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Soap Making Before And After Interesting Times, by Laura and Jim Fry

Over the years there have been occasional posts on SurvivalBlog about making various “homemade” soaps using easily found commercial ingredients. These often include store-bought washing soda, Fells Naptha, Zote soap, baking soda and such. Simply grate them up in the right proportions, mix and there you go. There have also been posts going a step further that explain how to make soap from easily purchased oils, meat counter fat or suet, commercial lye and fragrances. It’s just not that hard if you make use of the ingredients and instructions easily found these days.

But what do you do in TEOTWAWKI [1] if the stores close, either from lack of product to sell or from looting? What if the commercially made ingredients for so called “homemade” soaps become unavailable? You need to keep clean or you’ll likely get sick. And you could certainly use some trade goods for barter…  and everybody needs soap.
So, what do you do? You (and your neighbors) have run out of Irish Spring, there’s no longer any of the sodas or commercial lye to be had and somebody’s gonna get infected from the dirty cut they got while gardening.  Well naturally, you’ll make your own soap from scratch, right? Only problem is that it may take a few hundred years (or even a few thousand, as it took our distant ancestors) to rediscover how it’s done. –Although maybe a bit less since you probably heard something about fire and fat, or some such. …Or, you can learn now the easy steps that all those years of trial, error and happy accident have handed down to us. 

In this article we’ll cover how to make soap when SHTF [2] with self-procured ingredients. Plus, we’ll write a bit about how to make soaps until then, the ‘easier’ way with those store-bought ingredients. 
We run a mostly self-sufficient farm, a museum in the time period of 1820 to 1920 and teach homesteading skills classes. Among the things we teach is that having a self-sufficient mind set/lifestyle now will greatly enhance your mental/physical ability to make the right decisions when the time comes. Sustainability is a luxury now, so you can learn and experiment at your leisure. Wouldn’t you rather screw up a few soap batches now when it’s of little consequence, instead of later when it’s a necessity? Plus, as immediate benefit, homemade soap makes excellent, low cost gifts for friends and family and saves money, so you can spend more on your 3Bs.

— There are only 3 essential ingredients in soap.

       1). oil/fat

       2). lye (sodium hydroxide, or NaOh)

       3). water

Any type of oil/fat can be used, from store-bought vegetable oil to rendered animal fats (lard or tallow).  A combination of different oils will give you a better quality product and usually is varied depending on how the soap will be used.  Each oil or fat has different qualities that is based, in part, on the density/properties of the oil.

 For example:

You’d probably want a laundry soap to be cleansing but not moisturizing, while a shampoo soap is often better if it added a bit of conditioning as well.

Note: Soapcalc.net [3] is a great resource for soap recipes (or do any standard google search for many other sources). The great thing about Soapcalc.net is that they have a free lye calculator that allows you to put in the oils you want to use and the size of batch you want and it will calculate how much lye, water, and oil you need for the recipe. It’s my go-to site whenever I want to experiment with a new recipe.

 So, let’s begin with the essentials: .

1)    To render an animal’s fat you’ll need to cut off and set aside most of the fat scraps at butchering time (you’ll probably want to keep some fat for sausage making). Generally speaking, lard is the rendered fat of pigs and most other rendered fats are considered tallow. If you can’t render the fat immediately, store it somewhere cool for up to 48 hours (after that the connective tissue and meat could begin to go rancid and may produce a less desirable tallow or lard should you want to use some for cooking). Slaughtering animals in the colder months helps keep the fats fresh longer, and is generally when you’ll want to slaughter larger animals anyway.  Cut the fat into smallish chunks and remove as much of the meat as possible. The fat then needs to put into a large heavy-bottomed pot and put over a low to medium fire/heat. Adding a small amount of water (less than a quarter of a cup) at the beginning will help prevent the fat from sticking to the pot. Adding a splash of vinegar of any sort will make your end product whiter, harder, and reduce any smells left in the tallow/lard.  This is better to do outside over a fire because of the smell of the fat. It isn’t exactly bad, but isn’t aromatic either.  Once your fat is starting to heat, all the lipids will liquefy.  You want steam to be coming off the pot, which shows that the moisture is rendering out.  You don’t want smoke, which means the fat is burning.  Stir occasionally. Note that many a fire has been started by heating huge, overfilled pots of oil on a woodstove, spilling some over the edge and igniting the entire top of the pot. Take caution as you would with frying chicken, deep-frying french-fries or any other oil-heavy thing.  Leave ample headroom in the pot and make sure little ones are not underfoot.  Never leave unattended. 

