How We Make the Soap
In the first part of my guide I explained what Silver Fox Shaving Soap is, how it came to be, and I explained why I chose the ingredients I did. In the second installment, I shared where I get my raw materials, and what hardware I use. Now we’ll get down to the business of finally making soap. Compared to some folks I have learned from I am still very new at this so for an experienced soaper there may be some things to which they will raise an eyebrow. This article is intended to get a guy like I was a year ago making his own shaving soap.
It is difficult to determine the source of one’s personal process. Certainly it is a combination of all I have read, all I have seen, all I have been told. I know there are peculiarities to the way I do things that come from Grandmother’s cooking, Dad’s practicality, Home Brewing, making Pyrotechnics, and even what my wife had lying about when I started to make soap. Again in this part of the series I do have to thank the people of The Soap Making Forum for always being willing to indulge my hair-brained ideas and provide feedback even if they thought I was off my rocker. I would also like to thank David Foulkrod (dfoulk on The Soapmaking Forum and on Badger and Blade) for being a willing test subject and for helping to edit this final part of the series.
Gathering the Materials
Take some time to print out a checklist and make sure you have everything handy that you will need. There’s extra credit in it for you if you make sure that you have enough of everything you need before you start. I won’t tell you how many times I’ve started to make something only to find I had half of one of the ingredients. Worse yet is being just an ounce shy.
Here is my counter organized just like I do for every soaping session. Okay that’s a lie but I do have everything I use there with the exception of some random stainless-steel silverware. It’s not a huge pile, is it? You can do this.
Weighing and Measuring
Grab your scale, make sure to check it against some known good weights (a small list of such things in the second installment) and let’s get to work. If your scale has enough capacity, using the crockpot liner as the container on your scale is a good idea. I’ve not seen a scale yet with both the capacity and the sensitivity I want but you may get lucky. There’s a fair argument that any loss in sensitivity is countered by the increase in accuracy from not using an intermediate bowl. I’ve not done the math on that yet; maybe one of my readers will spend the time to figure that out.
Here you can see me measuring one of the “dry” ingredients; the stearic acid. You have a choice here in how you get the oils measured. Your coconut oil is somewhat amorphous. At 76° F and above it will be a liquid, at normal room temperature it is very soft. I prefer to sit the container in a sink of hot water and let it fully melt. If you do this; measure it into your bowl first, followed by the stearic acid. This way you can take some of the coconut oil back out if you over-shoot the weight before it has other “stuff” in it.
There’s a trick to pouring liquids very slowly, and slowly is what you need in order to be accurate at these weights. Take a skewer, toothpick, cake tester, or anything small in diameter and hold it against the lip of the container from which you are pouring. The liquid will dribble down that instrument in a much finer stream than it would otherwise. Holding something up against the opening breaks the liquid’s surface tension and allows a finer pour. I thought I was the one who invented this only to later remember a laboratory technique I learned in school. In chemistry you use a glass rod to direct and control the pour out of a beaker. Oh well, it’s still cool.
Here’s a brief video showing the technique:
The alternative to measuring as a liquid is putting your coconut oil in the refrigerator or freezer. This will make it solid enough to scoop out like ice cream. If your oil is in a jug, you don’t have that option of course; it’s very hard to reach a spoon into a 1” opening.
After the coconut oil is measured, weigh in the stearic acid and then the tallow and lanolin. Be sure to remember to press the tare button on the scale in between each ingredient to zero the scale out. When you get to the shea and lanolin you want to weigh half of each into your main bowl with the rest of the oils, and the other half will go into a second small bowl. In other words, if your recipe scaling calls for 10g of lanolin and 10g of shea, measure 5g of each into one bowl and 5g of each into the other. This second bowl is your reserved oils for the superfat.
You can see the tallow is quite solid and has to be scraped out of the container. The lanolin is a little sticky, like petroleum jelly. Using two spoons like Grandma used scoop out cookie dough is a good way to measure it. If you measure your oils and fats in this order it is relatively easy to take back out some of what you just added.
