How to Make Lye From Scratch Using Wood Ashes and Water

Only If You Absolutely Have To

Few developments in the history of making soap have made quite the difference to our industry and craft that the development of laboratory-made lye has made. While it was more difficult to procure in this decade, it is still widely available to soap makers.

But lye wasn't made in large scale labs until the mid-1800s and to the home based soap maker only the past few decades. Soap has been around for thousands of years. What did people do before that?

They made their lye the "old...MORE fashioned" way by leaching water through wood ashes layered in a barrel or other container. So if you're in a far corner of our globe and can't get lye locally...or are just curious how it's done, here is a collection of pages that will show you how.

  • 01 of 07
    Comstock / Getty Images

    A great article - that makes it sound so easy - until you realize how much equipment and ingredients and how involved the process is. But the instructions are very clear and easy to follow.

  • 02 of 07
    setup to make a lye solution
    Ingredients and Safety Protection. David Fisher

    Like I said, if you're just interested in the science and history behind making lye for soap making, look below. But note...with all of the affordable ways to buy lye that is reliable and accurate, there are few reasons to ever really do it yourself!

  • 03 of 07

    Published in 1972 (the same year Ann Bramson's SOAP was published), this fascinating article shows how the author learned "to survive on less than $10 a month cash money by trapping, tanning, foraging food and dipping candles from our own tallow and lard" and how they "quickly mastered the fine and easy art of recycling hardwood ashes and left-over kitchen fats into clean, all purpose soap." It almost makes me want to go out in the wilderness and try it. Almost.

  • 04 of 07
    Cooling Your Lye Water in a Water Bath
    Cooling Your Lye-Water in a Water Bath. David Fisher

    This YouTube Video shows a lady (in appropriate pioneer garb) and her lye making box. Very cool to actually see the setup for real - not just a diagram. The audio is terrible, but the information is great.

    Continue to 5 of 7 below.
  • 05 of 07
    Carefully Weigh the Lye
    Weigh the Lye. David Fisher

    A really interesting technique using modern items like buckets and plastic spouts - to make an "automatic lye machine" - including an interesting variation using a rain gutter and spout. It says that lye made from kelp (seaweed) ashes make the hardest soap. (My guess is that it's because of the high salt content. Who knew!?)

  • 06 of 07

    This article gives yet another perspective, this time, from a more biodiesel frame of reference. Folks making their own biodiesel are using a process very similar to making soap.

  • 07 of 07
    George Doyle / Getty Images

    If in addition to information about survivalism, camping, food storage, cooking and grilling, and self-reliance, you need to know how to make soap. Even includes some pioneer saga!