How to Make Old Fashioned Homemade Soap (Part 1 of 3), by Grandpappy

During hard times sooner or later everyone runs out of soap.
To make soap you only need three things:
1. Rainwater,
2. Cold ashes from any hardwood fire, and
3. Animal fat from almost any type of animal, such as beef, pork, goat, sheep, bear, beaver, raccoon, opossum, groundhog, etc.
All soap consists of the above three ingredients in one form or another, and that includes bath soap, dish soap, laundry soap, and hair shampoo.
Soap is not difficult to make and it does not require any special equipment. And soap can be made from things that exist in large quantities in nature, and which are typically discarded as being of little value (rainwater, campfire ashes, and animal fat). Therefore, a person who knows how to make good soap could provide his or her family with a small but steady income during hard times by making and selling soap. Soap requires no financial investment in raw materials, and therefore it does not require the advance purchase and storage of inventory before the hard times occur.
Soap is a “perfect consumer product” for the following five reasons:
1. soap is a legal product,
2. everyone everywhere uses soap,
3. soap is completely used up in a short period of time,
4. when people run out of soap they want to buy more, and
5. soap is relatively low in price so almost everyone can afford it.
In my opinion, soap is one of the basic necessities of life for the following five reasons:
1. Personal hygiene: Good health is maintained by washing your hands before eating and by taking a bath on a regular basis.
2. Laundry: If your clothes get really filthy then they will collect lots of germs and those germs will eventually attack your body and you will get sick. During hard times families with small babies quickly revert back to cloth baby diapers that require a really good cleaning before being reapplied to the baby’s bottom.
3. Dish washing: If your eating utensils are not clean then it won’t be long before you get sick from the microscopic organisms that collect and grow on your dishes.
4. Wound care and other medical situations: Even small wounds can get infected and become life threatening if they are not properly cleaned with soap at the earliest possible opportunity.
5. Disease control: Soap is extremely valuable in preventing the spread of diseases because you can wash the bed sheets, clothes, and eating utensils of the sick person, and you can also give the sick person a daily bath or cleaning to help neutralize any germs on the sick person’s body.
In developed countries most people take soap for granted until they don’t have any, just like they take water, canning salt, socks, and shoes for granted. When their soap is all gone people suddenly realize how important it really was. Regardless of how much soap you may have stored for an emergency situation, it will eventually be used up. At that time it would be useful if you knew how to make really good soap from rainwater, campfire ashes, and animal fat.
The major difference between commercial soap and homemade soap is that homemade soap does not lather or produce soap bubbles. However, soap bubbles are only for visual appeal. Bubbles do not increase the cleaning power of soap. (Note: It is possible to add bubbles to homemade soap and that procedure will be explained below.)
(Note: Soap making lye crystals have been withdrawn from the market because they were being used to make illegal drugs. Therefore, if you have an existing soap recipe it will probably be of limited value because you can no longer purchase lye crystals at your local grocery store or hardware store. However, if you follow the instructions below you can still make good soap using lye water made the old fashioned way.)
A cook pot made of stainless steel, or cast iron, or enamelware, or heat-tempered glass, or a clay-fired cooking pot. Aluminum and tin and Teflon coated pots are not acceptable because the soap making lye will adversely react with these materials. The cook pot should be at least twice the size of the batch of soap you intend to make. Generally, a one-gallon or four-quart cook pot will be more than adequate as a soap making pot. (Note: You may use the same pot for soap making and cooking. Just wash the pot when you are finished making soap. Some soap recipes suggest having a special pot just for soap making but this is not necessary, in my opinion. You are just making soap in the pot, and it will be the same soap you use later to wash the pot after you cook a meal.)
A long spoon made of stainless steel or wood. If necessary, an old wood broom handle or a big stick may be used to stir the soap if nothing else is available.
A glass measuring cup. You can use a plastic measuring cup but the concentrated brown lye water may permanently discolor the inside of the measuring cup. (Note: If you don’t have a measuring cup, then use approximately 2.5 times the amount of melted grease as concentrated brown lye water.)
Some type of mold to pour the soap mixture into so it can harden into a bar of soap. For example, you could make a soap mold out of a large empty kitchen matchbox by lining it with plastic food wrap. Or you could use the small black plastic serving trays that contain frozen dinner meals, such as a single serving lasagna meal. The soap mold container should be at least 1 to 1.5 inches deep.
A thermometer is optional because soap was made for centuries before the thermometer was invented. If you wish to use a thermometer, then select a cooking or meat or candy thermometer that will show temperatures from a minimum of 70¬?F to at least 140¬?F. An instant-read thermometer works exceptionally well.
Almost anyone can make good soap if he or she has a little patience and is willing to begin on a small scale in order to gain practice and experience.