Going on from here, please make sure to don your safety equipment. Protect your eyes and your hands at the very least.
Measure your lye carefully into a clean, dry container. Make very sure the container is dry because lye may react quite violently with a small amount of water. A glass bowl may shatter from the concentrated heat if there’s a drop of water present when you add the lye. After you measure, set it aside towards the back of your table or counter so you don’t spill it. Close your lye container tightly because it likes to absorb water from everything, even the air.
Into your stainless steel or other lye-safe container, measure your distilled water. Remember we weigh everything here. Put away those measuring cups. Tare the scale again and add your glycerin. It dissolves readily in water and this is as good as any place to put it.
Important Safety Note! Dissolved lye will cause serious burns if it comes in contact with your skin. If the dry chemical gets on your skin it can also dissolve and react with just your sweat. If you do spill on your skin, immediately rinse with lukewarm, gently flowing water. If it spills on your clothes or on a watch or other articles of clothing, remove them immediately to prevent the lye from getting trapped against your skin. If it splashes into your eyes, flush your eyes with lukewarm, gently flowing water. Seek medical attention.
Place the container with the water in it on a safe surface. It will get hot as we add the lye. The sink might be a good place if it is large enough to work in. Slowly sprinkle in the lye as you stir gently with a non-reactive utensil. I use my stainless steel kitchenware but don’t tell my wife.
I said it would get hot. Right after dissolving the lye in the water the temperature was 185° F. Keep stirring until the water is completely clear again.
Leave it in a safe place to cool off as we do the rest of the preparation.
We’re almost there but those oils look a lot more like a pile of snow with questionable additives. Go ahead and dump it into the crockpot and crank it up to high. Scrape as much as possible out of your bowl, a flexible spatula is pretty handy here.
Put the lid on and wait a while till it starts to liquefy. At that point stir occasionally; breaking up the clumps of stearic acid is easier before it gets too hot. Even if you don’t it will all eventually melt but the stirring helps it melt faster. You can turn the lid upside-down and place your dish containing the reserved superfats on the lid to allow the superfats to melt while you wait.
Another way to accomplish melting the superfats without too much fiddling is to just set it along-side the crockpot, the two touching. It will transfer enough heat as you work if you are using a glass or metal container to melt the oils. You can also fashion a Bain Marie of sorts with two bowls and hot water to melt it. One mistake I learned the hard way was using the microwave. Fats seem to heat up quickly and somewhat unevenly in the microwave. I cracked a few of those pretty glass bowls you see pictured by doing that. We don’t need the superfat to get too hot; around 120° F will do it.
Keep an eye on your crockpot all the while. It will melt completely clear so keep going until it is. If you like, check as you go along with that new digital thermometer. When you get to around 155° F the stearic acid should have completely melted. Now is also the time to carefully fish out any “things” floating around in the oil. I occasionally find bits of what I believe are shell from the shea butter.
We want our crockpot oils melted, and around 155°-160°F. We want our lye water to cool down to between 110°-120°F. Once both are where they need to be, re-adjust your eye protection and head to the next step.
We are going to get a non-reactive utensil (a stainless steel spoon is perfect) and stir the oils while gently pouring in the lye water. We were careful with the temperatures of each because mixing them together allowing them to react will generate heat as well. If the oil and water is too hot when you combine them, the water carrying the lye will boil violently and make what’s known in soaping circles as “the volcano.” It’s quite a mess so I generally recommend you avoid it. If the two are too cool, the stearic acid will re-harden. That’s not a fatal flaw but it’s much easier to keep it melted. The mixture will combine and start to thicken immediately so keep stirring and keep it even
Here’s a quick vid showing the process and how quickly it goes from oil to mashed potatoes. Please excuse/forgive my lack of PPE in this video. When I filmed this the first time you could not see anything due to the combination of small pot and big gloves:
Keep stirring a few minutes or until the mixture is evenly combined and the consistency of applesauce. Place the lid on the pot, turn it up to high if it is not already, and set your timer for 2 hours.
