Making your own soap from wood ash, or lye, is an old homesteading skill that is making a comeback. With concerns over ingredients in modern commercial soaps and an interest in traditional and natural methods, more people want to learn how to make soap with wood ash lye. This pure, simple soap has many uses. Read on to learn the step-by-step process of producing lye from wood ashes and transforming it into soap with tallow, lard, or oils.

There’s something inherently satisfying about making everyday necessities like soap completely from scratch, using ingredients from your own land. Pioneers had to be self-reliant when it came to products we take for granted today, like soap for washing and cleaning. By collecting hardwood ashes from your fireplace or wood stove and making lye water, you can easily make a versatile, all-natural soap product perfect for washing hands, bodies, dishes, laundry, and more.

What is Wood-Ash Lye?

Wood ash contains potassium hydroxide and sodium hydroxide, commonly known as lye or caustic soda. When water is poured over the ashes, these compounds dissolve into the water to make a strongly alkaline lye solution. This lye water reacts with fats such as lard or tallow to trigger the chemical process of making soap. So while commercial soap makers use refined sodium hydroxide pellets, you can easily obtain lye naturally from hardwood ashes.

Why Make Soap from Ashes?

  • Save money by not buying soap.
  • Avoid chemicals found in store-bought soaps.
  • DIY satisfaction with homesteading skills
  • Make personalized soaps—milk soaps, salt scrubs
  • Use ashes as waste products instead of throwing them out.

What Type of Wood Should I Use?

The best wood ash for soap making comes from hardwoods like oak, hickory, maple, beech, poplar, or fruit trees. Avoid pine, spruce, and other softwoods. The ashes should be somewhat white or gray, not charcoal black. Slow-burning, hot fires create the most concentrated lye for soaking into water.

What Kind of Fat is Needed?

Common fats used for wood ash soap include beef tallow, lard from pigs, olive oil, coconut oil, palm oil, shea or cocoa butter, avocado oil, hemp seed oil, almond oil, and more. Animal fats were typically used by the early pioneers, but vegan oils work perfectly well too for hard or liquid soap recipes. Like traditional lye soap, oils create bubbly suds when mixed into the lye water, and fatty acids interact to form soap.

Step-By-Step Wood-Ash Soap Making

What ratios of ash to fat do you need?

The exact amounts will vary based on wood type, ash pH, fat type, and your desired soap qualities. Typically, 1 to 2 cups of hardwood ash per pound of fat or oil will yield successful soap. Adding an equal amount of hot water to the ashes makes a standard lye solution. Monitor the process and test soap quality along the way.

1. Prepare the hardwood ash

Clean ashes from your stove, fireplace, or outdoor fire pit need to be sifted to remove chunks and charred debris. Put a metal bucket or pot below a mesh screen, then rub the ashes back and forth across the mesh to filter out unusable pieces. Preheat your pot or barrel for 10–15 minutes before making lye water.

2. Make the lye water

Place your filtered ashes (about 2 cups is a good starting amount) into the preheated pot or barrel. Slowly pour hot, soft water over the ashes (in equal amounts) and stir frequently for at least 20 minutes, up to a few hours for maximum yield. The water will start to look like dark tea as the lye dissolves out of the ashes. Allow it to settle overnight if needed to separate the lye water from the ash sediment.

How can you tell if the lye water is ready?

There are a few ways to evaluate lye concentration: floating an egg, potato, or feather in the water to see if it eats away material; checking that a drop of liquid soap or detergent added to a spoonful doesn’t immediately go clear; or testing with an alkaline or acid meter if available. Experience and small test batches will help you determine the ideal lye strength.

3. Heat the fat and add lye water

Pour off the top basic lye water from the ashes and heat in preparation for soap making. Weigh out an equal amount of your chosen fat in a stainless steel pot, often called a soap pot. Melt the fat over low heat until liquid. Slowly pour the lye water into the fat, stirring constantly to incorporate.

Importantly, for safety, wear gloves and goggles!

The liquid will turn a creamy emulsified texture as saponification begins. Mix for 20–30 minutes until the trace stages are complete. Then keep stirring occasionally if adding ingredients like honey, oils, salt, oats, etc.

4. Pour the mixture into molds

Once the chemical reaction has thoroughly combined the lye/fat and essential oils (if using), carefully pour your hot soap into silicone molds, wooden frames, or line a cardboard box to allow it to solidify. Cover it and set it aside in a warm place for 18–48 hours. Don’t touch at this point! This allows saponification to fully finish.

5. Unmold, Cut, and Cure the Soap

After a day or two, check if the soap has hardened enough to be released from the mold and cut into bars. Lay the soap bars on a drying rack in a well-ventilated room. Turn them periodically for 4-6 weeks to finish the curing process. Well-cured ash soap will be mild, smooth, and last longer than green soap.

