Soap Photography Studio Tutorial

Some soapers’ pictures look so awesome, and I was increasingly frustrated by my own photographs. I decided to make a soap photograph studio, and while I was at it, I thought I’d share my process.

I started with the following materials plus a roll of tape that I forgot to put in the picture.

I recently moved from Georgia to Massachusetts, so we have a ton of boxes around. The other necessary items include freezer paper (which you probably have on hand to line your molds), a glue stick, and scissors. I like how my box informs me it’s designed for multiple uses. This use is probably one that U-Haul didn’t have in mind. (Yes, I know, they meant you could use it more than once.)

Next cut two sides off the box so you have three sides left.

Rub your glue stick on the cardboard and line the box with your freezer paper.

Fold the sides over the box and glue them down. I also used tape to fix the ends. It doesn’t have to be pretty. That part of the box won’t show in your pictures.

See? My tape is not pretty.

Fold the paper over the top and bottom. You will need to cut the paper to get it to fold over corners. If you look hard, you can see my kitty Bella in the background.

Now you’re finished. You can see the purple glue stick hasn’t dried on my soap photo studio yet, but that kind of glue stick turns clear when it dries. I think they make it like that so kids using it have better aim.

Here are some pictures of my soap using my new soap photo studio. Full disclosure: I did neaten up a few spots and cropped the images in Photoshop, but this is not by any means a complete retouch.

I considered using this one for my new banner image. My need for a new banner image prompted me to create my photo studio in the first place.

I love how this one came out. Pretty soap! And for once, I’m not distracted by what’s in my background.

A cropped version of this photo is my new banner image. I love the way the shadows look in this one. I took these in the late afternoon/early evening near my kitchen window with just my overhead kitchen light on. It looks like natural morning light.

So that’s it! Now you can make your own soap photo studio so you can take awesome photos of your soap. You can use whatever color paper you want to line the box. I chose white so that the background would draw as little attention to itself as possible. Plus it’s easy since I had it. I took the pictures with my iPhone, so no fancy camera tricks, lights, or techniques.

The Everything Soapmaking Book, Alicia Grosso

The Everything Soapmaking BookThe Everything Soapmaking Book by Alicia Grosso is a good introduction to basic soapmaking. Unlike some other soapmaking books I’ve seen, this book also discusses hot process and hand-milling techniques. The chapters on essential oils and fragrance oils were interesting. Not too many other books I’ve read devote so much space to fragrance, and it’s an important reason why people buy soap. Even though essential oils and fragrance oils are expensive, I can’t imagine making soap without them. Also, Grosso dedicates useful space to chapters on packaging, gifting, and selling soap, which is extremely useful information (and probably my favorite part of the book). The book also includes helpful appendices: a glossary, troubleshooting, DIY molds, and resources.

I think some of Grosso’s information may be out of date. I checked the copyright, which was 2003 and was renewed in 2007. I’m not sure what updates or changes were made for the 2007 edition, but Grosso makes a statement that it’s hard to sell soap online, and I’m sure it is hard if you have a stand-alone website and are slowly trying to build a business, but I think storefront sites like eBay and Etsy are changing that. I know eBay was around when the book was published, but Etsy wasn’t. Or at least it wasn’t large enough. Also, I think social networking in the form of sites like Twitter, Facebook, and especially Pinterest can make it easier to spread word of mouth about your soap. I have been sharing pictures of mine on Facebook and Instagram, and I have already have a few inquiries about purchasing it, and I’m not even ready to begin selling yet. I am not saying Grosso was wrong—I think she was probably right in 2003 or even 2007, but I think it’s a little easier to build a web-based business now than it might have been then. You have to be ready to do some serious social networking to move a large volume of soap, I’m sure, and good photography will be critical to your success, but I think perhaps the web is not the near lost cause she intimated it is.

Another issue I have with the book is a lack of pictures. You can’t have a soap-making book without full color pictures of soap! It might be that I’ve just been spending too much time on Pinterest lately, but I am learning that visuals are so important in soaping. I have learned more from looking at pictures and video tutorials than I thought possible when I started making soap. Even an instructional book for beginners, like this one, should have good, high-quality pictures to inspire readers.

That said, this book covers all the basics and is excellent for beginners. Highly recommended!

Note: I borrowed this book via Amazon on my Kindle through the Amazon Prime program.

