Sunday, October 12, 2008

Homemade Lye Solution

As I mentioned in my previous post lye is a very caustic chemical that is used in many different processes. It can be purchased commercially as a powder, but it has become harder to find as retailers want to avoid selling it to people who use it to make street drugs. Also, when you mix solid lye (Sodium Hydroxide, or NaOH) with water it releases a lot of heat, potentially bringing the solution nearly to the boiling point. This, plus the fact that it gives off noxious fumes, means that making your own lye solution can be an attractive option.
The downside of making your own lye solution is twofold: first, you cannot be guaranteed a specific solution strength; second, you will not get pure Sodium Hydroxide, as the solution will include some Potassium Hydroxide as well.
The first issue can be at least partially resolved by using either a pH measuring device, or using some "old-tyme" methods for determining solution strength. The second can be partly controlled by the starting ingredients, which will be covered below. Many processes can use Sodium or Potassium Hydroxide nearly interchangeably, but Sodium is the preferable type.
The making of lye is so simple it was probably discovered by accident. It is a simple matter of soaking ashes from burned wood in rain water. Rain water is preferred because it has fewer chemicals that can interfere with the processes of leaching the lye from the ashes. This pertains to both ground water from wells and tap water, although for different reasons.
There are two main methods that I have seen: boiling and slow filtering. Of the two, boiling is simplest, but the results are not as good. Slow filtering requires a little more equipment, but I will be providing a link to site that shows an ingenious method of setting up an "automatic" lye solution making system. Once this is done it is a simple matter of keeping the ash hopper full, and you have a ready source of lye solution.
One word of caution: lye water, even when mild, can react to many materials. For this reason you need to be very selective in what you use to both store and collect your lye solution. Acceptable materials include plastic, glass and wood. Most metals are bad, most especially aluminum, so keep your pots and pans out of the equation unless you want to use a cast iron pot (pure iron does not seem to react to lye). Of course, a cast iron pot has many better uses than making lye; it would be a shame to waste it in such a manner.
The ashes you use for making lye can come from three general sources. The first is ashes from hard woods, which results in a good solution. I have heard that both oak and apple wood are particularly good. The second is ash from soft wood, such as pine and other evergreens. These result in weaker solutions, but they can still be used. For instance, in soap making, the hard wood ashes will result in a harder soap suitable for making bars, whereas the softwood ashes tend to result in soaps that stay in liquid form.
The third type of ash you can use is from seaweed (kelp). This is the strongest of the three, and results in a very potent solution. Kelp was used historically for this and other purposes, included the making of glass. If you can get some you may want to try it, but I should point out that your neighbors will probably not thank you, as it can be quite smelly. If you can burn it at the beach safely (and legally) and then bring the ashes home, that would be the best option.
The best method of leaching lye from the ashes is to use a filtration system in a wooden or plastic barrel. The bottom of the barrel should have holes to allow water to flow out, and there should be a catchment system to collect the liquid that pours out. In the bottom of barrel place a layer of gravel, and on top of this a layer of twigs, and then on top of that a layer of straw or hay. (Lawn clippings might work, but I have not tried it). Finally, on top of this goes your ashes, preferably filled nearly to the top. You now start pouring the rain water into the barrel, slowly so the ashes do not start floating.
Basically what you have a is a giant coffee machine, with the barrel acting as the filter and the ashes as the coffee grounds. The process is the same as making coffee: water leaches out the stuff you want from the stuff that it is running through. By slowing the water down we extract more of the lye from the ashes. Unlike coffee, however, we can get a better result by running the same water through twice. For a stronger solution this is a good idea.
Unlike making a lye solution from solid lye, you cannot predict ahead of time how strong your solution is. So how do you know whether it is strong enough, and what can you do to change the strength? First, it depends on what you want to use the lye solution for. In soap making there are a couple of rules of thumb to go by. First, a fresh egg should float in the solution with an area equal to about a nickel to a quarter (2 to 2.5 cm). Bear in mind that most eggs from stores are at least a month old, and will float higher in water than a truly fresh egg. Also bear in mind that you should not eat the egg after the test. The second test involves a chicken feather (probably any fowl will do), which should start dissolving in the solution if it is ready.
If the solution is not strong enough, you have two choices: first, you can run the solution through ashes one more time, or you can boil the solution to evaporate some of the water. The second option is tricky, as lye will react to most metals, possibly damaging the pot, releasing toxic fumes, and preventing the strengthening of the solution. If the solution is too strong, simply add fresh rain water to weaken it.
So what is lye solution used for? I have already mentioned soap making, as well as street drugs, but it also comes in handy in making bio-diesel fuel, various cleaning products, and certain food product preparations. Olives, lutefisk and pretzels are just a few of the food products that are "cured" in a lye solution at one stage or another. I do NOT recommend trying food preparation with lye at home, as there is a very great danger involved in not removing all the lye from the food before the end product is finished.
If you want to try your hand at making your own lye solution, go to Journey to Forever for some set-up diagrams for simple processes, and the End Times Report for a description of how to make an "automatic" lye production system.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Making Homemade Soap

This post will explain the main points about making homemade soap, but there are so many details that I cannot cover them in one post. Instead I will provide some links to some other resources so you can look up the details. There are many types of soap that you can make, including laundry soap, shampoo, bar soap, etc., and each of these requires different specifics but the main ingredients and methods are always the same.

You probably should not expect to save money making soap, although it is entirely possible to make soap with no cost at all using things you might throw out otherwise. The main benefits you can expect from making your own soap are the fact that you can customize it with whatever look and scent you want, and you can avoid potentially dangerous or undesirable ingredients.

