I want to clarify that I'm new at making soap. I've only done it about 3 times. The good part about this is all that "newbie" information is bouncing around in my brain and I might be able to capture some of what you might miss with an experienced person might forget to mention some things because it is naturally a part of their thought process at that point and they forget that we don't all know that stuff yet).
Why Make Your Own Soap?
Before you begin, you need to decide why you are making soap. Perhaps you're concerned about ingredients used in commercial soaps. Making your own allows you to control what goes into your bars. Maybe you just like to make things from scratch; this is a very satisfying item to make yourself. Or maybe you want to experiment with different kinds of soaps and you can't find what you want at the store; making your own is the way to go!
However, if your goal is to save money, you need to know that your initial investment can make your first bars pricy, depending on your choice of molds, pots, pans, and such. That doesn't mean you won't eventually save money, but you do need to make a decision about how committed you are to learning the process. And when it comes to ingredients, if a batch doesn't turn out right (and sometimes it does happen), you've lost some dollars $$, BUT... you must remember you've gained experience.
So let me give you an idea of what I'm talking about so you can decide if this project is for you.
• Molds. To make soap, you must have some kind of mold. You can go cheap (such as a recycled milk carton) or expensive (like a wooden mold from Brambleberry). And then there are those that are priced in between. Depending on what your soap will be used for will also depend on what kind of mold you need. For this series of post, I'm going to concentrate on bath soap; just a plain rectangle bar.
I made soap once in a plastic container lined with wax paper and was not pleased with the appearance of the bars. Whenever wax paper has a crease or fold, it will show up in your bar. However, we were in a hurry and didn't get the paper in the mold correctly and I did not know at the time that I could purchase a soap planer to recut the soap and eliminate this problem. Wood molds are expensive, but very lovely, and if the paper is in the mold correctly, it's easier to get the soap out. The least expensive options are flexible plastic molds or cardboard from home, but you must line it well with butcher paper.
Since I wanted to make a complete switch from commercial soap, I invested in some molds (a birthday gift!). After researching a while on the internet, I decided to buy molds from EZ Soap Molds. And I have NO REGRETS! These molds are amazing! They do not need to be lined in any way, nor do they need to have any preparation whatsoever other than to put them together properly. They don't leak (just a bit of seepage) and they make perfectly rectangle bars. The soap usually comes out easy and cuts nicely.
Before you rush off to their page and make a purchase, you must buy the correct size. And you'll need a recipe that you plan to use in order to know the size. My recipe makes a 4 pound batch, so I bought a set of two molds and an adjustable slicer (see here). Because I like uniform pieces, I wish I had purchased a set with a different slicer. You can still customize your soap sizes with this other set by moving your soap along through the slicer, which is what you have to do on the adjustable slicer anyway. Also, I always have extra soap after I've poured, so I think I may purchase a small 1-2# or 2-3# mold at some point. In the meantime, I just grab a disposable plastic container and pour it in there. It works just fine for out in the garden or for laundry soap, etc.
We could talk a LOT more about molds, but I'll save that for another day. I just want you to get an idea of what you need to be thinking about.
• Pots/Pans. You can't use just any ol' pot. You need something that won't react with the lye. Glass or stainless steel are your best options. Now you need to decide if you are going to use your own cooking pots for this, or some that will be dedicated strictly for soap making. I highly suggest one 2 quart (or larger) glass measuring bowl for the lye itself. I've been using my good one from my kitchen, but I freak out and wash it about 10 times afterward to make sure I get all the lye out (okay, I'm exaggerating; I only wash it 3 times... maybe 4). The reason I suggest a measuring bowl with a spout and handle is because you must pour this into your oils and it's much easier to do so with the right equipment.
You'll still need additional pots and pans, but check your recipe/book for what they recommend. I use a 4 or 5 quart stainless steel pot and a 3 quart stainless steel pot. Start looking at flea markets, garage sales, estate sales, etc. It will take time to find these. If you absolutely can't find them, you can purchase some at a discount store such as Walmart or Target. They do not have to be high grade stainless steel, but make sure you don't buy something that LOOKS like stainless steel, but really isn't. You can get a cheap stainless steel pot for around $12-8, but you'll really have to look around.
• Measuring cup. I use a 1 quart measuring cup from my kitchen. It's mostly just for oils and so not necessary to have one dedicated strictly for soap making. But you will need something to measure the lye in. I used a plastic disposable cup.
• Spoons. You'll need plastic. Hard white rigid plastic works best. With long handles. Trust me, this is the best option - and cheap (see photo above of pots and spoon).
• Immersion Blender. This is an optional item, but I'm so glad I got one (dedicated solely for soapmaking - under $20). My last batch just would not trace until I used the blender (due to stirring too slowly, but after an hour, my arm couldn't do it fast enough). Once I used the immersion blender, the batch traced in 5-10 minutes; I should have used it earlier! (Note: tracing can take more time depending on one of several factors, but in this case it was both the type of Olive Oil I used and my slow stirring).
• Thermometer. Get a nice, easy to read thermometer that is solely for soap making. You'll be putting it in the lye. I prefer one that's large enough to stand up in the pot and lean against the side (see photo at bottom of post for an idea of what I'm talking about - it's in the container).
• Kitchen Scale. You can use what you already have. I just take and cover mine with plastic wrap while making soap to keep it clean.
• Miscellaneous. Some disposable gloves, protective eye gear (I wear my glasses), and an old apron are very good ideas, especially if you are using an immersion blender, but also for protecting yourself from the lye that burns! You will also need a scrap piece of plywood (or something like it) and some old towels, but of which are used to cover the molds while curing the first 24 hours.
Think about where you're going to store all this "dedicated" equipment. I keep mine in my pantry, but so that my family doesn't accidentally mix it up with the day to day items, I store mine in a large plastic container (except for the large pots). Even my molds fit in this container and it keeps them from collecting dust and such when not in use so that they are ready to go the next time around.
The next soap post will cover a bit about recipes, ingredients, and reliable companies for supplies. It's just too much to cover everything about soap in one post! But now you can start planning how much you want to spend and you can keep an eye out for items you need to acquire. Some of you who have been making soap for a while can share other equipment you like to use that I didn't mention. This isn't a once size fits all process, but there are some rules of science that must be adhered to - such as reactive pots.