On The Soap Making Forum, a reader asked about an apparent inconsistency with regards to the stearic acid. I made a point to say we want CAS 57-11-4 which is just stearic acid (within the limits of purity). He pointed out that while the CAS was right, the MSDS said it was a mixture of:
Hexadecanoic Acid (CAS 57-10-3) 59.0%
Octadecanoic Acid (CAS 57-11-4) 40.0%
Tetradecanoic Acid (CAS 544-63-8) 1.0%
What is that alphabet soup you ask? Good question. Hexadecanoic Acid is Palmitic acid in International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) nomenclature. Octadecanoic Acid with its CAS of 57-11-4 should look familiar; that’s Stearic acid. Tetradecanoic Acid is Myristic acid. So it turns out this is exactly the thing I told you we don’t want.
I emailed the customer service address for Lotioncrafter and the owner, Jenny Welch and I exchanged a few emails. She shared with me, well, let me share exactly what she said:
“I consulted two cosmetic chemists that were well known and trusted in our industry and both recommended that I bring in Emersol 7036 Stearic Acid NF which was, and still is, the one most often used by cosmetic formulators in formulations calling for vegetable based stearic acid.”
She was very up front about everything, and I want to be clear the error is MINE because I did not read their MSDS; I stopped reading after seeing the CAS number I wanted. She is coming at this from the point of view of someone making cosmetics and I have no doubt what she says is true. To a person not saponifying the fatty acids this is just a matter of semantics and it makes no difference since to them this is stearic acid. And, to be fair the manufacturer also lists the product as having CAS 57-11-4, but then follow up with the same ingredient list if you read into it more. It’s confusing to me, maybe there’s a reason. Either way Jenny updated her website to reflect the three CAS numbers just because she thought it was the right thing to do.
Lotioncrafter came highly recommended to me and I can see why. It is tough these days to do business online and still be responsive to people. Just because you can order things now doesn’t mean people are waiting now to answer your questions. Jenny was very prompt with her initial and follow-up emails though, surprisingly so. In my book this simply solidifies the high praise with which she was recommended to me.
Incidentally, Emersol makes EMERSOL® 153 NF which is ~95% stearic acid (plus some impurities). I asked Jenny if I purchased a whole bag if she could drop ship it. As I feared, she buys only by the pallet and I don’t need a pallet of the stuff. Buying in large quantities is how she keeps the cost down for what would likely be very expensive to us otherwise. It looks like I will have to live with a different product from now on. Shame on me for not being more thorough!
Now I have more questions. You see, Palmitic acid has a lower molar mass than Stearic. This means that there are more molecules of Palmitic acid per a given weight than Stearic. For the really geeky folks: The molar mass of Palmitic acid is 256.4241 g/mol where Stearic acid is 284.4772 g/mo. For every molecule of a fatty acid we need one molecule of lye. In our case that lye is KOH or Potassium Hydroxide. The ratio of the two is the SAP value. We can figure the SAP value of this new product if we know what the molar mass of the components are because it is the ratio of the weight of the lye molecules to the weight of the fatty acid molecules. So, for each:
Lye (56.1056) / Palmitic Acid (256.4241) = 0.219
Lye (56.1056) / Stearic Acid (284.4772) = 0.197
Lye (56.1056) / Myristic Acid (228.3709) = 0.246
“Great” I hear you saying; “now what?” We multiply those by the percentage of each in the product, and add them together to get our new SAP value. Our values look like this:
59% Palmitic @ 0.219 = 0.129
40% Stearic @ 0.197 = 0.079
1% Tetradecanoic @ 0.246 = 0.002
Add those and we get a new SAP value of 0.210 for our work. See how relatively simple that is? What does this mean for our soap?
Soapcalc has Stearic acid at a SAP of 0.198. The new product I have has a SAP that’s ~6% higher. The original recipe used Stearic acid at 45% so that’s an effective difference of ~2.7%. Our superfat was calculated at 5% so it does raise the superfat from 5% to ~7.7%. The difference is small. We’ve also got a different fat makeup now; the difference in the fat profile is pretty simple. The new formulation is +18% Palmitic and -18% Stearic compared to the original.
Both Palmitic and Stearic acid contribute dense stable lather and a harder soap to the mix. To most soapers the two are interchangeable. To settle it, I did what I said I was not going to do in the other article: I re-formulated. I made three small test batches:
A test batch with my original (now dwindling) supply of straight Stearic Acid
A test batch switched 1:1 with the Lotioncrafter product
A test batch with lye adjustments made to take the different fats into account
The testing was randomized and I shaved three times with each one and recorded the results. This was done to help even out the effect of the soap as it ages since it was used relatively soon after the cooking.
The first shave cycle had one sample just maybe being a tiny bit drying. It was still a good shave and all had very similar lather otherwise.
The second shave cycle I thought maybe there was a difference but as I looked back at my notes I realize I was just kidding myself.
The third shave cycle was much like the second. Maybe, just maybe, one was a tiny bit drying. All were good enough to put my name on them though.
When I peeled the tape off the labels, I discovered that in round one I did score batch #2 down just a tiny bit. In round 2 the one I thought maybe was a tiny bit drying was the original (#1). The difference was so slight that it could simply have been a difference in the humidity. By cycle three the one I thought might be drying was again sample #2, the straight swap.
The winner was basically a tie, there was not enough difference to say one way or the other. A better test would include more shaves, different people, all that mess. Since I make this for me I see no reason not to use the Lotioncrafter product going forward. If you do a test, do let me know what you think.
