective pages:
i've chronicled my adventures with cold process and hand milled soap on the making "
|• history of soapmaking|
while the origin of soap is not well documented, it appears to have been
available to the early civilizations of the fertile crescent after 2000
b.c. during this epoch soap was used as a wound medication or hair
dressing because the cleansing properties had not yet been discovered.
even the well chronicled baths of queen cleopatra were absent of soap.
essential oils were used for her bathing rituals. cleopatra used fine
white sand as an abrasive agent for cleansing.|
the grand baths of early ancient rome employed cosmetics, essences, and oils but no soap. later some romans understood the cleansing properties of soap, but its use was not widespread. arabs in the arabian desert and later the turks were the first societies to recognize the value of soap. when the turks invaded the byzantine empire, soap was introduced to europe. however, isolated tribes of vikings and celts discovered soap independently. the celts are even credited with introducing soap to england around 1000 a.d.
it is not until the 13th century that the history of soap making becomes more concrete. marseilles emerged as the first great center of soap making and remained an important producer through the middle ages. genoa, venice, and bari in italy came to rival it, as did castila in spain. each of these regions had a plentiful supply of olive oil and barilla (a fleshy plant whose ashes were used to make lye). this formulation became the standard through the 17th century. in the early 18th century, a number of poor olive harvests induced soap makers to investigate the use of other oils rather than olive. parallel advances in steam navigation improved the access to oils from far away ports. these changes resulted in a modification of the basic soap formulation from olive oils to a carefully selected blend of fats and oils.
though a fair amount of soap was being produced, it was most often used for laundering. it is worth mentioning that until the 18th century people did not consider cleanliness a positive virtue and bathing a social norm. in the 18th century bathing came into vogue as a medical or restorative treatment. water was considered a magical fluid which if correctly applied could be benefical for all manner of infestation. as more doctors prescribed the water cure, the idea of bathing slowly became acceptable. at the same time non medical bathing became increasing popular in europe. advances in plumbing, including running water and bathtubs which could be drained, took soap over its last hurdle for mass acceptance. soap manufacturing thrived in europe and england.
as soap was not here when they arrived, early settlers where required to make it themselves. making soap as far as the settlers were concerned was women's business. the women stored cooking grease and animal fat all year long for soapmaking day, a yearly event that preceded spring cleaning. ashes from the fireplaces were also stored to make lye. rainwater was trickled through the ashes to leach out the lye contained in the potassium salts of the burned wood. a fresh egg was used to determine whether the lye was of proper strength. if it sank slowly, all was well. if it floated, the lye was thought to be too strong, and would have to be diluted; if it dropped, the lye was too weak, and would be run through the "ash hopper" again or boiled down.
solid fats would have to be rendered, and then all fats boiled and skimmed to rid it of extraneous hair, dirt, spices, and other debris. then it would be strained through a fine cloth. the lye was then stirred into the fats. if the mixture formed a thick ingredient the project was successful. if it separated, they tried again. this process would take most of the day to complete. over 150 years passed before some enterprising persons decided to produce soap for mass distribution and consumption. these early soap entrepreneurs appeared in the mid 18th century. they made rounds of local households, purchased their stored fat, and sold the soap back to housewives. they were called tallow chandlers and soap boilers.
the soap was first peddled door to door. eventually it was distributed in general stores, where it was sold from enormous blocks. customers would indicate how much they wanted and the amount would be cut off and wrapped for carrying home. in 1806 william colgate opened up a soapmaking concern in new york called colgate & company which was to become the first great soap making concern in this country. it was not until the 1830's that the company began selling individual bars in uniform weights. in 1872 colgate introduced cashmere bouquet, a perfumed soap.
the soap market becomes competitive: at the same period that colgate & co. introduced cashmere bouquet, a perfumed soap, william procter and james gamble set up business together in cincinnati. the two sold candles and soap house to house from a wheel barrow. within a few years procter & gamble became a large manufacturer and distributed large quantities of products to major cities along the ohio river, including pittsburgh, memphis, and louisville. in 1879, procter and gamble introduced ivory soap to the marketplace. in the western united states, the b.j. johnson company was making a soap entirely of palm and olive oil. the soap was popular enough to rename their company after it - palmolive. it should be mentioned that today's palmolive soap is not the same as the original. in the midwest, a kansas based soap manufacturer known as the peet brothers merged with palmolive to become palmolive-peet. in 1928, palmolive-peet joined the colgate company to create the colgate-palmolive-peet company. (in 1953 peet was dropped from the title, leaving us with colgate-palmolive.) meanwhile, lever brothers, an english firm, sent over some of their staff to get things started in the united states. the company introduced lifeboy soap in 1895.
the establishment of these major players transformed soap into a multibillion-dollar industry. each of these companies were very competitive and determined to make their product the market leader. advertising in the form of promotions and print advertisements was the primary communication tool used to sell soap at this time. this intense competition lead to the introduction of laundry detergents in the early 1900s and aggressive radio and television advertising later.
