Skill of the Month: Soapmaking

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A lot of you have been requesting this particular skill, and with the help of soapmaker Karla Moore of Heart of Iowa Soapworks, we’re ready to give this one a try! Here is what we need to know, directly from Karla:

image by Sonjasun

In a survival situation cleanliness really becomes a top priority.  Without it, you risk a higher than normal chance of contracting a disease or spreading infections.  The best defense is to keep everything that you are in contact with as clean and germ-free as possible.  In a real SHTF scenario, there won’t be any grocery stores to go buy soap or supplies.  You’ll have to learn to make do with what you have on hand. Learning to make soap by hand is a very good skill to learn before you actually need to use it!

The following formula is for a very simple basic soap.  Just like in my grandmother’s day it can serve many different purposes, everything from washing dishes to washing grimy little kids!


Always handle LYE (Sodium Hydroxide) wearing rubber gloves, eye protection & a face mask.

Equipment & Supplies to have on hand:

1.  Lye (Sodium Hydroxide), also known as drain cleaner. Purchase DRY product that states on the package that it is 100% Sodium Hydroxide.  Regular drain cleaner (Drano) that has flecks of color will not work, nor will the liquid type. Red Devil or Roobo are two brands that are available in hardware stores or some home improvement stores.  As long as the Lye is kept in an air tight, moisture tight container it has an almost indefinite shelf-life.

2.  Stainless Steel or Plastic equipment is the safest to use. DO NOT USE ANYTHING ALUMINUM! Lye reacts violently when it comes in contact with aluminum, bubbling up and releasing a toxic gas.  It will eat through the pan and ruin a whole batch of soap.

3.  Rubber gloves, face mask, eye protection — goggles or a full-face mask.

4.  Stainless steel stockpot  or a heavy 1 gallon plastic bucket

5.  Plastic, wooden or stainless steel stirring spoons. Regular & slotted  (do not use wooden spoons for food after use)

6.  Measuring cups

7.  Heavy plastic pitcher  to be used to mix lye & water.  Do NOT use this for food afterwards.

8.  Plastic spatula

9.  A mold to pour soap into.  Plastic containers such as Gladware or Rubbermaid work very well.  A wooden box lined with freezer paper (slick side towards soap).  Cleaned out milk cartons or baby wipe containers work very well…plus they are free! This recipe will fill a plastic shoe box over half full.

10. Digital Scale that is accurate to .1 oz. (1/10th)

11. Immersion blender

Ingredients:  (All ingredients must be WEIGHED.)

8 oz. Lye

14 oz. Water

42 oz. Meat fat-based Shortening  (I use the store brand), lard or rendered tallow

16 oz. Coconut oil

2.5 oz. skin & soap safe fragrance or 1.8 oz. essential oils of choice (optional)


Line your mold if needed. Have fragrance measured out and set aside if using.

Place the shortening & coconut oil in stainless steel or heavy plastic container.  Chop up the big chunks to make it easier to melt.

PUT ON YOUR SAFETY EQUIPMENT: rubber gloves, face mask, eye protection, either goggles or a full-face mask.

Make sure that all kids & critters are OUT OF THE ROOM when you are working with lye.

Measure out the water in a heavy plastic pitcher.  I use a Sterilite one from the Dollar Store.  Carefully sprinkle the lye into the water.  NEVER do it the other way around and pour water onto the lye.  You risk having it volcano out of the container….yes, I have had it happen to me!

Stir thoroughly until totally dissolved.  Do NOT breathe in the fumes! At this point, the lye mixture is VERY HOT and will be at a temperature over 180ºF.

Carefully pour the hot Lye mix over the Fats, trying not to splash.

Mix until the fats are melted and well combined. If using the immersion blender, use it in short bursts to break up the fats.   Stir until the soap reaches Trace”.  At this point, the oils will start to be “Saponified”, or in other words, the chemical reaction is making Soap!  At Trace, the mixture will have a consistency of a warm pudding right before you pour it. Add your fragrance( if using) and thoroughly combine, scraping the sides of the pot with a rubber spatula making sure there isn’t any free lye or fragrance floating around.