The old recipe was:
45% Stearic Acid
25% Coconut Oil
5% Shea Butter
The new one, adjusted for the Stearic Acid available to us, is below. If you use SoapCalc you will notice that there is only “Styearic Acid” which aligns with the values for straight Stearic. I did forward them a request to list the Stearic Acid NF, and they will whenever they do an update. In the meantime you need to put in the three component fatty acids so the recipe is:
Stearic Acid NF; which would be represented like this in SoapCalc:
26.55% Palmitic Acid
18% Stearic Acid
0.45% Myristic Acid
25% Coconut Oil
20% Tallow Beef
5% Shea Butter
Then, you will add together the weights for Stearic Acid, Palmitic Acid, and Myristic Acid and that total weight is what you will use for your Stearic Acid NF addition. We go into this with the assumption that properly balanced; the Palmitic/Stearic/Myristic mixture will perform the same as the Stearic formula of the original recipe. We therefore use the same percentage (45%) but now we split it up between the three components in Stearic Acid NF so that SoapCalc will figure the lye correctly. If you compare the two recipes through SoapCalc the oil weights will be the same, but the lye is slightly different. We had to balance for the different SAP value of the new product.
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.
In the first part of my guide I explained what Silver Fox Shaving Soap is, how it came to be, and explained the ingredients. If you are a new soaper, or maybe a shaving enthusiast who wants to give this a try, you will be wondering where to get all these strange sounding things. I’ll share where I get my raw materials, and what hardware I use. This part of my guide assumes you have never made soap before and need to be helped along with what to procure. If this does not describe you then skip ahead.
I will be including a few suppliers that represent places I have worked with and brands I have used. I have no interest in their business, nor do they mine. I received no compensation from them for including them here; none of them know I have even done so. None of the links in this document contain any sort of affiliate program links or other tracking as far as I am able to check (and I am an IT person by trade). The links may also change after the publication of this so you may still need to do some searching. Use these links, or not, at your discretion.
The fine folks at The Soap Making Forum (soapmakingforum.com) have really been instrumental in helping me find my way through sourcing raw materials for soap making. There will never be consensus on which are the “right” tools for making soap, but the people on the forums have been great about sharing their experiences – both good and bad. Special thanks for this part of the series go to IrishLass from The Soap Making Forum for wading through my typos and grammatical errors, in addition to helping refine a few things.
First we’ll discuss the raw materials that will go into making this soap. Our recipe looks like this:
204.1 grams Stearic Acid
113.4 grams Coconut Oil
90.7 grams Beef Tallow
49.9 grams Glycerin
22.7 grams Lanolin
22.7 grams Shea Butter
17.0 grams Fragrance Oil
201.8 grams Distilled Water
99.4 grams KOH
Some of these things may be familiar to you, some not. In what follows I will share where I get my raw materials.
Before I tell you where to get your stearic acid, I need to explain that there’s stearic acid and then there’s stearic acid. A few different products are sold as stearic acid and while all will make soap, there is a difference in the finished product – not so much a better or worse product – but since we are going to the trouble to follow a working recipe, we owe it to ourselves to use the same ingredients.
One source of stearic acid (the one we have actually chosen to use in this recipe) is the one which bears the CAS number 57-11-4, which is solely octadecanoic acid. I specify “solely” here instead of “100%” because there are always impurities, but as you will see this is a distinct description. At this point, a slight diversion to explain what a CAS number is may be of help. A CAS number is a unique identifier assigned to a specific chemical substance or molecular structure by the CAS Registry (a division of the American Chemical Society) to help one be able to differentiate between any number of substances which may bear the same name, but are different at the chemical or molecular level, as is the case with our stearic acid.
Another substance in commerce bearing the name “stearic acid” is stearin, which bears the CAS number 555-43-1. Stearin is a triglyceride. That means it contains the potential to split into three molecules of stearic acid and one of glycerin per molecule of stearin. While this is very close to actual stearic acid, the recipe we are using has been created assuming CAS number 57-11-4 stearic acid which does not carry the potential of any glycerin being produced during the saponification process. Substituting CAS 555-43-1 stearin for CAS 57-11-4 stearic acid will create a product that has more glycerin than you expect or may want.
Finally there is a product sold as stearic acid by a few soap supply companies that is a combination of stearic acid and palmitic acid, with the CAS number 67701-03-5. As with Stearin, substituting this may make a fine soap, and many people do use palmitic acid and palm oil in their soaps, but our recipe calls for CAS 57-11-4 stearic acid, and that’s what we’re looking for.
When you look for a supplier, look for one that seems to have a clear idea what they are selling. Some places include CAS numbers, certificates of analysis, and MSDS sheets. While you can’t be sure without a chemical analysis, I’ve found that starting with a place that at least has an MSDS for their product is a good sign. A related not so good sign is if they have an MSDS with the company’s name that they “borrowed” the MSDS from. One place I do know of that sells the correct stearic acid is Lotioncrafter®. Here is a link to their product:
You may find other good sources now that you know what to look for.
UPDATE 05/27/15: The information about Stearic Acid has changed. Please see the notes in “A New Wrinkle”.
Coconut oil is a ubiquitous product these days. It is used for frying, cooking, baking, massage oil, as a sexual lubricant, and as raw stock for biodiesel. Those of a certain age may remember that coconut oil used to be the oil movie theaters used when making popcorn. Some people believe it was the best oil for that purpose and use it at home to make their own.
Despite some suppliers using terms like “virgin”, there is no regulated classification for coconut oil. You can buy it in health food stores, in supermarkets, in boutiques. You can spend a little or a lot on it depending on how much people think their customers are willing to pay.
