Making soap the REALLY old fashioned way

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Michele50

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Remember too that ashes vary in composition, so the resulting soap will vary too.

If you make soap using ashes from inland woods, your soap will be softer than soap made with ashes of marine or seacoast vegetation.

Many ancient soap making centers were usually along ocean coastlines, because soap makers could harvest and burn seaweed and other specific plants that were adapted to living in a salty environment. These ashes contained more sodium than ashes from inland woods, so you'd get a firmer soap.

Also, you want to use ash that's been burned to white, not softwood ashes and not black ashes. Softwood ash contains less carbonate so the ley will not be as strong, so hardwood ashes are preferred. Black ash contains more impurities.
I remember reading material that you've mentioned. All this is so interesting to me and I could spend (have spent) hours and hours reading just for the sake of soaking up all that I can--for knowledge sake. It's time-consuming and labor-intensive so, yes, one needs to understand all the ins and outs before delving into making pioneer-style soap. You bring up really good points......as usual. I hope I live long enough to become as knowledgable as you :D.
 

Deb Walker

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While trying to find how to get a hard KOH bar I ended up reading about African Black soap. Made from ashes of plantain, cocoa and shea it is basically a KOH soap. Black from the ashes and on the softer side. I also heard about traditional Polish Grey soap which is a KOH soap, from friends there. Both of these soaps are prized for their gentleness and benefits to those with skin problems.
My grandmother made her own soap and my mother tells me it was awful. I am supposing that being a practical woman (born in late 1800's) she was more interested in cleaning than skin healing. I presume it was lye heavy.
Because it is hard to search for topics in other languages I couldn't find the full recipes but realized that salt was the hardener. I did read that poorer people (US and I probably other countries) in very early times used a soap "sludge" because salt for soap making was beyond their finances.
I presumed that soap makers near the ocean used sea water to percolate their lye with as hard KOH bars were made.
While not doing it the pioneer way (though I have been tempted to try) I dissolve my KOH in brine and the rest of the salt just goes into the oils. Using 20% salt works well and maybe soap makers who didn't have the old scales just estimated weights.
I am sure that not all soap was lye heavy as rich people would have payed for good soap.
 

Michele50

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While trying to find how to get a hard KOH bar I ended up reading about African Black soap. Made from ashes of plantain, cocoa and shea it is basically a KOH soap. Black from the ashes and on the softer side. I also heard about traditional Polish Grey soap which is a KOH soap, from friends there. Both of these soaps are prized for their gentleness and benefits to those with skin problems.
My grandmother made her own soap and my mother tells me it was awful. I am supposing that being a practical woman (born in late 1800's) she was more interested in cleaning than skin healing. I presume it was lye heavy.
Because it is hard to search for topics in other languages I couldn't find the full recipes but realized that salt was the hardener. I did read that poorer people (US and I probably other countries) in very early times used a soap "sludge" because salt for soap making was beyond their finances.
I presumed that soap makers near the ocean used sea water to percolate their lye with as hard KOH bars were made.
While not doing it the pioneer way (though I have been tempted to try) I dissolve my KOH in brine and the rest of the salt just goes into the oils. Using 20% salt works well and maybe soap makers who didn't have the old scales just estimated weights.
I am sure that not all soap was lye heavy as rich people would have payed for good soap.
Howdy @Deb Walker Welcome to the forum. I hope this helps make sense of a sometimes confusing thing. I've had others (DeeAnn to name one) help me when I posted something that allowed her to see I boo-booed on something and appreciated her pointing it out so I could go back and fix my error--thanks @DeeAnna and you probably don't know what I am speaking of....but thanks anyway.