At some point (anywhere from 20 minutes to a few hours, depending on the amount of fat you have) all the solid chunks (bits of connective tissues and any meat left in the fat) will brown and migrate to the center of the pot. When these have browned sufficiently and seem somewhat crispy, you can scoop them out. These are tasty cracklins that can be drained, cooled, salted and eaten as a snack or in cracklin bread.  What you have left in the pot is all liquid fat.  Pour this through a metal strainer or cloth into leak proof containers such as a ceramic crock, mason jars, or a plastic or metal bucket, wait for it to cool and solidify and cover and store in a cool, dark, dry place. If you’re pouring in glass, make sure the glass is warm enough that it won’t crack when filled with hot oil, and if using plastic make sure that it is thick enough and that the tallow/lard is cool enough that it won’t melt the plastic.  Also, it doesn’t hurt to do this outside or over a sink, since cleaning rendered fat off of your counter, stove, floor, and every dishrag you own is no walk in the park. 

The fat will keep without further processing and can be stored like this for quite a long time. The tallow can then be used at any convenient time to make candles, medicinal salves/balms, used to preserve meats, cooking, pie crusts, biscuits, frying, used to waterproof shoes/clothes/outdoor fabrics and of course in soap.  If for any reason you didn’t render out enough moisture, no worries.  The entire batch won’t go bad, you’ll just maybe have a big of mold in the bottom of the container, as it will be heavier and sink, so just discard the very bottom, ruined portion.

Note: This is another reason why moving to your farm/survival community before TEOTWAWKI [4] will put you uncounted steps ahead in the game. It’s much easier to render tallow from fat if you have animals and have the knowledge, tools and skills to properly raise those animals, plant, raise and harvest the crops to feed them, have the knowledge to process the animals and have the skills to make use of what the processing provides.  Simply bugging out and hunting rabbits is a very quick way to suffer from malnutrition due to a lack of lipids (fat). And without the abundance of fat that properly raised domestic animals have, you can’t make soap and stay healthy and produce many other necessaries such as shoe waterproofing, candles, skin salve, lip balm and more.  While you can use raccoon, deer or possum fat, they just won’t have enough fat for all your needs. If your only available source of dietary fat is from wild game, you’ll do much better to keep it as food than using it in soap. Rendering animal fats into a useful, storable tallow or lard is simple, but only if the animal has some fat on it to begin with.

2). Lye, or sodium hydroxide, is present in wood ash. Some historians believe that soap may have gotten its name from the Romans, who would make their animal sacrifices atop Mount Sopa, above the Tiber River.  During the sacrifices, the fat from the animals as well as the ashes from the burnt bonfires would run downstream to the river, and the women found that washing their clothes the next morning in the residual bubbles made the clothes come out cleaner. 

Ashes can actually be used in a pinch to wash cast iron pots/other cooking utensils. But if you want lye water to make a batch of soap, you’ll need to extract the lye from the ash. 

To make lye in your kitchen in small quantities, boil hardwood ashes (soft woods are too resinous to mix with fat) in a little soft water or rain water for about half an hour. Hickory, sugar maple, ash, beech and buckeye are generally the woods that will produce the highest concentration of lye, but any hard wood can be used. Allow the ashes to settle to the bottom of the pan and then skim the liquid lye off the top. You can do this daily and when you’ve got enough of the weak solution, condense it for soap making by boiling the liquid down until an egg or a small potato will float due to the high concentration of sodium. It should float enough for a portion the size of a quarter to rise above the level of the water. Since lye is a form of sodium it makes the water much denser, like sea water.  Generally speaking, one to two gallons of leached lye water boiled down will yield just under half a cup of sufficiently concentrated lye water