Amy Lowell’s Lilac Soap

Amy Lowell
Amy Lowell via The Poetry Foundation

Amy Lowell is a Massachusetts poet. She loved the return of lilacs to New England in the spring and wrote a beautiful poem about it. I love lilacs, too. My grandmother had a lilac bush in her back yard. They were beautiful and smelled heavenly.

I tried yet another experiment this weekend: lilac soap. Who better to name a New England lilac soap after than Amy Lowell? I had intended to try swirling two colors for the first time, but things didn’t quite work out as I had planned.


  • 8 oz. olive oil
  • 8 oz. coconut oil
  • 12 oz. palm oil
  • 12 oz. coconut oil
  • 13.2 oz. distilled water
  • 5.472 oz. lye
  • 4 T lilac fragrance oil
  • 2 T alkanet powder

Right about Tuesday of this week, I measured out two tablespoons of alkanet powder and 4 oz. of olive oil into a plastic container, stirred well, and put a lid on the container. I put the alkanet and olive oil infusion in a dark cabinet. I took it out today to use with my lilac swirl soap, intending to make two small batches of soap in different colors. I mixed the oils for each of the colors at the same time, measuring out half of the required amount. I put the infused olive oil in my colored bowl so I could remember which batch was supposed to be colored. In case you were wondering, yes, the alkanet infusion stained the plastic, but it didn’t bother me much because I wasn’t trying to prevent staining. If you use colorants and don’t want to stain your plastic, just use a glass jar for infusing instead.

Alkanet InfusionIt was a little scary to clean up afterward. Perhaps it might be best after all just to use something you can dispose of, like a pickle jar.

I had problems with my lye being too hot again, and this time, I was just using distilled water. The common denominator seems to be the lye, which is a new brand. I think I just won’t buy it again once I’ve used it up. It’s too much of a hassle to put my lye in an ice bath every single time I want to make soap. I would expect it when I’m making milk-based soaps, but not water. The lye I bought from Bramble Berry the first time I made soap costs about the same amount, even factoring in shipping, so I will just be ordering it from them.

I mixed the batch without the alkanet first so that I wouldn’t mix colorant from the hand blender into the light mix. I poured 2 T of lilac fragrance oil into each small batch of soap. The trace was too thick when I tried to pour the soap. The lilac fragrance oil accelerated the trace. At any rate, it was all I could do to spoon out globs of the soap into my mold before it hardened too much to use. I had no idea what I was going to get when I cut it open, but I think that’s true whether you spoon it out or swirl it, especially the first time. I just smashed it into mold as quickly as I could and hoped when I cut it the next day all would be well.

Well, I can say this: it could have been worse. I at least have usable soap, even though it isn’t very pretty.

Lilac SoapWhere to begin? Well, the light color is really not very pretty at all, and I suspect that its yellowish tinge comes from the shea butter I used. It actually looks prettier in these photos than it does in person. Trust me. It’s kind of a gross yellow.

Given that the color isn’t very pretty, I wish I had just colored the whole batch purple. Live and learn. As a result of trying to do too much (swirl, in this case), I wound up having the soap seize up on me, and I desperately shoved the soap into the mold, but pockets formed where there was no soap, and it was really ugly when I cut the bars.

Lilac Soap
Look at that nasty air pocket!

I suppose everyone has a batch of soap seize up on them at least once, but at least now I know that working with the lilac fragrance oil is going to be tricky, and I will need to bring my temperatures down a little to slow down the time it takes to trace and add the fragrance at a lighter trace. I also learned that swirling is really hard with floral fragrance like lilac, so I may just need to make the soap one solid purple color instead.

Lilac Soap

I also had some problems with soda ash, which is probably because it seized up, and I wasn’t able to put it to bed as soon as I should have. I had to cut the bars down quite a bit to make them somewhat presentable, as most of them had air pockets on the sides where the soap globs didn’t mash together well.

The soap smells heavenly, just like my grandmother’s lilacs, and I tried lathering up with some of the cuttings as a test. The lather is smooth and creamy. The soap has cosmetic issues to be sure, but it is something that could be used, even if I don’t think I could give it away or sell it (unless I discounted it like those outlet stores do with clothes that have something wrong with them).

I’m sorry, Amy! Next time your soap will be worthy of your name!