DeeAnna (post #17) has given good info on the various methods of making soap (#1, #2, & #3) and they are all different one from the other. I just wanted to mention, because things can sometimes become confusing when words sound alike. While I 'do not' have the knowledge that DeeAnn has, I did greatly research African Black Soap a couple of years ago. While potassium hydroxide (KOH) is commonly called caustic potash, it's not the same as the lye solution made from hardwood ash. Wood-ash lye is a solution of mostly potassium carbonate and some sodium carbonate and making soap from it is very different than using KOH to make liquid soap (a thick soap paste). I've made both the soap paste for liquid soap (KOH) and made my own pioneer/African Black soap-tye lye solution from hardwood ash. From what I researched, pioneer soap and ABS (African Black Soap) starts with ashes used from what is at hand--hardwood by pioneers; ashes from cocoa pods, plantain peeling, and/or palm leaves in Africa and maybe other type of plant material. African soap is a very pliable soap due to the type of lye ('ley') solution used; KOH will make a very different kind of end product--thick paste that is pliable but must be diluted with water. I suppose anyone could use it in the very concentrated form but then it would be a waste with not diluting--diluting as it should be will make a bunch liquid soap. To clarify, I didn't make ABS, it was pioneer soap that I made which I feel is the same method used in Africa to this day.....only different plant material used for the ley solution.

My hubby remembers the lye-soap his grandma/great-grandma made and it was lye-heavy but was that way as a choice over too much oils---also touched upon by DeeAnn. Since hardwood ash lye solution cannot be consistent from batch to batch soap couldn't be made as we can make today using NaOH. We have the ability to make soap without being lye-heavy because we know how much lye (NaOH / KOH) it takes to saponify the oils we are using--pioneers didn't have that info back then.

Coming from a new member (me) and a person who still has a bit of a problem with low self-esteem, I had to not quit posting even when I got something wrong. Please don't take this as anything but the sharing info done. Again, welcome to a forum with members who I've found to be super helpful to me.
 

Deb Walker

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Howdy @Deb Walker Welcome to the forum. I hope this helps make sense of a sometimes confusing thing. I've had others (DeeAnn to name one) help me when I posted something that allowed her to see I boo-booed on something and appreciated her pointing it out so I could go back and fix my error--thanks @DeeAnna and you probably don't know what I am speaking of....but thanks anyway.

DeeAnna (post #17) has given good info on the various methods of making soap (#1, #2, & #3) and they are all different one from the other. I just wanted to mention, because things can sometimes become confusing when words sound alike. While I 'do not' have the knowledge that DeeAnn has, I did greatly research African Black Soap a couple of years ago. While potassium hydroxide (KOH) is commonly called caustic potash, it's not the same as the lye solution made from hardwood ash. Wood-ash lye is a solution of mostly potassium carbonate and some sodium carbonate and making soap from it is very different than using KOH to make liquid soap (a thick soap paste). I've made both the soap paste for liquid soap (KOH) and made my own pioneer/African Black soap-tye lye solution from hardwood ash. From what I researched, pioneer soap and ABS (African Black Soap) starts with ashes used from what is at hand--hardwood by pioneers; ashes from cocoa pods, plantain peeling, and/or palm leaves in Africa and maybe other type of plant material. African soap is a very pliable soap due to the type of lye ('ley') solution used; KOH will make a very different kind of end product--thick paste that is pliable but must be diluted with water. I suppose anyone could use it in the very concentrated form but then it would be a waste with not diluting--diluting as it should be will make a bunch liquid soap. To clarify, I didn't make ABS, it was pioneer soap that I made which I feel is the same method used in Africa to this day.....only different plant material used for the ley solution.

My hubby remembers the lye-soap his grandma/great-grandma made and it was lye-heavy but was that way as a choice over too much oils---also touched upon by DeeAnn. Since hardwood ash lye solution cannot be consistent from batch to batch soap couldn't be made as we can make today using NaOH. We have the ability to make soap without being lye-heavy because we know how much lye (NaOH / KOH) it takes to saponify the oils we are using--pioneers didn't have that info back then.