Pour into a prepared mold.  Cover with plastic wrap or a lid, then wrap in an old towel to keep in the heat.  Let this sit overnight undisturbed. Uncover and let cool.   After 24 hours you may unmold the soap and cut it into bars.  I wear thin rubber gloves.  At this point, the soap may still be caustic. An old stainless steel drywall knife or cheese cutter works to cut it. Stack the soap in rows on a covered surface, in a well- ventilated area to cure for 3-4 weeks.


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I'm the original Survival Mom and for more than 11 years, I've been helping moms worry less and enjoy their homes and families more with my commonsense prepping advice.

43 thoughts on “Skill of the Month: Soapmaking”

  1. I’m sure after a couple tries at this, it wouldn’t sound so complicated. Hoping to give it a try soon. My son has been talking about making our own soap so I thought I would check it out! Great, informational post ☺

  2. Great tutorial! Being able to make soap will really be IMPORTANT if those who believe we’re going to return to a pre-industry age when SHTF are right! And making your own is so much better for your body, it doesn’t have all the preservatives and chemicals that the store bought crap has in it.

    I’ve been making soap for a couple years now and I learned a little secret shortly after learning to make soap.

    Here’s the Secret:
    (You don’t have to melt the oils!)

    Seriously! Before you make your lye solution, put all of your oils in a plastic or glass container. Do not use anything metal since you’re not melting the fats.
    Mix your lye solution until the lye is mostly dissolved and slowly pour it into the fats. Because the lye solution heats as the lye dissolves, it will melt the fats on its own. The process is a little slower to get to trace, but you also don’t have to watch it quite so diligently. I usually stir it for about 1 minute every 5 minutes until it reaches trace doing it this way.
    I sell my soap, and when I switched to this method, everybody started asking me what I did differently because the soap was so much more moisturizing!

    1. This is exactly the method that I wrote the tutorial about. I always take care to be sure the lye is dissolved in the water before adding to the oil batch.

      I do not use glass or pyrex because of the danger of it breaking. I have had a pyrex 4 cup bowl pop the bottom out of it when adding the lye. Stainless steel or heavy plastic is a safer choice.

      There are many ways to get the same result, you just have to decide which works best for you! 😉

      1. The difference between your method and mine is that I don’t melt my fats first nor do I completely dissolve the lye before adding it to the fats. And since the lye isn’t completely dissolved you can’t use metal bowls or spoons. But other than that I do exactly the same thing.
        My method does take a bit more care when mixing the lye solution into the fats, but for me it makes a much higher quality soap.

        1. No where do I say to melt the fats first. That is another kind of process. The hot lye is mixed until completely dissolved or you risk the chance of getting lye pockets in the soap. Lye needs liquid in order to complete the chemical reaction.

          Stainless steel is the only metal equipment that I would recommend to use with lye. It doesn’t matter if the lye is dry or wet it won’t react. What will react is Aluminum. It should be avoided at all costs because the lye has a chemical reaction that will ruin your pan and your soap.

          1. Whoops, sorry I totally misread that part of your tutorial… both times! Terribly sorry about that, I’m somewhat dyslexic- I tend to mix up words in sentences as opposed to letters in words.
            Hmm, that’s interesting, you’ve never had any problems when using metal bowls or spoons? I used a stainless steel spoon in one of my first batches (it was definitely stainless steel) and the lye literally ate part of the spoon!

  3. This is such a timely post. I just bought 2 bottles of Lye yesterday!
    Was planning to search the web for instructions and you brought them right to me…
    Thank You, I will let you know how it turns out….

  4. “In a real SHTF scenario there won’t be any grocery stores to go buy …” supplies needed for soapmaking either. If you do not already have lye, or if you just want to add another ‘old timey’ skill to your repertoire, you can make it yourself.

    1. Make a hopper (sort of an upside down triangle shaped container) with a drain at the bottom. It can be made from wood slats.
    2. Line the bottom with a media that will allow the lye through but not the ashes (straw, dried corn shuckings, etc.).
    3. Fill the hopper with wood ashes (some say hickory is preferred).
    4. Slowly drip water through the ashes (a gallon or two at a time).
    5. What comes out the bottom is lye.

