Pioneer Soap Making

Soap making from wood ashes and animal fat is an old homestead skill that goes back to days when America was a new country just settled. Back then, the only soap available to pioneers was the soap they made with a large cooking kettle over an open fire. Those early pioneers, and the following generations, made soap with ingredients available on the family homestead:  wood ashes, animal fat, and water. As America became settled and more industrial, commercial soaps were available for purchase. However, many people continued to make their own soap until well into the 20th Century.

Since this form of basic soap making is an old homesteading skill,  I wanted to learn how to make soap as my ancestors would have done. I not only wanted to understand how the process worked but I wanted to attempt my own version of pioneer soap making. Thus began my quest to research soap making, discovering the process was more involved than I ever knew.

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Before making basic soap in the manner that pioneers did, one needs to remember how different the American lifestyle was before the Industrial Revolution. American settlers, even the later homesteaders, did not have the conveniences of today’s world and much care was taken to avoid any waste. Frugality and common sense ruled over extravagance and frivolity. Duty came first as a basic necessity for survival. Household chores, kitchen work, and homestead activities were critical to survival and nothing went to waste. Everything had a use or a purpose or it was stored away because a need might happen along.

Time-intensive chores were often relegated to activities only performed once or twice a year.  Some of these activities took time to set up and were messy, hot work — work that was better suited for outdoors. With the quantity of work required to run a homestead, most households would set up these tasks only on occasion, planning ahead.  Soap making was one of those time-intensive, messy tasks undertaken once or twice a year. Basic homemade soap was cooked in a large kettle over an open fire outdoors. Soap making involved a long process but yielded a very large supply of finished soap.

The two main ingredients necessary for homemade soap, wood ashes and animal fat, were found on or around every small homestead. The combination of lye water made from leeched wood ashes and animal fat that has been rendered, or cooked down clean, create a basic fat and alkali mixture that is fundamental to soap making.

Pioneer soap making required several processes before actually making the soap. I needed lye and I needed tallow to make pioneer-style soap, so I had to locate the basic ingredients, wood ashes and animal fat, before I could start to make soap. I had never made wood ash lye before. I had never rendered animal fat into tallow before. But I was going to to learn how!

Wood ashes are used to make lye, the caustic alkali necessary to make soap.  Animal fat is also used to make soap, although the fat could not be used “raw”.  Animal fat required a rendering process so that a pure, finished fat could be used to blend with the wood ash lye. If the mixture was correct, some homemade wood ash lye would turn tallow, a cleaned animal fat, into a creamy pioneer soap product.

My blog post Making Tallow Wax explains the full process of making tallow.

My blog post Making Lye shows the process of making lye and crafting a lye bucket to leech wood ashes.

Once these 2 soap making ingredients were made and I had stored them properly, I began researching the basic methods to make lye soap the old-fashioned way — the way pioneer settlers did. And that is when I hit a dead end!  Every document I found required enormous quantities of lye and tallow. I didn’t have a huge outdoor cast iron kettle, I had not made 30 cups of tallow, nor did I have gallons upon gallons of homemade lye. Discouraged that I could not find a decent proportional ratio to batch-test a reasonable amount of lye-and-tallow soap, I soon realized I would have to become my own pioneer to create a small batch of basic lye soap.

So last weekend I had my chance to become that brave pioneer and with my husband’s help, we cooked up a batch of pioneer soap. We decided to make our first lye-and-tallow soap with a regulated flame instead of an open fire pit so we got the propane burner ready.

Using the frozen tallow I had previously made, I first melted the tallow using a double boiler so the tallow would not scorch.

While the tallow was melting, the stored lye & water mixture was ready to be slowly warmed up. The lye was heated outside on the propane burner.

The following temperature recommendations were used for heated ingredients:

  • pure tallow melted to between 120-130 degrees F
  • wood ash lye water warmed to between 90-95 degrees F

Once our ingredients were within the temperature requirements, we began to blend the two heated ingredients. First we poured melted tallow into our soap making pot, then slowly added the warmed lye. After stirring with our homemade wooden paddle for a few minutes, more tallow and more lye was added.