While not regulated, suppliers use a few designations that do have some importance for us. These are “fractionated,” “76 degree,” and “92 degree.” Fractionated has gone through a distillation process which changes the nature of the oil and removes some of the fatty acids. It contains only the medium-chain triglycerides and is liquid at room temperature. It is used in cosmetics for its unique properties, but we do not want this particular type of coconut oil for our purpose. The 76 and 92 degree varieties are separated by their melting points. The 92 degree oil is subjected to a process which may include partial hydrogenation. This increases the melting point and makes it easier to work with as a solid.
76 degree is the oil we want. It is the type upon which this recipe was formulated. Unless an oil says it is fractionated (or is liquid at room temp,) or says 92 degree, it is likely 76 degree. I’ve not seen a huge difference in the coconut oils I’ve used so far from different suppliers. I use this Coconut oil from Amazon lately, with Prime shipping it is the least expensive I have found:
You use .25# of this per batch and there’s 7.7# of oil more or less in a gallon, so you may choose to buy a smaller quantity at first. For instance if you are purchasing other items so you can spread out the shipping costs; a quart size like this one may make sense to start out with:
Part I of this series figured pricing based on this product. You may also be able to find this in a local discount retail or big box store for less.
The tallow does not make up the largest fraction of the soap, but I believe it is one of the more important ingredients. The same soap using a different fat has a very different quality. Historically, fat is called tallow only if it is rendered from suet; the hard fat found around the kidneys of cows and sheep. In present industry, tallow refers to animal fat that has a certain melting point among other criteria. It may be made from other animals. If you buy commercial tallow, the contemporary definition of tallow applies. There are also vendors who specialize in smaller batches of hand-prepared tallow. I found such a person who sells on eBay and seems to value tallow for the same reasons I do. Here is her store:
In small quantities and so prepared, tallow is a little pricey. There are several places to purchase commercial forms of tallow. I understand there is restaurant supply chain called “Smart & Final” who sells it in 50# cubes. These are located in the western US states and it would be worth a look to see if they or a similar chain are within driving distance. There is an online vendor of oils for soap making named Columbus Foods/Soaper’s Choice which sells tallow in 50# cubes:
Tallow is a perishable product so buying 50# at $0.86/lb. may or may not be a great deal – it all depends on how much you plan to use.
Finally, a product that is what it says it is. I buy glycerin in the drug store. It’s easier for me to just swing by and pick some up. A smaller bottle is fine for our purposes. If you really get into soaping you may find yourself buying it in larger quantities. Liquid soaps for instance use a lot more of this product. I figured my prices in Part I on a 6 oz. bottle, but you can get 16 oz. bottles as well in most stores. If you wand to order online there’s a couple decent choices:
Amazon has it pretty cheaply as an “add-on item” which means free shipping for it if you are buying other stuff:
We use lanolin in relatively small amounts for its moisturizing and protective contributions to the soap. There are a good many sources of lanolin; look for one that you know is pure. Lanolin can contribute a distinctive, and some feel, an undesirable odor to soaps. Again we use it in very small quantities and I have not found any of the various lanolin suppliers’ products to be offensive at all. One supplier that seems to be good and available from Amazon is from Now Foods:
You may also be able to purchase this at your local drug or health store. Since we use 22 grams of this per batch, (around ¾ of an ounce) you will get quite a few batches from a 7 ounce tub. Do be aware that this is a product sold by the fluid ounce so 7 fluid ounces is around 7 ½ ounces (213 grams) by weight. That’s just shy of 10 batches.
Some soapers that I’ve come into contact with and trust have recommended HPA® lanolin as a good choice. It is ultra-pure, and used by breastfeeding mothers to help heal and protect their nipples. I have been told it has much less of a scent than the regular lanolin so if you are concerned about this at all, or find the small amount of regular lanolin contributes a disagreeable odor, this may be a good choice for you. Lanolin is sometimes a source of skin allergies, and the HPA® lanolin is hypoallergenic. It is quite a bit more expensive. Regular lanolin was roughly $1 an ounce the last time I bought it. HPA® lanolin is around $6.41 an ounce:
Shea butter is available in many places, so pick a convenient source for yourself and go with it. Be aware that sometimes the shea butter sold is 100% pure and unrefined or filtered. That butter can contain flecks of shells and other natural bits. I have a batch of that, and while it makes a fine soap, I occasionally have to fish out a small spot of something when I melt it. Here is one I have used successfully:
When you do get it, just take a little dab and work it into your hands. Wonderful stuff!
Lye (Potassium Hydroxide or KOH)
If you remember nothing else, please remember that the lye we use for this shaving soap is not the same as the kind you use to make hard bar soap. That particular lye is called Sodium Hydroxide (NaOH), and we will be using Potassium Hydroxide (KOH) for this shaving soap. Many soap related supply companies sell lye, just be sure to choose the right type. Essential Depot, for instance, sometimes has an offer of free lye when you purchase oils. That free lye is sodium hydroxide, not what we need. You can use that for some other soapy things but not this.
Pay attention to the prices including shipping when you shop for this. Sometimes there is free shipping on smaller amounts, but the base price is slightly higher. Shipping this item is regulated and the prices can vary widely depending on the method, the vendor, and the amount purchased. Get a pen and paper out and do some homework on this one. Another vendor that is very competitive on price is The Lye Guy:
At certain weights he’s cheaper for me. Like I said, get out a pen and paper and see what’s better for you.
