Making Soap From Wood-Ash Lye

The key to staying clean is using soap. Soap helps break the chemical bonds of dirt and stains to fabric and other items. It also helps to kills germs, including dangerous bacteria, which serves to keep us healthier. However, when you’re living amongst the trees, miles from any town or store, soap is difficult to come by. And even if you live down the street from a store and have access to soap, you may wish to make your own, for the experience and to save a little money.

A story I read says that the ancients noticed that when washing their clothes in the river, the clothes usually got cleaner after a rain. So, initially it was thought that rain water helped clean the clothes. However, later it was realized that this cleaner process only occurred in the river downhill from the area where animals were sacrificed as burned offerings. Now, whether this story is factual or not, it describes the three very basic ingredients of soap: 1) Water (rain water is preferred); 2) Fat (any animal or plant fat); and 3) Lye (homemade or commercial).

There is a difference between homemade, or original lye, and commercial lye.Homemade lye is Potassium Hydroxide and can be made rather simply at home from wood ashes Potassium Hydroxide makes a softer soap, so the fat or oils used will need to be beef tallow (beef fat) or even lard (pig fat). You can use other fats, but the finished product will be much softer.

Commercial lye is Sodium Hydroxide, which is much more complex to manufacture, and is often used in drain openers. In order for commercial lye to work properly in soap, it must be pure sodium hydroxide, which is becoming difficult to find in grocery stores. If you are not sure if your lye is pure, you can look at the crystals. If you see flecks of gray or black, you should avoid it when making soap. You can also ask the manufacturer.

Both types of lye are very caustic and can cause serious burns and injuries when they come in contact with skin and eyes. In my experience, commercial lye is extremely caustic and unforgiving. Take it seriously and wear eye protection, protective gloves, and keep all skin surfaces covered when working with any type of lye.