Before long you will see the soap mixture beginning to boil up the sides.
It’s time to stir again. You will need to stir often, perhaps every 5-10 minutes to prevent it from boiling over. Be sure to scrape down the sides, and scrape off the utensil you are stirring with, you don’t want to lose any of that soap. Eventually it will start rising like bread dough and each stirring is like punching the dough back down. When you do this it will liberate steam so make sure your gloves are still on. We will continue this for up to two hours (stop sooner if it’s drying out too much). The lid stays on most of the time so we don’t dry the soap out. My method continues cooking for the two full hours.
Towards the end of the cook, certainly after the one hour mark, we can try what soapers call the zap test. I swear this is not a snipe hunt; this is really how it is done: You wet your finger and rub it against a bit of the soap dissolving a small amount. Next you just touch that to the tip of your tongue. If it “zaps” you, some of the lye has not reacted all the way. More cooking may be in order. Yes, you can spit and rinse your mouth after. Sometimes people wonder if maybe their soap zapped. I assure you; if it zaps you there will be no doubt. It feels like a 9 volt battery on your tongue.
If it keeps zapping you after much more cooking it is possible you measured something incorrectly. If by the time you get to an hour and a half it still zaps, something is definitely wrong and you may have messed something up. It’s possible to “save” a batch, but that’s not for the faint of heart and whatever you end up with won’t be what we are planning to get. As tough as it is to say it, it may be best to dump the batch (safely!) and start over. Alternatively you can save it till you are more experienced and do what is called a “rebatch.” We won’t touch on that here.
If you follow some of the online soaping forums, invariably there will be someone who thinks people who do zap tests are knuckle-dragging luddites and just one step away from a chemically-deformed tongue. Some will claim they have super-secret pH strips that magically work with soap. Some claim to have a laboratory that would make a CSI jealous and pooh-pooh the very notion of a low-tech solution. I promise you most all I have seen make that argument know more about books than soap.
You see; using pH strips, a pH meter, or phenolphthalein as an indicator of whether or not the soap is safe to use is not all that effective. At least it is not effective for the novice soaper. Even if you are able to accurately test the pH of your soap the pH does not tell you the whole story. Soap has a lot of things going on in there. Most all of the lye reacts with the fatty acids to make what is technically a salt – our soap. The pH may still be shockingly high, even as high as 10-11 and still be a very gentle soap.
The reason for this strangeness is there are buffers that greatly slow any reactions from the OH molecules that make a substance basic (high pH). A buffered solution of pH 11 may do nothing to your skin where an unbuffered solution of pH 10 may be quite damaging if left on the skin too long. This is where the zap test comes in. If the OH molecules are unbuffered they are free to make a sort of battery out of your tongue. Soap which is ready to use has reacted and/or buffered all of the lye so it is not available to do bad things.
Now back to the cooking. After you have assured yourself with the zap test that the soap will be safe, continue stirring occasionally till your timer goes off. This is a fairly long cook for hot-process soap, many people cook no longer than 30 minutes. You can do that if you like but just make this soap my way one time before you go experimenting. You trusted me enough to get this far, trust me a little while longer.
Superfat and Fragrance
At the end of the cook time, turn off the heat and optionally pull the crockpot liner out of the shell and set it on a heat-resistant surface to cool just a bit. I find the next steps easier if the liner is not rattling around in the shell. Stir a few times while it is cooling off. Notice how we have gone from some crazy looking concoction to something that really looks a lot like mashed potatoes.
While it is cooling and in between stirring, make sure your reserved superfats are melted and somewhere around 110°-125°. Once the superfats are ready, put them back on the scale, tare it, and you are ready to measure your fragrance. Drizzle in your fragrance oil slowly, you cannot remove it once it is poured. When you get the right amount give your superfat and fragrance a little stir and set them aside for a moment.
