Traditional Soap Making
If we ever lose trans-national supply lines and our mega-superstores, the unwashed masses will really be stinking up the place. Wounds will fester and laundry will no longer smell fresh and clean. Add these traditional soap making techniques to your skills and you’ll have the market for cleanliness in your local bartering area.
This may be one of those posts that you’ll want to print out, just in case you ever need to make your own soap!
The 3 Steps of Soap Making
- Making the lye.
- Rendering the fats
- Making the soap
Lye is some nasty stuff. It can burn skin and eyes. Please wear appropriate protective gear and use caution, keep lye away from children. Do not use your good pots, pans or kettles for this. Do not blame me for any injuries you may incur, or any verbal lashing from your spouse or significant other, because you used their kitchen wares!
Don’t use tin or aluminum utensils , they corrode when they come into contact with lye. Enameled or granite-ware will work for small quantity production, but for larger batches, you should use a stainless steel pot boiler or an iron pot boiler.
Making The Lye
The lye solution is obtained by placing wood ashes in an ash hopper or a specially modified barrel or bucket, then allowing water to soak, or steep through the ashes.
An ash hopper is a V-shaped bin that is wide at the top and has a narrow sloping bottom, with a small screened opening at the lowest point. This is where the potash drips out into a container, for holding lye.
Drill some holes in the bottom of barrel. These holes will allow the lye, or potash to drip out of the barrel so you’ll want some form of funnel or catching mechanism to drain the liquid into another container for storage. I mention this because you want to have an idea of how you’ll catch the liquid before you start drilling a ton of holes in your barrel or bucket.
In the bottom of the barrel add a layer of gravel, then on top of the gravel a layer of straw. These 2 layers will keep your ashes from washing out of the barrel into your lye bucket.
The Bag Method
Lye can also be made by putting one gallon of ashes in a cloth, tying the top and putting in a granite pan or enameled pan with two gallons of water. Set the pan on your wood stove, to keep it warm, overnight.
Rendering the Fats
Fat Fact: Fat obtained from cattle is called tallow; fat obtained from pigs is called lard. Tallow and then lard, in that order, are the best fats for soap making!
The cleaning of the fats is also called rendering. This will be the stinky part of the soap making operation. Animal fat, must be rendered before decent quality soap can be made from it. Rendering removes all the extra meat tissues in the fat.
When making soap from grease saved from cooking, it must also be rendered to remove any impurities that have collected in it.
Waste cooking grease saved over a period of time without refrigeration will normally become rancid. Rendering will make the grease “sweeter”, and will result in a better smelling soap. Soap made from rancid fats, or grease, will work as well as soap made from clean (or “sweet”) fats, but may not be as pleasant to use.
Soap making is an outdoor activity. The smell from rendering the fats is much too strong and stinky, to do it indoors.
- To render fats or cooking grease, placed them in a large pan or kettle and add an equal amount of water (note this amount of water, because you’ll need the same amount later).
- Place the kettle over an open fire outdoors.
- Boil the mixture of fats and water, until all the fats are melted, then keep on boiling to insure the complete melting of the fat.
- Remove the kettle and mixture from the fire, then add the same amount of water to the kettle, as you did previously.
- Allow the solution to cool overnight.
- By the next day the fats will have solidified and floated to the top, forming a layer of clean fat. All the impurities will have remained in the water underneath the fat layer. This is similar to keeping meat soup or stew in the refrigerator; The next day you have an example of the same type of fat layer on top, just like you’ll have on the top of your rendering kettle.
Making the soap
The hardest part of soap making has always been determining if the lye was of the correct strength.
In the olden days, the soap maker would float a potato or an egg in the lye. If the object floated, with an area the size of a US quarter, above the surface, the lye was declared fit for soap making.
To make a weak lye stronger, the solution could either be boiled down more or the lye solution could be poured through a new batch of ashes. To make the solution weaker, add some water.
The trick for successful mixing is in the lye water-to-fat ratio. A good rule of thumb is: 16 ounces of fat, for every 6 ounces of lye water (or 0.38 parts of lye water to one of fat, measured by weight). The soap maker can deviate from this ratio, depending on the intended uses for the soap. Typically, more lye makes harder soap bars.
Adding Extras to your Soap
When adding extra ingredients, such as scents, abrasives and coloring to your soap, they should be mixed in immediately after the oils and lye water have emulsified (also know as “tracing”). This is also when the consistency of your liquid soap is now ready to pour into molds.
Pouring the Soap into Molds
At this point, saponification is about 90% complete. Saponification is the process that produces soap, usually from fats and lye.
Now is the time to pour the liquid soap into soap molds, setting trays or into large wooden frames. If you use the large wooden frames, you can cut the soap off the block as needed, after it has cooled and cured.
Hardening of the soap can take anywhere from a few hours to three days. The total curing time can take about two to four weeks.
Making soap is no small feat, but with this knowledge of traditional soap making techniques, some ashes, water and animal fats, you can be the soap supplier for your family and the entire local area!