some facts about basic soap: soap is made by mixing fat with an alkali, a process called saponification. in days of old, soap makers added the ashes of plants like the soapwort and barilla for their alkali. since the late 18th century, when someone figured out how to synthesize the active ingredient, sodium hydroxide (lye), soap makers have been combining lye with fats to make soap. most soaps are made from animal fat. soap makers have been using it since a phoenician boiled-up some goat fat with wood ashes about 2,500 years ago. why animal fat? it s cheap and makes a hard long lasting soap. however, these soaps often tend to make ones skin dry and cause irritation.
the second stage of soap manufacturing entails the addition of perfumes, dyes, superfats, chemical stabilizers, brighteners, and anti-oxidants to the soap base. these are mixed, milled on huge granite rollers to distribute the additives evenly, then compressed and extruded in a continuous shaft to be stamped and wrapped.
what distinguishes vegetable based soap: these soaps use emollients extracted from vegetables such as olive, peanut, palm, safflower, soy bean and coconut oils, instead of animal fat. combined with alkali and spring water, the fat from vegetable oils produces a soap which tends to make the skin feel soft and smooth while helping to retain natural moisture. the ingredients are then so thoroughly mixed together they appear to be homogenous. this process can take as long as 2 hours. fragrance oils and/herbs are added to provide a distinct aroma.
after mixing, the soaps are poured into a stainless steel tube where they are allowed to set for 24 to 72 hours, depending upon the herbs and oils added. after setting they are slowly pushed out of the stainless steel tube and cut. the soaps are neatly stacked to afford maximum exposure to air while they cure for 2 to 4 weeks. finally, the soaps are packaged for use.
• soapmaking processes
what is cold process (cp) hot process (hp) soapmaking?|
soapmaking is a craft and profession which extends back in time for thousands of years. today, most people buy their soap from commercial vendors such as proctor and gamble, ivory, etc. but handcrafted soapmaking has recently seen a resurgence both in availability and in consumer interest. as with any handcrafted item compared to a commercially produced item, hand made soaps often use more expensive and exotic raw materials and result in a soap bar which is unique and luxurious. "soap" is created when fixed oils such as palm oil and coconut oil are blended with sodium hydroxide (known more commonly as "lye"). the laws of nature demand that you cannot make soap without lye. so, cold process soapmaking involves working with oils and mixing them with lye which has been dissolved in water. as the two are stirred together, a chemical reaction begins in which all the ingredients are turned into a salt called soap. a properly made bar has no free lye in it, and is gentle and cleansing. once you get past any concerns you may have about working with lye, cold process soapmaking is a relatively easy process. with the proper tools in hand, you can produce several bars of soap in a few hours, in the comfort of your kitchen. the soap will still have to cure to finish saponification (the chemical process by which lye and fats are converted to soap). hot process soapmaking starts out the same as cold process but the soap is cooked in order to complete saponification. no curing is required with the hot process.
what is melt and pour (mp) soapmaking?
quality melt and pour is a soap based product and not a detergent. however, it may contain detergents. in general, m&p is around 50% soap and the balance is solvents. it is formulated to withstand re-melting and accept additives. it does not have to be vegetable based, although, most suppliers carry vegetable based m&p. it also does not have to contain "glycerin". the glycerin may be extracted from the soap and other solvents used to render it transparent. all melt and pour begins its life transparent. transparent and opaque m&p bases are exactly the same with titanium dioxide being added to the transparent base to whiten it and render it opaque. plain glycerin soap is not the same thing as m&p soap. many of the plain glycerin soaps on the market are formulated to not melt easily as this prolongs their length of use. this is not to say it is impossible, just remember that plain glycerin soap wasn't designed for soap casting and you will probably have difficulty with more complex designs and techniques. you can use m&p soap as soon as it is cool and firm. unlike cold process soapmaking, the saponification process has been completed at the manufactures so you don't have to allow your m&p soap time to cure before you use it.
what is handmilled soapmaking? (aka: rebatching, working with soap curls)
hand milled soapmaking is a process where you take scraps of pre-made soap or vegetable soap curls, add a liquid and cook it down to a soapbase. this method is also know as "re-batching". -- (this is not to be confused with the "milling" process by commercial soapmakers where the grated soap is mixed with the additives and is milled on huge granite rollers to distribute the additives evenly, then compressed into bars.) -- a soapmaker who has some scraps left over, rather than throw the scraps out, may choose to re-batch them into a new bar of soap. a soapmaker who wants to make a bar of truly natural soap but doesn't want to work with lye, may choose this process. while the concept is simple, re-batching soap is actually difficult enough that many soapmakers refuse to do it. the main problem is that no soap base is 100% the same from batch to batch. even if made from the same recipe, each batch will have a slightly different moisture content, will be slightly more or less alkaline, etc. so, becoming a successful re-batching soapmaker requires practice. over time, the diligent soapmaker will develop a keen eye for when to adjust temperatures and moisture content during the re-batching process. soapmakers either love this method or hate it! the good news is that a re-batch will never fail completely (unlike cold process soap). handmilled soap will always be usable soap. done well, the results are wonderfully creamy and airy. done poorly, the results are less visually satisfying, (i.e. lumpy and uneven), but always usable.
what's the difference between handcrafted and commercial soap: large, commercial soapmakers use none of the "handcrafting" processes listed below. rather, they have developed advanced means of soapmaking which result in more soap being produced faster and to their specifications. there are a couple of essential differences between handcrafted soap processes and those used by larger manufacturers.
one primary difference is the glycerin content. commercial soapmakers use a process called "salting out" to remove the glycerin from their soap stock. they do this for a couple of reasons.
