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June 24, 2009

How To Make Homemade Soap

Here is another post from a few months back by "S". It was submitted by the same "S" who wrote the article on how to brain tan hides. Bullseye posted this and it's another great write up from our friend "S". I did some slight editing on this article too, I'm sure "S" wouldn't mind, I didn't change the content. Thanks to "S" for this article!

How To Make Homemade Soap

There are only two ingredients required to make soap and yet soap making can be a very time consuming and difficult project. In order to make soap you will need fat and lye. Any type of fat will work but it must be cleaned by a process known as rendering. The fat is placed in a large pot and allowed to melt. Any meat, gristle or hair will sink to the bottom as the temperature rises. The liquid fat is carefully ladled off and stored. If the fat you were using was from a pig those deep fried pieces of skin would be called crackling’s and were considered by many to be a delicacy.

The second item needed is lye. In the early 1900’s lye, in a dry form, could be found in almost every general store in America. Today it is not so easy to find. Lye made from wood ash is called potash and can be made easily at home. You will need two containers. One large container (the bigger the better) and a smaller container. A 55 gallon plastic one is best and a drywall bucket is large enough for the smaller one. The larger container needs to be placed on a stable platform higher than the smaller one is tall. Gravity will do the most of the work.

Into the large bucket you will place a layer of packed straw. You will then add ash from a wood fire. The ash from fruit trees and hardwoods will produce the strongest potash. Some of the old time soap makers would use only one type of ash. They learned that certain species of wood produced the strongest potash. The stronger the potash the better the soap will be. About a gallon of water is then added to the large container. A small hole is put in the bottom of the bucket and the smaller bucket placed underneath. Some people allow the water to sit in the larger bucket before its drained off. A cork or stopper may be placed in the hole. Add a small amount of water daily until you have a working potash barrel. About a half a gallon will do.

As the water drips down through the ash and straw it leaches out the alkaline chemicals in the ash. That is what potash is, a basic acid. Acid when combined with fat produces soap. It’s a basic chemical reaction. The problem with making soap is the unpredictable strength of the potash. Potash suitable for making soap should be able to float a raw egg so that only a portion of the shell about the size of quarter should shows above the liquid. If the potash does not float the egg it is poured back into the large container and allowed to drip through again. It takes up to a week or more to get a gallon of potash. Ashes are continually added to the larger container.

Eventually the large container will need to be emptied and new straw and ashes added. Once you have potash strong enough to float an egg you are ready to begin the time consuming job of boiling the potash and fat together until it reacts sufficiently to make soap. Determining how much fat to add to potash is the difficult part. Too much potash and you will be stirring the mixture over a hot fire or stove for many hours, too little and you will end up with useless fat. It is better to have too much potash than too little. The most commonly used ratio is 1:1. Equal amounts of both fat and strong potash. The soap that you are used to seeing is not what this process will produce.

Until salt became an inexpensive item all home made soap was the consistency of jelly. Homemade soap of yesterdays era was like shower gel is to us today. To make soap hard salt must be added at the end of the process. The addition of salt allows the soap to set. If you add salt to your soap mixture you will need to place it in a pan, box or mold to harden. If you do not add salt you can use any container to hold your soap. Just remember that its easier to dip the liquid soap than to pour so choose a container with a large top opening.

Ground herbs, nut hulls, scented oils and colorings can be added once the process is complete but before you pour the soap into your containers. Hardened soaps are usually allowed to cure for a couple of weeks. Once cured they are cut and ready for use.

Contributed by "S"

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