How to Make Cold-Process Soap from Scratch

How to make cold-process soap from scratch plus dozens of other ideas for gifts from the homestead.

Have you ever wondered how difficult it is to make your own soap?

Have you looked with longing at those beautiful bars of handmade soap on Pinterest with gorgeous veins of color swirled through them? Or are the loaves of soap topped with rose petals or herbs and sometimes even glitter more your style?

I think they're all beautiful, but honestly it wasn't just the artistry of those bars that intrigued me, it was the health aspect.

The thing is, commercial "soap" manufacturers use ingredients that aren't that healthy for us, such as parabens, triclosan, and sodium lauryl sulfate.

You can find more information on the dangers that lurk in your bathroom in this past post.

Not to mention the fact that commercial soap usually isn't real soap at all. Yes, seriously. Soap must be made with sodium hydroxide (lye) in order to be called soap, according to the FDA.

Look at the labels in the soap aisle the next time you're at the store. You'll find "beauty bars," "bath bars" and "deodorant bars."

Not so with handmade soap!

This is part of a series of posts from a great group of bloggers, bringing you our favorite gift ideas, inspiration and how-to's. You'll find a list of our posts at the end of this one, with links to each tutorial. Visit those that interest you or, better yet, visit them all!

Also, I'd like you to know that this post contains affiliate links. If you follow a link and make a purchase, I might earn a small commission. You can read my disclosure statement here.

Homemade soap is customizable

When you make your own soap, you can use all-natural, healthy fats and oils. And if you don't want to use a particular fat or oil, you can use another instead. (But you must calculate the correct amount of lye to use if you make substitutions. Don't worry, it's easy with an online lye calculator. More about that later.)

Soap projects can vary from simple 3-ingredient "recipes" to others containing seven or more oils ranging from common to exotic. Emu oil, anyone?

The easiest way to begin making your own soap is to use a simple recipe, so I'm going to share one that I started with so many years ago. This is a good "grocery-store soap," meaning you can probably find the ingredients in your local grocery store. But I'll include some links below in case you can't find them, or if you want to source organic oils instead of what's in your local store.

Look in the health and beauty aisle for the castor oil, and on the cooking oil shelf for the others.

You might have more trouble finding the lye though. You'll find my suggestions below.

Cold Process vs Hot Process soap

There are two methods of making soap: cold process and hot process (which is also referred to as "crockpot soap"). I prefer cold process, but many people, especially those who are new to soapmaking, prefer hot process.

Yes, cold process soap requires up to six weeks of cure time, but the end result is, in my opinion, nicer looking and I just like it better. This post will teach you how to make cold process soap. I've written a post on how to make hot process soap if you'd like to try that method instead, or just want to compare the two before you decide.

How to use lye safely

These are the safety procedures I use.
Please note that I am not responsible for accidents;
this post is for educational purposes.

"Ugh, lye," you say. "Isn't that dangerous?"

It can be, yes. But if you treat lye (sodium hydroxide) with the respect it deserves, you'll do just fine. Just follow the rules and be cautious.

Can you make soap without lye? No. You can, however, buy melt-and-pour soap bases that have already incorporated the lye for you. That's what we used when my granddaughter wanted to make soap.

Don't let lye scare you. The first time you make soap is the scariest, but after that it's much easier. After the first batch you know you'll survive the process. But like I said, you do have to treat it with respect.

Lye is a caustic chemical, which means that it will burn your skin, and it would cause major damage if you drank lye water. So we need to protect our skin from the lye, and ensure that we don't leave lye water where another person, child or pet can spill it or drink it.

Needless to say, you'll want to keep children and pets out of your soapmaking area while you're working. You might want to send your kids to the neighbors' house, or to their grandparents' home for the day. Put the dogs outside. Shut the cats in another room while you're working.

How to make cold-process soap from scratch plus dozens of other ideas for gifts from the homestead.
My "mad scientist" protective gear

To protect yourself, wear gloves such as you'd wear to wash dishes. These gloves are long and help to protect your wrists and part of your arms as well. Worn with a long-sleeved shirt, they'll protect your arms.