    More heat may need to be applied to soap made from homemade lye to get the soap to thicken.

    Soap can also be made without the coconut oil if it is not available.

    For more information on making your own lye and a picture of the hopper described above see the Soapmaking chapter (pg. 151) of the Foxfire Book (number one in the series) ISBN 0-385-07353-4. This chapter also has additional information on ‘old timey’ soapmaking in general.

    1. Someday I will try this method. Other soaper friends of mine have tried it and said there is a definite learning curve to getting the correct strength of lye to use.

      1. Yup! My mom still complains about a really cheap great aunt who made her own soap until she died … with really strong lye and soap that would strip pig iron. Good times.

    2. Hardwood ashes need to be used. My understanding is that having softwood ashes mixed in interferes with the production of lye. To compensate for the uncertain lye content you can use extra fat. Any fat can be used soap making does not require a specific fat.

    1. I used my second batch of lye soap for laundry without any problems at all. The “fat” isn’t fat (if mixed properly it should all be soap!) anymore and doesn’t make clothing water repelent. Dryer sheets would make them more repelent than the soap would. That has been my experience, at any rate.

      1. Handmade soap, when formulated, will have a small percentage of oils (usually 5% on up) that will not be saponified (turned into soap). This is a safety precaution, so that you don’t end up with Lye Heavy soap that is very harsh. Because of this extra oil, it can build up on clothing if used for Laundry purposes. That is why you will sometimes end up with a funky smell on your clothing….all the oil isn’t getting washed out.

    2. Taylor: if you want to make soap for cleaning clothes etc, the amount of Lye would need to be increased to 8.7oz. At this amount I would NOT use it for bathing. This formulation would end up being more like Grandma’s with the ability to really strip your skin. It’s pretty harsh and I’d recommend using rubber gloves to handle it.

      Which brings me to another point. Every oil has a certain “Saponification Factor” that needs to be taken into account when formulating a recipe. The SAP value is the amount of Lye that it takes to convert the entire amount of that oil into soap. If you change the oils that you use, the Lye amount might change too. If you want to formulate your own recipe, go on-line and type in “lye calculator”. But, in a SHTF scenario having a good Soapmaking Book on-hand with that information can be priceless!

  5. I am also a soap maker but cannot find the lye in stores anymore. I know I can buy it through a chemical company but I don’t want to have too much stored.

    Homemade soap is the BEST!

  6. My friend and I have made soap for the past two years and given a lot away as Christmas presents. It is fabulous and easy to do. My family loves the soap and how it feels on our skin. Try it. It is easier than you think.

  7. I inherited my grandmother’s recipe box, and in searching through it, came upon a recipe from the 1850’s from my Amish ancestors for soap. It starts out with “After slaughter day, render the fat” and talks about adding ashes, etc, then pouring into a wooden frame. “Cover with a light cloth and store in the barn until cured.”

  8. These are MUCH better directions than the ones I had for my first batch of soap. I didn’t realize one of my pots was aluminium and almost gassed myself. The pot is ruined, but I’m going to drill holes in it and either turn it into a small “stove” or a planter. I just got a new batch of lye at Ace Hardware to try again!

    Failure is really the only way to learn. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself. *rme*

  9. Is it possible to make soap WITHOUT lye? If it requires that much protective gear, it makes me nervous to work with it.

    1. NO. You can not make real soap without LYe. Real soap is a direct result of the chemical reaction between the oils & Lye & Liquid.

      It really isn’t that scary if you take the precautions. But, you can’t get around the fact that lye IS a caustic substance that can do a lot of harm if not handled properly.

      Which brings me to yet another suggestion. Take your designated Lye Pitcher and write on it with a permanent magic marker. LYE- POISON. When lye is properly dissolved and cooled off, it is completely clear. KEEP AWAY FROM CHILDREN & CRITTERS!

      1. I wanted to note that vinegar is a good neutralizer if you happen to get lye on your skin or even in your eye. It’s a good idea to just have it out in case it is needed during the soap making process.


        1. If you splash some lye on your skin IMMEDIATELY rinse it under cool water. DO NOT use VINEGAR straight because it will actually accelerate how hot the lye gets while it is neutralizing it.. Cool water is your friend! After rinsing with plain water you can use a mild vinegar solution to neutralize any remaining lye that may be splashed on counters etc.

