By Travis Birch
Working with my family to live a better life off the grid has added many benefits to our daily tasks. First we enjoy one another a bit more. We tend to interact with each other more than when we stay in town. We rely on each other, and recently, I’ve had the opportunity to re-live things my Grandmother taught me, and in turn, teach my children her lessons so these ways of years past will not die.
My relatives immigrated to America in the early twenties. Hoping to build a better life for their children and generations to come, (I can’t thank them enough for their sacrifices). Scrimping and saving and utilizing what they had on hand to stretch a penny. Then when the depression hit, they strived harder to make the most of every day. One of the things I remember my grandmother doing every two weeks, was making soap. When times got better, and her kids made the most of themselves, she could have just as easily gone to the A&P and bought factory made Ivory soap. But making her own soap was a more practical and resourceful thing to do.
How to Make Soap
What she made back in the day, would sell for top dollar in any boutique today. There were no artistic shapes that she built. The final product wasn’t shrink wrapped and tied together with a hemp cord either. It was a hard, and effective bar, crudely cut on her kitchen table. Constructed out of whatever she had available. She made it work. It didn’t always smell great, but I’d pay good money to have a bar of her soap today. So this project is dedicated to my grandmother, and the first prepper lesson in my life.
Before you get started, prepare your mold. I’ve constructed a wood frame. I will line this with parchment paper, so that removing the final product is easy. You can use old cake pans you pick up cheaply at a thrift store. A spring form pan is great as well.
Next thing is to line up my ingredients and grab my safety gear. We will be creating a caustic solution, so rubber gloves, and goggles are necessary. If you have a sensitive olfactory system you may want to wear a disposable mask.
Once safety is in place, line up your ingredients. Lye, a fat source, (palm oil is my fat source of choice). It makes a harder product when it is finished. You can try castor oil for a softer product and olive oil makes a great moisturizing product.
Bring 16 ounces of fat in a pot up to 120°F. Use a candy thermometer to find your right temperature, do not allow it to boil up. Dissolve three ounce of lye in an eight ounce glass of water. Stir with a wooden paint mixer stick. The solution will become warm to touch through the glass as you dissolve it completely.
Once dissolved, slowly add the mixture to the warm fat. This is called saponification. The acid of the fat, and the alkaline of the lye will split the fat into fatty acids and glycerin. The sodium from the lye and the fatty acids create a new compound called sodium stearate, or ‘soap’.
Stir your newly formed compound for about 15 minutes initially. Let it set, then go back and stir every 15-20 minutes. You want the soap to thicken and become opaque in appearance. You will be ready for your next step once the soap has ‘Trace’ attributes. Trace means that you can run your mixer stick across the top and it leaves a slight trench that goes back into itself slowly. Here is where you can add colors, or essential oils to build a specific product.
With your mold lined with parchment paper, pour off your mixture to harden. I use old ice cube trays from a thrift store to add some leftover soap mixture into. These little cubes will sit at the kitchen sink or outside. The larger bars are used for bathing. You can use a knife to break the soap into manageable bars. I have used a French fry crinkle cutter to give our soap bars a little character.
It is ideal to let this sit and season for about one month. This allows your final product to become less caustic, and harden fully. With that in mind, we make enough soap to last about six weeks, and we schedule ourselves to make a fresh batch of soap the last week of each month. This soap is fine to use for yourself, your dishes, or even to knock a layer of dirt of my faithful companion Chester.