A fragrant, handmade bar of soap is a simple indulgence that fosters a feeling of relaxation and being pampered. Wrapping a bar with a band of beautiful paper tied with a raffia bow makes for a truly unique and luxurious, yet practical gift.

the legend
The emergence of soap remains a mystery, but one legend takes us to an ancient site on Mount Sapo that was the setting for many animal sacrifices in the early days of Rome. Over time, residual animal fat and ash collected under the ceremonial altars. Fat and ash just happen to be the key ingredients of soap. Supposedly one day a heavy rain saturated the slopes of Mount Sapo, causing the fat and ash to mix with the rain. The mixture flowed down the slopes to the banks of the Tiber River where washerwomen were cleaning clothes. Inexplicably, their clothing cleaned easier and more quickly once mixed with this unknown substance, which we now know as soap.

Soapmaking is a craft and profession dating back in time for thousands of years. Today, mass produced soap is commonly available, but handcrafted soap is experiencing a resurgence in popularity. Handmade soaps may use more costly and exotic ingredients such as olive oil, coconut oil or soothing herbs and extracts, resulting in soap that is unique and luxurious.

types of soapmaking
melt and pour:
While other types of soap have been around for thousands of years, melt and pour, also known as "glycerin" or "casting" soap, is a relative newcomer. Soapmakers devised the concept of making transparent soap in the 1800s, hoping that a clear soap would appeal to consumers as more natural. This glycerin soap is also easy to work with. It's as simple as melting down a premade block of soap, adding scents and color and pouring it in a mold. The soap is ready for use in just an hour.

hand milled:
Hand milled soap, also known as "rebatching" soap, is made by taking premade soap scraps and melting them into a liquid. This method renders a completely natural bar of soap without the need to work with lye. Hand milled soap only takes a few hours to make, but requires several weeks to cure. It is more difficult to get consistent results with this technique and the final product may appear lumpy.

cold process:
Basic soap is created when fats such as tallow, lard, coconut oil or olive oil are blended with lye that has been dissolved in water. As the two are stirred together, a chemical reaction, or saponification, takes place, changing everything into soap, as well as the by-product glycerin, a natural emollient. A well made bar of soap has no free lye in it and is gentle and cleansing.

general instructions for melt and pour soap
It's easy to create your own handmade soaps. To get started, all you need is a soap block, color and scent.
Blending Color Chart
Achieve all new colors by adding small amounts of a second color to the first color. Adding a drop of black to any color will make it a deeper shade.

aqua = green + blue
coral = pink + yellow
rose = red + black
lime = yellow + green
magenta = wine + red
moss green = green + red
pink = just a touch of red
purple = red + blue
teal = green + black
turquoise = blue + green
wine = purple + red

  • Cut the soap block into chunks for faster melting. Put the soap chunks into a glass Pyrex measuring cup, covering loosely with paper towels.
  • Microwave for 45 seconds. Stir gently, then continue microwaving at 15-second intervals until just melted. Do not let boil.
  • Stirring gently, add color to the melted soap one drop at a time with an eyedropper, until the desired color is reached. Keep in mind that the color will lighten after the soap has cooled. Pre-colored soap blocks don't need dye added.
  • Continue stirring gently. Using a second eyedropper, add scent one drop at a time until the desired fragrance is reached.
  • Pour the melted soap into a mold of your choice and let it cool completely. Placing the soap in the freezer for a few minutes can quicken the hardening process. After the soap is solid, remove it from the mold.
general instructions for hand milled soap
Hand milled soap, made from melted scraps of premade soap, can be wonderfully creamy and airy.
  • Place one pound of chopped-up soap in a crockpot. Add one cup of water or milk. Heat ingredients at 250° F for three to four hours, stirring briefly once an hour.
  • Alternatively, place the ingredients in an enamel pot, cover, and place in a 200° F oven for three to four hours, stirring gently once per hour.
  • Pour liquid soap into molds. Let the soap age for a few weeks so that the bars will harden. Aging will ensure that your soap doesn't dissolve too quickly in water.
general instructions for cold process
The basic process of making soap is fairly uncomplicated. However, before getting started, you'll want to read up on the cold process method. Use a recipe with precise weights and measurements to ensure an accurate lye/water/oil ratio. Historically, basic soap was made from animal fats such as tallow (fat from beef) and lard (fat from pork). These days most handmade soap is made from plant-derived vegetable oils such as olive, coconut, avocado and others. Fats are best for cleaning and oils are best for suds, so a combination of fats and oils makes the nicest soap.
  • Mix the specified amount of water and lye together in a plastic bowl, stirring until fully dissolved. Let cool to 100° F.
  • In a separate pan, melt the specified amount of vegetable oils or fats in a pot, and then remove from heat. Let cool to 100° F.
  • Pouring in a slow and steady stream, add the lye/water to the oil, stirring continuously.
  • Continue cooking for about one hour. The chemical reaction will make the soap stock thicken like pudding.
  • Pour into one large mold. Cover the mold with plastic and insulate by covering with a blanket. Leave undisturbed for 24 hours.
  • After 24 hours, remove the soap from the mold and slice it into bars. Set the bars in a dry place to age for 2 or 3 weeks before using.