When your soap has cooled down to 150°-160° you will stir in your superfat. Scrape that bowl down; make sure you get it all in there. Stir well and you may want to keep your head from being right over the soap. The fragrance will be quite strong at this point. Once there are no more lumps, the oils are mixed in well, and the soap looks like a nice homogenous pile of taters, we are ready to package.
There are no rules for packaging. You can use the disposable plastic containers I told you about in part two. You can buy fancy tins or tubs. Do whatever makes you happy. The batch I did for this article was put into a clean Pringles® can. A spoonful at a time was dropped in and the can bounced up and down on the counter to even it out and get rid of bubbles between each spoonful. The soap is quite plastic until it completely cools. After it cooled, I peeled the container off the soap and cut it into 1” pucks.
A soaper will tell you that soap improves as it cures. Curing is part chemistry and part black magic. There is no test that can tell you that the soap is ready past the zap test I explained earlier. I let this soap sit for about a week before I use it. Maybe part of this is voodoo, and technically the soap is safe to use right out of the pot. Martin de Candre claims they cure their soap for several months.
Bar soap has to dry out as it cures or else it will be too soft and mushy to use. The famed Castille soap needs six months before it starts to come into its own. This is shaving soap and we want it to load quickly so we’re not looking to let the soap dry out. In addition our cooking process has cooked off a bit of water and it has greatly accelerated the chemical processes. Be it hokum or happenstance; let it sit a week or more before you use it. After all you have trusted me this far.
Since I did this batch as “pucks” as an experiment, I let them cure a bit out in the open. Until this batch I have always put my soap in a tub or a tin thinking that was the only way to preserve the fragrance. Lots of soaps come in pucks and bars and their fragrance is just fine. After a couple of days I wrapped these individually for long term storage. A test puck from the batch was smooshed into a tub I had handy and the fragrance was still as I liked it. Do what makes you happy.
If you are new to wet shaving, or so far have used hard pucks or very soft creams, you will find this soap different. A gentleman by the name of Marco shared his method of lathering Italian croaps with us on Badger and Blade. A quick Google™ for the “Marco Method” should get you there. I recommend a slight variation, although face lathering as he recommends is quite acceptable.
You need a good brush, I prefer a Badger but an excellent Boar is far better than a cheap Badger. Treat yourself to a good brush whatever your taste. Follow these steps for luxurious lather:
- Soak your brush in hot water while you wash your face. Leave your face wet.
- Remove the brush from the water and do not shake it out but sort of wave it around with the bristles down to get rid of the water that will run out. If you have a Boar, remove less water. With my custom Badger brush I have to give it a fair shake (just one!) or it’s like pouring water into my soap. A more dense brush holds more water so you will have to experiment to get it right for you.
- Do 10 very light circles on the soap; just get a little soap on the tips of the bristles.
- Wipe that across your beard lightly. You are not looking to lather; you are just getting soap all over your beard. It will sit there softening the whiskers while we proceed.
- Re-dip your brush in the water. Start making light circles on the soap. Don’t push or you will make a huge mess. You are looking to bend only the first ¼-½” of the bristles. Do about 100 turns with minimal pressure. You are trying to get a good load here.
- Depending how messy you were; move, scoop, pour, wipe and generally transfer your “proto-lather” to your lathering bowl.
- Work the lather at least a minute. You want to get it to stiff peaks (as in the cooking term). Again depending on the thickness of your brush you may want to wipe/squeeze it out a couple times as you go to make sure the lather is evenly mixed. If you have a very dense brush it will hold a lot of water and you may never get it to stiff peaks – see the next step.
- Stiff peaks look good, it is lather porn, but it is not a good shave. Start drizzling in a tiny bit of water, working it in each time. You want shiny foam now; the shine is from the added moisture. If it is matte at all add more water. Go to shiny soft peaks. More water is better but the more you add the messier the shave is. If you get too much in there, use it but use less water next time.
- Now go to your face with your lather-filled brush and work it into the small amount of soap that is already there. The pre-lather will have softened up your beard and it adds just that extra something while you lather your face.
- Enjoy your shave, knowing that you MADE your soap.