This is a very personal thing and I encourage you to experiment. I explained why I chose this fragrance oil in the first installment. I went through a few different suppliers, each having more than a couple different “almond” scents. I finally tried “Almond Silk” from Soapalooza and knew I had it. You don’t have to use this one, but I know it works:
If you are familiar with the traditional Italian Soap smell, this is it.
Yes I really mean distilled water. No, your fancy Unicorn Tears water gathered by Wood Nymphs will not suffice. Shaving soap is sensitive to the water used and we do not want to start out with any chemicals in the soap that will just make it worse. Use only distilled water, not purified, not spring water – distilled. A gallon will last you through approximately 18 batches of this soap. Just do it.
There is a lot of leeway in the selection of the equipment you will use for this. I’ll try to help you understand what I use and why, but do feel free to experiment and modify as needed.
Let us list safety equipment first among our tools and utensils. We are working with a caustic material: lye. Believe me when I say you do not want to splash this on your skin, get it in your eyes, or inhale the fumes. We don’t need to get crazy about protection, but do attend to the basics:
Eye protection. Safety glasses are cheap and just fine; goggles are even better
Rubber gloves will protect your hands; you will be more protected if they extend up your arms.
A mask to help protect against the fumes is highly recommended. Most inexpensive masks will not stop the actual vapors from getting in your lungs, but will protect against the suspended mist you can get from the steam. A mask will also help protect some of your face against splashes.
There is what I would consider optional safety items you may want to consider:
Full face shield. A plastic shield that covers your whole face is going to provide more protection than a mask and goggles. Following reasonable precautions, you are unlikely to need this. The problem is that once you realize you do need it, it is just about a second too late to put one on.
Hair cap. This may help protect the hair from a stray splash; it will also prevent stray hairs from getting in your soap. I think we all agree your hair in a product that is for someone else would be rather disgusting.
Apron or other full-body protection. Such protection can help protect your clothes in the event a small splash happens. Tyvek coveralls are cheap and disposable.
Think about what you are doing, and make the choices that are right for you.
We’re doing hot-process soap, so you need a hot place in which to process the soap. While you may, as I have done, fashion a Bain Marie (double-boiler), you will find a crockpot makes things much easier. A crockpot will get the mixture a little hotter than a double-boiler, which will help with the process I have developed. The Bain Marie will not get your mixture to the boiling point, but if it is all you have, it’s enough to start.
Most soapers will use a regular sized crock pot, roughly 3 or 4 quarts in size. Since we are making what is considered a small batch for a regular soaper, we can really get better use and control out of a smaller crockpot. I happened to have a 1.5 quart crockpot and that works very well. It’s also great for making Queso so you can definitely use it for more than soap. A removable liner is almost standard on these, but I’m not going to discount the possibility there may be some out there without this feature. You want it to be removable, trust me. Here is one such crockpot:
Unless you are in a rural area, I am quite sure you can find one that would be suitable on the shelf at your local discount retail store.
When I was developing this recipe, I used a Bain Marie type setup. I made several 100 gram batches at a time, each with slightly different ingredients, which I put in separate Glad® LockWare™ storage containers. The small ones hold about 2 cups, which was a perfect size, and they have a secure screw on lid. I put a large saucepan on the stove, placed a round cake cooling rack in it and added enough water to allow about an inch of water around each container when at a boil. Consider that adding additional containers will raise the level of the water. The rack keeps the plastic off the bottom and reduces the chance of overheating and melting it. Using these does change the final soap’s consistency slightly because it will cut down on water loss during the cook. After the soap is processed the containers may double as a storage container for the soap. They are wide enough to allow me to get a brush in and get a good load of soap.
The quality of your soap depends in a large part on how accurate you are able to measure your ingredients. A digital scale is a must have. We don’t do teaspoons and cups, we do grams. Some features you absolutely want in a scale for this are:
Displays in grams (most display many different measures)
Readability to the 1/10 (0.1) of a gram
Accurate; most of these types of scales are accurate to 0.05 gram
Some things I have found I greatly appreciate in scales are:
Uses normal AA/AAA batteries and/or has an AC adapter
Large, Lighted display
At least 1 kilogram capacity
The scale I currently use is a 2000×0.1 scale which means 2 kilogram (2000 gram) capacity, in 0.1 gram increments on the display. This is a large enough capacity that I can use this scale for most of my larger batches of soap as well; I make bar soap in 4 pound batches. I purchased this scale on eBay, Amazon has the same one:
In the same vein, the scale is useless if it is not calibrated correctly. Most digital scales have a calibration function which allows you to use one (better is two) known weight to set the calibration. You can purchase calibration weights and they are not expensive. Alternatively, many people find using known weights they have laying around a very effective means of calibration, or at least spot checking the accuracy of the scale. Coins are ubiquitous and are quite uniform in weight. U.S coins are what I use since I am in the US. A nickel is 5 grams and I can always remember that. Others are:
Cent (since 1983) – 2.500 gram
Nickel (since 1866) – 5.000 gram
Dime (since 1965) – 2.268 gram
Quarter (since 1965) – 5.670 gram
If you are in Canada, these will be slightly different. A quick Google of your local currency weight should fix you up.
I won’t say I always do it, but it is probably a good idea to at least throw a couple nickels on the scale before every session. If you take care of the scale it is rare for it to go out of calibration, but when the batteries start going the accuracy changes.