(Yields two large eleven-ounce bars of soap or a total of 22 ounces of soap by weight. This is equivalent to approximately four normal bars of store-bought soap.)
3/4 cup of concentrated brown lye water. Normal strength brown lye water can be made by pouring rainwater through the cold ashes of any hardwood fire. Detailed instructions for making concentrated brown lye water are at the end of this article.
Two cups of melted grease. Any type of animal fat may be melted into grease, such as beef, pork, lamb, goat, bear, beaver, opossum, raccoon, groundhog, etc. Only use the fat because lean meat will not make soap. Do not use any lean meat. Ordinary vegetable oil or grease may be used instead, but vegetable oil or grease has more valuable uses than making soap. Detailed instructions for melting animal fat into grease are at the end of this article. Beef tallow is a hard fat and it makes a hard soap that cleans really well. Pork lard is a soft fat and it may be used in a ratio of up to 75% with a hard fat. A mixture of half-tallow and half-lard is usually recommended to achieve a good all-purpose soap. (Note: If you do not have access to animal fat, then you can ask the employees in the fresh meat section of your local grocery store if they have any beef fat or pork fat for sale.)
(Note: You should reduce the above quantities by one-half when you first attempt to make soap. This will give you the opportunity to gain confidence and experience on a small scale. You may use the above quantities, or any multiple thereof, for future soap making efforts depending on how much soap you wish to make in one batch.)


