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How to make lye.

COUNTRYSIDE: Does anyone have a formula for making lye from rainwater and hardwood ashes? What utensils would we need? My Amish neighbors and I would sure appreciate it! Thanks and protest NAIS.--Barbara Brand, Ohio

We've run this before, but for those of you who missed it, here it is again:

Leaching lye from wood ashes

This method, patterned after one used by the early settlers of North America, produces soft soap by combining fat and potash (lye obtained by leaching wood or plant ashes.)

This recipe has been tried successfully with waste cooking grease, olive oil, peanut oil and cocoa butter.

Equipment needed

* Several medium-sized rocks

* A flat stone with a groove and a runoff lip chipped into it.

* 5-gallon wooden bucket with several small holes in the bottom. A hollowed log with the same capacity can be used.

* Collection vessels for the lye. These should be made of iron, steel, enamel or clay. An aluminum vessel should not be used, since lye would corrode it.

* Small twigs

* Straw


* Five gallons of ashes. The ashes may be made from any type of wood, but hardwoods yield the best lye. Ashes from the burning of plants and leaves of trees may be used. Ashes of burnt seaweed are particularly useful as these produce a sodium-based lye from which hard soap can be made. Lye leached from the ashes of plant life (excepting seaweed) is potash or potassium carbonate ([K.sub.2]C[O.sub.3]), an alkali. This alkali reacts with fat to form soft soap. Ashes from other materials such as paper, cloth and garbage cannot be used.

* Two gallons of soft or medium hard water

* Pile the rocks so that the flat, grooved stone rests evenly on the top (see Figure 1.) Set the wooden bucket on this stone.




In the bottom of the bucket, make a filter to trap the ashes by criss-crossing two layers of small twigs and placing a layer of straw on top (see Figure 2.)

Fill the bucket with dry ashes. To keep the lye from being leached accidentally, the ashes must be kept dry before they are used.

Pour warm water into the bucket, making the ashes moist and sticky. To make sure that the water passes through the ashes at the correct rate for leaching the lye, move the ashes up at the sides of the bucket to form a depression again.

When about two-thirds of the water has been added, the lye or potash, a brown liquid, will start to flow from the bottom of the bucket. Use more water, if necessary, to start this flow. The lye flows over the flat stone into the groove and then into the collection vessel below the run-off lip. It takes about an hour to start the flow of lye.

The yield from the amounts given here is about 7-3/4 cups. The results vary according to the amount of water loss from evaporation and the kind of ashes used.

If the lye is of the correct strength, an egg or potato should float in it. A chicken feather dipped in the solution should be coated, but not eaten away. If the solution is weak, pour it through the barrel again, or through a new barrel of ashes, or concentrate it by boiling. A bushel of ashes is about the right amount for four pounds of fat. This proportion is cited in soapmaking recipes of the colonial period in the United States, but many of the recipes of that era differ on the proportion of ashes to fat.

(This article first appeared in COUNTRYSIDE in July, 1971.)

Soap making today, even among crafters who make their own, has become more of a science than an art. But even though early soap making required a good deal of experience (acquired by watching Grandma or Mother) and was still touch-and-go, the basic process was simple.

In a 10-gallon cast iron pot suspended over a brisk fire, melt down 12 pounds of clean, rendered beef tallow. Slowly pour in lye water "of sufficient strength" (one old recipe tells us), about 20 gallons in all. Stir with a wooden paddle until the soap is done (another call for art and experience). Remove from the heat, cool and pour into a wooden barrel.
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Title Annotation:Country conversation & feedback
Author:Brand, Barbara
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Nov 1, 2007
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