Wear safety glasses or goggles to protect your eyes. A mask will help to protect your face and also your lungs. Inhaling lye fumes can damage your lungs.

It does sound scary, doesn't it? But I want you to give lye the respect it demands. Wearing safety gear and working in a well-ventilated space will help keep you safe.

Do not touch the raw soap batter until after the saponification process has finished. Avoid spattering the batter while you're making your soap.

Always use the correct amount of lye, which will differ according to the oils you use to make your soap. Anytime you substitute a different oil for one in your recipe, you'll need to recalculate the amount of lye you'll need.

Don't worry, it's easy when you use a lye calculator. These handy online calculators will do the math for you. Simply input the oils and fats you plan to use and the calculator will tell you how much lye and how much liquid to use.

Where to source lye

Depending on where you live, finding sodium hydroxide for sale can be difficult. Here in Oklahoma it is hard to find. Our local Ace Hardware store used to carry it, but eventually it disappeared from their shelves. Several years ago I asked the store manager if he would stock it again, and he agreed.

How to make cold-process soap from scratch plus dozens of other ideas for gifts from the homestead.

When I get to the check-out though, I have to show my driver's license and sign an official-looking paper, swearing that I won't use it to make illegal substances.

You might have an easier time finding it in your neighborhood, or you might not. You can order it online from soapmaking companies such as and from Amazon.

The equipment you'll need

You'll need a few things to make soap. First, you'll need the protective gear we talked about above to protect you from the lye:

You'll also need:

My soapmaking equipment is only used to make soap; I don't use these items in my kitchen for any other use. For more information, read my post on soapmaking supplies and equipment.

The "recipe"

Although I started out making soap with a 3-ingredient recipe, I soon reformulated it to include castor oil. Castor oil is what makes those little creamy bubbles in your soap lather that make it feel so luxurious.

Since then, I've added a few more ingredients to my own favorite recipe, but it's easiest to begin with a simple recipe so let's start with this one.

Note: all ingredients are measured by weight, not by volume.

Simple 4-oil soap recipe

Fats and Oils
14 oz Crisco*
8 oz olive oil^

*Crisco oil contains both soybean oil and palm oil. I recommend using the Crisco brand so you're using the correct fats in the correct ratio. (I've since replaced Crisco in my recipes with different ingredients, but this is an easy way to begin soapmaking, and it's super easy to find.)

^The color of the olive oil will affect the color of your finished soap. Choose a light-colored oil if you want light-colored soap.

Liquid and Lye
12.16 distilled or filtered water (don't use tap water)

Optional: one ounce (by weight) of essential oil for fragrance. Peppermint, lavender or citrus essential oils are all excellent choices.

Measuring the oils and fats

To measure the oils and fats you'll be using, set a small container or plastic cup on the scale and "zero it out" so it's only weighing the oil, not the container + oil.

How to make cold-process soap from scratch plus dozens of other ideas for gifts from the homestead.

Pour in the oil until the container is holding the correct weight. Weigh carefully, you want to be as close to the recipe's directions as you can be. Making soap is chemistry; you need to be as exact as possible.

While you can continue to add the next oil to this container, I prefer to pour this first oil into the larger of my two heat-proof containers. I scrape as much of it out of the plastic cup as I can, and start over with the second oil.

Continue until you have measured all the oils in the recipe. I've found it helpful to print out my recipes and check off each ingredient as I weigh it so that I don't accidentally skip one. (Because I did that once!)

Weigh the amount of distilled or filtered water you'll need and add it to the other heat-proof container.

If you'll be adding essential oil to your soap, measure that now too. Use an ounce by weight, not by volume. Measure the essential oil into a plastic cup and set aside until needed.

Measuring the lye

Now it's time to measure the lye. Don your protective gloves and goggles, and a mask if you have one. Inhaling lye isn't good for you!

Set a clean, dry container on your scale. A paper cup is handy, so that you can toss it in the garbage container when you're finished.

