Traditional Soap Making

Written by Leanna Serras

People have been making and using soaps for thousands of years through different methods, with varying levels of effectiveness and a vast variety of ingredients. One traditional method that has been used to make soap involves using white wood ashes and a fat or an oil. The resulting concoction is a strong, lye based soapy product that actually is very effective in cutting through grease found in pots and pans. It can also be further refined into bars for modern use. Another method of soap making involves caustic soda, which has some serious health risks because it is a strong alkali. 

Materials and Equipment

The material and equipment list for white wood ash soap is a short and simple one. First, uncontaminated white wood ashes from a hardwood tree are needed. Next, a fat or some oil is needed along with a container of clean, soft water. A small amount of salt is also helpful if it is available. An optional ingredient, for the survivalist, is a few small pieces of charcoal for the abrasive qualities that will aid in cleaning. Finally, a metal or wood container like a pot or pan will be used for the purpose of blending the materials together. Heat, straining methods, molding, and drying methods may be implemented, additionally.

Types of Oils

The type of oil or fat that is used has a significant and direct influence on the finished characteristics and qualities of the soap product. Some fats and oil are better for bubbles and others are better for cleaners. It’s wise to consider the main purpose of the soap before selecting the additive in this step. Some fine examples of fats and oils that are suited for the traditional soap making process are: neem, coconut, tallow, palm oil, palm kernel, ground pea nut, shea butter, and cocoa butter. The palm kernel and coconut oils are fantastic choices for soapy bubbles, while the neem oil is good for an antiseptic. 

The Process

The initial step for making soap involves making lye water, which is accomplished by pouring boiling soft water over cooled, white hard wood ashes. Then the mixture needs to cure overnight or for a half day, in a container that has closeable holes in the bottom. Next, the water needs to be drained into a separate container and then filtered again through the ashes several times by draining through the bottom of the container. An old method used to test the strength of the lye water that still works well, is to take an egg and see if half of it floats in the water mixture. This indicates the right strength of the solution.  It is very important to protect your hands, skin, and eyes during the remaining steps because lye is a corrosive base or alkali that can cause burns.

The oil or grease gets added next and it needs to be melted and strained through cheese cloth into cold water. Once a hard block is formed in the water, this step is complete. Heating the lye water and adding the block of grease or oil comes next until white bubbles start popping on top of the surface. Salt added to the cooling mixture will allow the soap to float to the top and then it can be collected.

Re-melting is used to refine the soap and provides the necessary opportunity to add perfume and/or color. A wooden container, lined with a wet cloth, works well for a mold but it ideally should have removable sides for easy access. The freshly poured soap should sit for a day and then it can be removed or carefully broken out of its mold. The soap is still slightly corrosive at this stage, so protective equipment should be worn. The bars can now be cut into smaller pieces with wire and stack in a dark, cool environment for drying. A month of time is required to get properly dried and cured soap. A wax or greasy paper can be used for a decorative wrapping for safe keeping or for resale. 

Perfuming and Colors

When traditional soap is being made into the typical bars, perfumes and/or color can be added during the latter stages of melting. Right before the final product is poured into a mold, fragrant flowers and plants can be added to the grease mix and then boiled for an hour or so. Essential oils can also be used. The mixture can then be allowed to harden and it can later be melted back down. Once a liquid again, the scented plant or flower media can be strained out so that just the scent remains. Color can be added at this point as well – commercially-made dyes and pigments are the easiest way to add color.

Traditional soap making can be an essential survival task in the wilderness or a business venture in a more controlled environment. The process, in either case, can be hazardous to the user at various stages in the development. The end result is both rewarding and useful and an experienced soap maker can create exactly the finished product that has the characteristics that they seek.

For additional information about traditional, wood ash soap making see: