How to make soap: Handmade Herbal Soap

There is a lot of interest in soap these days, and lots of new herbal soap producers. Every upscale gift shop has handmade herbal soap for sale as part of their bath and beauty line. If you’ve thought about the idea of soap-making, but it seemed too difficult, take heart – it’s simple, straight forward, and the results are wonderful!

So, let’s make some soap. First, we will deal with the part that scares people –you have to use lye to make soap.

How to make soap: Handmade Herbal Soap

There may be other ways to do it commercially, but home soap makers use lye. Lye is a dangerous chemical, but it’s sold on supermarket shelves and all it takes is common sense and being careful to avoid any problem. Don’t let this one little part of the process frighten you away from soapmaking.

The soapmaking chemical process is called saponification. The ingredients you put together to make your soap go through chemical bonding and changing which results in soap. This brings us to the second important point to remember: YOU USE LYE TO MAKE SOAP,but there isn’t lye IN soap!

The proportions of fat to lye in soap are carefully balanced so that at the end of the saponification period, all of the lye and fat are matched up and completely changed, so all you have left is soap. I think tales of grandmother’s lye soap must have come from incorrect proportions that left some of the lye behind, or from using soap before it had a chance to properly cure.

To make soap, first assemble the ingredients and tools you will need. Then follow this important third point: SET ASIDE A SPECIAL TIME TO MAKE SOAP. PICK A MORNING OR AFTERNOON WHEN YOU CAN MINIMIZE DISTRACTIONS. KEEP YOUNG CHILDREN AND PETS OUT OF THE KITCHEN.

It won’t take long to do the initial melting and mixing, and that is the time you need to have quiet and concentrate on the task at hand. Then you can go about your normal routine and occasionally check in on your soap.


1) Stainless Steel or Enamel Stockpot (You can buy one at Walmart for about $12-$15 and save it just for soapmaking or use one you already have and clean it thoroughly before reusing.)
2) Large non-metal spoon for stirring. I use a wooden one and don’t use it for anything else.
3) Candy or meat themometer to measure temperatures.
4) Flat plastic, cardboard, or wood trays to pour your soap out into. You can also buy soap molds, but for the first time, it’s easiest to pour up solid blocks and cut it later into bars.
5) A clean, empty glass gallon jar such as a sun tea jar.
6) Rubber gloves.
7) Protective plastic eyeware, sold at home improvement and hardware stores.


1 can Red Devil lye (on the kitchen cleanser aisle of the grocery)
1 large can (3 lb.) Crisco shortening
1 – 14oz. jar of coconut oil, from a natural foods grocery
3 cups of olive oil
Fragrance or essential oils and/or dried, finely chopped or ground herbs
(see “Additions” following the basic soap instructions.)

When you are ready to make soap, gather all your materials and cover the kitchen counter with newspaper. Follow these steps:

1) Put 1 quart of cold water into the glass gallon jar. Take the gallon jar, the rubber gloves, protective eyewear, the lye, and your stirring spoon outside or to a very well ventilated area. The dissoving lye generates strong fumes. I always go out onto our deck. Set the gallon jar down where you know it will be safe and undisturbed, put on the rubber gloves and plastic eyewear, then carefully open the can of lye. If the lye is fresh, it should be loose crystals. Sometimes a can is older and the lye has hardened in spots. Use a stout stick or pencil to poke gently at the lye to loosen it up if necessary. Keeping your head turned slightly away to avoid breathing the fume, carefully pour the lye crystals into the cold water. Then stir gently with your spoon to dissolve the lye. This is one of the places you could accidently splash lye around if you stirred carelessly, so go slow and pay attention. As the lye dissolves, it causes a reaction that heats up the water. It can get very hot, so do ’t touch the glass after adding the lye. You want the lye solution to cool down to about body temperature (or just under 100 degrees on the meat thermometer) before you will use it. In winter this can happen fairly quickly, 15-20 min. In summer, it may take up to 30 minutes. While the lye is cooling, move on the the second part:

2) On the stove, heat the crisco, the coconut oil and the olive oil until the crisco is melted. As soon as only a few smaller lumps of shortening remain, remove from heat and place on a hot pad on the counter. Stir to dissolve completely. Now you have the two necessary ingredients to make soap, a fat solution and a lye solution. You want both of them at the 98º – 100º mark at the same time. Keep going out to check the temperature of the lye solution every 10 minutes or so, wearing your rubber gloves and wiping the thermometer off with a thickly folded paper towel which you discard before using it to measure the temperature of the fat solution. If the fat cools before the lye reaches the correct temperature, put the oils back on the stove to warm them up a little. It really isn’t as much trouble as it sounds, so don’t get stuck on this part either. Some recipes even say for the fat mixture to be somewhat warmer than the lye solution, but I’ve always tried to have them about equal and had good results.

3) Wearing the rubber gloves and the eyewear, bring your jar of lye solution back inside to the counter beside the pot of melted oils. Carefully pour the lye solution into the pot of melted fat, stirring slowly as you pour. Once all the lye solution is stirred into the melted fat, take you lye jar and rinse it out thoroughly with lots of cold water and set it aside.

4) “Tracing” – This is the point where my soap making experiences take a departure from what I’ve read on the subject. Apparently, if your lye and fat are at exactly the right temperatures, and all the other factors are perfect and in your favor, you can stir continously for 10-15 minutes and have your soap ready to pour up. This has never happened to me. But what I have found is if you stir for about 5 minutes (or until you get tired of it, whichever comes first), and then set the pot of soap-to-be in a pantry or bathroom, someplace you can close the door and leave it safely, you can come back at intervals and stir it for a minute or so. Eventually it will reach the correct point for pouring into your molds. This point is called the “tracing point” and looks a lot like a pan of icing ready for a cake. The spoon drawn through it should leave a trail of soap behind it, with the lines of your stirring visible for some seconds before it smooths back out. You will come to reconize this stage easily. It is apparent that your soap has thickened into something that has the potential to harden further. If you make your soap early in the day, the tracing point will come somewhere later that day. Don’t make your soap late in the afternoon or evening, as the tracing point may be reached only after you have gone to bed for the night.

5) Once your soap traces, you are ready to add your chosen additives, coloring, and/or oils for scenting. Stir them in before you pour up your soap. (See list below.)

6) Pour your soap into the molds you have chosen. Books say to put a lid on your molds, or lay a sheet of heavy cardboard over them, then wrap the molds in a heavy towel or small blanket to slow cooling. Once again, I have never done this and have not had any trouble, but you might want to do it just to be safe. The soap needs to cool in the mold for 24-48 hours, until it is sufficiently firm to be able to be turned out easily. I have left soap in molds for weeks with no noticable ill effects, so don’t worry about having to get it out in the required time.

7) When the soap has hardened to the point you can remove it from the mold (and if it doesn’t want to come out easily, you can place them in the freezer for 15-20 minutes first), you are ready to cut the soap into bars. Use a very fine wire such as thin florist’s wire, or picture hanging wire long enough to give you something to wrap around your fingers and have room left to cut through the soap. A very thin, flexible knife will also work, though not as easily. When your soap is cut into bars, you are ready for the last step in your soap making adventure.

8) Aging – Set the cut bars in a warm, dry place on a pan or board covered with shelf paper or plastic wrap. Let them age for 6-8 weeks before using, turning once a week or so to allow all sides to dry evenly. This last step completes the chemical process of converting all the lye and fat into soap. After the aging period, you are ready to use your soap. Handmade soap is such a wonderful and unexpected treat you may find yourself making more and since we have made soap and enjoyed using the results, my family urges you not to be afraid of the process. You won’t really experience the fun and wonderful results unless you do it all from scratch. IT’S NOT HARD!