          I keep a spray bottle that is 1/4 vinegar mixed with water on my counter top while I’m making soap. Always work where a sink immediately available for use.

          1. You should not be getting lye anywhere near your eyes! WHERE ARE YOUR SAFETY GOGGLES! All it would take is to get splashed in the eye once….then you could lose your sight. It’s not worth it. Wear some googgles!

        2. Sorry Tammy! I came across as kind of harsh. Please wear safety goggles when handling Lye. It’s not worth losing your sight over something that can happen in a second!

  10. I have made soap on numerous occasions, and always use a huge stainless steel bowl and long handled spoon. I’ve never added anything except lye, water, and goats milk. Everyone I gave some of the soap to really loved it. I would like to add, aging the soap for several months actually makes it better.
    In TN it’s very hard to locate lye, as the crazy people were using it to make meth. I think you have to “ask” for it at the hardware store, and if they know you, they’ll go pull it out from the back. They don’t stock the shelf with it because they don’t want to have to refuse to sell it to them, and don’t want to supply them with it either.

    1. How are you figuring out the amount of Lye to use? What other oils are you using besides what is in the Goat milk? I honestly can’t figure out how this would work without using other oils along with the milk.

  11. Try using crushed walnuts, or used coffee grounds in addition to fragrances or essential oils. Makes for great, gritty soap.

  12. While I love soap making and think it’s a great skill to have there are some things to consider if you plan to make soap in a SHTF senario.
    First do you have a source of animal fat? Do you know what to do with it? (I have actually saved bacon grease and rendered it and made soap out of it just to experiment.)
    As patrick states above coconut oil or any vegtable oil is not required (i’m assuming they will be harder to come by)
    Also, you can make lye from wood ash as he describes, but this is not the same kind of lye that you are buying. It is potassium hydroxide and the lye that we typically buy is sodium hydroxide. Potassium hydroxide is use primarily in making liquid soaps. I have not yet made my own lye but it is on my to-do list.

    1. You are totally correct! I add the coconut for the increased lather. Lard or tallow on their own don’t lather extremely well, hence the addition of the coconut oil. I figured if I could get people interested in making their own soap with a decent recipe now, later on they could formulate their own as need be. I like to live on the assumption that I should learn skills now in case I might need them later…

      The type of lye that comes from ashes is totally different from what I’m describing in my formula above. From what I understand the soap must be cooked to get a desired result. Making my own lye is on my bucket list of skills to learn! Once a soaper….always a soaper! 😉

    2. From the historical soap making I have read about, the “soft soap” made from wood ash lye was converted to the solid stuff for bar soap by adding salt. Many people considered other uses for salt more important, so they would just ladle as much “soft soap” as they needed. The only folks that added salt to make bar soap were merchants that wanted to transport and sell it easier.

  13. I taught myself to make soap about 5 years ago. I read a lot of books and websites before I started and have had no problems at all. It is fun to make and is great for the skin!

    1. It “could” be used, but I wouldn’t, unless it was a worst case scenario. The oil would have to be extensively cleaned to try to get rid of the stink. I used to work as a cook in a restaurant. Believe me, the oil that we threw out for recycling stunk to high heaven. If the oil stinks before you make soap….it will stink after you make soap. Rancid oil only gets worse smelling…not better!

  14. The “FoxFire” series has a good method that includes how to make the lye from ashes(esp good to have on hand if lye isn’t available)-Good backup. I just love those books. Thanks for the recipe!

  15. I just tried your method. I have always melted the oils and then waited until the oils and lye were at the same temperature before mixing. This was so much easier! It took more time to get all my stuff out than it did to mix the soap. It traced really fast! Nice-thanks I will do this again. I only made a small batch because I only had a little bit of lye left. I need to get some more.

  16. I remember making soap in 4th grade.
    We made it in a large cast iron pot with 2 main ingredients: lye and lard.
    We just stirred the lard and slowly added the lye powder

    after it was sufficiently cooled the teacher mixed In a little scented oil then poured it into 9×13 pans till it hardened

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