If you want to make a large quantity of lye water, you’ll need a good quantity of wood ashes from any combination of hard woods.  Once you have a large quantity saved up, you’ll need a large container; a barrel, a big bucket, an old grain bin, a big wooden box, an old bee box, etc.  Smaller containers work also, but just have a smaller yield.  You’ll need a quarter-sized hole at the bottom corner or multiple tiny holes. First line the bottom with a thin cloth or two, followed by a layer of sand (or grass in a pinch) and small rocks to act as a filter. Charcoal is also a good filter. Then pour in the ash and pack down tightly, leaving at least a few inches room at the top to add water. Slowly pour rain water through the ash-filled box until it starts to run from the bottom. Generally it’s a good practice to add a half to a gallon of water at a time, waiting a good half hour in between adding to give the ash time to settle, and the lye water time to trickle though the ash and filters. Have a container under the hole to collect the water that’s settled thought the ash, sand and fabric. Don’t use tin or aluminum, or the lye water could eat into to.

~~Note: If you really like processing big amounts of ashes and lye, and you think you might want to start an important after TEOTWAWKI business, we strongly suggest that you make a visit to the Mormon Museum in Kirkland, Ohio [5].  They have a fantastic restored ashery where they produced mass quantities of lye, potash (a very useful fertilizer) and pearl ash (which they used in fine ceramic making) from the collected ashes of the cooking and heating fires of the surrounding community. (For other uses of potash/pearl ash, see the Wikipedia page on Potassium Carbonate [6].)

3). Water needs to be non-chlorinated, chemical free water. If you have city water you’ll need to buy distilled water or collect rain water, starting several minutes after it has begun to rain (so the water is free of air pollution and/or gutter or roof dirt). We have well water and we’ve used it for years with good results.

Okay, so now you’re probably wondering how to, …actually make the soap. So let’s get started.

There are two basic types of lye soap: cold process and hot process.

Cold process is where you combine your oils, water and lye and stir until the mixture comes to a ‘trace’ which means thickens up the consistency of pancake batter. You’ll be able to lift up a spoonful and drop it back into the soap and see it form a line on the top without readily mixing back in. This is then poured into a mold without cooking or adding any heat, hence the term ‘cold processes. This is a process generally done with commercial lye crystals, as lye crystals give you a very exact concentration and it’s quite easy to be accurate.  Also, because this soap is poured into a mold without the additional step of cooking, if you end up with too much lye, the remaining lye can leach out into the soap, leaving you with lye pockets inside the end product. You can now mix in any additives you’re using (such as colorants like beet root powder, exfoliates like fine sand and wheat germ, or fragrances such as dried herbs) and then pour/scoop it into your mold.   Once in the mold it should be put somewhere where it won’t get touched by tiny fingers (it still has caustic, active lye in there) and left until it hardens, usually between 24 and 48 hours, occasionally longer. Once it’s hard enough to cut it into bars, remove the soap from the mold and cut to your favorite size. Then you’ll want to leave the bars on a wooden, marble, silicone, glass or ceramic surface. Leave uncovered and an inch or so apart and turn them every day so each part of the bars get full access to air. Note: A wooden surface (and some others) may be discolored from the lye, so don’t use your favorite decorative cutting board. I learned this the hard way.  This cold process soap will take between 2 and 6 weeks to fully saponify, but my general rule is 4 weeks.  A good way to test to see if it’s ready is to touch the tip of your tongue to a bar and if it’s very acidy then it’s not ready.  Using it early, won’t kill you, but if you have sensitive skin it could be a bad idea.

Hot process starts out the same, but after the ingredients are combined the mixture is then put on a heat source, either your stove or a low fire, and heated up to the point of trace.  This needs to be done very slowly and watched very carefully.  It goes from ‘nope’ to ‘soap’ very quickly, and if you let it stay on the heat too long you’ll end up with a flaky, lumpy end product.  Throughout the heating, you’ll see bubbles on top of the liquid. When the soap is ready to pour into the mold, the soap all the way to the bottom of the pot will be the same consistency; thick, like brownie batter.   The additives are then put in and it is then put into a mold. This mixture will obviously be very hot, which is why you need a heatproof container. Once in the mold, this will continue to bubble for several minutes. You should tap the container against the table or whatever it’s on carefully to force the air bubbles out to avoid ‘holey’ soap.  This soap will harden a bit quicker, in as little as 6 hours or as much as 36 hours, and will only need 2 or 3 days curing time before it’s ready to go.