STEP ONE: Mix the concentrated brown lye water and the grease, stir thoroughly, and give the chemical reaction between 30 minutes to 3 hours to gradually take place. Be patient.
This is the most important step in making soap.
The concentrated brown lye water (or lye crystals) used in soap making can hurt you. Be careful when handling the lye. Wear rubber gloves to protect your skin from the lye. If some lye solution gets on your skin, wash it off immediately with soap and water. Lye is caustic and it will permanently disfigure Formica counter tops, kitchen tables, and other nice furniture, even if you wipe it off the surface immediately. Be careful when handling lye and do not let it splash or spill or bubble over onto your kitchen furniture or onto your floor.
Concentrated brown lye water is normally used at room temperature unless the room is unusually cool or cold (below 75¬?F). If necessary, heat the concentrated brown lye water to between 80¬?F to 130¬?F in a separate cook pot. The temperature is not critical as long as it is not too hot. The purpose of using warm lye water is to help maintain a warm soap mixing temperature inside the soap mixing pot.
Put the grease into a separate small melting pot and then put the pot on the stove over very low heat. Do not heat the grease to the smoking point. If you see smoke then you are burning the grease. Melt all the grease and then allow it to cool back down to 90¬?F for pork lard, or to 130¬?F for beef tallow, or to 110¬?F for a combination of tallow and lard. Do not allow the grease to harden while it is waiting to be added to the soap mixture. The grease must be melted when it is added to the soap mixture, and it should be relatively warm. The temperature does not have to be exact, but the grease must be warm and fully melted.
Pour one cup of the melted grease into the big soap making pot. Slowly pour 3/8 cup of the concentrated brown lye water into the soap making pot. Stir the mixture for three-minutes. The mixture will look like brown soup with white streaks in it. Add another cup of grease and another 3/8 cup of concentrated brown lye water and stir thoroughly and continuously for about 15 minutes. The grease and lye must be completely and thoroughly blended together to make soap. If the mixture is not thoroughly blended then the mixture will separate later and you will not get a good soap.
(Note: You can use a manual hand-cranked blender to speed up the mixing process and reduce the amount of time it takes for the chemical reaction between the grease and the lye to be completed. However, this method does require a little practice and experience because it can also result in what is called a “false trace” which is described in Step Two below.)
(Note: If you increase the original recipe to make larger batches of soap, you should still slowly and gradually mix the grease and concentrated brown lye water together at the rate of one cup of grease to 3/8 cup of concentrated brown lye water until all the grease and lye water has been added to the soap making pot. By adding the ingredients gradually and mixing thoroughly each time, you can avoid a separation problem later in the process.)
When you are not stirring the soap mixture, cover the soap mixing pot with a towel to help conserve the heat inside the mixing pot. Remove the towel if you need to add a little heat to the mixing pot, and then replace the towel when you turn off the heat.
This part of the soap making process normally takes between thirty minutes to three hours if you are using grease made from animal fat. During this time the soap mixture needs to remain slightly warm and just above the temperature at which the grease normally hardens. This is where an instant read thermometer is useful. If the mixture begins to cool too quickly, then add just a little bit of heat to the soap mixing pot until the temperature of the soap mixture is between 90¬?F to 130¬?F, depending on the type of grease you are using (pork lard melts at 85¬?F and beef tallow melts at 125¬?F), and then turn off the heat.
(Note: Do not cook the soap mixture and do not heat it to the boiling point. Although additional heat will speed up the chemical reaction it can also cause potential separation problems later in the process.)
Be patient and wait for the chemical reaction to gradually take place at its very slow normal speed. Once every ten or fifteen minutes stir the soap mixture vigorously for one-minute to facilitate a more complete mixing of the lye and the grease. Vigorous stirring means fast and smooth stirring. Do not splash the soap mixture onto the sides of the mixing pot. When you begin stirring the mixture after a ten or fifteen minute rest, you will notice that the brown lye water and the grease are still partially separated because you will be able to see streaks of color in the soap mixture as you stir. However, as you stir vigorously for one minute you should attempt to combine the lye and grease into a solid color so there are very few or no streaks in the mixture. Then you may stop stirring and wait for another ten or fifteen minutes.
Each time you make a new batch of soap you may or may not encounter one of the following two problems. These problems may occur because your concentrated brown lye water may be just a little stronger or a little weaker than what you used in your previous batch of soap. You may also encounter one of the following problems if you use a different type of animal fat, or combination of animal fats, than you normally use. The exact amount of concentrated brown lye water that is required will be slightly different depending on the type of animal fat you are using.
Problem One: If a layer of grease forms on top of the mixture, then check the temperature of the soap mixture and make sure it is above the temperature that the grease normally solidifies, which is 125¬?F for 100% beef tallow, or 85¬?F for 100% pork lard, or 110¬?F for a 50-50 blend of tallow and lard. If the top layer of grease is simply due to a cold soap mixture, then heat the mixture just a little bit and stir the grease back into the mixture. However, if the soap mixture was already at a reasonably warm temperature, then heat the soap mixture just a little, then turn off the heat, and then add 5% more of the concentrated brown lye water, and stir the soap mixture thoroughly for ten minutes.
Problem Two: If the mixture does not thicken properly after three hours, then heat the soap mixture just a little, then turn off the heat, and then add 10% more melted warm grease, and stir the warm grease thoroughly into the soap mixture for ten minutes.
(Note: It takes time for the concentrated brown lye water and the grease to combine together chemically to make soap. Depending on the type of animal fat or grease you are using, it may take as much as twenty-four hours. If you are using vegetable grease or oils, it can take several days. The most difficult part of Step One is to be patient if the chemical reaction is going slowly, and not ruin your batch of soap by adding too much lye water or too much grease in an effort to get the soap mixture to Step Two more quickly. Waiting patiently does not hurt the chemical reaction. Adding too much of the wrong thing can upset the chemical balance.)
When the soap mixture is a solid cream or solid light brown color that displays no streaks when it is first stirred after a ten-minute rest, and it is the consistency of thick gravy or soft pudding, then you can test it using one of the methods in Step Two below.