Creative Commons License

Amy Lowell’s Lilac Soap by Dana Huff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at Suds Life: About.

How Much Oil Do You Need for Your Mold?

One of the most frustrating aspects of making soap that I encountered as a beginner was trying to figure out how much oil to use to make soap fit in a mold. I knew my soap mold held 3-4 pounds of soap, but what did that translate to in terms of amount of oils? My first batch didn’t have enough, and I wound up with squat-looking soap. My second batch had way too much, and I wound up making a weird looking extra bar (that really could have been two extra bars). It turns out I just wasn’t looking in the right place.

Soap Making Essentials is bar none one of the most comprehensive and helpful websites for beginners learning to make soap. Did you catch that terrible pun? I’m sorry. It turns out they had the answer to my problem on their Homemade Soap Recipes page.  You can figure out how much oil to use with a very simple mathematical formula:

Length of mold X Width of mold X Height of mold X 0.40 = Ounces of oil needed

I just can’t believe this simple mathematical formula is not in every basic soap book. The only one I have found that even mentions is is Anne-Marie Faiola’s Soap Crafting: Step-by-Step Techniques for Making 31 Unique Cold-Process Soaps.

I probably should have paid more attention in math class, or I might have been able to figure out the formula myself, but I’m glad I stumbled on it anyhow. Thank you again, Soap Making Essentials, for the wonderful resource.

So what should you do if you have a round mold? Time to go back to Geometry 101.

The area for a cylinder (which is basically what a round mold is, even if it’s a short cynlinder), is Πr²*height of the mold. If it’s been a while for you, remember that Π is roughly equal to 3.14 and r means the radius, which is half of the diameter—the measurement of of the mold from side to side. So, if you have a cylinder mold that is 4 inches in diameter, then it has a radius of 2. Two squared (the little ² by the r) means multiply 2 times itself, which happens to be 4. Multiply Π and the radius of 2², or 4, and then multiply the product of that calculation by the height of the mold. Let’s pretend the mold is 10 inches. Multiply 4 x 3.14 (Π) x 10, which would equal 125.6 ounces. But wait! Remember we have to account for the water, so multiply one more time by 0.4. 125.6 x 0.4 = 50.24, which means your cylinder mold will hold a recipe using about 50 ounces of oils.

Height of mold X Radius of mold squared X 3.14 X 0.40 = Ounces of oil needed

Note: Be careful that you do square the radius (multiply the number by itself) rather than just double it. It will not always be double. For example, if you have mold with a radius of 3 inches, then squared, it would be 9 rather than 6.

If you have an mold with an odd shape, then it is best to calculate how much oil to use by using a water-volume calculation. You should fill your mold with water and then pour the water out into a measuring cup with volume markers. Then, multiply the number of ounces in the cup by 1.8 to calculate the total number of cubic inches in the mold. Then multiply that number by 0.4. For example, if your irregular mold holds 6 ounces of water, multiply 6 x 1.8, which is 10.8. Then multiply 10.8 x 0.4, which is 4.32. You would use 4.32 ounces of oils to make soap with this mold.

Amount of water in ounces X 1.8 X 0.40 = Ounces of oil needed

A final word of advice: I use grams in all my measurements because I find them more accurate, but these formulas work for ounces. I am sure there are similar formulas for grams, but I have not found a good calculation for metric volume. My advice would be to create a recipe using ounces, and then use the metric amounts given in SoapCalc, which always delivers the amounts in ounces, pounds, and grams for easy conversion. Alternatively, you could calculate your amount of oils in ounces and multiply by 28.35 (the number of grams in an ounce) or use an online conversion tool, such as this one, to calculate how many grams your mold will hold.

The Natural Soap Chef, Heidi Corley Barto

The Natural Soap ChefAs I have been learning how to make soap, I’ve been on the lookout for helpful books with lots of beautiful pictures—not just for instructions, but also for inspiration. I have seen several reviews of Heidi Corley Barto’s new book The Natural Soap Chef. It’s a gorgeous book with lots of great tips for additives. For instance, Barto uses baby food instead of pureed fruit, which would be a great time-saver. She also explains exactly how to use liquids other than water (such as goat milk or tea).