There are pros and cons to both methods. Depending on if you want to use additives, the still-very-active lye in the cold process batch can destroy some of the colors/properties of your additives. Alternatively, the high heat in a hot process batch can destroy some of the scents/qualities of other additives. Generally, you have to figure this out with trial and error. If you intend to use essential oils in your soap, cold process is generally preferred as most essential oils have a flash point (evaporation point) of around or under 120 degrees, and hot process soap is always hotter than that, so the oils are mostly lost.  

One of the obvious pros for the hot process soap is that it can be used much quicker. But another of the cons of the hot process is that the bars are rarely as uniform and nice looking as cold process. Generally when you cut into a hot process bar, it has a few air pockets here and there due to the rapidly changing consistency, and until you become quite good at this process, it’s easy to overcook it, leaving the soap clumpy and just not quite as smooth and creamy looking as cold process bars. It’s still just as functional and long lasting as cold process, but won’t give you the same appearance.

So, now that you have chosen your process for making soap, here are some important rules to remember:

1) When using crystallized lye always add lye to water, and NEVER water to lye. The results can be potentially dangerous, similar to adding cold water to hot oil.

2)  Always add lye to cold water, NEVER warm or hot. As soon as the lye is added, a chemical reaction takes place that heats the mixture immediately to over 150 degrees. Make sure you’re mixing this in a non-aluminum heatproof container in a very WELL-VENTILATED area in a container with plenty of headroom, either outside or in a very large kitchen with windows opened.  If you have a sensitive respiratory system, a mask and outdoor preparations are recommended.  Gloves, an apron and full coverage pants/shoes are also recommended.  Make sure no young children are nearby or running underfoot. . You want to make sure it stays in the bowl or pot where it’s supposed to be. After the water and lye are combined and you’re letting it cool, keep it at the very back of the counter where spills/splashes are unlikely.

 This is highly caustic, very dangerous stuff.  When pouring in, make sure your face isn’t right over the pot, or the fumes can quite literally take your breath away 

3) All ingredients need to be measured by weight, not volume. No measuring cups allowed. Get a small scale, either manual or a digital. A good digital scale that goes up to 10 pounds can be purchased for around 15 dollars. Used manual scales (along with larger used pots, kettles and other equipment) are commonly available on www.craigslist.com or at antique stores. The reason for using weight is that volume can vary depending on many environmental factors, so using weight helps you get the best possible results.

Note: In TEOTWAWKI, you can measure your oils and lye water by volume as long as you’re using the same measurement for both (i.e., you can’t measure one by weight and the other by volume). This is a somewhat less desirable form of measurement, but if it’s all you have, it’s all you have.

 Whether you’re doing hot or cold process soap, all of your oils need to be liquid and right around 100 degrees before adding your lye water.  Therefore if you’re using coconut oil or lard you need to heat them up until they’re liquid (usually around 80 degrees). The lye also has to be around 100 degrees before it can be combined, which requires a certain amount of cooling, as it heats up to around 150 degrees when combined with water. 

These are the steps I generally take for cold process soap using lye crystals.

1) Combine lye with water, adding lye to water, whisking or mixing well (with non-aluminum utensil) while slowly pouring in to keep granules from sticking. Set aside to cool.

2) Melt any solid oils on low heat and combine all other oils together.

3) Once both the oil and the lye water are around 100 degrees, pour lye water into oil and mix well from the bottom. Continue to mix pretty consistently until it reaches a trace, or the consistency of pancake batter, where when a scoop is lifted up and drizzled back into the mix it doesn’t readily re-combine.

4) Add essential oils, dried herbs (fresh herbs have too much moisture and can cause soap to mold, or exfoliate.

5) Pour into mold(s).

For Hot process soap, the steps are the same except that once the lye water and oils, you put this mixture over the heat and slowly cook until this mixture thickens up (see above paragraph about hot process soap).

Here are the basic steps for lye soap after TEOTWAWKI:

1)    Render your animal fats as described above.  A combination of fats is fine.  Lard generally creates a bubblier, more moisturizing soap, and tallow creates a harder, dryer soap. Both are very cleansing.