Zero out your scale as before and weigh the amount of lye you need, as exactly as possible. Close the original container of lye. Set your weighed amount of lye where you're less likely to knock it over.

Making soap

I know, it seems like it has taken forever to get to this point, doesn't it? Maybe making soap takes too long?

Fear not - it takes as long to get set up to make soap as it does to actually make the soap. Maybe even longer.

Set up your work area by lining the table or counter with newspaper or towels. I prefer to work at the kitchen sink, so I line the counter next to the sink.

How to make cold-process soap from scratch plus dozens of other ideas for gifts from the homestead.
The measured oils, ready to warm up so they'll melt.

The first step is to melt the oils and fats. You can warm them up using either the microwave or on the stovetop. Stir occasionally as you heat them up. Then set the oils aside while you mix the lye with the water.

If you don't still have them on, put on your protective gear for the next step: gloves and goggles or safety glasses.

With your measured water in a heat-proof container, sprinkle some of the lye slowly on the water and stir gently. Add a bit more and stir. Continue until you have mixed all the lye into the water. (By the way, don't add the water to the lye; you must add the lye to the water slowly.)

This container will heat up, so I like to use a container with a handle. It will also generate fumes, so working in a well-ventilated area and wearing a mask are a must.

Set both containers aside in a safe place where children and pets can't reach them, and wait until both containers are about the same temperature. How long will it take? It will depend on the temperature in your kitchen (or wherever you're working) among other factors.

When the melted oils and the lye water are approximately the same temperature (you don't need to use a thermometer, just feel the outside of the containers), you're ready to go!

Banish pets and children from your working area, please. Don't answer the phone. Don't be distracted by Facebook.

Mixing the oils and liquid together

This is important: add the lye water to the oils, not the other way around. (Notice that you're always adding the lye TO the other ingredients.)

I set my mixing bowl of oils in the kitchen sink; it's a comfortable height for stirring for me. I pour the lye water into the mixing bowl of oils and stir. And stir, And stir.

How to make cold-process soap from scratch plus dozens of other ideas for gifts from the homestead.

My handheld stick blender is one of the best tools I've ever bought. It's only used for soapmaking, never for food preparation.

Use the blender for a minute or two, then shut it off and stir with it. Alternate using the mixer and stirring by hand to avoid burning out the mixer's motor. Be careful to hold the mixer upright so it doesn't splash soap batter.

The soap mixture starts out looking translucent, but as you stir it turns opaque. Eventually it will become thicker. When you can see the "track" of the mixer or your spoon, you are near "trace". Trace is the magic, miraculous stage you're working towards!

If you wish to add essential oil to your soap, this is the time to do it. Pour it in and use your stick blender to mix it in.

How to make cold-process soap from scratch plus dozens of other ideas for gifts from the homestead.

Light trace is when you can see the track of the spoon in the batter; heavy trace looks like thick pudding.

I try to pour my batter into the mold when it's at a medium trace.

Pouring the soap batter into the mold

It's time to pour your soap into the mold!

This recipe should fit into a 40-oz mold such as this one. I bought mine from Amazon but they are also available from online soap supply companies. I have another, slightly different one from Michael's that holds a bit less than 40 ounces.

How to make cold-process soap from scratch plus dozens of other ideas for gifts from the homestead.

Pour the batter slowly into the mold to prevent bubbles, which will leave holes in your finished soap. You can carefully tap the mold on the counter to dislodge any additional bubbles that might have formed. (See that bubble in the bottom left of the mold? I used my spatula to fill that back in.)

Now you'll set the mold aside and let it turn into soap - keep reading for the directions.

Cleaning up

"But Kathi, if the soap batter is caustic, how can I clean it all up when I'm done?"

Good question. Here's what I do:

I don't have children at home, but I do have pets. In particular I have a cat that jumps on the kitchen counters even though he knows he's not supposed to. (I'm looking at you, Thor.) I'm careful to protect the cats, dogs and people!

Cleaning up after making soap. How to make cold-process soap from scratch plus dozens of other ideas for gifts from the homestead.

