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?)
boil the water to concentrate
I have wanted to make soap for years–still haven’t done it-but I never considered trying to make lye!!! I have always loved the idea of learning how to make “old fashioned ” things. I am now 52 with 3 children still at home. My husband and I have 11 between the two of us. He had 2, I had 2, we had 7, including a set of identical twin girls. My hubby adopted both of mine because they were so young. I love to hear that so many people are still interested in doing these kind of things!!!.
When I was in high school I had to give a speech in my speech class. I am assuming we got to choose our our subject, because I gave a speech about how I felt that people should learn to do some of the “old fashioned” things that people used to do—-in case there was ever a time when we may need to know how to use them for some reason. When I graduated, I was awarded the senior “non-conformist” girl. Doubt too many other people wwere thinking about homesteading type of stuff at 18!!!
No, I don’t think many are but I was! True kindred spirits, eh? 🙂
It was great to read this! I live in the city now (Oakland, CA. Doesn’t get much more city than that!) but one day plan on homesteading in the NW with my husband and future children. I have read about making lye before and am eager to try it myself. I have read that it takes quite a lot of ash to make lye, so maybe that was the problem. One book I read on the subject said that the amount of egg showing is about the size of quarter when the lye solution is the correct strength. If you try again I know we would all love to know how it turns out!!! And never don’t post your experiences. These are how we can learn together! Now that we saw how yours turned out we can speculate on what might help it go better next time. 🙂
saleem khan says
Take a heap of ash,even ordinary ash also do the work.
Put some stones into plastic bucket, and some inches of straw.
Drill a small hole at one end to the bucket and allow to release lye, at the end.
Put some wood ash into bucket.
Put some tap water in it ,either cool r hot.
What would u observe? it starts little sound producing and light dust.
Add limited water to it.hot r cool. add some hot water to it.
The straw and stones acts as filters.
Collect lye from bucket to other container..plastic.
Now test its strength by dropping a potato r an egg in it.
If an egg r potato starts float in it, u succeeded , if it sinks u fails.
Now is the question when we buy lye from market we r already familiar about it and it surely
is in crystals,but we form is a solution, don:t worry! place your solution under sun the water rises up due to heat, completely and we will get crystals.simply!
Carrie, thank you so much for sharing this. I am laughing so hard right now there are tears in my eyes. My kids are looking at me like like I am crazy. 🙂 I just stumbled across your site today looking for directions for making lard. Saw this post on lye and was interested because we have a big pile of maple ash we are not sure what to do with. I was cracking up towards the end :). Maybe this is one that I will leave to the pioneers. Good to know that things aren’t always as easy as they seem. Love your sense of humor and the great information you are providing! Thank you!
Yes as Janie said above you can make hard soap with wood ash lye by throwing in the salt. In colonial times or rural areas salt was a valuable resource – why bother with making hard soap when soft worked just fine? Thus most chose to use their resources wisely. 🙂 Sodium Hydroxide tho does not need to have the salt added to make a hard soap.
My hubby makes lye. His setup is a bucket with a spigot at the bottom. He has gravel rocks at the bottom too. On top of that he drapes a painters canvas to filter his lye so it comes out clean. We have a wood burning furnace – not stove – which gets the ashes burned extremely efficient. The lye he gets as soon as he pours it comes out very strong. He doesn’t even have to set it up for any amount of time, just as soon as it filters. Interestingly when he does let it sit out uncovered it begins to crystallize.
When we lived in the South we used pine straw & rocks to make our lye and inadvertently made Pine Tar soap from it. That lye at first wasn’t as strong and we have since attributed it to lesser quality ashes as we pulled them from the wood stove we had back then which didn’t burn nearly as efficient. We did finally get it to do the egg test tho I remember we had to keep pouring it back with more ash and then boiling it down to get it right.
Well you have a great site here! I really enjoyed going thru so many of your posts! 🙂
Yeah, we also fail at making lye. 🙂 Funniest part of the story: My husband figured we should concentrate the solution through evaporation (like the other folks who suggested boiling it). Put the lye in a pot on the wood stove to evaporate slowly. Went to town for a few hours to run errands, came home and found the lye had eaten a hole in the pot and all the water had drained out all over the stove and the glass door. I’m still trying to clean the film off the glass several years later. And stink! What a smell. Just goes to show, sometimes instructions (like boil the lye) don’t tell you everything you really need to know. Love your site, by the way, and keep on homesteading. We’ve failed at plenty of projects, which makes success all the sweeter.
You definitly need more ashes and pour boiling water over the ashes.It releases lye from ashes.It makes a hissing sound but don’t be scared but do be careful.I made soap like this.I could pick up the bars but it was very soft soap.They say if you make it from beef tallow it will be harder.Also I have read that if you throw in some salt at the end of cooking it will be hard soap.
Karen Wood says
Good try. I have this great book that shows how to build a wood trough with slanted sides that meet together in a V to drip the lye. I think it takes a lot of wood ash. Like a winters worth of burning in a wood stove or fire place. My book is packed away right now so can’t go look for you but you could get one for yourself. Awesome book that tells how to do and make thousands of farm living things. They have it on amazon for various prices used. –>http://amzn.to/LoUlAF
Yeah, that must be it. Not enough wood ash in my little container maybe. Cool – I will have to check out that book!
