Wash Clothes by Hand with a Washboard

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by Pixabay/stux

There it is . . . the place you’ve dreamed about for so long. So what if the roof leaks and the running water doesn’t run? You’ve worked hard for your homestead and now you have the time to make things work for you.

In the meantime, though, there’s that pile of grubby clothes . . . especially those dirty diapers that can’t wait until the well is dug or the pump is fixed. Do you drive, walk or ride to the nearest coin-eating laundromat, or dump on relatives or neighbors? Why should you? If you hand wash your clothes, you can get the wash clean faster, more efficiently and more conveniently right where you are, electricity or not!

An investment of $27 at Sears will buy you a double washtub with bottom drain hoses (a very convenient feature . . . they hook over the side when the tub is filled, and let the water out when lowered). Or you can try secondhand or country hardware stores for the makings of a more portable setup with two single tubs. (You may be tempted to get by with only one, but this wastes time and – even worse – water.) If you don’t mind dumping their contents over the edge, you can forget the fancy tubs with drain hoses. Any large porcelain or galvanized basins will do. Material that rusts, however, will stain your clothes.

The other necessary piece of equipment you’ll need for your do-it-yourself laundry by hand project – the washboard or scrubbing board- isn’t as easy to come by as it used to be. Years ago I foolishly gave away my trusty laundry aid and was later faced with the task of finding a replacement. I thought that would be a snap in northern Canada’s general stores, which still handled kerosene lamps. No way! I finally found what I wanted in Fairbanks, Alaska, in one of the most incredibly complete hardware emporiums I’ve ever encountered.

You may face similar problems, but if you can find one the investment it worth it. Unless you’re washing only small amounts of delicate clothing, you’ll need a large size. The aluminum models are lightweight and move around too much under washing action. You’ll be better served by a glass board, which is heavier and provides a rougher surface (yet one that doesn’t snag). Diagonal corrugations on the scrubbing area do a superior job of cleaning. Your board will require no painting or varnishing . . . the natural wood functions perfectly if allowed to dry between washdays.

Preparing for Doing Laundry by Hand

The next consideration is your water supply. Lake, stream, spring or pipe, any source will do as long as it’s fresh-flowing and clear. Since the whole point of washing is to remove bacteria, there’s no point in introducing still more through stagnant water.

If the water you intend to use is basically clean but cluttered with flotsam, pour it through a nylon stocking, a fine wire mesh or layers of cheesecloth. The lake we lived on in the Yukon Territory had some of the purest water ever tested in Vancouver and – most of the year – was fine for drinking and washing “straight out of the bucket.” During certain seasons, however, it was infested with mosquito larvae. At times, too, the surface near shore was littered with twigs and leaves. In those cases we strained it through a sheet before use.

Unless you use cold-water soap, hot water is the next problem. (Our lake was always so cold that I would have heated the washing liquid just to keep my hands from freezing.) With gas, oil or electric stoves, you can warm your supply right in the galvanized buckets. . . and boil the clothes in them, too, if you’re really fussy. We found, however, that our otherwise marvelous old wood range took forever to heat up any container that had a ridge around the lower edge. The solution: flat-bottomed aluminum pails. (Improvised lids speed the process still more.)

A single tub works well with a six-bucket filling – about 15 gallons – and I found that, if two or three of the pails were boiling water, the temperature would be about right. If you want the liquid hotter, boil several more bucketfuls and let the clothing soak until your hands can stand the temperature. The washing tub should have the hottest contents . . . the residual heat in the garments will be enough to take the chill off the rinse water.

The choice of washing compound is up to you. I found that liquid cleaners worked best because they required no dissolving. Powders tended to leave a residue – or, even worse, little undissolved lumps that stained the clothes – but maybe this was just because of poor agitation on my part. Liquid Wisk has fewer phosphates than most dry detergents . . . or you may prefer a bottled product from Amway or Shaklee. Use less than the label recommends for automatic washers, but keep the container handy for spot cleaning as you scrub (another advantage of soap or detergent in this form).

Clothes Washing Tips

Here are some pre-wash steps you can take to make the whole thing easier: Shake all clothing and unroll sleeves and socks to allow even cleansing. Soak really grubby items in a bucket or other container full of moderately sudsy water. Keep diapers in a mild bleach solution until you intend to wash them (add a little liquid soap to ease out any stains). If you like tie-dye, incidentally, this bleaching operation produces some neat – and sometimes unintentional – results.

Once your laundry is free of loose dirt, separate it into like piles of white, colored, diapers, work clothes and towels. . . or whatever your own needs dictate. I found that I could handle about five loads on a single wash day, and could complete them all by noon or thereabouts.

How to Wash Clothes by Hand

First put the whites into the prepared and soaped washtub and let them soak for a length of time suitable to their grubbiness (usually 10 to 15 minutes will do). Swishing and squeezing, with gentle up-and-down scrubbing of particularly dirty areas, will most often get the individual items adequately clean. If that treatment doesn’t do it, put a little extra soap on the soiled parts and keep rubbing and squishing until you’re satisfied. Then dip the articles in and out of the soapy water several times, remove as much liquid as possible (by pressing the fabric against the wash board) and place each finished piece in the rinse tub beside you. Repeat the operation until the whole load is completed.

Two rinses will be sufficient with judicious use of washing products (diapers may require three if you’re not using a liner). Swinging and squeezing the laundry in the clear water will loosen most of the suds. Do not drain the tub while the clothes are in it! This puts the soap right back into them. . . something most automatic washers do.

While the clothes are in the first rinse, drain the tub of suds into an area – away from your water supply – where the waste fluid can percolate through the soil. If you have a septic tank or other disposal system, so much the better. Washing liquid that’s not too soiled can be used for a second load, which should be put to soak while you’re rinsing the first.

Squeeze out each item from the first rinse and place it in a bucket or basin. Then drain the tub and refill it for the next sousing (which usually leaves the water clear enough for the first desudsing of the batch you’ve put to soak). Or, if you had to dump the initial soapy liquid, use the second rinse for your next load by adding washing compound and a couple of bucketfuls of hot water from the stove. Once you get into the process, you’ll no doubt be able to develop ways of soap and water conservation to meet your own needs.

Wringing out heavy items like work clothes and towels, or large pieces like sheets, will require strong wrist action. If you don’t have that kind of muscle, enlist the aid of a friend. For fewer wrinkles, you may prefer to hang some things up dripping wet (although this does lengthen the drying time).

A washboard washday will take a fair amount of your own energy, but requires no other power except a stove to heat the water. Then, too, your clothes get individual attention and better care. You may even find yourself needing fewer items of wear than you previously thought necessary. The scrubbing is undoubtedly hard on socks and pants knees . . . but if you’ve ever had the whole of a favorite shirt or blouse chewed up in a laundromat, this will seem a minor drawback.

The greatest advantage I found, however (at least in the Yukon), was that doing laundry by hand outdoors gave me plenty of time to look around. I sighted many wild animals I’d otherwise have missed – black bear and eagles especially – on the ridge behind our cabin. And washday gave me some hassle-free hours just to get my mind together. Matter of fact – if you’re getting back to the basics and enjoy doing things for yourself – you’ll find that a washboard is one of the least expensive, most workable investments you can make.

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