In days gone by, people made their own soap for cleaning anything that needed to be cleaned. Many people still do and this is most often in the form of lye soap.
It is important to dispell one major myth and misconception. Lots of people have the notion that lye soap is harsh. This is untrue. If the soap is properly made, it is usually less harsh than commercially made soaps that people buy at the store, which normally contains harsh and sometimes toxic manmade chemicals. This means that the soap is suitable for skin, hair, dishes, clothing or almost anything else that needs to be cleaned.
The ingredients in homemade lye soap
Basic lye soap has only four contents; lye, oil or fat, salt, and water. Essential oils can be added for scent, but this isn't absolutely necessary. That part is entirely up to you.
The oil is most often rendered from animal fat. It can be made from vegetable oils, including coconut 'butter', but the recipe used here uses the oil rendered from animal fat. Most often, this is sold as lard. If you truly want to make the lye soap, you can render the lard yourself. However, it can also be purchased. Again, that is totally up to you.
Lye is an alkaline substance, usually referred to being caustic. It is more properly either sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide. However, for the soap, you don't need to purchase lye, which is dangerous to work with. The soap can be made with purchased lye, but it isn't hard to make your own, as will be seen, and since the lye isn't purified and concentrated, it isn't as dangerous to work with.
To make your own lye, wood ashes are boiled in 'soft' or neutral water. This is lye water and it is strained through a filter to remove any large ash particles. Coffee filters work well for this or the lye water can simply be poured through cheesecloth. Incidentally, wood ash contains both sodium hydroxide and potassium hydroxide, but it contains nearly a dozen times more of the latter than the former.
It should be mentioned that some guides mention that the ashes should be from hardwood and not softwood because, they say, the softwood contains resins. I don't use that restriction here, for two main reasons.
First, both softwood and hardwood contain resin. Second, when this distinction is mentioned, the guides often mistakenly think of 'hardwood' as being densely packed wood, like oak. That isn't the definition of hardwood, even though oak is a hardwood.
Sugar maple, which is quite resinous, is also hardwood, as is alder, elm, cottonwood, and willow, which usually isn't tightly packed. There is very little difference what kind of wood ash is used. All that said, oak ash makes the best lye soap.
What is important, though, is that the ash is what is used, rather than the charcoal from unconsumed wood. Ash has the consistency of dust or fine dirt particles.
What else you'll need for making lye soap
You'll want a pot and a wooden spoon for preparing the soap solution. Do not use anything that is made of aluminum as it will rapidly corrode. An enameled pot is ideal because it is non-reactive. The pot should be able to hold over one gallon or four quarts, though. The pot and spoon should be used for no other purpose, though, so picking up something at a second-hand store is perfectly okay.
You'll also want molds or forms. Small wooden boxes that are 3 inches by 2 inches by 2 inches work well. You can also use a frame that is three inches deep and larger than 2 x 2, if you wish, and just cut the bars of soap down when they are finished. The idea is that you'll want the bars to be about the size of those that are purchased at the store. This is the handiest size for use. There are also molds for candle and soap making on the market that can be purchased if you are going to make a lot of lye soap.
Making the lye soap
Making the soap is really quite easy and you might be surprised at how simple it is.
1. Pour two quarts of cold wood ashes in the pot and add just enough water to cover the ashes with about a half inch of water. Bring this mixture to a boil and boil for about a half hour, then allow the water to cool and strain it out.
Important note: If you use commercial sodium hydroxide, always pour the hydroxide into the water. Never pour the water into the hydroxide. Adding water to hydroxide can result in splattering or even an explosion.
2. To 1/2 gallons of lye water in the pot, add 1 pound of lard. Bring the mixture to a boil and cook until it is thick. This can take 2 - 4 hours. You are basically boiling out the excess water.
3. If you want to use the soap for dishes, nothing else needs to be done, since it should be thick but semi-fluid at this point. If you want solid soap, add 1-2 tablespoons of salt and boil the mixture, stirring, for an additional 5-10 minutes. The salt helps the soap set solidly. It can be helpful to add just a little water to the salt, to dissolve it, before adding it to the soap mixture. If you don't add the salt, the soap should remain fluid, though thick.
If you want to add essential oils or even food coloring for colored soap, it is at this point that you would stir them in, while the soap is still hot and fluid, but just after the soap is removed from the heat.
4. Pour the soap into the molds and allow it to completely cool, cutting the bars if necessary once they are cool. Once cool, the bars of soap are ready for use.
This may not sound very simple, but it really is. It does take some time to make the soap, but it isn't difficult, by any means. In fact, I've even used this recipe to make lye dish soap out in camp, when the dish soap was unfortunately left behind. The only difference was that I used bacon drippings rather than lard for the soap.
Knowing how to make your own soap is a step in becoming totally self-sufficient. It is inexpensive and easy to do. Homemade lye soap can also be made totally from scratch or by using some things that have been purchased at the store. This recipe can be easily doubled, tripled or quadrupled. Best of all, since the ingredients are natural and the soap doesn't contain manmade chemicals, it produces very little in the way of an environmental impact.