STEP TWO: Verify the soap mixture is warm enough and that it is ready to be poured into the molds using one (or both) of the following two test methods.
The grease will gradually thicken if the temperature of the soap mixture gets too low. This will make you will think the chemical reaction is complete, when in fact it is not. This is called a “false trace.” Therefore you must verify the soap mixture is still above the melting point of whatever grease you are using before you test the mixture using either (or both) of the following two methods. The minimum soap mixture temperature is 125¬?F for 100% beef tallow, or 85¬?F for 100% pork lard, or 110¬?F for a 50-50 blend of tallow and lard. If your soap mixture temperature is above the minimum, then it is ready to be tested.
(Note: If the soap mixture is below the minimum temperature, or if you do not have a thermometer, then add a little heat to the soap mixture and see if the soap mixture melts back into a fat and lye solution that separates into different colors when stirred gently. If the mixture does show streaks of different colors, then continue to add very low heat for two minutes, stir the mixture vigorously, and then turn off the heat and cover the pot with a towel and return to the instructions for Step One.)
Test Method One: Use a spoon to lift a little of the soap mixture about one-inch above the top surface of the mixture, and then allow one drop to fall back onto the top of the mixture. If the surface of the mixture will support the drop for a moment, then the soap is done.
Test Method Two: Try to draw a medium thick line in the top of the soap mixture with the front tip of your spoon. If you can see the line, then the soap is done. This is called “tracing.”
(Note: When the mixture “traces” the chemical reaction between the lye and the grease is approximately 90% complete. However, the final 10% will happen very, very slowly and it will take another 3 to 7 weeks. The soap will not be ready for use until the chemical reaction has been 100% completed.)

STEP THREE: (Optional Step) – Add Color and Fragrance.
If you wish, you may add color and/or fragrance at this time. However, in my opinion, it is generally not worth the effort. Soap is a consumable item and when it is used up it is gone. Investing time and energy to make the soap more colorful or more fragrant has marginal value if you are simply going to use your soap yourself. On the other hand, if are considering the sale of your soap for a profit then color, shape, and smell are important marketing factors. However, do not use commercial perfumes or alcohol-based solutions. Adding a fragrance or color that is not compatible with the soap making chemical process may ruin your batch of soap. Pure essential oils or herbal solutions are preferred, if you chose to use them. Stir them thoroughly and completely into the soap mixture and then proceed to step 4.

STEP FOUR: Pour the soap into the soap molds and let the soap rest for seven days.
Any container can be used as a soap mold, such as cupcake pans, small boxes, or any other type of container. Lightly grease the inside of the containers. Or place aluminum foil or plastic food wrap inside a small cardboard box, such as an empty kitchen matchbox. The small black plastic serving trays that contain a frozen dinner meal, such as a single serving lasagna meal, make really nice soap molds if you wash them out first. The soap molds need to be at least 1 to 1.5 inches deep because the soap mixture needs to retain its heat during the initial phase of this step and if the mold is too shallow it will lose its heat too quickly.
In the old days our ancestors would use a thin damp towel to line the inside of whatever container they were using as a soap mold. When the soap finished curing, the towel permitted the easy removal of the soap from the mold.
Today the best way to line the inside of a mold is to use plastic food wrap. The plastic food wrap will not react with the soap while the chemical reaction continues to its completion, and it provides a very easy way to remove the soap from the mold when the soap is done.
The soap mixture should be above the minimum melting point temperature for the type of grease you are using.
Pour the warm soap mixture into the molds and then put the soap molds in a warm location.
Immediately cover the soap molds with a thick cloth or blanket to prevent the heat from escaping too quickly. Do not let the cloth or blanket make contact with the soap in the molds. The blanket should simply provide a cover to help keep the molds warm.
Allow the soap to rest in the soap molds for one day. Then remove the towel.
Let the soap continue to rest in the soap molds uncovered for six additional days.
If you peek at your soap during the first day while the soap is covered inside the molds, the soap may look strange depending on what stage of cooling the soap is in. Do not worry. Be patient and wait for the chemical reaction to run its normal course.
During most of this seven-day period the soap may be relatively soft and it will not have the hard consistency you expect from soap. This is normal. Remember to be patient.