• what is glycerin?
when asked why their soap is better than store-bought, cold process
soapmakers say (among other things), "because of the natural glycerin.
glycerin is a humectant, meaning it attracts moisture to your skin.
glycerin is a natural by-product of the soapmaking process and while
commercial manufacturers remove the glycerin for use in their more
profitable lotions and creams, handcrafted soap retains glycerin in each
and every bar." melt and pour soapmakers respond similarly, "commercial
soaps remove the glycerin for use in more profit producing lotions and
creams, my soap has extra glycerin added to it. this helps make it
clear, and also makes it a lot more moisturizing."|
but what is glycerin, really? glycerin is a neutral, sweet-tasting, colorless, thick liquid which freezes to a gummy paste and which has a high boiling point. glycerin can be dissolved into water or alcohol, but not oils. on the other hand, many things will dissolve into glycerin easier than they do into water or alcohol. so it is a good solvent. glycerin is also highly "hydroscopic" which means that it absorbs water from the air. for example, if you left a bottle of pure glycerin exposed to air in your kitchen, it would take moisture from the air and eventually, it would become 80% glycerin and 20% water. because of this hydroscopic quality, pure, 100% glycerin placed on the tongue may raise a blister, since it is dehydrating. diluted with water, however, it will soften your skin. (note: while people say this softening is the result of the glycerin attracting moisture to your skin, there is heated debate as to whether or not the glycerin has some other properties all its own which are helpful to the skin. summed up, the current thinking is "we know glycerin softens the skin. some people think its because it attracts moisture, but there could be other reasons.")
up until 1889, people didn't know how to recover glycerin from the soapmaking process, so commercially produced glycerin mostly came from the candlemaking industry, back when candles were made from animal fats. in 1889, a viable way to separate the glycerin out of the soap was finally implemented. the process of removing the glycerin from the soap is fairly complicated . in the most simplest terms: you make soap out of fats and/or oil and lye. the fats already contain 7% to 13% glycerin as part of their chemical makeup. when the fats and lye interact, soap is formed, and the glycerin is left out as a "byproduct". but, while it's chemically separate, it's still blended into the soap mix. while a cold process soapmaker would simply pour into the molds at this stage, a commercial soapmaker will add salt. the salt causes the soap to curdle and float to the top. after skimming off the soap, they are left with glycerin (and lots of "impurities" like partially dissolved soap, extra salt, etc.). they then separate the glycerin out by distilling it. finally, they de-colorize the glycerin by filtering it through charcoal, or by using some other bleaching method.
glycerin is also used to make clear soaps. highly glycerinated clear soaps contain about 15% to 20% pure glycerin. known as "melt and pour" soaps, these soaps are very easy to work with. they melt at about 160° fahrenheit, and solidify fairly rapidly. because of their high glycerin content, the soaps are very moisturizing to the skin. unfortunately, this high glycerin content also means that the soaps will dissolve more rapidly in water than soaps with less glycerin, and that if the bar of soap is left exposed to air, it will attract moisture and "glisten" with beads of ambient moisture.
• curing and bar hardness
|although some remaining saponification may take place during this period,* the main purpose of the curing is to allow the remaining water (all except approximately 16%) to evaporate. this leaves behind a hard bar which last longer ...the longer the curing time, the harder the bar. an uncured (soft) bar would simply "dissolve".|
|* further saponification during
the curing process will cause the bar to get milder, but the amount of
saponification, if any, will only be slight. most of it takes place
during the first 1 to 3 days, at which point, if your soap is harsh
(read lye-heavy), no amount of curing is going to turn it into a mild
with the cold process method, curing times vary from 3 to 6 weeks (depending on whose recipe you're following). with the hot process method, the soap is "cooked" during which all the saponification takes place, so when you're finished, (i.e. when the soap is unmolded), it's ready to use. however, the soap is usually allowed to sit for a couple of days to fully harden.
• instructions for making cold processed (cp) and hot process (hp) soap
the following instructions are just to give an overview of the cold
process. Before attempting to make cold (or hot) process soap, you will
need exact instructions with a recipe giving exact measurements.|
in addition to the information contained in my "soap from scratch" page, i would suggest [for anyone seriously considering a venture into the world of cold process soapmaking] a visit to "
• instructions for making melt and pour (mp) soap
• instructions for making hand milled soap (rebatching)
(despite the apparent simplicity of the the two methods
below, rebatching seems to be a tricky process. there are those who love
it and those who hate. see |
i've developed a process which is an amalgam of the two examples below. see "my rebatch" for a description of the method i've been successful with and some examples of those successes.
using this method to hand mill soap, you start by grating soap you've previously made (either specifically for this purpose or the recycling of soap from other projects), or by purchasing from a supplier soap (in the form of "curls") that's been manufactured just for this process.