Tip: Cold process soap can later be chopped up and remelted to make marvelous hand milled soaps. Ingredients you could add at to hand milled soaps: ground oatmeal, lanolin, vitamin E, juniper berry meal or avocado.

try this!
  • Add bits of soap to other soaps to achieve the look of festive, multicolored confetti. When pouring soap base over smaller soap bits, be sure that the liquid soap is cooled enough that the pieces won't melt.
  • Try rubber stamping, rub-on transfers or soap paints for added personalization. Just follow the manufacturer's instructions and design your own fabulous soap creations!
  • Soap on a rope: fill a soap mold halfway. Fold the desired length of cording or rope in half and place the cut ends of the rope across the end of the half-filled soap mold. Wait 15 minutes, then spritz the soap with witch hazel or rubbing alcohol, and finish filling the soap mold. You'll need to microwave the remaining soap for about 15 seconds before using.
  • Use natural herbs and spices to color your soap, either powdered or in whole form. Avoid clumping by separating out a small amount of soap into a dish, then mixing in the powdered colorant until it is like a paste, then stir this paste back into the main batch of soap. Try saffron, turmeric, paprika, annatto, cinnamon, rosemary, cornmeal or seaweed.
  • Customize your soaps with small amounts of skin-loving emollients such as almond oil, olive oil, aloe vera, cocoa butter or vitamin E. Starting with 1/4 teaspoon, add up to two tablespoons per pound of soap. Please note: additives may affect the final clarity and color of the soap.
  • To make a firmer soap, add 1/4-ounce of beeswax. This will also make the soap less transparent
tips and techniques
  • To start over again, simply remelt your soap. Or if you melted too much soap for a project, just pour the excess into a mold and save it for a later project.
  • To determine the amount of soap you will need for a mold, fill the mold with water and pour it into a measuring cup.
  • When adding botanicals or other additives, allow the soap to cool and thicken slightly, then add the ingredients, stirring constantly to keep them suspended throughout the soap. Use care when adding herbs, too many can make a soap abrasive.
  • When adding botanicals such as rose petals, check the soap after a couple of days to see if the herbs have rotted or turned brown, especially if giving the soap as a gift. Avoid using these ingredients in future batches.
  • The color of an additive or a scent may affect the final color or clarity of your soap. For example, lemon grass will give a yellow hue.
  • After pouring soap into a mold, before it cools, spray a fine mist of rubbing alcohol over the soap to remove any bubbles that form on the surface. Excessive bubbles can be skimmed off the surface of the soap with a spoon.
  • To ensure that your molds last a long time, always clean and dry them thoroughly. Store rubber and plastic molds out of sunlight in a cool, dark place.
  • Burned soap can emit a bad odor or undergo discoloration, so avoid boiling or heating melted soap for long periods of time.
  • Over-stirring will cause excess bubbles in your soap. Stir in a circular motion, one or two rotations.
  • To prevent warping your molds, be careful that your soap is not too hot, and never put your molds into the microwave.
  • Never use molds made from aluminum, tin, zinc, china, untempered glass, flimsy plastic or colored plastic. Metals may corrode, china and untempered glass are prone to breakage, and you don't want to use a plastic mold that can melt or discolor your soap.
  • Soap should easily pop out of a mold. If you are having trouble, the soap may not be fully cooled. Simply put the mold in the freezer for 10 minutes and then try again.
  • When using the freezer method, if possible, unmold the soap onto the surface where you plan to dry the soap. Cold or frozen soap will exude moisture almost immediately and the soap's wetted surface will show fingerprints.
  • Avoid using food coloring to dye your soap, it can stain your skin or washcloth.
  • Since soap melts at about 140° F, it is best to add scent after letting soap cool to under 120° F, because scent has a flash point of about 120° F to 140° F. The flash point is the temperature at which the scent burns off. For best results, add scent just before pouring liquid soap into molds.
safety tips
  • Never use aluminum containers when melting soap. Use stainless steel pans, enameled pans, or microwave-safe glass.
  • Due to high melting temperatures, avoid contact with skin while the soap is liquid. If hot soap touches your skin, immediately place under cold water. Remember, children always require adult supervision.
  • Always test a small patch of skin for allergic reactions prior to using the soap.
cold process: is a method of making batch soap adding only refined ingredients which have been chemically balanced to each other. A chemical reaction, or saponification, takes place over several days. Glycerin, which is a natural by-product of this process, remains in the finished soap.

essential oil: is derived from plants and is purported to have aromatheraputic benefits.

flash point: is the temperature at which scent dissipates into the air and burns off. Scent has a flash point of about 120° F to 140° F, which is the temperature at which the scent burns off. Since soap melts at about 140° F, it is best to add scent just before pouring into molds, after letting the soap cool to under 120° F.

fragrance oil: is made in the lab and can contain essential oils as a component part, but they are not entirely natural.

glycerin: a by-product of making soap out of natural ingredients by the cold-process method. A natural emollient that acts as a skin moisturizer.

hand milled: is made by taking scraps of premade soap and melting them into liquid. This method is useful for soapmakers who want a completely natural bar of soap, but who don't want to work with lye.

lye: a form of potash, or sodium hydroxide. Also known as "caustic soda."

melt and pour: also known as "glycerin" or "casting" soap. Glycerin soap is often translucent or transparent, but it can be made opaque with whiteners.

saponification: the chemical reaction caused by the process of combining lye, vegetable or animal fats and water while the soap "cures" or rests.

tracing: As lye and fat react chemically to form soap, the mixture "traces" or thickens and turns opaque. Test for tracing by dripping some soap onto the surface of the soap mixture in the stirring bowl. It should hold its shape on the surface.

vegetable oils: each bring their unique qualities to soap. For example, coconut oil gives big, fluffy bubbles and olive oil gives fine, silky bubbles. When selecting oils, look for the "cold-pressed" version. Cold-pressed oils are 100% pure and contain more of the plant's natural ingredients, where refined oils contain petroleum residues from the solvents used in the extraction process. Cold-pressed oils are also better for your skin and the environment.

about the author
Kelly Lenihan, currently residing in Malvern, PA originally hails from Seattle, WA. As a Craftopia associate editor, Kelly specializes in writing about art history as well as arts and crafts from around the world. Kelly believes in using hands-on techniques to explore cultural diversity and teach art appreciation.