On our campus, we constantly have our wood burning stoves going throughout the winter months and we generate quite a lot of ash. This is great because this wood ash can be turned into lye, which is one of the primary ingredients in soap. Lye is also commercially used to clean drains and ovens and is quite valuable to have around the house. In this post, I’m going to show you how to make your own with minimal materials.
While this may be a relatively easy process, it’s also a process which should be approached with care. You see, lye (sodium hydroxide) is formed when wood ash (which is mostly potassium carbonate) is mixed with water. The mixed solution is extremely alkaline and if it comes in contact with your skin, it begins to absorb the oils and turns your skin into soap. It’s pretty painful so before I ever begin, I make sure that I have vinegar nearby to neutralize the burn if the solution does happen to come in contact with my skin. I also wear rubber gloves and goggles in case there is any splash back during the mixing process.
The materials that you’ll need are a bucket (DON’T use aluminum), a mixing spoon or stick, wood ash, flour sifter, water, an old t-shirt, a pot and a pan. And don’t forget the gloves, goggles and vinegar!
1. The first step is to separate the white ash from the large unburnt chunks of wood that are black and still contain carbon. You can make the lye with the chunks but I’ve found that if you remove as many of them as you can, the clarification process of the liquid that we’re going to produce won’t take anywhere near as long. I simply put all of the ash into the box directly next to me in the picture below and sifted the white ash from the chunks into a five gallon bucket. I used the box closer to the camera to store all of the chunks. The picture to the right below is what the sifted ash looks like in the bucket.