wood ashes

Making lye water

In my mind, being self sufficient includes being able to make soap; not saying that we will never buy another bar made by someone else, just saying I want to know how… from scratch.  This soap will be made from we already have on the homestead; wood ash (lye water) and lard.

Buying lye is the quick way, if your local hardware store carries it; ours does not (strange, eh?). The hardware store is ordering lye for me, leaving time to start the process of making lye water.

 !! caution !!

Before starting this adventure, there are a few rules:  Always, always wear gloves and protective eye wear when fooling with lye and/or lye water.  This stuff is caustic and will cause you much grief if it gets onto your skin/face, etc.  Be kind to your future self; WEAR GLOVES, PROTECT YOUR EYES, and keep some vinegar in a spray bottle to neutralize anywhere you did not protect.  Keep your kids, dogs, unprotected friends/neighbors out of the way when working with this stuff.  Do not get distracted, pay attention to what is going on and what you are doing. 

Ok, on to the advanture. . . In the past, the ability to make a hard bar of soap was an accomplishment and the grounds for boasting; soft soap was viewed as a failure and not shared.  The type of wood ash used to make lye water determines the hardness, or not, of the soap. We burn mostly hard wood in the wood cook stove, while the outside wood furnace gets everything else.  That being said, I expect the soap made with this lye water will be middle of the road. There are a slew of DIY tutorials on how to make lye water, with differing opinions on whether to/or not use cast iron, how to set up your leaching buckets, etc.  My method is a blend of these sources:

  1. Take two 5 gal buckets (in retrospect, I only needed one), install a spicot in each.
  2. Layer straw and wood ash, beginning with straw on the bottom then a layer of ash, layer of straw, etc. until you are within about two inches from the top of the bucket.  Some DIYs have your first layer of stone, then straw, then to the top with wood ash.
  3. Pour rainwater (or distilled) over the top, drain out of the bottom, pour back over the top, rinse and repeat until the water resembles the color of tea.
  4. Boil down in a cast iron (cleans the pot) or stainless steel pot (NO ALUMINUM), outside or in a well ventilated area.  You know you have the correct ratio of lye to water when a potato floats in the cooled water.  A quarter sized part of the potato should be above the surface.

So far, after a few hours of boiling (one really does not need two 5 gallon buckets of lye water), my potato does not float.  This project (the boil down) is now on hold until my next day off  and the weather permits; temps in the teens and snow are in the forecast.  The lye ordered by the hardware store will be in today or tomorrow and I may make soap with that while waiting to continue the lye water boil down – this skill will be mastered, even if it takes a few days to finish.

Have you made lye water to use in soap making?  If so, what did you do?