Making soap the backwoods way

Photo: Soap, Kelly McCarthy, CC0

Soap – it keeps you clean. It prevents disease. It fights infection. Best of all, it is relatively simple to make yourself, both at home and in a survival situation.

Soap making was a staple of American life right up to the early 1900s. Women would boil up lye and fats and prepare their own batches of laundry and hand soap. Nowadays it is easier to purchase than prepare. But the skill is a useful one. During normal times you can use it to prepare attractive homemade gifts. In an emergency situation you could use natural resources to make your own, highly tradable, germ-killing commodity. In this article we’ll take you through both alternatives.

You will need

There are three essential ingredients in soap: water, fat and lye.

Water should be distilled or de-mineralized for best results.

Fat – beef fat (tallow) will yield a harder soap; pork fat (lard) is softer, and chicken fat soap very soft. You can also use vegetable oils to make soaps of differing firmnesses, but note that oil soaps take longer to set. Start with lard as it is easy to purchase and tends to produce soap that resembles commercial brands.

Lye can be purchased at most grocery stores on the shelf near drain cleaners. It is also available from soap making or chemical suppliers. (See warning)

Utensils: bowls, pans, thermometer, whatever. And isn’t soap making exact? Don’t we need very exact measurements?


Lye is an extremely caustic substance that should be handled with great care. Wear protective clothing such as gloves, boots and safety goggles when working with lye. Do not inhale the fumes. Store lye in a safe place far out of reach of children and animals. If your skin comes in contact with lye, wash the area immediately with cold water. If you get lye in your eyes, flush them out and have someone take you to the emergency room.

Making soap at home

  1. Using a ceramic or glass container, (metal will corrode) and an expendable wooden spoon mix the lye into very cold water. Pour slowly and stir constantly. The amount of lye you use will vary depending on how much fat you use and the desired strength of your finished soap but 1 oz of lye per 6 ozs of fat is a good working average. The exceptions are lanolin, which works best with a 1:10 ratio, and coconut oil, which requires an amount of lye just under 1:5. This doesn’t maker sense to me. As you stir in the lye, the chemical reaction will cause the water to warm up and become cloudy. Continue stirring until all of the lye is dissolved and the water looks clear. Avoid breathing the fumes. Wait for the water to cool to around 85°F (Chris, please put in symbol for degrees) before adding it to your fats.
  2. Next, heat the fat to just above its melting point. In what? This will be 85°F for most fats and oils. But if you’re using tallow, you’ll need to heat it to 130 degrees F. It takes longer for the lye and water mixture to cool than it does to heat the fat, so it’s generally a good idea to cool the lye and water to within 5 or 10 degrees of the intended temperature, i.e. 90 to 95 degrees F, before heating fats.
  1. Once the lye and water solution and the fats are the proper temperatures, slowly pour the lye and water into the fat. Stir continuously. You must continue stirring for at least fifteen minutes until the mixture begins to form soap or “traces.” You will be able to tell when your soap traces because a little soap dribbled over the top of the mixture will leaves marks or mounds behind. It may take quite a while for your soap to trace, but it will happen eventually. Try using a blender to speed up the process or to encourage stubborn oil-based soaps. Don’t worry; tracing is hard to miss.
  1. After the soap traces, include your add-ins. Try essential oils for fragrance, avocado oil to soften skin, oatmeal for texture or even crayons for color. It is a good idea to use a fragrance of some kind as homemade soap tends to retain the scent of lye.
  1. Pour the soap into a square tray, let it sit for 1-3 days and then cut it into bars. At this stage, the soap should still be soft enough to cut easily. Allow your soap to age for at least 1-3 weeks. The soap will mellow during this time and the pH will lower. Test your soap with litmus paper. When, the pH is between 10 and 7 (purple with a hint of blue on the litmus paper), your soap is ready to use. As soap ages, it becomes covered with a whitish powder called soda ash. Don’t let this bother you; it’s caused by lye reacting with carbon dioxide in the air and it will rinse right off. Or, you can prevent soda ash formation by covering the soap with plastic wrap as it ages.

Now, you’re ready to enjoy your own homemade soap! Be aware, homemade soap has a short break-in period. It will lather better after a few washes. Enjoy!

Survival soap

As we mentioned above, soap disinfects and prevents disease, and there is no effective substitute for it. If the unthinkable happens, soap will be of dire importance. Here’s how to make your own soap in a survival situation.

Obtain fat from dead animals or from your lard store. Make sure that any fats you use are clean. If they look rotten or have impurities in them, render them. To do this, boil 1 part fat to 4 parts water. Allow everything to cool and then take the lumps of fat from the pot and scrape or cut away non-fat impurities. Repeat until clean.

Create your own lye. You will need wood ashes, hay, a bottomless barrel or other large container, a hard surface larger than the bottom of the barrel with a groove cut in it and two smallish containers (jugs or large flowerpots). Balance the hard, grooved surface on rocks so that it is elevated off the ground. Remove the bottom of the barrel and place the barrel on the grooved surface. Put the hay into the barrel and the wood ashes on top of the hay. Use at least enough ash to cover the hay.  Place the smaller containers at the lips of the grooves and then pour water into the barrel. Brown, wood ash lye will ooze into the containers. Be very careful with wood ash lye. Like commercial lye, it is highly caustic and can blind, burn and even kill. Keep lye off your skin and out of your eyes, and don’t swallow it. Clear the lye-making area of children and pets.


Slowly mix lye and water. Use 1 part lye for every 6 parts of fat you intend to use. Lye and water will react together and heat, just like they do when commercial lye is used. Allow the mixture to cool to room temperature and then mix it with melted fat and stir. Allow the soap to boil until it becomes frothy. As it “cooks”, the alkali will decrease. If you don’t have litmus paper, you can tell if it’s finished by putting a tiny amount on your tongue. Do not swallow. If the soap has a strong, sour bite to it, it isn’t ready. When it tastes milder, leave it to cool. If you have salt, add it to the cold solution to form hard soap. If no salt is added, you will have a brown gelatinous substance that foams and cleanses. This emergency soap might not look pretty but it will kill germs and cleanse.

The wiki page on soap making is pretty handy, too.