Once the soap mixture was blended, the mixture began to warm up and form small white bubbles as it cooked. We continued to cook and stir the soap mixture. The soap continued to cook and began to boil.

Boiling the soap allowed some of the water to evaporate as it cooked. Once the soap had thickened, we began proving the soap (this means testing for the correct ratio of lye and tallow). Once we were satisfied that our soap mixture was acceptable, the soap mixture was cooked a bit longer until it was considered “done”.

We then removed the soap from the heat and poured the soap into a clear glass bowl so the soap could settle (surface bubbles would pop) and it would cool. Since we made a soft soap, not a hard lye soap, the soap was ready to use once cooled and slightly firm.

So there it was — we made our first batch of lye-and-tallow pioneer soap. Our finished product yielded about 2 cups of soft soap.

I have used this soap to wash my hands several times — the soap is exceptionally soft. I will be experimenting with this basic soap, making it again and again. As well, I will be experimenting with this soap in our laundry. I have not used commercial laundry detergent for many years and have made my own with great success. Now, using some homemade lye-and-tallow soft soap as our laundry soap, I hope to learn how this soap might become another laundry soap (and perhaps a basic hand soap) for our household.

Note:  I used the Rogue Turtle soap making instructions that were the most complete soap making instructions I could find. Be forewarned: Safety is a requirement when making soap. Read thoroughly about this subject before trying. Of utmost importance are safety goggles and thick rubber gloves  because of the caustic lye.

9 thoughts on “Pioneer Soap Making

  1. What an immense and rewarding project you have undertaken here…and you did not give up and you figured it out and can now share it with others…I love it. I told Micki after reading this post that we have to do this. She has found a supplier for liver for our dog bones and she thinks the same person would be willing to sell us the “fat” off his cows too.

    This is another one of those long forgotten things that we really should know how to do and I am so happy to hear that you have achieved success with your endeavours on this front…and now I can pick your brain if needed when we try it.:) Really neat, thank you for sharing this.

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  3. I did this process yesterday, just found this article today. Wish I had it yesterday. I felt like I was writing this also. I am learning to make soap so I can teach it to a Maasai Village in Kenya in TWO-WEEKS. My soap came out a bit gritty, Did I over-heat the lye. What ended up being your Lye and Tallow measurements? Any help you might give would be GREATLY appreciated. I am going to attempt to do this once more nest Tuesday the 26th. Thanks for your posting… your a peach!

    • Lye is always added in and we began slowly with quite a bit of tallow and less lye. We added lye several times and once finished, there was more lye than tallow — a ratio you want. The addition of salt as a hardening agent will also create a separation of the excess lye (it will sink).

      I would think that the tribal folks will have the time to use your information to suit their needs. If you demonstrate the basics of making tallow and making wood ash lye, then demonstrate how they are blended together (with appropriate warnings About the lye and the dangers of lye), they will work through the process and find a ratio that works for them in their climate and their surroundings.

      Also, try this forum (I’m a member): http://www.thedishforum.com Create an account and ask a question. There are some very knowlegable scientists who might have a recipe to share. I hope this comes together for you so that your efforts will show the village another skill! Please keep me posted!

  4. Very cool post. I have been wanting to try this, and have been a bit chicken to try it with lye made from wood ash. Thanks for all the information and pictures.

  5. love this post. I have always wanted to make soaps for the home but just did not know how. I have been looking around on the internet and have seen they all required Lye and they do not sell it in the stores anymore u have to order it threw a website that sells soap making products.
    I have never made Lye or wood ash so look forward to reading those posts as well.
    can you add essential oils to this soap base?

  6. You say that this is “soft soap” how is it different for “hard soap” and how can we make it using the things you have made in this post? thanks! GREAT HELP! We have been looking all over for the WHOLE soap making process and the tallow and lye all in one place. Its wonderfully helpful :)

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