The recipes are mostly variations on the same four ingredients: olive oil, shea butter, coconut oil, and palm oil. Those ingredients are the staples of good soap. I think I might have enjoyed seeing a few different types of oils discussed, but it wasn’t a huge deal because of the large variety of ideas. I liked thinking about how many ways I could use the same ingredients to make very different soaps. Also, I think it’s great for beginners to master a basic recipe and still have a chance to experiment within those confines. I had a quibble with Catherine Bardey’s Making Soaps and Scents because she also used the same basic three-oil recipe for almost all the soaps in her book, but frankly, I think what bothered me was that one of Bardey’s ingredients was shortening. I know it can be used in soap, but it just doesn’t seem right to me. I just don’t like the idea of using Crisco® in my soap! However, olive oil, shea butter, coconut oil, and palm oil—I can get behind. They may or may not be more natural than shortening. I honestly don’t know. But they seem more natural, and if I were buying handmade soap, I’d rather see them on the list of ingredients than shortening.

I am confused about one thing. Barto recommends putting the soap into the refrigerator after you pour it, but everything else I’ve read seems to indicate soap needs to cool slowly, and that you should wrap it in towels to keep it warm until it sets a little. I guess I’m having some cognitive dissonance here, and now I’m not sure. My own experience with the first two batches is that wrapping them and keeping them warm works well for me, so I’m not sure I will follow that particular advice. I suppose there are just many ways to make soap, but I admit I am curious as to why Barto does things so differently after the soap is in the mold.

I love some of Barto’s ideas. I had already created my own lemongrass sage recipe, but hers looks good, and I plan to infuse half of my olive oil with sage just like she did, which was something I had not thought of doing (I’m making the lemongrass sage this weekend). Also, thanks to Barto, I now have a good chai tea soap recipe that looks easy (and I already have the chai teabags I need! score!), and I love her idea for creating tissue paper tea bags to wrap those soaps in. Clever!

This is a great book, whether you’re a beginner like me or a more advanced soap maker looking for ideas. Christmas is taken care of this year!

Why Soap?

When I tell people I started making soap, they ask me why. It’s a funny question for a crafter. No one asks why someone takes up knitting or painting or woodworking. I suppose making soap isn’t something that occurs to many people, though, so it’s an understandable question.

I decided I wanted to learn to make soap when I started buying soap from Indigo Bath & Body at the farmers’ market where I used to live in Georgia. They make a soap that is just the best thing I’ve ever put on my face. My skin looks so great when I use this soap regularly. I wash my face with it every morning and evening. The bars last forever as long as you follow their directions and wait two weeks (at least) before using them. All of their soaps are so pretty and just plain interesting. I decided I wanted to try.

I started pinning recipes and ideas to Pinterest and reading blogs. My first batch of soap was a basic recipe, and for a first batch, it didn’t turn out bad. My second batch turned out wonderful, and I think that’s what hooked me for good. I loved everything about the process: I loved mixing the oils and lye and watching the soap thicken. I loved checking on it every hour or so to see how it was coming along. I loved how it turned into soap. The chemistry feels almost like a miracle—you combine a few oils with water and lye, and 24 hours later, it’s a solid hunk of soap. How does that work? That’s amazing! I also liked the idea that it wasn’t hard to do and that I could create my own recipes. I just fell in love with the hobby.

I decided to make soap because I was curious, but now I’m hooked. I love the idea that I can make something useful and beautiful with my own hands.

Hello Soap!

I made my first ever batch of soap last weekend, and it didn’t turn out very pretty.

It was a recipe from Elizabeth Letcavage and Patsy Buck’s Basic Soap Making, which is a book I highly recommend for beginning soap-makers. This soap is a basic four-oil recipe—olive, canola, coconut, and safflower.

The trouble I had was that my mold was bigger (3 pounds) than the recipe called for, and being inexperienced, I wasn’t sure how much to change the recipe so that the soap would fill the mold. I also wasn’t sure whether to expect the soap to expand. As a result, the bars are nice and thick, but they’re sort of squat.

Still, for my first ever batch, I have to say I’m pleased. The soap has been curing for a week, and it will be ready to use in about three more weeks.

The recipe I used isn’t mine to share, but it’s the Basic Four Oil Soap Recipe from Basic Soap Making, with the addition of (not enough) lavender essential oil and sweet orange essential oil. I’ve since discovered I really need to add more essential oil than I initially thought.

Still, it was a great learning experience, and I’ll be interested to see what the soap is like to use.