Coming from a new member (me) and a person who still has a bit of a problem with low self-esteem, I had to not quit posting even when I got something wrong. Please don't take this as anything but the sharing info done. Again, welcome to a forum with members who I've found to be super helpful to me.
Thank you for your kind reply. I presumed a forum would be for the polite sharing of information even if it means making corrections (that's how we learn) so you are welcome.

I make liquid soap so I am familiar with the KOH soap paste that is made as well as the dilutions etc. I am talking about a hard bar KOH soap which I make regularly.

It seems the web sites I looked at back in the day didn't give me the correct details on the chemical composition but to my memory there were comparisons so maybe there shared characteristics somewhere in there.
Anyway my KOH soap bars work very well with beneficial characteristics and the pioneer way is fascinating (if I had time I would try it) so nothing lost.
 

Michele50

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Thank you for your kind reply. I presumed a forum would be for the polite sharing of information even if it means making corrections (that's how we learn) so you are welcome.

I make liquid soap so I am familiar with the KOH soap paste that is made as well as the dilutions etc. I am talking about a hard bar KOH soap which I make regularly.

It seems the web sites I looked at back in the day didn't give me the correct details on the chemical composition but to my memory there were comparisons so maybe there shared characteristics somewhere in there.
Anyway my KOH soap bars work very well with beneficial characteristics and the pioneer way is fascinating (if I had time I would try it) so nothing lost.
Now that you mentioned it, I had actually landed on a stie (long ago) of someone who made bar soap with KOH. I've not seen much online about it.......probably because I hadn't actually looked it up specifically; I only happened upon it.

Lol, I stand corrected; one can make soap with KOH. I'll have to do some researching and give it a try. I'm like a kid when it comes to curiosity, but not like a cat. I love reading anything 'soap.'
 

Sharron

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Update -

Thanks to everyone who gave me suggestions on how to harden up the soap I am making with lye from wood ashes, rainwater, salt and lard. I did test my lye water with pH strips, and it is within the necessary range. It also passed the egg and potato test.

The first batch came to trace but wouldn't harden, so I tried another batch using a different ratio of lye, salt, and lard. This time, I used 1 1/2 cups lye water, 2 cups lard, and 3 tablespoons of sea salt. This batch thickened up enough to cut into bar-shaped sizes but it's still soft, like polenta. I've got it drying on a cooling rack covered with muslin. It also feels greasy when I pinch off a piece to see if it will wash up.

Questions:

Any idea if it will harden over time and get less greasy? Do I need to think about temperature when mixing over the course of an hour or so? Should I keep it warm during the mixing? (I got each mixture to about 120* before combining, but didn't keep it warm while mixing it.)

Thanks for any thoughts!
 

DeeAnna

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"...Any idea if it will ... get less greasy?..."

Are you not willing to check the soap to see if there is a slight zap as a way to know whether the fat is fully saponified? If you aren't willing to test, then you don't know the answer to whether the soap has an excess of fat or not.

If you don't know whether the soap is neutral or has excess fat or excess alkali, I certainly can't answer this question. The greasy feeling could be from excess fat or it could be from excess alkali because it quickly attacks your skin leaving a slick, greasy feeling.

Given the type of saponification method you're using, if you do not test during saponification, you really don't know what you've got. Your soap can be anywhere from too greasy from excess fat or dangerously alkaline from excess lye.

If you test the soap and find it to be slightly alkaline after a good long simmer, then you know the soap is close to "tongue neutral" (zap free) and at that point you could arguably add a bit more fat to the soap to give it a slight superfat. But unless you test, you won't know what quality of soap you've got so you can't make good decisions about what to do next.

"...I did test my lye water with pH strips, and it is within the necessary range...."

Potassium carbonate, K2CO3, has a pH of around 10.5 starting at a 0.14% solution of K2CO3 in water. It rises to about 11.4 pH at a 14% solution. And then the pH increases slowly thereafter to a max of about 11.6 in a saturated solution of K2CO3 (about 138 g K2CO3 / 100 mL of water which translates to a 58% K2CO3 solution concentration by weight).

