We’ve previously taken a look at wood ashes, and as promised in this article we’re going to delve into one of their most prominent uses as a soap-making ingredient. Lye soap is actually quite old, having been used by many different cultures and societies around the world as a way of profitably reusing meat drippings and the remains of old campfires. For the preparedness minded, lye soap is a convenient cleanser for the body and many other surfaces in addition to being an easily transportable barter item.
Disclaimer and Important Safety Info. I put disclaimers on most of my posts, but in this case you should really take a moment to read this. Lye in its distilled form is extremely caustic, and it can easily eat through your skin, muscles, fat, and even the nerves without you noticing until it is much too late. Always cover exposed skin, wear eye goggles, and wear thick rubber gloves when making lye or handling it when making soap. Always use lye in a well-ventilated area. Be extremely cautious with it and you should be fine.
Furthermore, despite what you may have heard, vinegar is an absolutely terrible idea when you are burned with lye, as the reaction between small amounts of vinegar and burning lye will actually cause extreme heat, which will add a thermal burn on top of the chemical one. Rather than trying to neutralize the lye with vinegar, simply dilute the lye with as much water as you can by vigorously rinsing it and rinsing it as much as possible. I would recommend that you have someone else (such as a helper!) call 911 so you can focus on washing the lye until they tell you different. This website goes into the nitty-gritty of why this is, so please check it out if you aren’t fully convinced.
With that little disclaimer out of the way, let’s delve into the soap-making!
First step, getting the lye
The first thing you need to make lye soap is, naturally, the lye. This is typically derived from wood ashes, specifically ashes from hardwood trees as they tend to be less resinous and give better product over all. The method for taking ashes from your fire and turning them into lye is as follows:
Lovely brown lye water. Make sure you don’t use a metal container!
- Gather the fine white ashes (not wood chips if any remain) and place them in a container that can resist the alkalinity of the lye. Metal and glass are not suitable for this task: use plastic or wood. This container should be large enough to hold several gallons of water, and ideally should have a tightly closable lid to avoid accidental spills or splashings.
- Gather several gallons of soft water, usually rainwater works best. Water from wells and rivers tends to be filled with additives that interfere with soap-making, and you may need to add a few scoops of baking soda to the water if you don’t have sufficient rainwater handy.
- Slowly and gently pour the soft water over the ashes, taking care to avoid splashing. Stop when you start seeing ashes floating around in the water instead of dissolving.
- Allow the mixture to sit for at least 24 hours, though it may be even longer. The water needs time to leach the lye out of the ashes, and you’ll know there’s lye in the water once it starts turning brown.
- Test the water periodically by adding an egg or potato and seeing if it floats in the liquid. If it floats with about half of the egg or potato showing, your have the proper ratio of lye to water. If it sinks too much, you have too much water and you need more ashes. If it floats higher, add more soft water since the lye concentration is too high. Alternatively, place a single bird feather in the mixture and see if it dissolves the feather to determine proper concentration. Immediately dispose of any foodstuffs that touch the lye water, and do not put it in a compost heap.
- Carefully scoop out the lye from the surface of the water into another resistant container for final boiling. You’ll want to use avoid getting actual ashes on your skimming tool of choice, but otherwise just avoid splashing.
- Test the lye again for proper balance.
Preparing the fat
Fat is the other primary ingredient in lye soap, whether it be leftover fat from butchering or just the drippings of grease from cooked meat. Fortunately this is a lot easier and safer to deal with than the lye, though you should watch for grease fires.
Once the fat has been cleaned and hardened, scrape off the muddy looking junk and use the pure white fat.
- To clean the fat, pour the liquid drippings through multiple layers of cheesecloth in order to strain out gristle and meat bits from the fat.
- Bring equal parts grease and water to a boil, then remove the mixture from the heat source and add another 1/4 of water.
- Once the fat has solidified, remove anything that looks “dirty”, leaving the clean fat behind. Continue this cycle until the fat is pure.
- On your final cleansing add about a spoonful of salt to the mixture. If using drippings of fat from cooking, also boil this last load in a mixture of 1/2 cup of water mixed with a few spoonfuls of vinegar per cup of fat you’ve collected.
Bringing it all together to make soap
Now you need to mix the fat and lye together to make your soap. The goal is to use the fat to solidify the mixture while the lye works to keep the greasiness of the fat to a minimum, making a nice liquid mixture that can harden into a bar of soap. Generally speaking the mixture should be 12 parts lye to one part fat. Take care to properly dilute the lye during this process or the soap will remain caustic and dangerous to the skin!
- Mix lye in about 10 quarts of water and begin boiling it. This gets the lye ready to be mixed in with the fat and dilutes it a little more.
- Mix in your fat, maintaining the boil. You don’t need to stir just yet, but you do want the fat to desolidify if you let it harden back up between the first cleaning and when you decide to make soap.
- Add 4 more quarts of water and begin stirring the mixture together as it boils down. Continue mixing until it is about the consistency of corn syrup, dripping but solid.
- Place a little bit of the mixure in a mold and let it dry into a bar of soap, then test it for proper feel and lye concentration. If it burns, add more fat to the rest of the mixture with water to dilute the lye. If the mixture is very greasy and the mixture has lots of scum on top of it during stirring, add more lye to break it down. Err on the side of too fatty rather than too caustic, since fat isn’t likely to hurt you!
- Once you have tested and found the proper balance, make as many bars as you wish and enjoy scrubbing. The soap is great for people as well as general household use. Flakes can even be shaved off and added to laundry washwater for homemade dish soap.
Lye soap can be quite soft, and is a great homemade item for preparedness.
And that’s all you need to make your own lye soap at home. Be careful with the lye and balance the concentration correctly and you should avoid any burns and have a safe, fun time making this stuff.