A brief note about the level of accuracy required. I have no doubt some people will scoff at accuracy to a tenth of a gram for this. When I measure fragrance which has the lowest weight per batch, this accuracy gets me +- 0.6%. A scale that measures to the gram will only allow measurements +- 6%. That’s too much for me to accept. Also consider that I did more than a few 100 gram batches when I was developing this recipe, and that the relative accuracy goes down as the batch size decreases. For that I measured to 0.01 grams (on a different scale) which is the same level of accuracy as 0.1 grams is for a 1000g batch.
I am pretty comfortable measuring in these small quantities because of some of my other hobbies. It may be tricky for someone who has never tried to measure a tenth of a gram of water (and to be completely honest I am perfectly fine fudging a few tenths or even grams on the water part). Practice before it counts. A dosing syringe, which is available at almost all drug stores, makes this quite a bit easier.
You can absolutely get away without using a thermometer, but consistent results demand consistent process and this is one of your variables. You need one that can measure between 60° and 220° Fahrenheit. I know I have previously said I use the metric system for this project. I admit my flaws, I can’t think in Celsius. If you are so inclined or only understand metric this would be 15° to 100° Celsius.
You may choose an analog thermometer and there are many to choose from like this low cost option:
I opted for an infrared thermometer for my soap making. While they are arguable less precise, for what we are doing here getting within a few degrees is absolutely close enough. They are nearly instant, and I do not have to touch the material I am measuring. That becomes a consideration when you are measuring the temp of your lye solution. A tiny amount will remain on a probe thermometer and that can cause burns or damage to your kitchen counter when you take it out and set it aside.
I purchased the one I use on eBay from one of the overseas vendors which saved me a couple bucks. Since I have been using Amazon a lot for the examples, and because I really do think their Prime program is great to save on shipping costs, here’s a low cost option from them:
These will measure a larger area the further away they are held, the beam spreading as a flashlight does. Different materials also vary slightly in a property called emissivity which affects how they measure. I get best results in my soap when I use the thermometer consistently, but these cheaper ones are still only accurate within a few degrees. For this they are great, but I would not trust one for critical uses such as health or safety.
You will use all sorts of containers and you really have to experiment to find what works best for you. Consider what you are putting in there and choose handy sizes. Plastic bowls are great, I use small disposable cups for dry measures, and you will almost assuredly have enough containers in your kitchen to make it through this without a purchase. We are making soap and soap cleans up with hot water, so I never think twice about using what I have around. The only exception is mixing lye.
Lye can damage some materials as the pH is very high. When it is mixed in water it will also generate quite a bit of heat. It is not out of the question that the liquid could boil. We must find a container in which to mix our lye that will minimize splashing, be heat resistant, and resist the actions of a strong base chemical.
You will see and hear people on the Internet and elsewhere advising you to use a Pyrex® style measuring cup. Brand new this is a fine choice, but there is more than a little evidence among groups of experienced soapers that Pyrex® can shatter when used for this purpose. The exact reason is not authoritatively known. It may be that the Pyrex® develops micro-scratches over time that weakens the surface. It may be that mixing the lye in the water can create small areas of intense heat that causes expansion in those small areas. It may be a combination of both. No matter what it is I recommend you leave the Pyrex® to the uses for which it was intended.
I use a stainless steel frothing pitcher, the type in which you see Baristas create steamed and frothed milk for lattes. The stainless steel will not react with the lye as aluminum will – never use aluminum containers or vessels. These pitchers will not crack and will stand up to heat. They will of course get hot themselves so you need to be careful of the sides for a bit after mixing.
We are using just under 7 ounces of water for this recipe, so you want enough to hold that, plus a good margin for swirling, mixing, and to contain any splashes or boiling. I have a 12 ounce and a 20 ounce pitcher I use for my soaping, similar to this one:
I happened to have these lying around; you may be able to come up with other appropriate vessels in which to mix the lye. Just remember: no aluminum and it must be heat resistant. Nalgene is safe as is polypropylene (plastics with a “5” on the recycle triangle.)
Spoons, spatulas, all sorts of things will be brought to bear. Any kitchen is likely to have all that you need. Just remember to use things that are not going to be harmed by a caustic material. I use my stainless steel table utensils for a lot of things without even thinking twice. Caustic is used in most automatic dishwasher detergent to help cleaning; it’s not going to harm a stainless steel teaspoon. I have a few rubber and silicone spatulas and scrapers that I use. You will quickly develop your own list of your favorite utensils. Wood will be attacked by the lye and it will splinter and crack over time. While I have a favorite wooden spatula that I use for stirring the soap as it cooks, I do keep an eye on it and know its life is limited.
Molds or Packaging
Now that your soap is made you need to put it somewhere. The previously mentioned Glad® LockWare™ storage containers can work as a place to keep it. Some will want to mold their soap into pucks for storage and use. When it comes to unmolding, some degree of flexibility is very helpful. When using a wood or a PVC-type mold a liner such as parchment paper or freezer paper should be used. For a liner-less option, any silicone mold such as this one would be a good choice:
Some prefer to form their soap into a log and cut pucks when it is hard. A piece of PVC pipe can serve for this, or some have used empty Pringles® cans as a quick and disposable choice. You snip off the end and peel off the cardboard when you are ready.
It is important to remember that while my process does produce a relatively hard and moldable result when I do it, we are technically making a softer soap – a croap. This means that you might want to consider using a suitable tub or other container to contain the soap and from which to load your shaving brush. Any of these works nicely if you want to be fancy about it:
I use four of these 8 ounce containers per batch. Specialty Bottle is one of my favorite websites to look for jars, bottles and other containers. It’s a little added cost but we’re not really doing this to save money.
