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With the holiday season growing ever closer, your party-planning mom will love a handmade gift that doubles as a special treat for guests. Homemade soap is a beautiful — and environmentally friendly — alternative to the bar soap purchased at the drugstore or grocery store. But making soap is a fairly precise process that involves working with a caustic substance (lye), and if you’ve never done it before, it can be intimidating. Fear not — there is another way.

Making hand-milled soap allows you to experiment with soap making while bypassing many of the more complex steps in making handmade soap. You don’t have to purchase, or create, a lot of extra supplies, and you get to repurpose boring old plain bars of soap that you may already have in your medicine cabinet. And it tends to have a more natural look than the typical processed bar of soap. What’s not to like?

The process of hand milling soap is also known as rebatching. Often, soap makers will hand mill soap that for some reason has not turned out successfully. But if you don’t have the time, or the inclination, to make your own soap with lye, you can hand mill store-bought bars of soap. (Note: Hand-milled soap is also called French milled, or triple-milled, soap. The type of hand-milled soap discussed here is not ground and reprocessed as commercial French milled soap is, but it is milled in the sense that it is reprocessed.)

Basic supplies for hand-milled soap:

  • 3 bars of plain white unscented soap
  • Stainless steel or glass bowl
  • Cheese grater
  • Water or coconut milk
  • Small saucepan
  • Wooden spoon
  • Additive (essential oil, natural fragrance oil, colloidal oatmeal, jojoba beads, lavender, etc.)
  • Plastic container or candy molds
  • Baking rack
Instructions for hand-milled soap:

1. Grate the soap. Over a stainless steel or glass bowl, grate the bars of soap so that you have about 2 cups of grated soap.

2. Melt the soap. Add 1/2 cup of water or coconut milk (which may make for a smoother consistency of soap) to the flakes in the bowl — just enough liquid to wet the flakes. (If you use too much liquid, you’ll just have to wait longer for the soap to cure — see step 6.) Place the bowl over a saucepan of water about a third full to create a double boiler. Over medium-low heat, stir frequently and gently with a wooden spoon so that soap doesn’t stick to the bottom of the bowl and you don’t make suds. Stir until the soap liquefies. (If soap appears to be drying out, add water or milk.) It should appear somewhat lumpy and translucent.

3. Add other ingredients. Remove the soap from the heat and add whatever ingredients you want, blending well. (There are a number of soap recipes to be found online, or you can add about 20 drops of fragrance.)

4. Spoon soap into molds. You can use either a plastic rectangular container (which will create a block of soap you can later cut into bars) or candy molds (to create shapes), or any other type of mold you like. You can also use molds of seasonal shapes, such as Christmas trees or stars, for a festive look. Tap the molds gently on the counter to settle the soap and remove air pockets.

5. Cool the soap. Let the soap sit in the molds for a few minutes and then place in the freezer for up to an hour, to make it easier to remove from the soap.

6. Cure the soap. This process can take up to three weeks. Set the soaps on a baking rack so that air can get to all sides. Once hardened, the soaps are ready to be wrapped and given away!

For a decorative touch, wrap the bars in plain white tissue paper or parchment and secure the wrapping with a ribbon or length of yarn, and attach a handmade tag that indicates what’s in the soap.

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