Experimenting with Wood Ash Soap Recipes

Once you get the basics of extracting potassium lye from hardwood ashes and combining it with animal fat or vegetable oils to produce soap, you can start tweaking your homemade soap recipes for fun variations. The pioneer soapmakers had to be creative with the ingredients they had on hand. Likewise, you can try out different wood ash and fat combinations.

What Factors Affect the Soap?

Lye concentration: More concentrated ash lye makes a firmer bar soap. Diluted lye makes soft soap better for laundry or cleaning.

Fat type: animal fats like lard or tallow create a hard, long-lasting bar. Plant oils make milder hand soap that lathers well.

Other additives Ingredients like oats, honey, or milk affect the moisturizing and cleansing qualities of the soap.

Curing time: A good 4-6 week cure is vital for a mild bar soap.

Creative Soap Recipes

Here are just a few homemade soap ideas you can try with your DIY lye from wood ashes:

  • Coconut Castile Soap: Substitute coconut oil for 100% of the fat. Adds lots of bubbles!
  • Salt Scrub Soap: Mix in coarse sea salt crystals for an exfoliating effect.
  • Hardwood Ash Soap: Use ash water instead of plain water for super-lye soap.
  • Hemp Oil Soap: Combines nicely with tallow for a silky lather.
  • Honey and Oats is a sweet, creamy soap with extra skin benefits.
  • Milk Soap: Add goat or cow milk for creamy, nourishing qualities.

Follow your inspiration with whatever oils, herbs, or nut butters you think would make great handmade soap. It may take some trial and error to formulate the perfect bar. Keep notes on how much wood ash, lye, water, and fat you use each time. Soon you’ll be making signature ash soaps to be proud of!

Troubleshooting Wood Ash Soap Issues

What if soap doesn’t set up properly?

  • Not enough Lye? Test your lye water strength. Soak more ashes to increase their potency.
  • Too much water: dehydrate the paste in the oven at the lowest temperature.
  • Fat turned rancid: Ensure you use good-quality oils and fats.
  • Temperature too low: Insulate molds and keep them above 60°F.

Why does soap irritate the skin?

  • New soap not cured: Allow bars to cure for 4-6 weeks.
  • Excess lye: refill soap with more fat or oils.
  • Certain oils: eliminate if allergic. Test single oils.

What about lye safety?

  • Wear gloves and goggles. Lye can cause burns if spilled.
  • Avoid breathing in fumes. Work in the open air.
  • Store securely. Corrosive to kids and pets

Is my lye water strong enough?

Having the right level of concentration is key. If your ash-lye water is too weak, the soap won’t set up properly. Test it with an egg or potato slice to see if it eats away the material. If not, soak more ashes to increase the alkalinity of the lye solution. Or use less water next time when making lye to make it more concentrated.

Why does my soap stay soft?

There’s a delicate balance between the amount of wood ash lye, the type of fats, and the water used that affects the final soap product. Too much water or not enough fat can prevent soap from hardening properly. Try dehydrating soft batches of ash soap at a very low oven temperature if the recipe is off. Re-measure your ingredients next time for the right chemical reaction.

Does my skin react to the soap?

Some people find pure lye soaps made with hardwood ashes irritating, while others don’t mind them at all. An improperly cured soap with excess lye can cause irritation. Or certain animal fats or fragrances may cause sensitivity. Try a different fat, like olive oil, or eliminate scent ingredients if need be. And be sure to let bars cure for 4-6 weeks; this makes even pure ash soap more mild.

Is Lye dangerous to work with?

Working carefully with caustic soda lye during the soap-making steps is vital for safety. Wear gloves and goggles in case of splashes. Never pour water into pure lye, as it will violently react. Have vinegar on hand to neutralize spills. When handled appropriately, you can safely make soap with DIY lye leached from wood ashes!

Hopefully, these troubleshooting tips will help you overcome any soapmaking problems! It just takes practice to master the alkaline properties of ash lye and create your ideal homemade soap recipes.

The Satisfaction of DIY Ash Soap

Making soap from wood ashes is highly rewarding and lets you use materials already available on a homestead. While it takes some trial and error to master a recipe using basic ingredients, you’ll save money and end up with pure, natural soap containing no chemicals or additives. Get self-sufficient by reviving the pioneering skill of collecting hardwood ashes and transforming them into versatile, homemade lye soap!

Key Takeaways:

  • Hardwood ash contains DIY lye for soap making.
  • Animal fat or plant oils combine with lye water.
  • Slow, hot fires yield the best-quality white ash.
  • Test the lye strength for the desired soap quality.
  • Cure soap bars 4-6 weeks before use.

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