In times gone by, lye soap was used for almost everything; washing clothes, hands, hair and whatever else that needed washing. Contrary to what many people may think, once mixed, this soap isn’t that harsh and is as useful in the bath as it is to wash hands.
While the actual lye solution isn’t difficult to make, it must be remembered that lye is a powerful alkali base, so care should be taken when making and mixing it. Since it is a skin irritant, it is a good idea to wear rubber gloves and some form of eye protection when making it. Keep out of the reach of children. After it is made, use the same care that you would with any soap.
In today’s world, a person can simply buy lye, (note that Red Devil, previously a very popular brand, is no longer making lye) and mix it according to the package instructions. If you prefer to make it the way that you’re the old-timers did, simply pour water over wood ashes, especially hardwood ashes, and save the water. This is lye water, also known as potash water. Lye water is also a lot safer to work with than lie. Lye water is actually potassium carbonate while crystal lye is either potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide. The lye water should be strained, to make sure there aren’t any particles of unburned wood in the fluid.
To this liquid, lard is added. It seems that almost everyone had their favorite kind of lard to use for this in the old days and even oils can be added instead of lard (vegetable, soy, safflower, etc), though the result is often greasier once the soap is finished. In days gone by, people made their own lard by slow cooking fat and then straining it, keeping the liquid. Once cooled, it is lard. This is called rendering lard. To make your own soap, you can simply purchase store-bought lard.
Important Note: The pots, pans, and other utensils used for making lye soap should not be used for other purposes. If you don’t have spares, it is worth a stop at a second-hand store. Also, if you are mixing the lye from a commercial source, ALWAYS pour the lye into the cold water, never the other way around. Pouring water into lye can result in a splattering or even explosion from the chemical reaction the lye has with water.
Once mixed, the ingredients are gently heated and stirred. The consistency should be around that of thick syrup. Lumps in this are from the lard and indicate that the lard hasn’t completely melted or hasn’t been stirred well enough. Simply heat it some more, while stirring. When smooth, the soap can then be poured into molds and cooled.
A simple recipe sample is:• 6 lb lard, melted• 2 1/2 pints cold water• 1 can lye (about 1 to 2 cups)-OR-• 2 1/2 pints of lye water from pouring water through wood ashes, instead of the water and can of lye.
Mix the lye into the water until it is dissolved and the container is warm (a reaction to adding lye to water). Or you can slightly heat the lye water from the wood ashes. Add the melted lard gradually while stirring, until it is cool. If the lard separates, heat the mixture up while stirring, and then allow the mixture to cool. Pour it into molds, or into a cheesecloth-lined box, and allow it to cool completely. In the case of the cloth-lined box, at this point, the soap can be cut into bars.
There are even soap molds that can be purchased inexpensively, but which give a decorative look to the finished soap. This is an example, available on Amazon:
Making soap is a very old craft that is largely forgotten, though it isn’t at all hard and results in a very wonderful product. You can even add aromas to it by simply adding a few drops of essential oil during the mixing step. This can even be done naturally; try boiling a pint of rose petals in a quart of water and pouring this through the wood ashes…the result should have a rose aroma. This can be done with lilac and other fragrant flower blossoms, too. I like using homemade mint essential oil. If you wish, you can also add soap dyes to make the soap different colors, too.
This soap keeps well and cleans well. With reasonable care, the lye water solution is not overly dangerous, so why not try it? In fact, this can be a terrific gift.