STEP FIVE: After a total of seven days, remove the soap from the molds.
If you used a hard fat that melts at a higher temperature, such as beef, or goat, or lamb, then the soap will probably be firm enough to be easily removed from the molds. However, if you used a soft fat, such as pork, or some combination of soft fats such as chicken or pork mixed with a hard fat, then your soap may not be firm enough for it to be easily extracted from the molds. If your soap feels soft like a firm pudding then put it in the refrigerator for two hours and it should then be firm enough to be removed from the molds.
Turn the soap mold upside down and the soap should fall out, if the soap mold was lightly greased or if the mold was lined with aluminum foil or plastic food wrap. If the soap does not fall out of the mold, and you are using flexible plastic molds, then flex the sides and bottom of the mold to loosen the soap from the mold so it can release and fall out. If necessary, you can use a thin bladed knife to separate the soap from the sides of the mold and then gently help the soap out of the mold. (Note: If you used plastic food wrap to line the inside of your soap mold then you will not encounter this problem.)
If you wish to cut the soap into smaller bars, then use a sharp thin knife, such as a serrated steak knife, or use a thin fine wire to saw through the soap. At this time the soap should still be relatively soft, similar to cheese, and it can be divided into smaller sizes if you wish.
If there are any imperfections, lines, or tiny cracks in the exterior surface of the soap, you may smooth them out with your fingers at this time.

STEP SIX: Air dry the bar soap for 2 to 6 weeks.
After removing the soap from its mold, allow the bar soap to dry in a warm dry dark place for two to six weeks before using it. If you really need your soap, then you could start using it after the second week. But if you want the best possible soap, then allow it to air dry for the full six weeks.
Cover a dish or large serving tray with some plastic food wrap, and then stack your soap on the dish in a manner that will allow as much air as possible to reach each bar of soap. Do not stack one bar of soap directly on top of another bar of soap. Do not put the soap in direct sunlight or in a moist area. The longer the bar soap ages the harder it will become and the better it will perform when used as soap. During this time any remaining water in the soap will gradually evaporate, and any remaining lye will gradually blend in with the surrounding grease. However, if your soap is brown lye water heavy, then it will leak out of your soap onto the dish during the first day and you will see a small puddle of brown lye water around your soap. If this happens, then drain off the excess brown lye water so it does not have an opportunity to be reabsorbed into your current batch of soap. You should also consider the addition of about 10% more grease to your next batch of soap at the beginning of Step One.
After six weeks, put the bars of soap into an air-tight container, or wrap them in plastic wrap, or put them in a plastic food storage bag. Depending on your local climate conditions, this will either prevent the soap from drying out, or it will prevent the soap from absorbing moisture from humid air.
When you remove your bar of soap from storage it may have a thin layer of white powder on it, which is the result of the air reacting with any lye on the outside surface of the soap. This thin layer of powder will contain some lye and it needs to be removed from the surface of the soap. Just rinse the powder off and forget about it.
You may also discover that the first two or three times you use the soap to wash your hands that it does not work very well. This is because the soap needs a brief adjusting period after making its first initial contact with water. After the soap has been in brief contact with water a few times, and rubbed, and allowed to dry, it will start to behave like normal soap and clean very well, with one exception. Homemade soap does not lather the way ordinary store bought soap lathers. Bubbles are not necessary for a soap to be effective. Bubbles only add visual appeal.
(Note: If you are going to sell your soap for a profit, then you should dip the bar of soap in water and allow it to air dry several times to pre-condition the soap for your customers. This will help to reduce the number of customer complaints about your soap not working the way it should.)
You can test the quality of a finished bar of soap by shaving it with a sharp knife. If it crumbles, it contains too much lye, but it will still be very effective as a good laundry soap. Good all-purpose bar soap will curl slightly when shaved with a sharp knife blade. Keep a written record of your soap making results and make minor adjustments as required on your next batch of soap.

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