We report here the optimization of processes for producing sub-20 nm soft x-ray zone plates, using a general purpose electron beam lithography system and commercial resist technologies. We have critically evaluated the failure point of the various process steps and where possible chosen alternate methods, materials, or otherwise modified the process. Advances have been made in most steps of the process, including the imaging resist, pattern conversion for electron beam exposure, and pattern transfer. Two phase shifting absorber materials, germanium and nickel with excellent quality using polymethyl methyl accrylate and zones as small as 20 nm have been fabricated in nickel using the calixarene resist. The total efficiency as well as the efficiency of different regions of the zone plates were measured. All zone plates have demonstrated good efficiencies, with nickel zone plates performing better than germanium zone plates.