All soap is made from the same (up to) four ingredients: fat or oil, a caustic "lye" solution, fragrance (optional), and color (also optional). Fat or oil and lye are the main ingredients, and are absolutely necessary.

1. The fat or oil can be either an animal or vegetable type, but mineral oil does not work. Whatever you use should be cleaned unless it was purchased fresh. However, even fat that has been rendered off a roast can be easily cleaned by simply simmering it in water and then chilling it. This can be repeated if necessary, especially if the fat was rancid.

2. Powdered lye is available commercially, although it is becoming more difficult to find. This is because it is also unfortunately an ingredient in the making of many street drugs (which is something I will NOT be covering in this or any other blog). Despite this, it can be found if you want the commercial stuff. There is a definite benefit to using powdered lye, in that you can follow an exact recipe to get the exact result you want. This is hard to do with a homemade lye solution (which I will cover in my next post).

It should be stated that it can be very dangerous to prepare a lye solution from powdered lye. When lye is added to water (it should never be done the other way) it reacts vigorously, giving off a lot of heat in the process. In fact the water can come very close to the boiling point depending on the ratio you end up using. Also, lye gives off some nasty fumes, so it is always best to mix this outdoors if at all possible. If you can't, then at least do this on the stove with the overhead exhaust fan going.

And since lye is very caustic it will burn your skin if it makes contact before it is diluted, so wear long sleeves and rubber gloves at the very least. I prefer to use safety goggles as well, a throwback to my university days in the chem lab.

3. While the lye solution is cooling down you can prepare the fat or oil, if needed. All you need to do is make sure it is in liquid form, so if you are using oil then you really don't need to do anything. Fat, however, needs to be melted, which you can do on the stove.

The lye solution should be cooler than the oil or fat under normal circumstances before you start mixing them, but each recipe is a little different. Once the temperature difference is correct you can mix them together carefully.

4. Now you need to stir the mixture, either by hand or using an immersion blender (also known as a "stick blender"). You need to stir until you reach a condition called "trace." This can take as much as an hour by hand, or mere minutes if using a stick blender.

5. Trace is a tough thing to watch for until you get some experience at it. Basically it means that when you let a stream of soap mixture run off a spoon back into the pot it sits briefly on the surface in a line before being absorbed back into the mixture. If you move the spoon fast enough you can "trace" patterns on the surface that will remain visible for a short amount of time.

6. Once you reach trace you can add any colors or fragrances, but you should do so quickly before the soap begins to set. Many a batch of soap has ended up as powdered soap because it set up right in the pot before it could be poured into a mould.

7. There are many things that can be used as moulds for soap, but you should have it lined so you can remove the block of soap easily. Wax paper makes a good liner for this purpose. Make sure to leave the mould uncovered for the first while as it cools down. You will notice it begin to gel before it hardens; this is perfectly normal. After you no longer feel any heat coming off the soap you can cover it up. The soap will get harder as it ages, but you should wait at least 24 hours before cutting the block into bars.

Soap making is a fun hobby, and once you get the bug you will rarely ever go back to store-bought. Also, homemade soap makes a great gift -- once you can make it look good!

Again, I have only scratched the surface, but my intent was to simply give you the basics so you can decide if it is something you might want to try. If you really want expert instruction, including some excellent videos, you need to look at the Visual Cold Process Guide. Not only does it show you the steps, it also shows you the mistakes to watch out for and how to avoid them. They also focus a little on the profit-making potential, but you can ignore that if you aren't looking to make money at it.

Thursday, October 9, 2008


Hi, everyone.

In this blog I want to write about all the things that you can make at home that you thought were only available commercially. For the most part I will not be writing about food as I already have a few sites dedicated to that. What I will be concentrating on is everyday household items, some of which we cannot do without (soap, for instance) and others that might be seen as a "luxury" item (such as candles).

Why am I doing this? What is the appeal of spending your time making things that can be purchased so easily, and often cheaper? It breaks down into the following reasons:

1. Cost. Sometimes, not always, it is possible to make things with stuff that you were going to throw away anyway. Soap falls partly into this category; in fact it is possible to make soap with nothing but stuff you were going to toss away. Of course, it you were to buy all the ingredients you could never compete with commercially produced soap, so this reason pretty much applies only if you have the ingredients on hand, and had no other use for them.

2. Quality. In order to compete on price, manufacturers will often use lower-quality ingredients to make products. This can lead to a less desirable, and for some people an unusable product. By making your own things you can control the quality that goes into them. The same applies to the process you use to make things. You can choose to spend as much or as little time as you want because you are not paying cash for your time.

3. Selection. Our choices of what to buy are obviously limited to what manufacturers decide to make, so if you want something that no one is making then making your own is your only option.

4. What if? I am not a doomsday predictor, and I don't think there will be such an economic collapse that it will spell the end of society as we know it. But who really knows what might happen? The very nature of unpredictable events is that they take us by surprise. So knowing how to make things could very well come in handy one day. Self-sufficiency is always a good thing.

5. Gifts. This goes hand in hand with both Quality and Selection, but there is an additional factor of personalization. If you know that a particular person on your gift list likes certain smells, flavors and colors, then you can make something for them that matches those likes. Spending your time making something for someone shows that you care, but making something that shows that you were really thinking of them -- well, that's really what giving is about, isn't it?

6. Fun. Now we come to the real reason that I like to make things. I am always curious about processes and methods and how things are made. I know I will never manage to make everything, but I would like to think I will get a good portion of it. Some things I will make only once, whereas others I will never buy again because I will only make my own. And I hope you have fun trying some of these as well, or at the very least reading about them.

I am looking forward to comments from people too, both about the things I will write about, as well as requests for items that I have not yet written about. I expect I will learn as much as I teach in this blog, and if that happens then I shall consider it a success!