Making aromatic and rich lather soaps with fanciful soap recipes are a fad these days. But there was a time when soap making was done from available materials. A time when even Robinson Crusoes could make soaps with wood from ashes, fat from animals and using utensils made of clay or wood. Then, soap making was strictly an outdoor activity, a barbecue-like thing when women participated together as a group or engaged singly in a strenuous activity of mixing and blending fat with alkali.
Soap making in no-store land: Suppose you live in a remote town where the stores are closed for holidays or you have gone on a holiday to some lonely corner of the earth where you want to pursue soap making, you can do it with just a few basic things. Below are steps to make soaps in the outdoors:
1. Making wood ash lye: Since lye is the alkali used to break animal fat into fatty acids and glycerin, you need to make lye solution first. Lye is nothing but a liquid solution of potash which reacts with tallow in the saponification process to form soft soap. Two methods – Barrel Method and Ash Hopper method can be used to prepare lye solution.
2. Barrel method of lye preparation: In the pre-technological era, people used bottomless barrels to make lye. Usually, the barrel was set on a stone slab with a groove and a lip carved in it. The stone rested on a pile of rocks, underneath which was a clay or wooden utensil to collect lye water. To prevent ashes from collecting, straw and small sticks were placed in the barrel. Then, ashes were put on top of barrel and water was poured on them. A brownish liquid collected at the clay vessel. You can use this method if you do not have the means of an ash hopper.
3. Ash hopper method: Most of the colonists found this to be a suitable method to keep a continual supply of lye. An ash hopper was usually kept in a shed to prevent the ashes from rainfall and other climatic conditions. Ashes were added periodically and water was poured over at intervals. The vessel beneath the hopper collected the lye solution. You too can follow this procedure if you have an ash hopper at your convenience.
4. Fat preparation: Cattle fat was the readily available fat those days. Most of the soaps were formed using beef fat (suet) rendered into tallow through a cleansing process. To render your raw fat, allow the fat to boil in a kettle with equal amount of water. After all the fat has melted, add water again and allow the mixture to cool overnight. By the next day, you can see the clean layer of fat floating upstairs, while all the impurities lie underneath. Collect the top layer by separating it from other impurities.
5. Making soap: Place the fat in a large kettle and add lye solution to it. Boil the kettle until you get a thick frothy mass of soap. You can notice the formation of soap (saponification) or what is called trace when you stir the mixture. However, this may take six to eight hours, so have patience. You can identify soap is formed if there is no noticeable “bite” sensation when you place an iota of the frothy substance on your tongue.
6. Soft and Hard soap: The thick substance that is formed is soft soap. It makes a lot of lather and cleans pretty well. If you want hard soap, like the colonists, you need to mix common salt to the your soap at the end of the process. Addition of salt can turn soap hard and allow you to make bars out of the liquid soap. The bars or the liquid soap can be scented using essential oils or other flavor substances.