Skill brush up: Make quick, practical soap from lye, water, and ashes

A quick reminder for everyone: How to make soap from ashes, water, and animal fat. We'll all be pretty smelly in the Aftertime and soap will be a much desired luxury. It's simple to make, so study, study, study! I found the page on this site provided helpful. Save your bacon grease, etc, it will be an excellent barter item in well as the soap, obviously.

And hey, what's this? An excerpt from Nancy's story, The Passage, where she briefly describes the process:

Colonel Cage and Ian are walking up the hill toward the camp from the river bank. A group of women at the side of the trail are stirring something in a pot over an open fire. Colonel Cage and Ian pass a woman pouring water into a V shaped trough while another woman removes a drainage tray from under the trough, replacing it with an empty tray. The trough is filled with gray ashes with some chunks of blackened wood here and there, clearly ashes from a fire.

Phew . . Is that for supper?

Ian says,

They're making soap. Fat and lye. Works well enough but it'll take the hair off your chest.

Ian has flashed a smile at Colonel Cage as they continue walking up the trail, past a low table where a metal rack of soap forms is sitting inside a square cake pan, a crisscross of metal sides where a dozen or more soap bars can harden. The pot from the fire is brought over and a thick, beige colored, steaming mixture is poured across the rack.


This is a cut-out of the actual article link above, and NOT my work.

Toward the end of this article, I’ll give specific recipes for making soap, both with commercial lye and with homemade lye. There are countless recipes for making soap, but this will serve as a guide.

For this batch of soap, I made a fast batch of homemade lye. Today, the lye-making took approximately 2-3 hours, instead of 3-5 days for a normal batch of homemade lye from wood ashes. If you’d like to try the regular method of making lye from wood ashes , see the June/July/August 2007 issue of Frontier Freedom Online Magazine .

soap2.jpgFirst, I began with a 5 gallon bucket of rain water. It was raining that day, so I took advantage of the situation and collected it from the gutter downspout. While nature and gravity were working together to provide me with soft water, I grabbed an old pillow case and filled it with wood ashes. You could also melt snow instead of using rain water if you live in a colder climate.

Next, I placed the pillow case full of ashes in a separate 5 gallon bucket. I then boiled about a gallon of rainwater. With the pillow case stretched open to the same size as the bucket, I poured the boiling hot rain water into the ashes. I then boiled more rain water and repeated this process until the ashes were completely covered.
With the hot water covering the ashes, I closed the pillow case and lifted and lowered the pillowcase in and out of the water, like making tea.

soap4.jpgThis dipping process continues for some time --- about one and a half hours. Then lift the pillow case out of the bucket, strain it, and pour the water into your pan. I used my enameled pot. Using my propane grill, I cooked the contents of the pan, which contained water and lye (Potassium Hydroxide). The reason for cooking this mixture instead of going straight to combining it with my fat was to boil the water away so that I could use the lye faster. In the regular method , you would allow the water to evaporate out of the lye until the potassium hydroxide was dry. Then you could easily store it for making soap anytime. But, today, we’ll make the lye quickly, then use it in a batch of soap.

Occasionally, I checked the strength of the mixture with a chicken feather. The rule is, the lye is strong enough to make soap when a chicken feather begins to dissolve in the solution. Today, my feather began to dissolve in the solution, so it was ready.

If the feather had not dissolved, I would have taken the following steps:

  1. Put the pillowcase of ashes back into the 5 gallon bucket
  2. Poured the contents of the pot back into the pillow case.
  3. Continued dipping the pillow case repeatedly, and then retest the mixture until I obtained the results I wanted --- a feather beginning to dissolve.

However, since I was happy with the results, I continued to boil the mixture down to almost nothing. Be careful when the level of liquid gets low, as you can scorch the lye.