2)    Create your lye water by one of the methods previously described, then cook down lye water to get the desired concentration (see above article on lye making)

3)     Measure your ingredients. In a survival situation, using measurements in volume is acceptable, though somewhat less reliable.  As long as your lye water is of adequate concentration, the general recipe for a good quality soap using all animal fats (which have different SAP values, but are similar enough that the difference in densities is somewhat negligible) is  ¾ c of lye water to 2 c of rendered fat

4)     Either heat or cool both of these ingredients to right around 100 degrees and combine, adding lye water to fats.  Follow instructions for hot process soap from this point.

Since we aren’t at TEOTWAWKI just yet, we’ll just add a few more notes about soap making with the additives and oils that are still currently available. That is, we’ll add a few more suggestions on how to make ‘fancy’ soaps.

-Generally our favorite oils to use for everyday body/hand/face soap is a somewhat equal ratio of olive oil, coconut oil and tallow or lard. I also generally add beeswax since I like hard soap bars and it gives it a naturally nice scent/color.  Herbs can be added to give it the properties of those herbs (calendula is great for facial soaps, rosemary is great for skin also, jewelweed or plantain can be added for a good anti-itch/poison ivy soap, etc.). The herbs need to be dried or the added moisture can cause your soap to grow mold.

-Other great additives are any sort of exfoliating ‘thing’ to help with dirt removal/rough skin. Examples are oats (also soothing for skin), wheat bran, pumice, ground apricot seeds, very fine sand or poppy seeds. Dried herbs also add some exfoliation. There’s no magic number for the amount of additives you include, it depends largely on how much exfoliation, color etc. you want. But I rarely add more than half a cup of additives per pound of soap, and generally less than that.  Essential oils are something you have to be careful about, as too much can keep your soap from hardening. I usually use about 1.5 tablespoons per pound of finished soap. Most essential oils add antibacterial/antimicrobial properties which is a nice added touch. Oils highest in these properties include sage, tee tree, thyme, oregano, and any citrus especial oil.

Note: Using homemade lye will result in a soft soap. It’s just as cleansing and has as long a shelf life. It’s just a bit different.  If you want hard soap bars you can add salt to the soap before you pour it into the mold. The good proportion is two and a half pints salt to five gallons of tallow. Also, a little powdered rosin added to the ‘grease’ just before the lye is mixed in helps the soap to set more firmly. However, presumably, in TEOTWAWKI, salt will be quite a hard to acquire necessary, and using it to make soap may not be the best use, as salt is essential in preserving meats, fermenting vegetables (a fantastic and nutritious food preservation method) and 93,885,754 other things. (There are always wild edible plants that have naturally high sodium levels that can be substituted in the diet such as sassafras leaves, colt’s foot, lamb’s quarters and Queen Anne’s lace seeds, so maybe you’ll have some to spare for soap if you know your plants. It’s interesting, though that just like with wood, the plants need to be burned to ash before the sodium is fully released.)

-Worth mentioning is that there are natural saponins available to you in nature. Yucca root has natural cleansing/lathering properties if boiled in water, as does soapwort. Egg whites simply have to be beaten to a lather and used on your hair with fantastic results. The yolk can then act as a conditioner.

-One of the daunting things about making (fancier) lye soaps with lye crystals is that you have to be pretty accurate with your measurements to get a good product. Also you can’t exchange oils in recipes, as each oil requires a different amount of lye. This is because each oil has a different density, therefore it takes a different amount of oil to make it ‘saponify’, or turn into soap. What that means on a chemical level is that the fatty acid chains making up the oil no longer repel water, but attract it. Each oil has its own saponification code, often abbreviated as SAP value. If you’re going to make up your own soap recipe you need to have a list of these codes, which is easily found through another google search, or at this link [7].

-The saponification number of an oil needs to be multiplied by the ounces of oil you plan to use, and the quotient will be the amount of commercial lye required for that much of that oil. For example, if you have a pound of lard and want to figure out how much lye you need, you need to find the saponification number for lard, which is 0.138. So, in this example, the lard’s SAP value is multiplied by the ounces of oil you have.  That will tell you how many ounces of lye needed.  So your math will be 0.138 (lard SAP value) X 16 (ounces in 1 pound) = 2.21 oz. of lye. (I always round the amount lye, water and oils to the nearest tenth, so it would be 2.2 oz. of lye crystals needed.)