However, if you are looking for a simple and fun craft to do with children or want to experience part of the fun without any of the mess and time of traditional soapmaking, here’s a simple and fun way to do it. I call it “Soap the Walmart Way.” During a cruise through our local Walmart craft section this summer (I was buying a wreath form for a demonstration) I came to a sliding stop in front of, of all things, a large display of SOAPMAKING KITS AND ACCESSORIES! I am at a loss to adequately discribe just how unusual this seemed to me at the time. In fact, weeks later, it still strikes me as strange and unlikely. My confusion aside, this is the perfect way to have a fun time and end up with soap that has a personal touch. They have a basic soapmaking kit which sells for $15.99 and includes a 2 lb. block of pure glycerin soap, plastic soap molds, coloring agents, and vials of fragrance oils. Sold separately are additional blocks of the pure glycerin soap, different types of molds, from bars to sea shells, to hearts and more, and little vials of coloring, pearlizing material, and fragrance oils to scent the soap.

All you have to do is heat the glycerin soap in a heat proof bowl in a microwave, stirring until it melts, much like chocolate or butter. Stir in the colors or fragrances of your choice, pour into the molds and let harden for 30 minutes or so. Pop into the freezer for 5 minutes to help it come out easier, then turn out onto a counter. Your soap is finished, ready to use or put into cellophane bags or containers for gift giving.

This is an ideal Christmas project for children old enough to work with your help. Let them choose the colors, fragrances, shapes, etc. It’s much more fun to bathe with soap you have made yourself, and it makes a great gift. Recently I saw in The Herb Companion that Sandy Maine (see bibliography) has a new book coming out that is all about making soothing soaps all with a glycerin base. The idea of soaps for rashes, poison ivy, dry skin and more would be easy to do with the Walmart gylcerin soap base. In fact, you could add the same herbs suggested on the previous page to the glycerin soap and have your own herbal soaps, ready in a jiffy. The gylcerin soap lathers richly and has a nice feel. On the down side it doesn’t last as long as a bar of regular homemade soap. Let’s just call it a fun and inviting alternative to regular soapmaking. And it may be just perfect for your needs, so check out your local Walmart and have fun with “Soapmaking—Simplified!”

If you decide to make up a batch of homemade soap, you can then mix up some bars of colored glycerin soap and make what I have seen called “stained glass” soap. You need homemade pure white soap as the base. Cut up bars of previously made strong colored glycerin soap, such as green, red, yellow, blue, etc. into small chunks. When the white soap base is thickened and ready for pouring into molds, stir in the chunks of colored gylcerin soap. Harden and then turn out and cut into bars as usual. You will have beautiful white soap with chunks of clear color throughout, sort of like a stained glass window. With the ease of making colored glycerin soap the Walmart way, I definitely intend to make a batch of this soap for Christmas giving. more to try different recipes and ideas. You may not want to give it away, but if you do, you will find it is greatly appreciated.


You can make each batch of your homemade soap special with the additIon of ground herbs and/or essential oils. Some combinations I have enjoyed include (add the herbs and/or oils in at the tracing point, just before the soap is put into the molds):

Comfrey & Aloe Vera:  Add 2 oz. each lavender oil, rosemary oil and aloe vera gel and 2 oz. dried comfrey root powder.

Rosemary & Chamomile: 1 cup dried chamomile flowers, whizzed in a blender until finely ground, and 2-4 oz. essential rosemary oil.

Rose Scented: 2 – 4 oz. Rose fragrance oil

Peppermint: 2 – 4 oz. Peppermint oil and 1 cup finely ground peppermint leaves, stems removed.

One of the best things about homemade soap is that it lends itself to all sorts of experimentation and personal expression. You can try almost any type of ground herbs, spices, and /or use strong cold herbal infusions in place of the water for dissolving the lye. (This last can help add interesting colors.)

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