Soap Making for the Beginner, Part I


Photo by Sarah Hart Boone

If you have never made your own soap before, this is the first of a two-part lesson. It is soap making for the total beginner. I have been making soap for years and recently decided to try to develop a recipe for a reliable batch of soap using ingredients I can easily obtain, instead of ordering exotic oils by mail. This would make it easier for people who are curious about making soap but don’t know how to begin.

Traditionally, people used a combination of wood ash and lard to make soap. The Soap Factory has an interesting account of the history and chemistry of soap making and the traditional methods of rendering fat and obtaining potash from wood ash. I applaud the homesteader who chooses to make soap using materials at hand and traditional methods. Those of us who want to make things easier need to purchase their materials. In place of wood ash we can easily find lye at any hardware store. The oils are more difficult. Many homemade soap recipes use coconut oil, palm oil and olive oil as the base ingredients. Soap made from these oils are nice and hard, it lathers well and it is soothing to the skin. The problem for me is that it is not that easy to find hydrogenated (solid at room temperature) coconut oil and palm oil where I live. When I am going to make a large quantity of soap, like many batches for holiday gifts, I don’t mind ordering oils by the mail from Columbus Foods. They have a "Soaper's Choice area of their website with just about any exotic oil you could want in quantities as small as 7 pounds.  For smaller and one-time batches, this is not practical.  You can’t store oil for long periods of time because it gets rancid, especially in my very hot (in the summer) Chicago home. I thought others may have avoided making soap due to the difficulty of obtaining supplies. Also, some people do not want to use palm oil because of  environmental concerns. I decided to develop a very simple and basic soap recipe for the beginner using supplies you can buy easily. We still want to make a batch of soap that is hard, produces lather and is gentle to the skin, but we are going to use oils that you can find at the grocery store and pharmacy.

For Part 1 of this soap making tutorial you will gather all of your materials. Next week you can combine them into a batch of soap.

Equipment soap
Photo by Sarah Hart Boone


  • Lightweight bowl to hold oils while you weigh them
  • Glass jars, one to hold lye, one to hold water. The water jar should be around the size of a pickle jar or if it is a canning glass a #19 Ball jar is good
  • Rubber spatula
  • Digital kitchen scale (Try to borrow one if you don’t have one) 
  • Candy thermometer (able to withstand very high temperatures)
  • Pot to heat the oil in. This must be stainless steel or no-stick. An aluminum pan will react with the lye
  • Paper towels
  • Plastic shoe box or a similar vessel (like a small cake pan) to use as mold. Line with cling wrap or wax paper
  • Hand stirrer (also called immersion blender.) You can find inexpensive models for under $20
  • Newspaper or something to protect work surface 


  • 23 ounces (by weight) of olive oil. The photo shows extra virgin oil. In fact, the best olive oil to use for soap is the lowest-quality "pomace" oil so try to find the cheapest oil possible. Pomace can often be found in tins at Middle Eastern or Greek groceries or Aldi.
  • 13 ounces (by weight) corn oil
  • 4.8 ounces (by weight) red devil lye (don’t weigh it until part II)
  • 2- one ounce cocoa butter sticks (look at a drug store. (They can be found at Walgreens or other drug stores in the cosmetics department) 

Plus, optional...

2/9/2014 2:07:05 PM

I'm making my first batch of soap, and after a lot of research, I decided that this is a great recipe to start with. I am interested in adding cocoa powder to get a brown color, and oatmeal for texture. What do you recommend for amounts of those, and when do I add them? at trace? Thanks for you help!

Nick Story
3/18/2013 12:29:32 PM

It can be a fun experience to prepare home-made soap on your own, but you will have to find out the best soap making supplies in your vicinity and place an order for all the required materials at a single time, and nothing can be as helpful as using an online store for making purchases.

12/27/2012 4:06:43 AM

I can tell this is an OLD article. Red Devil Lye has been off the market about 6 yrs now and can no longer be bought in stores or online, since it was used in the making of meth. Rooto is the crystal lye brand and it is not readily bought in stores. A person can ask their hardware or farm store for it, but most carry just liquid lye (Potassium Hydroxide) which makes liquid soaps. Some will order it for you and usually in a case of 12.

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