After I pour my soap batter into the mold and while still wearing my protective gloves and glasses, my clean-up routine consists of putting all my tools (mixing spoon, spatula, stick blender, etc.) inside the larger bowl, then put it all inside a garbage bag and tie a knot in the bag.

Then I put the whole thing on a high shelf in the mudroom; the door to this room is always closed because the mudroom isn't heated or air-conditioned. You might have a shelf in the garage that would work.

I leave the bag there, untouched, until after I unmold the soap. Why? Because by then the soap batter has saponified and it's soap. It's no longer caustic.

Then the bowl is filled with water, left for a bit so the hardened soap can soften, and I wash it all. No need to wear gloves, because I'm simply washing my equipment with the soap I just made.

The newspaper that lined the kitchen counter is rolled up and disposed of, or the towel folded up and washed immediately.

Cutting and curing your soap

After pouring your soap into the mold, set it in an undisturbed place for about 24 hours, where children and pets can't get into it.

Some directions say to cover your mold of soap. I never have, but it's always warm in our house and maybe that makes a difference.

The soap batter will heat up and the saponification process will proceed. You can watch the opaque soap go through a "gel stage" and then once again turn opaque - although it's rather like watching paint dry.

A step-by-step soapmaking tutorial, plus dozens of additional handmade gift ideas.

After 24 hours, if the soap seems firm enough, you can remove it from the mold. I let the uncut loaf set for up to another day before cutting it into bars. Use your judgement, it might need longer before you can cut it. And yes, it's ok to touch the soap without gloves at this point.

I use a miter box to cut my soap into bars. It was hubby's ingenuous idea!

Set the bars on edge on white paper towels and let them cure for four to six weeks, turning occasionally.

I know, six weeks is an eternity! But your soap will be harder and longer-lasting the longer it cures.

Your soap is ready to use - or package a bar or two in a pretty basket to gift to some of your favorite people!

Gifts from the Homestead

Are you looking for gifts you can make for your family and friends? You're in luck!

This post is part of a collaboration with a group of homestead bloggers bringing you our favorite gift tutorials. You'll find gifts you can make in an hour, others that will take up to a month, and plenty in the middle!

Take a look at the list below and visit each post for ideas, inspiration and how-to's.

Gifts You Can Make in an Hour or Less

Create a Giftable Indoor Herb Garden Kit || The Not So Modern Housewife

Soup in a Jar: the Perfect Comfort Gift || Dehydrating Made Easy

Snickerdoodle Cookies || Nancy On The Homefront

How to Can Homemade Salsa || The Not So Modern Housewife

Make Your Own Lotion Bars || Learning and Yearning

Easy Homemade Bath Salts Recipe || Better Hens and Gardens

Peppermint Foot Salve || The Self Sufficient Home Acre

SPF Lip Balm Recipe || Our Inspired Roots

3 Bedtime Bath Teas for Kids || Homestead Lady

Fall Air Freshener DIY || Feathers In The Woods

Gifts You Can Make in a Day or Less

DIY Quilted Mug Rug || Flip Flop Barnyard

DIY Flower and Veggie Row Markers || The Self Sufficient Home Acre

Make Your Own Veggie Hod || Nancy On The Homefront

Gifts You Can Make in a Week

Easy Primitive Throw Pillow Tutorial || Hidden Springs Homestead

How to Make a Rag Quilt || Flip Flop Barnyard

Special Gifts That Take One Month to Create (but are well worth the wait)

Making Herbal Vinegar || Better Hens and Gardens

How to Make Homemade Vanilla Extract || Farming My Backyard

How to Make Strawberry Wine Step-by-Step || Stone Family Farmstead

How to Make Cold-Process Soap from Scratch || Oak Hill Homestead - while this project is listed in the month-or-more category, you can see that almost all of that time is curing time. You'll finish the "doing" part of the gift in just one day!

Gift ideas for every season abound in this collaboration with popular bloggers!  #holidays #homestead #crafts

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