Don’t give up! Burn some more wood at home with your Papa and bring the ashes on back with you. Forget about the rocks and the straw. Just put your ashes into the plastic tub, and maybe put some of those rocks under the tub at the back end only so that it is sitting tilted down towards the front where the hole is. Now get several buckets of water on hand, city water, distilled it doesn’t matter. have a plastic or stainless steel container sitting under the hole of the plastic tub to catch the lye. Put a piece of burlap or cheesecloth inside the plastic tub at the hole (just wad it up and stick it in the hole), like a strainer, to keep the wood bits from floating out with your lye. You’re ready to pour the water slowly over the ashes, and just keep slowly pouring it. Wet all the ashes down until they are soaking and keep pouring water. Not so much that the ashes are submerged with two inches or more of water over them! Just enough to keep the ashes soaked and the water will start running out of the tub into your container. it should be a reddish brown, and yes it will severely burn you or any pet or child. A drop left on the floor will burn you tomorrow or next week. Maybe put some newspapers under the container on the floor. Keep pouring water over the ashes until no more color comes out with the water. When the water is clear, you’re done. Yes, you can stop and go get more water, and come back and keep pouring. The liquid in the container is potassium hydroxide, it makes a soft liquid like soap. Hard soaps today are made from sodium hydroxide. The ashes in the plastic tub are now spent and can be put on the garden or flower bed or discarded in the yard. The liquid lye, potassium hydroxide, is VERY DANGEROUS. It is caustic, and alkali. You must keep it securely covered with no likelihood of spills. But if you have made soap with lye before , then you already know how you have to protect yourself. Have fun!
saleem khan says
Yes certainly, i also faced same situation on making lye.After i complete lye making process i i tried to check its strength ,whether it is ready for use are not , i bought a little bird feather and drop it into the lye, i saw the feather stay at the top instead of dissolved in it. after it i do my best to try again but i failed again about 15 days to achieve . After it i tried again and this time i can say i felt certain progressive this time,but not much even better after checked!!. So my message to all desired guys is to don;t give up and stay in concentrate and make sure be in touch with nature.
From my understanding, you were trying to make potassium hydroxide, not sodium hydroxide. I have always used sodium hydroxide from the store, but have also wanted to make my own potash. My grandmother made soap with her mom growing up. She said they boiled the ash water until it was strong enough. Also, it doesn’t make a hard soap, but they would leave it in a small tin and scoop a little out as needed. I think you needed a lot more ashes, as only about 10% becomes koh, which would explain why the amount of water used would dilute it too much and the need for boiling. Love your blog!! Check out mine:-) http://simplelifemom.com
Dang! Now that I’m into making my own soap,I thought I too would give lye making a try. You did exactly what I had read. If you ever try again, let us know how it goes.
Thanks for the wonderful blog.
I hopped over from DIY Natural. Thanks for sharing this. I loved reading this post Karrie. You are my kind of gal because I have been wanting to make lye too. Afterall, why buy it if you can make it? You are a step ahead of me b/c I haven’t even made any soap yet but I know I will love it! I remember my mom making lye when I was little and she is gone now so I cannot ask her. We burn wood to heat our home so we have ash in abundance to experiment with. Thanks for the tips! I hope you try it again.
Thanks Cheryl! I hope you do try it and let me know how it goes!
Thanks for sharing. I have been interested in making lye for a while now but haven’t made it a priority to do the research. So, I learned something from your article! I learned that the ashes need to be from a hard wood source. I didn’t know that. Maybe I’ll try it sometime. Everything is getting so expensive!
Mary L says
You might try checking the Mother Earth News website, they have a plethora of homesteading info.
Marie B. says
Wow! It never would have occurred to me that I could even make lye at home! Your homesteading adventures are so exciting to read about, and I’m even more impressed with your honesty and willingness to share. Thanks so much! Please keep telling us all about your projects, whether they work well or not. It’s inspiring!
I love reading about all your adventures, success or failure. They are very informative and interesting.
I have never made lye, but in reading through the directions myself, my only guess is that there’s too much water for the amount of ash. It says to slowly pour in water and stop and cork it as soon as any starts coming out the cork. Yours seems to have lots pooled in the bottom instead of just wetting the ashes.
Oooh, interesting! Yes, you might be right.
You must share your fails! It makes us adore your successes all the more. Otherwise you will seem too perfect and I can’t stand people like that. (｡◕‿◕｡)
Ha ha! Well, I am not perfect, that’s for sure. Far from it. 🙂 But ya know…my kids under 9 still think I am, so that’s okay.
sandra driesen says
Thanks for sharing! I fail at stuff all the time they just make us stronger. Kudos to you for trying!
Thanks for sharing your successes and failures with your readers. Hey, if we never try something, we never know plus now you have a great story to tell your children and grandchildren someday. 🙂