Let's assume your pH strips are able to accurately tell you the pH to within half a pH unit. They indicate the pH of your lye solution is 11.5 plus or minus 0.25 pH units. That means the solution could contain anywhere from about 14% to about 58% concentration.

I really do not think this answer is sufficiently accurate for a person to make soap on this information alone. A soapmaker wanting to make this type of soap has to do a reasonably accurate test for excess alkali during saponification to really have a clue. The pH test isn't going to do that -- a person has to do either the zap test or a proper lab test for free alkali.

I will also add that pH strips and pH meters are wildly inaccurate at high alkali concentrations. To accurately test the pH concentrated alkalis, you have to test the solution using an indirect method. If you want to know what that method is, I'll be glad to provide that information in another post.

Sodium carbonate, sodium hydroxide, potassium carbonate, and potassium hydroxide all have a similar relationship between pH and concentration. The pH test alone will never be an accurate test of concentration for these alkalis, and that is especially true at higher concentrations.

"...Any idea if it will harden over time...?..."

As I've already explained, adding salt will add firmness to the paste, but it will not create a hard bar soap.
 
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sirtim100

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Hi @Sharron

I asked around, and the people who might have known about soap making way back when have nearly all passed away or discovered something that puts the kibosh on what I think you're after: they all discovered lye in packets of one form or another and made their lye mixture that way. They did use lard, no salt to speak of and mixed it all together in a big metal pot of some kind. The task was usually one for the women, and according to one female friend, her grandfather wouldn't wash with anything else, it had to be "el jabón de manteca o nada" (lard soap or nothing)

Sorry I can't help out more, if I pick up any genuinely useful information, I'll pass it on.
 

Cereal

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“There's not a lot of info out there on how to make soap from ashes. Nobody does that anymore.”

Savon de Marseille is still made from ashes (and salt water...but it’s ashes of sea plants, not hardwood...and it’s always pure vegetable soap, not lard).

Any of the four or five soap producers (you can find them on line easily...it’s like Savonerie du Midi, La Licorne, Marius Farbre, and one of two others) still using the traditional method *might* conceivably be willing to answer questions, although maybe not...and they might not speak English very well. I do know those soaps are cooked over fire in a cauldron for something like three days. They are usually relatively soft bars, but still bars-not scoopable soap.

but aside from planning a trip to Marseille and taking a bunch of soap tours, maybe some internet research around savon de marseille traditional method etc. Might be interesting.

Good luck with your project!
 

Sharron

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"...Any idea if it will ... get less greasy?..."

Are you not willing to check the soap to see if there is a slight zap as a way to know whether the fat is fully saponified? If you aren't willing to test, then you don't know the answer to whether the soap has an excess of fat or not.

If you don't know whether the soap is neutral or has excess fat or excess alkali, I certainly can't answer this question. The greasy feeling could be from excess fat or it could be from excess alkali because it quickly attacks your skin leaving a slick, greasy feeling.

Given the type of saponification method you're using, if you do not test during saponification, you really don't know what you've got. Your soap can be anywhere from too greasy from excess fat or dangerously alkaline from excess lye.

If you test the soap and find it to be slightly alkaline after a good long simmer, then you know the soap is close to "tongue neutral" (zap free) and at that point you could arguably add a bit more fat to the soap to give it a slight superfat. But unless you test, you won't know what quality of soap you've got so you can't make good decisions about what to do next.

"...I did test my lye water with pH strips, and it is within the necessary range...."

Potassium carbonate, K2CO3, has a pH of around 10.5 starting at a 0.14% solution of K2CO3 in water. It rises to about 11.4 pH at a 14% solution. And then the pH increases slowly thereafter to a max of about 11.6 in a saturated solution of K2CO3 (about 138 g K2CO3 / 100 mL of water which translates to a 58% K2CO3 solution concentration by weight).

