My adventures in homesteading and self-sufficiency have been really fun for me most of the time. I was excited to try to make homemade soap from scratch just like homesteaders did long ago. I mean, soap is a necessity for survival long term. You eat on dishes, and you need to clean them with soap. Your clothes need cleaned, you need soap. You take a bath, yep – you need soap. It is a basic necessity and I decided to try to figure out the process.
To make homemade soap you need lye. What is lye you ask? Lye is an alkaline solution made from wood ash that will totally burn your skin if you get any on you. But when combined with a fat substance like lard or tallow you will get homemade soap through a chemical reaction.
I have already made homemade soap using lye that I purchased from the store and I love it. LOVE it people…I have none left from my first batch and need to make some more.
Pioneers from long ago made their own homemade lye using wood ash and rain water to leach the lye out of it. Here is an old article clip from a book about making soap from lye. It’s so interesting.
From researching online for a few days I read that I needed some river rocks, straw, wood ash, a barrel and rain water.
But it couldn’t be just any wood ash. It needed to be wood ash from a hard wood type of tree.
Problem is, I live in the city.
I have one baby apple tree in my yard and I wasn’t planning on chopping it down for this experiment. And you cannot just go down to the grocery store and buy the wood bundles they sell there because at least in our area they are all pine, which is not a hard wood. A hard wood would be oak, maple, apple, cherry etc.
I searched on craigslist and saw people selling firewood bundles but everyone I called only had soft wood types for sale. We do have orchards around my area and a guy from my church said he would bring me some. But then he moved away and I never received it. Drats.
It was not looking good for me.
Then this past June I was able to visit my parents in Missouri. They live on 30 acres full of trees. And guess what? They were oak and maple trees…woo hoo! So I asked my Dad if he would gather some branches and make me some ash to take back to Washington.
So he did. He loves me I tell ya. We burned a whole wheelbarrow full of wood. And it was awesome, a great night for a bonfire. This was the highlight of making lye for me. Spending time with my papa around a fire.
The next morning the branches were all burned down to a fine white ash as you can see in this picture. I bagged it up in a gallon sized bag. I was hoping I could get it onto the plane home without them thinking I was carrying drugs or something. But as it went through the scanners and checks, nothing happened at all. So for future reference – you can bring wood ash aboard a plane. I know you will all be relieved to know that.
When I got home I got really busy with homesteading and gardening tasks, and didn’t get around to making lye until a few weeks ago.
My first step was to drill a small hole into a plastic bin. Apparently you should check to see if your plastic bin is strong enough to keep the lye by pouring boiling water in it to see if it ruins or melts it real bad. I didn’t do this…I guess I am a risk taker. That or just lazy. Yeah, probably lazy.
Next I added a cork to the small hole.
Then I took it outside to start filling the lye container with rocks and straw.
First layer was some river rocks.
Second layer I added 6 inches of straw.
Then I sprinkled my wood ash on top of the straw.
To make it easy later to get the lye out of the container, I put my bin on top of some logs.
Then I poured the water over the ash. I didn’t have rain water..I live in the desert and there wasn’t any rain for the past month so I bought a few gallons of distilled water.
Poured it over until the water came out the hole – which was pretty much instantly. Then I plugged up the hole with the cork.
I allowed it to sit there for 3 days. After 3 days you should have lye.
The above picture is how it looked before the 3 days. And this picture is how it looked after the 3 days.
I opened the cork to release the liquid into a bowl.
And then plugged the cork back in, using gloves of course.
Next it was testing time. Time to see if my lye is strong enough to make soap with.
You can test with a chicken feather – if it dissolves then your lye is ready.
Or you can drop an egg in there and see if it floats.
My egg did not float. My feather did not dissolve.
So I poured the liquid back in and waited 3 more days.
Still the same result. I waited a few more days again. Same thing. Waited 7 days. Nothin.
I failed at making lye.
I probably needed more ash or something. I have no idea of why it didn’t work. Maybe it’s because I used distilled water instead of rain water. Not sure. Either way I was really frustrated.
I decided to just give up. I didn’t want to deal with trying to find more ash and real rainwater. It’s just too easy to go an buy some lye from the hardware store instead. I almost didn’t even post this because who really wants to read about failure? I seem to have a whole lot of failures, but it’s what keeps me appreciating when I have successes I suppose.
You can bet that if there was a zombie apocolyspe or something I would totally be trying this again in the wild. But for now I will be buying lye at the store for $3.99. Maybe I will even buy a few extras to store now that I know how hard it is to make.
I hope you enjoyed this post on how NOT to make homemade lye. Let me know if you have ever successfully made lye yourself (and tell me what you think I did wrong?)