A SAFETY DISCLAIMER AND WARNINGS WILL BE FOUND AT THE END OF THIS POST AND EVERY POST PERTAINING TO SOAP MAKING. Making soap is part chemistry and part art-form. The basics of soap are very easy to understand. Soap has three base ingredients: Water (the softer the better) Lye Fat Our grand parents, and great grandparents and so on all the way back into the dim and misty usually made their own soap. They did not have all of conveniences of society that we take for granted, for the most part. Sure they had general stores or Merchantiles and could get some "store bought" things, but soap was usually made by hand at the home. Why? It was made from things that were on-hand, and with the right skills and some basic equipment, you did not have to buy anything. What is lye? Lye is a corrosive alkali substance - commonly sodium hydroxide (Red Devil Lye is Sodium Hydroxide), or potassium hydroxide (this substance can be leeched from hardwood ash, and commonly was). It chemically reacts with the fats in a process known as "saponification". there is a long, drawn out highly technical explaination as to what saponification is, but that is unimportant for this post. What is important is you can acquire the basic ingredients from local sources and "waste" products of everyday living. In this first part I would like to outline how you can make your own lye water from hardwood ashes. It is imperative you use hardwoods, because the potassium hydroxide you get from the soft woods like pine will only produce soft soap. To begin the process you need a few basic pieces of equipment: A water-tight bucket - a 5 gallon plastic bucket would suffice A drill Fine gravel - regular washed gardening gravel will work Straw White hardwood ashes (burn the hardwood in a really hot fire to produce white ash) Soft water - collected rainwater is the best, it has no chemicals or dissolved minerals in it - you can use distilled water if you like. 2 cinder blocks A non-reactive plastic catch basin Chemically resistant rubber gloves and eye protection A non-reactive storage container (plastic) for your lye water (I use a 5 gallon bucket with a lid, commonly available at your local hardware store). Step-by-step instructions: 1: Drill small holes in the bottom center of the bucket - approximately 10-15 holes, in a pattern no bigger than the opening of your catch basin. 2: Put a 1/2" - 1" deep layer of gravel in the bottom of the bucket. layer approximately 2" of straw on top of the gravel. This is your filter media. It keeps the ash in and lets the lye water seep out. 3: Fill the bucket to within 2" of the top with white ash, it is important to not overfill the bucket, because the ash will float out when you start adding water. Pack it down gently, not too tight or the water will take forever to seep through, too loose and the water will not draw enough lye from the ash. 4: Take your catch basin and fill it to within 1-2" of the top with distilled or rain water. Slowly pour this into the ash, taking care to not overfill, again the ash will float out and it is a nasty mess to clean. Pour in stages if you have to. If you have packed the ash in your bucket correctly, the water takes a long time to seep through, so you have time to slip your catch basin underneath. 5: Set your ash bucket on the two cinder blocks (being careful not to block the weep holes) and slide your catch basin underneath. It takes a long time for all of the water to seep out so you can leave this for the day, come back tomorrow. Make sure no children or animals will get near the buckets as this is EXTREMELY CORROSIVE and HARMFUL. It will BURN unprotected skin. IF you get lye water on your skin - spray the affected area with Ammonia, the ammonia neutralizes the lye and stops the chemical from burning you. 6: Take your collected brown lye water and pour over the ashes again. Allow this to seep through a second time. When the brown lye water stops coming out, test it for strength. To test your lye water for strength you can float a fresh (in the shell) egg or potato in it (wearing gloves and eye protection). If the egg or potato float about 1/2 way into the water - it is the right strength for making soap - remove the egg or potato and destroy them. Also, you can drop a chicken feather in, if the feather begins to dissolve, you have the right strength. If the egg or potato doesn't float or the feather does not dissolve, you can strengthen the lye solution by boiling it down, much like making a reduction. Put the lye water into a non-reactive vessel (an old iron pot or stainless steel pot). NOTE: once you put lye water in the pot you can never, ever use the pot for anything else. There is no way to guarantee that all of the lye is washed out and lye is POISONOUS. Boil the lye water down until it has lost about a third (1/3) of it's volume. Let cool and test the strength again. If it is correct, then allow to cool and pour carefully back into the collection basin, and lid for storage. MARK IT CLEARLY - LYE WATER - POISON - CAUSTIC. DISCLAIMER: THE SOAP MAKING PROCESS INVOLVES A VERY CAUSTIC AND POTENTIALLY HARMFUL CHEMICAL - SODIUM HYDROXIDE OR POTASSIUM HYDROXIDE - COMMONLY KNOWN AS LYE. LYE IS A HIGHLY CORROSIVE HYGROSCOPIC SALT THAT WILL CAUSE ORGANIC SUBSTANCES LIKE SKIN, HAIR, AND CLOTHING TO DISSOLVE. THE INFORMATION LISTED HEREIN IS FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY. USE PROPER SAFETY PRECAUTIONS - CHEMICALLY RESISTANT RUBBER GLOVES AND EYE PROTECTION WHEN HANDLING LYE. KEEP A SPRAY BOTTLE OF PURE UNDILUTED AMMONIA ON HAND. IF YOU GET LIQUID OR DRY LYE ON YOUR SKIN SPRAY THE AFFECTED AREA WITH AMMONIA IMMEDIATELY! THIS WILL NEUTRALIZE THE LYE. THOROUGHLY WASH ALL TOOLS AND EQUIPMENT USED TO MAKE SOAP AND USE IT FOR NOTHING ELSE.