Let's assume your pH strips are able to accurately tell you the pH to within half a pH unit. They indicate the pH of your lye solution is 11.5 plus or minus 0.25 pH units. That means the solution could contain anywhere from about 14% to about 58% concentration.

I really do not think this answer is sufficiently accurate for a person to make soap on this information alone. A soapmaker wanting to make this type of soap has to do a reasonably accurate test for excess alkali during saponification to really have a clue. The pH test isn't going to do that -- a person has to do either the zap test or a proper lab test for free alkali.

I will also add that pH strips and pH meters are wildly inaccurate at high alkali concentrations. To accurately test the pH concentrated alkalis, you have to test the solution using an indirect method. If you want to know what that method is, I'll be glad to provide that information in another post.

Sodium carbonate, sodium hydroxide, potassium carbonate, and potassium hydroxide all have a similar relationship between pH and concentration. The pH test alone will never be an accurate test of concentration for these alkalis, and that is especially true at higher concentrations.

"...Any idea if it will harden over time...?..."

As I've already explained, adding salt will add firmness to the paste, but it will not create a hard bar soap.
Well, as to whether I am willing to do the zap test, I'm a vegetarian, and the idea of sticking my tongue on a bar of soap made with lard that may or may not be saponified, kinda grosses me out to be honest! Lol! I may see if I can get my husband to try it though. What exactly will he be looking for? Is it a zap as strong as touching a battery with your tongue?

As far as hardening, I am fine if it doesn't harden. My goal is to make the soap as an accurate representation of the kind of soap the people on the Kentucky frontier in 1816 would have had. The historic home where I work and volunteer was owned by some of the wealthiest people in the area. Their family members were merchants. I feel like they would have had hard soap imported from Philly or Boston for their personal use, but the soap for the kitchen, laundry, and the enslaved would have been the homemade kind. Doubt if salt would have been used for these purposes.

And like I said in my first post, they would not have had scales, thermometers, etc. to measure with any accuracy the pH, weight, and temperature of the ingredients. Their soap-making skills came from years and years of just doing it. I'm trying to learn how to do this with little to no information and no one-on-one instruction.

Since I'm not going to make this to sell or really even use, I'm not super concerned if it's 100%. My goal is to get as much correct information as I can so that we can accurately represent how soap was made and used in 1816 and then I can demonstrate with some degree of accuracy the steps involved. Of course, if I happen to make great soap in the process, that's a bonus.
 

atiz

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This is a really interesting project! Hope you can figure out the method.

For the zap test, yes, it's like a battery. Someone once told me that if I have to think about whether it zapped or not then it didn't; you just can't miss it. Zap means excess alkali.

Good luck with all of it!
 

Michele50

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"....What exactly will he be looking for? Is it a zap as strong as touching a battery with your tongue?
Yes, it's much like that sensation. At least when I've tested and gotten zapped from my liquid soap paste, in which case I cooked it a bit longer. I imagine that if it was very lye-heavy the zap could be much stronger.

"...Their soap-making skills came from years and years of just doing it. I'm trying to learn how to do this with little to no information and no one-on-one instruction.

.... My goal is to get as much correct information as I can so that we can accurately represent how soap was made and used in 1816 and then I can demonstrate with some degree of accuracy the steps involved. Of course, if I happen to make great soap in the process, that's a bonus."
In speaking to my sister who knows a lady who once lived in Africa and discussing my interest in how they still make soap-- as pioneers did I'm thinking--she told me she'd ask her if she knows anything about soapmaking practices there. If I find out anything, I'll pass it on.

"....For the zap test, yes, it's like a battery. Someone once told me that if I have to think about whether it zapped or not then it didn't; you just can't miss it. Zap means excess alkali...."
Lol, I've done both; in fact, I still check 9-volt batteries to see if they are completely dead or not if I happen to find one laying around the house b/4 'assuming' it's no good. Although we have very few items that require that kind anymore.
 