Remember these are recommendations and are the things I use. You will undoubtedly develop your own style and your own toolbox of things you use. Where it does not present a safety issue feel free to experiment and use what seems right.
Francis Clark Bussy was born March 21st, 1928 to Beatrice Bussy in Manhattan, New York. He was a veteran of the U.S. Navy during World War II and settled in Amityville, NY after his service. While walking down the street in the Village one day he stopped Ed Lowe, an Amityville policeman and told him, “Hey, I want to be a cop.” Thus a career in law enforcement was born. Ed Lowe became Chief of Police in Amityville and he and my father were life-long friends. Francis, called “Frank” despite it not being a favorite nickname, eventually went on to be a Detective Sergeant, and then a Special Investigator for the State Attorneys General of New York and Utah.
I remember Dad as a crafty man. He was always making something of nothing. It was not unheard of for him to stop on the Long Island Expressway (using the lights on the Police car if he was driving one at the time of course) to pick up a piece of wood to be later crafted into some piece or another. “Hey I can make something from this!” was a common utterance. He was a painter of houses (every cop moonlighted) and of canvas. I remember him painting the pictures found in National Geographic; these pictures later decorated our house. The National Geographics of course were occasionally repurposed by this then-adolescent male.
Dad had a van he used for painting houses and this was occasionally borrowed by my older brother and his friend (and my all-but-adopted brother) George “Chick” Brenner for surfing trips to Gilgo Beach. As I remember the story they got the van stuck at the beach and a state trooper helped them get it unstuck. Despite the population in New York and the large number of policemen who protect it, things like that always have a way of getting back to the father through the “cop grapevine.” “I see you got most of the sand out of the van” Dad said in an offhand way. “Yeah!” my brother said and then realized he’d been caught. Chick said “Damn, you’re like a fox!” and from that time on dad’s nickname was “the Fox.” Inevitably, as a man who was prematurely silver since his late 20’s, “Silver Fox” evolved. His silver hair helped him land several modeling shots and even a couple of non-speaking parts as “the esteemed Gentleman from Kentucky” and “the experienced surgeon” in made for TV movies.
Over the years, and especially in his retirement, Dad would do crafts and send those to all the kids as presents. Sadly I’ve lost track of a lot of them over the years. Dad passed on Christmas Day, 2010, with us all at his bedside. His remains rest in a veterans’ cemetery in Florida. It is marked by a plaque with his name, rank while in the service, and the phrase “family man, artist.”
I am sad to report that since I started working on this article, George “Chick” Brenner passed away in his sleep the night of October 20th, 2014. Chick was as much a brother to me as my two biological brothers. We didn’t always talk, families are like that, but I will miss him dearly.
Silver Fox 1.0 was inspired by a lot of places. John at Los Angeles Shaving Soaps (LASS) started a lot of folks thinking about soaps in general in a thread on Badger and Blade. John was also great about answering questions for me. David Foulkrod (dfoulk on Badger & Blade) got me going with a lot of soap samples and I took inspiration from each vendor represented. Dave Smith (dosco on Badger & Blade) and I had some discussions and exchanged some soaps as well. Initially I looked to emulate what I got from my JabonMan and Tabac soaps; I distilled that down into wanting a certain type of performance. I also need to especially thank DeeAnna Weed (DeeAnna on The Soap Making Forum) for her assistance in editing and reviewing this first and arguably most important part of my articles.
Going Open Source
As a serial hobbyist I make a lot of stuff. I craft pyrotechnics (legally), brew beer, make wine and mead, and now make soap. Each of these, when labeled, bear the brand “Silver Fox” as homage to the man who gave me my gift of creativity and experimentation. Since I also tend towards extremes (some call it OCD tendencies) even the things that never leave my possession – wine in my basement, beer, pyrotechnic shells, and of course shaving soap in my own bathroom – all are labeled.
Some folks believe that means I’m planning to go into commerce. I am not. I’m just weird like that. I think a hobby becomes less enjoyable when you “have to” do it.
Mike Rowe of “Dirty Jobs” visited an acquaintance of mine in the Pyro industry. That person went pro and they were talking about all the long hours and hard work. Mike said “when your avocation becomes your vocation you get no vacation” and that really sums it up for me. I do this for fun and don’t want to be obliged to do anything.
So, Silver Fox soaps are not for sale, but I have given them away to friends and acquaintances. People generally seem to like it. I have not taken a dime for this soap; I have not even accepted reimbursement for shipping. It is an effort I make because I like it and I am doing it to honor my father. Life changes – tomorrow I may find out I’ve lost my job and maybe I need to find an income stream. I won’t ever say never; but for now this is what this is. I work as a leader in Healthcare IT and anyone around the industry knows there’s no lack of work; my spare time is reserved for leisure, not more work.
Release of “Source”
I think anyone is so inclined can make this soap. Most of all I think if people know how a shaving soap is made they can be an informed consumer. So I am releasing this soap recipe as “Open Source” using a model started by Open Cola in 2001:
I therefore release Silver Fox Shaving Soap 1.0 to the public. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/.
Overview of License
As a quick guide, not to be taken as a replacement for or a complete portrayal of the license listed above, here are some important points. You are free to:
Share — copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format
Adapt — remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially.
The licensor cannot revoke these freedoms as long as you follow the license terms.
Under the following terms:
Attribution — You must give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made. You may do so in any reasonable manner, but not in any way that suggests the licensor endorses you or your use.
ShareAlike — If you remix, transform, or build upon the material, you must distribute your contributions under the same license as the original.
No additional restrictions — You may not apply legal terms or technological measures that legally restrict others from doing anything the license permits.