Mixing Fat With Lyesoap5.jpg

After the lye has passed the “Feather Test” and the water has boiled off, we’re ready to go. Now, if you’ve already made lye using the regular method, you can skip the “Fast Lane Lye” section, and start right here.

soap6.jpgWhen the lye was ready, I added some beef tallow, which I melted in another pan. I also added an olive oil soap mixture that I had been working on, but that was simply too soft for me right now. Using my wooden stirring stick, I stirred the fat and lye water mixture until thickened.

(Editor’s note: By the way, a soft batch of soap is not lost. There are several ways to use it, depending on how it turns out. You could scoop it into a dish or short, wide mouth jar. If it’s pourable, you could pour it into a squirt bottle or a liquid soap pump dispenser. Soft soap can also be used to wash dishes or your laundry.)

After some time of stirring it looks thick, as shown in the picture --- about the consistency of sour cream, or maybe melted chocolate. Then I let the soap rest in the pan to begin setting up while I prepared the empty soap mold.

Soap Moldssoap7.jpg

The mold I used here is homemade. The interior of the mold measures 11”L x 2 ¾” W x 2 3/8”H. It was made from some scrap boards I had around, and a piece of paneling for the bottom. You’ll want to have a mold handy before you begin making soap. If you don’t have a wood mold available, you can use a shoe box, other type of box, baking pan, plastic food storage containers, or just about anything else you can think of. Just be sure to line it with plastic wrap before pouring in the soap. There are all sorts of things you could use for individual soap molds, as well, such as candy molds or those plastic dividers that are often used in tins of cookies.

soap8.jpgTo prepare the mold, I line it with plastic wrap to make it easy to remove the soap later.

Once the mold is prepared, I pour in the molten soap, spreading it around so that it’s even with the top of the mold. Even though this soap looks like refried beans, it dried to a nice, semi-soft white-gray soap. For harder soap, I would omit the olive oil. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. As soon as the soap is poured into the mold, it should be covered with something to allow it to cool and harden slowly ---- cardboard, Styrofoam, towels or blankets will work.

Cutting and Curing the Barssoap9.jpg

After the soap has dried in the mold at least 24 hours (in this case, it was more like 72 hours, but some soaps go much longer), it should be removed, cut, and stacked for drying. If you use plastic wrap to line your molds, the soap should come out easily. Then you can unwrap the soap after you remove it from the mold.

soap10.jpgIf you use one large mold, like I do, you’ll need to cut it into bars. The easiest way to cut soap is with a wire or piece of fishing line, as shown in the pictures. Do this before the soap becomes too hard. If it’s too hard, it will crumble or break when you try to cut it. If it’s too soft, you’ll have trouble cutting it without mashing it out of shape.
This block provided ten bars of soap. These bars will sit in my basement, stacked as shown, on a shelf covered with wax paper or plastic wrap while they cure and dry for the next 4-6 weeks. Uncured soap is called ‘green soap’ and can cause skin burns. Also, as the soap cures, the saponification (chemical reaction) is still taking place. You can not hurt the soap by allowing it to cure too long.

The Standard Batch Soap Recipesoap11.jpg

Below are two standard recipes. One calls for commercial lye, and the other is for homemade lye. Both will yield an excellent hard soap for bathing and laundering.

The following recipe yields roughly nine pounds of soap, enough to make about 36 bars. The soap can be molded separately or poured into one large container and cut into bars later. A combination of half tallow and half lard is usually suggested. Most other soaps are variations of this standard recipe.

Commercial Lye Crystals Homemade Lye


13 ounces of commercial lye crystals

1 1/2 pints of water

6 pounds of fat



18.2 ounces of homemade lye

2 1/2 pints of water

6 pounds of fat

  1. With either recipe slowly add the WATER to the LYE.
  2. Bring both the lye water solution and the tallow to about body temperature.
  3. Combine the two in a glass bowl and mix until the consistency is about that of sour cream. The lighter the oil, the longer the mixing will take. For soap that floats in water, add sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) to the mixture.
  4. Add color and scents, if desired.
  5. Pour the mixture in a mold(s) and place in a warm location.
  6. Cover the mold(s) with cardboard, Styrofoam, or blankets.
  7. After at least 24 hours, or when the soap is firm enough to handle, remove soap from mold(s).
  8. Leave uncovered in freely flowing air for at least 2 to 4 weeks to cure. Many soap makers allow their soap to cure 6 to 8 weeks. Remember, soap that has not cured long enough can cause skin burns. It won’t hurt the soap to let it cure longer.