CatahoulaBubble

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I learned soap making from my great grandmother when I was very young. I watched her make soap several times when I was a kid and then I made some myself with her help when I was in my teens. But then she passed away and I didn't pick up soap making again until my 30s because the internet made it sooooo much easier to make soap.

She had a bucket that she would scoop her ashes into. She'd filter out all of the dark pieces and chunks of half burnt coals and sift through it till she had just the fine white/gray ash. Then she'd put a layer of straw on it and then fill it with water. They used well water. She let that sit for probably a week. This was in summer though so by the time she went to actually use the water there had been evaporation and so the bucket probably had half of what was originally in it.

Now while her lye water was soaking she'd take all of the fats in her "grease pail" which was cooked fats and fat trimmings and she'd boil it down let it cool then skim the fats off the top of the cooled water and then boil it again until she had all of the fat rendered. It was a mix of beef and pork fat and possibly some chicken fat because she just tossed it all in one bucket then rendered it before the soap making.

Once she had the fats rendered and the lye water made she'd build a fire outside and use a pot to melt the fats and then she'd strain and drain the lye into another pot and once the fats were melted she'd heat up the lye. She wanted the lye and the fats to be body temperature and she'd actually test the lye on her wrist to gauge the temp. Once they were the same temp she'd mix in the fats to the lye slowly and just keep adding and stirring until she got the consistency she wanted. Honestly I haven't the foggiest how she gauged it. Once she liked the way it looked she then put it back on the edge of the fire and let it simmer while she sat and stirred it. So basically hot processing it to some degree. Then when she was happy with it she'd take the pot off the heat and pour it into the soap jar thing they used to store it. It was like a wide mouth crockery pot. The soap on the edges and top would harden when cooled but the soap under the top layer was soft like playdough.
 

Sharron

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I learned soap making from my great grandmother when I was very young. I watched her make soap several times when I was a kid and then I made some myself with her help when I was in my teens. But then she passed away and I didn't pick up soap making again until my 30s because the internet made it sooooo much easier to make soap.

She had a bucket that she would scoop her ashes into. She'd filter out all of the dark pieces and chunks of half burnt coals and sift through it till she had just the fine white/gray ash. Then she'd put a layer of straw on it and then fill it with water. They used well water. She let that sit for probably a week. This was in summer though so by the time she went to actually use the water there had been evaporation and so the bucket probably had half of what was originally in it.

Now while her lye water was soaking she'd take all of the fats in her "grease pail" which was cooked fats and fat trimmings and she'd boil it down let it cool then skim the fats off the top of the cooled water and then boil it again until she had all of the fat rendered. It was a mix of beef and pork fat and possibly some chicken fat because she just tossed it all in one bucket then rendered it before the soap making.

Once she had the fats rendered and the lye water made she'd build a fire outside and use a pot to melt the fats and then she'd strain and drain the lye into another pot and once the fats were melted she'd heat up the lye. She wanted the lye and the fats to be body temperature and she'd actually test the lye on her wrist to gauge the temp. Once they were the same temp she'd mix in the fats to the lye slowly and just keep adding and stirring until she got the consistency she wanted. Honestly I haven't the foggiest how she gauged it. Once she liked the way it looked she then put it back on the edge of the fire and let it simmer while she sat and stirred it. So basically hot processing it to some degree. Then when she was happy with it she'd take the pot off the heat and pour it into the soap jar thing they used to store it. It was like a wide mouth crockery pot. The soap on the edges and top would harden when cooled but the soap under the top layer was soft like playdough.

This is so helpful! Thank you! It's almost exactly what I did, minus keeping it hot while processing. I'll have to try it that way!
 

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This is so helpful! Thank you! It's almost exactly what I did, minus keeping it hot while processing. I'll have to try it that way!
I really enjoyed reading this as I did the same thing with my grandmother. We still have some of her century old soap. I like to display it along with my "modern" handmade soap.
 

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