How to Make Soap from Ashes

Soap making in the woods can be almost automatic. Hardwood ashes are some of the best producers of lye. Originally published as "Soap Making in the Bush" in the January/February 1972 issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS.

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    If you need a large quantity of lye, you may want to build a lye leaching barrel.
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    Hardwood ashes are the best lye ingredient.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/smole

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If it hadn't been for the help we got from the native old-timers . . . my friend, Dennis, and I would have starved or just plain quit the winter we settled into that abandoned miner's cabin in Alaska. The sourdoughs came to our rescue, though, and soon taught us how to survive on less than $10 a month cash money by trapping, tanning, foraging food and dipping candles from our own tallow and lard. With their generous assistance, we also quickly mastered the fine and easy art of recycling hardwood ashes and left-over kitchen fats into clean, all purpose soap.

Soap Making Is Almost Automatic

Now, soap making in the woods can be an almost automatic thing. Anyone who's done much camping knows that — if you throw some white ashes from a hardwood fire into your frying pan after dinner — the lye in the ash will combine with the fat from the cooking to make a crude soap. This works fine for rough-washing tin plates and hunting knives, but there are times when even the most ornery outdoorsman needs bar soap. We were no exception and — thanks to our instructors — soon became adept at making both soft and hard soap, starting at ground zero with lye from our own leaching barrel.

All you really need to turn out the same sort of non-polluting cleanser that our pioneer foremothers scrubbed with, you know, is lye and animal fat. Whatever meat scraps and drippings you have on hand will supply the fat and the lye comes from wood ashes and water.

To make lye in the kitchen, boil the ashes from a hardwood fire (soft woods are too resinous to mix with fat) in a little soft water, rain water is best, for about half an hour. Allow the ashes to settle to the bottom of the pan and then skim the liquid lye off the top. You can do this daily and when you've got enough of the weak solution, start the soap making process by boiling the liquid down until it'll float an egg. One word of caution: DO NOT use aluminum dishes or pots. The lye will eat right through `em!

Photo by Pixabay/Free-Photos

Now put that meat fat, left-over cooking lard and vegetable oil into a kettle not over half full, and heat the whole mess until all the liquid has been rendered out of the solid scraps. While it's still hot, add this clean grease to the bubbling lye and continue to boil the mixture—stirring all the while—until it reaches the consistency of thick corn meal mush.

1/30/2021 9:44:23 AM

You can do this daily and when you've got enough of the weak solution, start the soap making process by boiling the liquid down until it'll float an egg?? Is this the skimmed top layer reboiled?

11/15/2020 9:00:11 AM

Do you have any measurements for your lye water to fats? Like 40% lye to 60% fats or a ratio of 1part lye to 2 parts fats? Or do you just keep adding more days until it looks right

9/23/2020 3:29:47 PM

My 6th grade teacher ('60-'61) was the daughter of a civil war soldier. She said that when she was a girl and they made soap, they would test the lye with a chicken feather. "If the lye was too strong, it would burn the feather." Now what to do about that, I can't say. I wish that I had paid more attention to her. My dad was a child in the 1920s. He said his mother made soap in gourds. These same gourds today are used for Martin bird houses. They made lye in something akin to a hog trough using the ashes from their fireplace. The fat that they used was lard.

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