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Comment by Alex R. on February 2, 2012 at 1:53am

Thanks, everyone, for your awesome input, this helps everybody who reads it!

Comment by Chris Harris on January 20, 2012 at 6:06am

@ Julia:

Re the saponin containing plants, down here in Australia the ubiquitous acacia species esp. black wattle (also known as a "Sally Wattle" are also high in saponins and can be easily used as a lather by crushing a handful of leaves in your hands whilst washing.....

Comment by Vicky on January 20, 2012 at 5:42am

my grandmother did as your mother remembers, wait for a warm day to make soap and it has to coincide with the availability of lard/tallow. for now I make it inside under the hood of the stove with the fan on, the fumes are quite noxious and you do NOT want to breath them. after the ps you will have to make it outside.

Comment by Bern Kock on January 19, 2012 at 7:13pm

Wow this is so very interesting...My mother talked about their days of soap making and candle making that always co-insided with the butchering of animals. There is a part to this that you have not covered and that is where are you making this soap? Are you indoors or outdoors while creating this brew? The reason I am asking is that my mother (who just celebrated her 95th birthday) said that they would wait for a warm spring day and create this while out doors, never indoors.

Comment by Arto on January 18, 2012 at 8:29pm

One good hint is that if you want your soap to be antiseptic, add pine resin(or spruce) to the mixing :)

Comment by Vicky on January 18, 2012 at 8:01pm

one general rule of thumb is to use milk instead of water in any recipe to make a milk soap. I tend to use some milk and some water. I use enough water to dissolve the lye (though in the above case it's already water),  after it's dissolved I then add in the remainder of liquid in the recipe as milk. so if my recipe calls for 2 cups water, I might split it and add one cup water and one cup milk. you can also do large batches in 5 gal buckets with a large stick to stir, stir, stir. it gets hot all by itself (exothermic reaction) so be careful and protect your eyes.

using the above method to collect lye I would probably get most of the water to evaporate and then add in milk....this would require some fiddling around with the recipe but would be worth it to get a soap that nourishes the skin and takes out odors (goat's milk is known for both qualities).

My grandma used to make soap on her homestead and my aunt still has the kettle she used to render the lard, which was the same kettle she used to make soap, and the same kettle she used to boil her laundry. boiling laundry is a good way to kill bacteria, yeasts  & molds, which will be rampant for some time after the ps. She also used that same kettle to make stew for dinner!!

to test your soap to see if it's ready to use try the tip of the tongue method. if your tongue burns put the soap back for another week.

I remember the name of that book series.... Foxfire. Great stories of old timers and in their own words how they did things way back when.

Comment by Stra on January 18, 2012 at 11:09am

Some people I know still use a similar method today for quickly cleaning their fenced dog living space on asphalt: ash and water.

Comment by Vicky on January 18, 2012 at 8:32am

One of the things I did was find an old book about farming and making tools and things useful on a was very popular back in the 60's ...and of course I can't remember it right now.

however, I do remember that one old timer told of how they made soap with a cradle filled with straw and the ashed loaded into the straw and the water poured over the ashes with a bucket below to catch the water dripping out. later they would go back and pour the water over again, and again, and add some ash, and pout water again. In this way the lye water would eventually get strong enough. the test was to feel it with your fingers, if it felt slippery it was strong enough. 

I must say I like the pillow case method better, but if I find myself with out pillow cases I will make do with the cradle and straw. One other thing is a lady said they would use dilute lye water to wash down tables and other things that needed the table used to butcher, which would need a good sanitizing. just a thought.

Comment by Stra on January 17, 2012 at 10:04pm

I've made two batches last year, each time about a kilo and a half of soap. I need to focus a bit more on lye production next time.

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