Making your own soap is a valuable skill for many reasons; it is one more product you can create right on your own homestead to make sure you are able to use everything you produce. You’ll also be able to create enough soap from a single batch to last your family for several weeks – or even months. Lastly, the soap you make can be traded or pressed and used for cleaning needs.
The Science of Soap
Learning more about the science behind soap-making can help you fully understand the process. The bars you buy at the supermarket or online are usually not soap at all; they are a synthetic detergent, mass produced in a factory.
Real soap is made when a chemical reaction occurs between an acid (in this case, fat) and a base (household lye). Once combined, these two substances undergo a chemical reaction called saponification; the result is a slab of soap that can be cut into individual bars. You do not need a lot of expensive supplies to learn with (although you can spend money on additions like fancy oils, essential oils and other components), just a few basic supplies and an hour or so to set things up. You’ll need just three ingredients—animal fat, lye and water—to start.
Supplies for Soap-making
Lye: Lye is caustic but required for real soap-making. Use eye protection and work gloves with protective clothing when handling lye and uncured soap. You need pure lye, not drain cleaner or any product with other ingredients. Lye is available online and in hardware stores and comes in powder form.
Animal fat: The fat you use will have an impact on your final bar. Rendered fat from animals you own can easily be converted to soap right after harvesting. Reserve the tallow or lard from any of these animals to make soap:
· Pigs (hard, dense bar of soap with few bubbles, a cleaning powerhouse but can be drying if used alone)
· Goats (hard, dense bar, not drying)
· Sheep (hard dense bar, not drying)
· Deer (soft bar with creamy lather and lots of conditioning)
· Cattle (soft bar with some lather and conditioning)
· Bear (combine with tallow or lard for best results)
Fat from birds is not useful for soap-making, but if you raise bees, beeswax is a wonderful addition to soap.
While any fat will work, many soap-makers prefer the leaf fat located around the kidneys; this fat creates a rich bar without a “meaty” scent.
· Glass or stainless steel bowl (never make soap in aluminum or other metals)
· Lined plastic or cardboard shoe box to use as a mold (line with plastic then wax paper)
· Wooden spoon
· Blender (you can also stir by hand).
· Glass measuring cup
· Essential oils (if desired)
How to Make Soap Using Animal Fat
At least one day in advance, slice the reserved fat into chunks, removing meat. Add 1” chunks to a stock pot or crock pot and cook at a low temperature until the fat liquifies. This can take several hours, so if you have the convenience of a slow cooker, put it to work for you. Scoop away any impurities that rise to the top. When the fat is fully liquid, strain it into a lined container and cool. You can cut the resulting rich white tallow or lard into blocks to store; it is useful for cooking, soap making and even candle making.
Animal fat turns into soap at different rates; the recipe below will work for beef tallow.
· 16 ounces rendered beef tallow, chopped into cubes
· 5.75 ounces water (measured as a liquid)
· 2 ounces lye (measure as weight)
Mix and Pour
1. Wearing protective gear, pour the water into a glass measuring cup or small bowl.
2. Sprinkle the lye on top of the water; it will get very hot, very quickly.
3. Melt the fat over low heat, just until it is soft. Pour into a large glass bowl.
4. Slowly pour the lye mixture on top of the fat; avoid splashing.
5. Stir with the wooden spoon. Tallow soap traces, or begins to harden very quickly; stir to combine and you should begin to see your soap entering a trace state. It should look like a thin pudding at this point. If you are using lard, you may need to use an immersion stick blender to speed the process.
6. Keep stirring until your soap mixture looks like pudding, then add any other ingredients – essential oils, other fragrances or even dried flowers.
7. Carefully pour the soap into your prepared mold.
8. Cover with wax paper and then an old towel or quilt and leave in place for 24 hours. This will insulate the mixture and help speed the saponification process.
Remove the covering in 24 hours and check you should have a soft, sliceable slab. Carefully remove from the mold and slice into bars or chunks. Your finished soap needs to cure for at least 4 and preferably 6 weeks to be fully ready. This recipe yields 6 to 8 big bars and is easily modified using a soap calculator to suit the fat you have on hand. The basic steps are the same, the amount of lye and water differs for each type of fat. This old-fashioned skill yields a valuable commodity for bartering and ensures your family enjoys sanitary conditions, even if you have to live rough.