My First Soap! – DIY Cold-process Vegan Palm-free Soapmaking

Eight bars of soap in varying shades of tan sit stacked up on a kitchen counter. Text is overlaid over that says “My First Soap! DIY Cold-process Vegan Palm-Free Soapmaking”

My First Soap! – DIY Cold-process Vegan Palm-free Soapmaking

I made my first batch of cold-process soap! I even lived to tell about it! I had an afternoon one Sunday when my husband was home to entertain the toddler, and I figured I spent enough time talking about soap and reading about soap and buying soap supplies that it was time – nay, beyond time – to get started with DIY soapmaking.

Eight bars of soap in varying shades of tan sit stacked up on a kitchen counter.

Choosing a cold-process soap recipe

For my first soap, I wanted a recipe that was straight forward, but that I could test out as my “go-to recipe” for soap. Something like a Castile soap might be easiest to start with, but I also know that’s not what I’m going to want to always use. I chose Jan Berry’s Basic Palm-Free Soap Recipe #2 – Vegan, With Butters, from Simple and Natural Soapmaking. It features oils and butters I already had on hand, plus it’s easily customizable to swap ingredients or include scents or colorants if I end up wanting to tinker with the recipe later.

Mixing the lye solution

My only frame of reference for lye is Katie in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn working as a house cleaner, and using a lye-heavy soap that has “ruined her beautiful hands,” and when she catches her daughter using that soap, she’s like “OVER MY DEAD BODY!”

So, I was a little concerned. Luckily I have protective gear on hand, including a respirator, from my days as a yarn dyer. I’m making soap in my basement where I have a workbench, since it’s the only place that is completely safe from kids and dogs. It does mean, though, that the ventilation isn’t great, so I wear the respirator. It also means that I ask you to be forgiving over the quality of the process photos – the lighting and backdrop leaves a lot to be desired.

Bright orange gloves, clear safety goggles, and a blue and gray respirator sit on a workbench countertop.

I suited up, ran the recipe through a lye calculator, and made the solution. 

And it was fine.

I will say in later steps, I got less careful about having my protective gear on, and that’s obviously the wrong call. I didn’t have any issues with fumes, but I got a bit of raw soap on my skin. It left a red, irritated patch for a minute until I washed it off. Next time I will wear it religiously to avoid skin irritations or worse.

Measuring, melting, and mixing the oils and butters while the lye cools

Done. Easy. Almost. I maybe should have broken the cocoa butter into smaller pieces so it melted more easily in the double boiler. The oil got a lot hotter than I intended because it took so long for the cocoa butter to melt. Had it been in smaller pieces, or even grated, it would have melted at a closer rate to the coconut oil and wouldn’t have gotten so hot. I was worried I timed it poorly and the lye would cool down much faster than the oils. I stuck the melted oil mixture in the freezer for a few minutes, and it caught up with the lye nicely.

Mixing soap to trace – or where things went off the rails

I have a bit of a shaky history with immersion blenders, in that I’ve never had one that lasted very long before the motor quit. Knowing this, I bought the cheapest immersion blender that I could find for soapmaking purposes, which in retrospect was pretty dumb, and in practice was infuriating.

I mixed the soap batter for maybe three minutes before a spring popped out of the blender and it was broken.

I did what anyone would have done, which was blink incredulously at it, smack it like a ketchup bottle a few times to try to fix it, then trudge upstairs to tell my husband how everything is ruined and I wasted a whole afternoon. My husband, ever the voice of reason, said “isn’t there anything else you can use?”

Which got me to thinking about Little House on the Prairie and how Ma Ingalls certainly wasn’t out on the frontier with a stick blender on soapmaking day. 

I grabbed a spatula, started stirring, and quit after ten minutes of nothing happening.

A pot full of yellow soap batter with a red silicone spatula in it with the word “LYE” written on the handle in black marker. Behind the pot is a candy thermometer and a broken stick blender in a stainless steel bowl.

I got our hand mixer from the kitchen (I won’t use the beaters for food going forward). “How can this be any different from a stick blender?” I asked myself. I even briefly Googled if you can use a hand mixer rather than a stick blender. The first search result said yes, it just might take longer, so I got started.

I took the hand mixer to this batch of soap for an hour, with absolutely no change to the batter. Nary a trace to be found. I would have settled for any sign of trace at that point. Surely something must be happening?

An aqua blue hand mixer is in a pot of yellow soap batter, mixing away.

I took another look at my previous Google search only to find that, had I kept reading past the first result, “it might take longer” can mean HOURS. I didn’t have HOURS. I have a toddler who wants to eat dinner every single day. I have a dog who needs to go in and out the back door thirty times. I have a husband who is always on call for work and might need to leave at any time. I have a sciatic nerve that was already loudly protesting me for standing on a concrete floor for so long. I don’t live on a frontier with nothing else to do other than avoid being eaten by bears. I never have hours. Does anyone??

I was ready to call this soap a lost cause. It was a shame to waste all of those ingredients, as well as an afternoon of productivity. But what could be done? It was my first batch of soap, maybe this was bound to happen?

I flipped through my soapmaking book again, focusing on the trouble shooting section, where I read that if something goes wrong, such as forgetting to put an ingredient in, you can add it in and go back and mix it to trace again.

Somehow I was under the impression that mixing the batter was time sensitive, and maybe it is to an extent, but this made it sound like maybe I had time to run to Target for a new immersion blender, and save this from being a total waste.

A quick run to Target later (I haven’t gone anywhere except the grocery store since Covid started, and going to Target for the first time in months was a little eerie and a huge bummer. Turns out there’s nothing fun about Target when it’s a get-in-and-out situation. Plus I always go with Henry, and I missed my shopping buddy on this trip), I had a new immersion blender, and my soap had traced within two minutes of stirring.

A close up of a stick blender just removed from a pot full of white soap batter. It has just reached trace.

Adding fragrance and pouring into molds

This recipe makes around eight bars of soap. I had two trial sizes of fragrance oils from Brambleberry, and according to the Fragrance Calculator each bottle was only enough for four bars. 

I split the batter evenly into two old yogurt containers, and scented them separately. I used Oatmeal, Milk, and Honey for one batch, and Shave and a Haircut (my husband’s pick) for the other. Eventually I want to try scenting soap with essential oils, but since those are pricy, I thought fragrance oils would be better suited this time around.

I poured them into individual molds, covered them with wax paper and a towel, and left them in the basement.

Tan soap batter messily poured into bright pink silicone molds. The molds are made up of eight separate rectangles.

Taking soap out of the molds

Twenty-four hours after I poured the soap, I took them out of the molds. I read somewhere that the 24-hour mark is when soap should come out, and I took that as an absolute fact rather than a starting point. Turns out soap can, and sometimes should, stay in the mold for a few days. The bars I took out were very soft and sticky, and again I was worried they were ruined. 

I moved them upstairs and stood them up on wax paper on our kitchen island (which I don’t use for food prep because there’s always too much stuff on it). The kitchen gets a lot of foot traffic, plus the air conditioner is always on this time of year. Though I had to keep the soap downstairs while it finished saponifying away from toddler and dog, the air in the basement is much too humid and still for soap to cure. 

Eight bars of soap in varying shades of tan are standing on their sides in two rows on wax paper on a kitchen counter.

After a few days, the soap started hardening up, and will continue to do so for 4-6 weeks. 

Apparently the moral of the story here is that soap is difficult to truly ruin? (That feels like a “famous last words” situation.)

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