Basically I am giving this freely to the community, and I intend for it to stay that way. Make money on it if you like, I’d be tickled and flattered if you did, just remember who took the time to write it all down (and why).
Developing the Recipe
I wanted tallow soap because whether it adds a quality I like or it makes better soaps, I tend to favor soaps with tallow. I also wanted to have a certain conditioning I found in a couple of JabonMan soaps. Manual Garcia who makes JabonMan indicates he uses lanolin in some of his soaps so that’s what I wanted to use for the skin feel. I read everything I could, found some people on The Soap Making Forum (https://soapmakingforum.com) who were very educated and very sharing, and I got to work.
Stearic acid makes a dense creamy lather and coconut oil makes a very light and quick lather. The combination is well known and is used in Martin de Candre, LASS, and a good number of other vegan soaps. Stearic acid is a fatty acid found in tallow and palm oil.
To get a high amount of stearic acid, one could use different oils and fats that contain high percentage of stearic, but the levels I wanted would limit me in other ways if I went that route. The goal was over 50% stearic acid in the finished product. When used in soap the stearic acid (no matter if it comes from palm trees or cows) reacts with the lye to create sodium or potassium stearate.
Coconut oil is high in Lauric acid and my goal was to get about 10% in the finished soap. Coconut oil can be drying on the skin because it is a very efficient cleanser and can remove oils easily. I wanted to keep the coconut oils down but get my Lauric acid up 10% or greater.
Tallow brings a high level of Oleic acid to the table. In tallow, Oleic is followed in predominance by Palmitic and Stearic acids. Oleic acid is reported to have conditioning and moisturizing properties, and maybe this is the part I like about tallow soaps. After some monkeying around I discovered that very high tallow contents make a soap that does not lather as I like. I set my goal for Oleic acid at about 10%.
Experimenting with a spreadsheet, some old books, SoapCalc (an online soap recipe calculator at http://soapcalc.net/calc/SoapCalcWP.asp) and a lot of coffee, I ended up with a main fat profile of:
53% Stearic Acid
26% Coconut Oil
This gives me a fatty acid profile of:
58% Stearic Acid
13% Lauric Acid
10% Oleic Acid
Good so far.
The “Super” Fat
There is a concept called “superfat” which means adding more fat than is required by the lye. This is done so the soap is not drying and hopefully provides some moisturizing and conditioning properties. It is also a safety buffer that ensures there is enough fat to react with all of the lye. Without this safety buffer, the soap could be harsh and irritating to the skin. A number I just stuck with from the beginning is 5% superfat and that has worked well for me.
I could have just added more of the fats and oils listed for the superfat but remember I also wanted that lanolin. Early experiments left me a little unimpressed with plain lanolin, it ended up a bit too greasy feeling. At the time I was also making some body butters and lip balm for my wife and had some shea available. Experiments with just shea likewise left me wanting more. Half shea and half lanolin really seemed to do the trick of moisturizing my skin without being greasy or heavy.
I wanted the shea and lanolin to be the superfat which as I mentioned can also serve as a buffer to consume any excess lye. If I had too little lye however I was most likely going to have unreacted tallow. The stearic acid reacts nearly instantly and the coconut is quick as well so that would leave some of my tallow lying around with nothing to do with a lye discount. I needed a buffer there to make sure I wasn’t smearing tallow on my face. I would use the superfat choices there as well, 5% on either side of “100%” as a buffer. That would tend to force more complete saponification of the tallow because shea and lanolin do not convert as fast as the tallow does. This is tough to describe so consider the following illustration:
The lye “splits” our lanolin and shea component. If there’s a little less lye, the arrow moves to the left and the unreacted components are still lanolin and shea. If we have a touch too much lye, the excess is used by reacting the part that was intended to be the superfat. We end up with less moisturizing but that is far preferable to unreacted lye.
52% Stearic Acid
12% Lauric Acid
12% Oleic Acid
It’s like it was meant to be, almost spot on to my goals.
Some folks know Lye as a drain cleaner; it chemically reacts with oils and fats in a slow draining sink. This chemical reaction – saponification – converts the fats into water soluble soap so the plug can be washed away. Saponification is a process that produces soap. In a very basic sense (sorry for the bad lye pun), triglycerides have an ester bond which is broken by the lye, releasing three fatty acids and glycerin. The sodium or potassium ion from the lye joins the fatty acid and that makes the soap.
I’ve mentioned sodium or potassium in conjunction with lye a few times. Lye is a generic term and may be sodium or potassium hydroxide (and some other things in historical contexts). Common household lye is sodium hydroxide and this makes a harder soap, generally speaking. Traditional/historical soap was made using wood ashes and this produced a potassium-rich product and a softer soap. Potassium hydroxide contributes potassium similar to how wood ash did historically.
Among soap makers and Internet forums, the shorthand/molecular formula KOH is used for Potassium Hydroxide and NaOH is used for Sodium Hydroxide.
I have a love for the Italian cream soaps (“croaps”) and my goal was to create a soap similar to these. I also wanted the soap to load easily. KOH makes soap that is softer and more water soluble than NaOH, so KOH is a better choice for a croap. So long as the soap was not too soft that it prevented effective loading I would likely be happy. A straight KOH lye approach seemed the obvious choice.
Going into how much lye to use is beyond what I want to include here. Each fat or oil has a saponification value that relates to how much lye it needs. There are spreadsheets, downloadable software, and longhand methods. For this project and since I was using a simple single lye formula, I used SoapCalc.
I use distilled water since I don’t want to worry about what’s in my water as it relates to the soap. A gallon will cost around a dollar and will last you a good many batches of soap. The water is used to dissolve the lye and is done with its job after it is all mixed. As soap cures, water is lost. We are using a hot process here which will accelerate the loss of water. I use a very common 33% lye concentration which means the lye weight is 33% of the total of the lye + water weight. This is also well supported in most calculators.
Glycerin is a lubricant and a humectant (holds moisture) so its contribution to a shaving soap is valuable. I mentioned previously that the saponification process starts with separation of a triglyceride into three fatty acids and glycerin.
If you recall we have pure stearic acid in this soap as well. That pure stearic acid will add no glycerin to the mix. I already knew from the differences I saw and felt in artisanal soaps that I wanted “full” glycerin in my soap so I wanted to make up for that which was “lost” by using pure stearic acid.
We can figure this out from the saponification value of the fats/oils. For each triglyceride molecule we will need one molecule of lye and we will get a molecule of glycerin. Oils with a higher saponification number (the factor used to calculated lye needed) have more molecules by weight and so there is more glycerin produced by weight. In this way we can determine how much glycerin will be added to the soap by each fat by knowing how much lye we used for the batch. About 0.77 grams of glycerin is produced for every 1 gram of NaOH used. About 0.55 gram of glycerin is produced for every 1 gram of 100% pure KOH used. KOH is commonly sold as 90% pure because of manufacturing limitations, so 1 gram of 90% pure KOH would produce 0.495 gram of glycerin.
That’s a lot of numbers so let’s get to brass tacks. I’m going to use Tallow as the standard for how much glycerin I want just because that sounds right as a standard. Again using SoapCalc, I can see that 1000 grams of tallow requires 211.11 grams of 90% pure KOH. If I multiply those 100 grams of KOH by 0.495, my value from above, we see that I should be able to count on 104.5 grams of glycerin being released. I now know that I want to add 104.5 grams of glycerin per kilogram of stearic acid to this recipe. This works out to an additional 10.5% of the amount of stearic acid in the recipe.
And a Confession
Having explained so carefully how I arrived at my numbers for glycerin additions; I need to share an embarrassing secret. Soapers commonly create and share information using a term called “PPO” or “Per Pound of Oil.” Recipes are commonly scaled with this approach. The astute reader may notice that I use grams. Since this all starts with molecular reactions and chemists use the metric system, the “source of truth” is metric so I believe this is the most accurate method. Being decimal based, I believe the metric system is easier to use for this at least.
When I began crafting this recipe I created it for a pound of oils so I began working in terms of PPO, converted to grams. I came up with 49.4 grams of glycerin PPO and since I was using a pound of oil for this scaling of my recipe, that’s what I used. That mixed measuring system rightfully sent a few reviewers of this article into apoplectic fits, so I converted it all to grams. Through all that I forgot that I wasn’t using a full pound of stearic acid in this recipe, for which the glycerin calculation was made. I used that amount anyway which was almost twice the glycerin I intended. After I did a batch with the “correct” amount I decided I liked the higher amount of glycerin anyway so I stuck with it. Math will only get you so far, after that you need to test.
Bringing it All Together
The recipe is complete now; we have all of the ingredients figured for a proper soap. We make recipes “PPO” so for a pound of oils we get the following recipe:
204.1 grams Stearic Acid
113.4 grams Coconut Oil
90.7 grams Beef Tallow
49.9 grams Glycerin
22.7 grams Lanolin
22.7 grams Shea Butter
201.8 grams Distilled Water
99.4 grams KOH
This makes 771.8 grams before cook or cure. It yields three 200 gram tins which I give away and one tin of a little less than 200 grams which I keep for myself. Alternatively, here is a more standard recipe that can be plugged into most soap calculators and scaled as you see fit:
45% Stearic Acid
25% Coconut Oil
20% Beef Tallow
5% Shea Butter
Additional Glycerin at 11% of the total oil weight
33% Lye concentration
UPDATE 05/27/15: The information about Stearic Acid has changed. Please see the notes in “A New Wrinkle”.
As Mel Brooks said in the all-time best movie “Blazing Saddles,” “What will it cost man, what will it cost?”
Buying in bulk is cheaper than smaller quantities but for a hobby soaper not much is needed. For a soaper in commerce it means one has money “tied up” not making money for a longer period of time. In quantities that have been right for me, I priced out all of my ingredients for a batch (1 lb oil) of shaving soap.
For a batch, the ingredients cost $12.37. If I pack 200 grams per container, then 1 lb oil creates 1.7 lbs of product before cooking or cure. I get three containers per batch plus “the angel’s share” – the part I keep for myself – so that works out to $4.12 per container of soap.
Containers! They’re yet another cost – $1.46 each for the tins (shipped), $0.40 each for the sealers, $0.10 for the labels – adding up to a total of $1.96 for packaging. Now we’re at $6.08 per tin. If commerce is your goal, this is your cost per (roughly) 7 ounce tin of shaving soap. Yes this can be made much more inexpensively in larger quantities and/or careful sourcing of raw materials in bulk. I intend to show what some guy will likely be looking at in his kitchen. This is also a generous amount of soap compared to some vendors so there’s that to consider.
Since I give these away, I’m looking at $15.75 to ship three small flat rate boxes. So, each tin I use (which is one out of four) costs me $40.07 (factoring what I give away). That seems like a lot, but it’s still cheaper than buying Martin de Candre. Plus it makes me happy to do it.
I present you all with Silver Fox Shaving Soap 1.0.