Graphic: Mother Earth News

By Paul D. Matteoni
January/February 1972
Source: Mother Earth News

Soap making in the woods can be an almost automatic thing, with hickory, sugar maple, ash, beech and buckeye as the best producers of lye plus a bucket of rain water and some left-over cooking fat – you can easily brew up enough soap to clean everybody and everything that need it.

If it hadn’t been for the help we got from the native old-timers . . . my friend, Dennis, and I would have starved or just plain quit the winter we settled into that abandoned miner’s cabin in Alaska. The sourdoughs came to our rescue, though, and soon taught us how to survive on less than $10 a month cash money by trapping, tanning, foraging food and dipping candles from our own tallow and lard. With their generous assistance, we also quickly mastered the fine and easy art of recycling hardwood ashes and left-over kitchen fats into clean, all purpose soap.

Now, soap making in the woods can be an almost automatic thing. Anyone who’s done much camping knows that — if you throw some white ashes from a hardwood fire into your frying pan after dinner — the lye in the ash will combine with the fat from the cooking to make a crude soap. This works fine for rough-washing tin plates and hunting knives . . . but there are times when even the most ornery outdoorsman needs bar soap. We were no exception and — thanks to mar instructors-soon became adept at making both soft and hard soap, starting at ground zero with lye from our own leaching barrel.

All you really need to turn out the same sort of non-polluting cleanser that our pioneer foremothers scrubbed with, you know, is lye and animal fat. Whatever meat scraps and drippings you have on hand will supply the fat and the lye comes from wood ashes and water.

To make lye in the kitchen, boil the ashes from a hardwood fire (soft woods are too resinous to mix with fat) in a little soft water (rain water is best) for about half an hour. 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 — start the soap making process by boiling the liquid down until it’ll float an egg. (One word of caution: DON’T use aluminum dishes or pots. The lye will eat right through `em!)

Now put that meat fat, left-over cooking lard and vegetable oil into a kettle (not over half full) and heat the whole mess until all the liquid has been rendered out of the solid scraps. While it’s still hot, add this clean grease to the bubbling lye and continue to boil the mixture—stirring all the while—until it reaches the consistency of thick corn meal mush.

You should have a wooden box two inches high, three inches wide and six inches long handy (this is the mold for one bar . . . if you’re making more soap, use a larger box and cut the hardened finished product into convenient chunks)Cover the bottom of the box with waxed paper or grease to keep the soap from sticking, pour in the mushy mixture and let it cool. You’ve got yourself some backwoods soft soap! Page 2 here: READ MORE…