Naturalist Activities: Making Your Own Soap

Text and photographs by John Silliman
Head Naturalist of Gunflint Lodge

One of most popular crafts in the Gunflint Nature Program is Soap Making.  It is also our most practical craft, as everyone needs soap.

The activity starts out with a history of soap making, methods of soap making, and the materials we will use.  Our method is called “melt and pour.”  The bases are already made for us.  All we have to do is measure out the right amount for the mold and put in additives, and colors.  We then melt the materials together in the microwave, add the scents, and pour into our molds.  Later in the day, we de-mold the soaps.

There are two major types of molds out there: plastic and silicone.  When I started this craft several years ago, the only option I knew about was plastic.  At this point, I am phasing out the old plastic molds, and switching totally to silicone for several reasons:

  • Silicone lasts longer.  Every time I use the plastic molds, at least one of them cracks.
  • It takes 30 seconds to 5 minutes to get a bar of soap to release from a plastic mold.  3 – 5 seconds are needed to release a soap bar from a silicone mold.
  • In the long term, it is cheaper to get silicone molds due to their longevity.  However, it is kind of like buying a great set of boots; it will cost more initially, but less in the long term.

The bases I order vary over time.  Some of my favorites are: Goat’s Milk, Honey, Shea Butter, Baby Buttermilk, and Aloe Vera.  The only one I have ordered that I did not like (because it is very difficult to de-mold) is Argon Oil.

The additives we have are:

  • Oatmeal: A great moisturizer and exfoliate (removes dead skin).
  • Green Tea: A great source of antioxidants when breathed in, while soaping up with hot water.
  • Titanium Dioxide: It makes white soap white.
  • Vegetable Glycerin: It makes a stronger bubble and acts as an anti-caking agent with powdered additives.
  • Cinnamon: Color and scent are nice, but it is a bit abrasive.
  • Cornmeal: This is an extreme exfoliate.  I only recommend it for mechanics or tree farm workers.  It will take both dead and live skin off if you scrub too hard.

Our scents include: Maple Syrup, Butterscotch, Bacon, Balsam, Cappuccino, Rosemary, Cinnamon Apple Berry, Baked Apple, Apple Cider and Clove, Blueberry Pie, and Lavender Vanilla.  I let everyone smell the scents before they start if they so desire.

Colors we have available are: Blue, Navy Blue, Orange, Dark Orange, Red, Burgundy, Yellow, Lime Green, Green, and Brown.  The brightest colors come out in the clear soap bases.

After we have gone over all the materials, and I have made a sample bar for them, the guests pick out which mold they would like to use by studying the examples on our display shelves.

The silicone mold examples are on the top shelf, while the plastic mold examples are on the lower shelf.  We have since added to the silicone molds.

Most of these are examples I make during the class.  If I already have an example of the mold I use, I give the soap away to one of the participants.

The sheets stuck to the shelves show the weights of each of the soaps.  If the bar is more than 1 ounce, participants get to make 1 piece of soap.  However, there is the option of making more than one small bar to bring you up over an ounce of soap total.

After I give the participants the proper mold, they set it on the blue craft table, and begin measuring out their soap base.  Once measured, the bases are cut into cubes (for better melting).  Additives and colors are added, and the scent is picked out.

The next stop is the microwave.  Temperatures are set at medium, and participants have to watch carefully to make sure the soap does not boil over.  The boiling over of the soap happens at about the same rate as milk boils over.

When the liquid (or partially liquid) soap comes out of the microwave, it must be stirred slowly.  This is definitely the hardest part for adults.  If you stir too fast, you get bubbles in the soap.

When a skin starts to form on the soap, it is time to add the scent.  If you add the scents when the soap is too hot, it evaporates before permeating the soap.

After a few slow stirs, participants pour the liquid soap into the molds.  If you have everything properly measured, it is best to pour fast.  Otherwise, the soap cools in the measuring cup instead of the mold.

It takes about an hour for the soap in the silicone molds to harden.  Plastic molded soap usually cools faster, but you loose much of the time gained in cooling when you are trying to get the soap out of the mold later.  As I wrote earlier, silicone molds are a lot easier to work with.

Clean up involves scraping the soap out the jars as best I can with the craft sticks.  The scrapings all eventually end up being re-melted and turned into examples.  I then take the jars up to the big sinks at the Gunflint Northwoods Outfitters and run hot water through them (no more soap is needed).  It is important to keep the hot water running at least 2 minutes after the soap is gone to ensure that the sink’s trap is cleaned out.

Soap Making is a great family activity.  Adults and kids love making their own soap.  I’ve had many people come back to Gunflint Lodge some time later and talk about how they have started doing this craft at home.

Once you have the initial materials (molds, measuring cups, craft sticks, scents, dyes, and cutters), it is extremely economical to make your own soap.  A bar of soap made in the melt and pour method costs a fraction of the same type of bar in the store.

You can get materials from your local crafts store, Amazon, or from a bulk retailer.  We get our bases from http://www.candlesandsupplies.net/, and most of the other materials (including most of the silicone molds) from Amazon.

I recommend trying out the bases in the 2 lbs. size and moving to the 10 lbs. size when you find something you like.  If you have a large group, the 10 lbs. size is great, and that is what we usually order for the lodge.  Some soap bases also come in the 25 lbs. size, but I found that big of a block of soap to be difficult to work with.

There are many great instructional videos out there.  One that I learned a lot from was Soapmaking: Easy Melt & Pour Creations, with Sharyn Pak.  She goes into projects we don’t have time for in our activity, but which might be fun at home.

Come make soap with us.  Gunflint Lodge Naturalist activities are open to all overnight guests of Gunflint Lodge & Outfitters.