Okay, now you have the amount of lye you need. So how much water do you need? The easiest most accepted ratio is to double the amount of lye and use that much water. That will give you a 33% lye solution, a very good, general lye solution amount. So in the above recipe, the amount of lye required is 2.2 oz., so therefore you’ll need 4.4 oz. of water. So this is our newly calculated recipe: 16 oz. lard, 2.1 oz. lye, 4.4 oz. water

Note: This is the only mathematically complex part of soap making, and even this part can be avoided by simply finding a recipe and not creating your own. 

-Any oil you use needs to be pure oils with no added ingredients or preservatives. These will affect your end product. Also you need to be sure you aren’t using oil blends. Some olive oils are combined with vegetable oils to make a cheaper product or one with a higher heating point. So check ingredients. Also note that since this is something that is going to be washed right off of your skin, we’re not advocates of spending $65 for a gallon of organic cold pressed extra virgin gold label coconut oil for a soap batch. We buy that for eating. We buy a cosmetic grade oil for soap making.  –We’re also not an advocates of added chemicals perfumes or any sort of artificial ingredients. They’re just not healthy, in my opinion.

-A fantastic resource for affordable, good quality soap making products is WholesaleSuppliesPlus.com [8].   They  have a local pickup location near where we live, but they also have free shipping if you don’t live in Ohio.  They sell oils, additives, molds and much more. 

-Pomace olive oil, also, is a much cheaper choice and much better for soap making than traditional olive oil, as it’s the last press and still carries some of the olive sediment which is very good for your skin. Keep in mind that pomace olive oil has a different SAP value than regular olive oil.

-Lye is a bit trickier to find. Depending on the laws in your state, you may find it at a hardware store being sold as drain cleaner. You just need to make sure it’s granulated and that it’s 100% sodium hydroxide with no other ingredients. If you can’t find it there, you may need to do a bit of searching. We live near several Amish communities and so finding it in large, bulk quantities is not an issue. 

-You should never use aluminum pots, molds, bowls or utensils when making soap, as the aluminum can leach into the soap and discolor it, or even transfer aluminum to your end product. The lye, in some cases, can even pit or eat right through your aluminum pot/spoon/whatever and ruin them. (Actually, while we’re on the subject, I highly recommend ridding your home of all aluminum, especially where cooking is concerned. It’s nothing but bad news.  Cast iron, stainless steel or copper are all much better choices.) 

-In terms of molds, anything but metal can be used. Ceramic, glass, thick plastic like Tupperware, an old wooden drawer, cardboard boxes, silicone molds, etc. all work.  You can buy nicely shaped molds of all sizes or you can make your own. You just need to make sure what whatever you’re using is heatproof and is thick- no thin plastics or very thin cardboard. And of course no aluminum. If you’re using plasticware or cardboard, then popping the finished soap out or ripping the paper away is usually easy, but if you’re using something hard like a wooden or glass mold I always line it with freezer paper, shiny side up, so when the soap is ready to come out you can just lift the whole block out. It’s quite a job otherwise and you may end up deforming or breaking the edges of the soap bars.

So there you have it. The short course on soap making. We teach soap making here, as well as many other homesteading classes and it has been our experience that learning any self-sufficiency and homesteading skill is easiest and best learned with teacher guided, hands on experience. But, if you work at it on your own and learn by trial and error, you should be in good shape before SHTF.

Laura and Jim Fry [9]

One final P.S.:

While we teach a wide variety of homesteading skills classes, we also recommend you check out our friend Tom Laskowski at www.survivalschool.com [10]. A couple years ago, Tom was named by his peers (of primitive skills experts from across the continent) as having contributed the most to the general knowledge in the field. Tom teaches everything you need to know to survive in the ‘woods’, along with additional homestead skills such as soap making. We also most heartedly recommend our friend Doctor Cindy Koelker at www.armageddonmedicine.net [11]. She teaches everything you need to know about medical concerns. And of course she is SurvivalBlog’s Medical Editor. 

The three of us work together to teach how to “Survive, Stay Alive and Thrive”, both now and in the coming ‘interesting times’. Should you come to any of any of our classes, we also recommend a visit to the nearby Lehman’s Hardware [12] in Kidron, Ohio. Jay and his daughter and son run the largest non-electric store in the world. They are really great people and the business is unequalled for filling your equipment and goods needs for “after EMP”. You could also plan a stop at the even closer Mormon food warehouse [13] to fill your bulk food needs.