Thread Number: 73189  /  Tag: Detergents and Additives
Lye Soap
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Post# 966738   11/8/2017 at 01:38 by mrsalvo (New Braunfels Texas)        

I was wondering if anyone's grandparents or family members ever made lye soap.

My grandparents lived on a large farm, the household did not have running water, but they made do with everything they had. Even when my grandmother would buy different soaps and detergents at the local grocery store, she would still make a big batch of lye soap from time to time. She thought that was the bee's knees. I think she made it from bacon grease, if I remember correctly but that was a long time ago. She rolled that out in no time, and I remember it had to "set" before use. She would cut it into cakes and often gave some to the neighbors down the road, I'm sure they rolled their eyes! LOL. Many, many years later after her death, I received a box in the mail from one of those neighbors with the soap that she made!! Anyway, we used the soap for baths and laundry, but don't remember for washing the dishes. I remembered it made my skin oily, but the smell I'll never forget! That was a long, long time ago when I was growing up in the 60's-70's.

The only place that I know of that sells it is Silver Dollar City, Branson, Missouri. They make it on site and package it.

Anyone's thoughts?

Post# 966741 , Reply# 1   11/8/2017 at 01:56 by johnrk (Houston)        
Lye Soap

Not my grandparents, but a generation before both sides of my family used lye soap. My rich S. Carolina family had the black servants making it, and before that the black slaves. My poor S. Louisiana family side made their own.

It's one of those small things in our lives that we take for granted--soaps and detergents--that make our existence so much more pleasant. Amazing that not all that long ago people used urine for stains and softeners.

Post# 966743 , Reply# 2   11/8/2017 at 02:11 by ea56 (Sonoma Co.,CA)        

ea56's profile picture
My paternal Grandma made lye soap with bacon grease. Her lye soap making process was just like Barry’s grandma’s. I think my grandma only used this soap for cleaning. I know I never used it, but I do remember seeing it. There is a family story in which my Father got ahold of the lye when he was a small child. See, Grandma kept her lye in a can that resembled the Bakers Coconut can, and my dad loved coconut. I guess they caught him in the nick of time, just as he was going to eat it.

Post# 966744 , Reply# 3   11/8/2017 at 02:20 by mrsalvo (New Braunfels Texas)        

John, at the time I just couldn't figure out why she felt the need to make some, we had bath soap (Sweetheart) and laundry detergent (Fab) in the cabinets. The laundry certainly came out smelling....different...yes, that would be a good word. And let me tell you, she made that stuff last forever!! I remember thinking weeks later, can we be normal now and use good smelling store bought stuff?!?!

Post# 966748 , Reply# 4   11/8/2017 at 02:45 by thomasortega (Los Angeles - CA)        

My father makes until today!

And don't be surprised if someday i post here my homemade lye soap. I love my cleaning rags washed with it.

Post# 966762 , Reply# 5   11/8/2017 at 06:06 by Tomturbomatic (Beltsville, MD)        

Octagon soap was lye soap you could buy at the store. I remember we used to buy it and put a chunk in the lowest crotch of dogwood trees to prevent borers because the rain would wash it down and make the surrounding area inhospitable to life. 


I remember a bit of a song titled Grandma's Lye Soap on a record by Johnny Standley. The verse went, "Little Herman and brother Thurman had an aversion to washing their ears. Grandma scrubbed them with the lye soap and they haven't heard a word in years."

Post# 966768 , Reply# 6   11/8/2017 at 06:57 by Gyrafoam (Roanoke, VA)        

My friend's grandmother made it. They lived over in Cabbagetown. I am guessing she used lard. She would cook it outside on an open fire in a large kettle and then pour it into the old wooden molds. It had a unique odor.

Sometimes she would grate it up, dissolve it in some boiling water and pour it into her Wizard Washer, but mostly, I saw her use it to give the dogs a bath. Both two and four-legged ones.

Post# 966771 , Reply# 7   11/8/2017 at 07:12 by iheartmaytag (Wichita, Kansas)        
My Grandmother made her own lye soap

iheartmaytag's profile picture
As did her mother before her, the one the kids called "blind grandma" because some lye splashed in her eye once.

After moving to town, and getting her first automatic washer in 1974. Grandma would still say that the detergents you buy weren't as good as her soap.

Post# 966780 , Reply# 8   11/8/2017 at 07:53 by jeb (Mansfield Ohiio)        
Lye soap

Real Lye soap should be made with animal fat and lye. Many of the lye soaps that people make today (and sell at craft shows as "homemade lye soap") are made with vegetable oil and lye. The early settlers would soak wood ashes in water to get lye and save animal fat from cooking. It was an all day process to make a batch and could not be used until it cured 4 to 6 weeks. If it was used too early it would melt very fast in water. I do historical reenacting and have made pounds of it. All the old timer want some "real lye soap" and everyone of them say to use it on poison ivy to clear it right up. Castile soap is made with coconut oil and lye and was considered a luxury.

Post# 966784 , Reply# 9   11/8/2017 at 08:05 by Iheartmaytag (Wichita, Kansas)        
Poison Ivy

iheartmaytag's profile picture
I forgot that. Grandma would use her soap for poison Ivy then make a potus of pickling lime. The poison ivy would dry right up.

Post# 966880 , Reply# 10   11/8/2017 at 17:44 by CircleW (NE Cincinnati OH area)        

According to my mom, my grandmother used to make lye soap. She died before I was 2, and I'd only seen her twice, so have no memory of her. Mom said they made the soap in this large iron pot that I remember seeing in my grandfather's back yard. I always referred to it as the "witch's pot", as it was that shape.

Post# 966881 , Reply# 11   11/8/2017 at 17:52 by Launderess (Quiet Please, There´s a Lady on Stage)        
Remember reading directions for making soap as a child

launderess's profile picture
On a can of Red Devil lye father had in his "tool stash" for clogged drains.

Almost got a thrashing because wasn't supposed to be near much less handling that can of lye.

Lye of any sort has become or became difficult to lay hands upon when work got out it was being used on "meth farms".

It has become difficult to find lye or even drain cleaners/clog removers based on the stuff in many areas. Much of the liquid drain cleaners sold today are chlorine bleach based.

Post# 966890 , Reply# 12   11/8/2017 at 18:29 by CircleW (NE Cincinnati OH area)        
Johnny Standley

The song Tomturbomatic mentioned is "It's in the Book", released by Capitol in 1952. I've heard the song before somewhere; thinking one of my neighbors had it.


Post# 966899 , Reply# 13   11/8/2017 at 19:12 by Stan (Napa CA)        
Soap making terms

stan's profile picture
Castile soap use to mean soap that was ONLY made with olive oil.
Lye soap use to mean soap that was made with animal fat, more specifically lard/pig fat.
All real soap is made with Lye.. so No Lye, no soap.
Today..the terms are a bit lazy.. Meaning that someones calling a soap "Castile" that really was made with mainly palm oil just because it's considered "vegetable" fat.
The science behind soap making, begins with a understanding of the fatty acids (many) in each fat.. be it animal or vegetable, and mixing fats in ratios/percentages, and knowing what benefits those fatty acids bring to the purpose of the soap created.
In other words, different fats used with different lye concentrations, used to create soap for different uses.
I still make real "Lye Soap" (made with Lard for its specific fatty acid content) not for bath soap, but for cleaning.
I hot process it. The formula is based on a 100 year old formula that leaves no free fat left over, thereby reducing soap residue.
I'm sometimes fascinated with how something so simple can be so effective.
And yes, it can be use for dishwashing.

Post# 966955 , Reply# 14   11/9/2017 at 00:06 by mrsalvo (New Braunfels Texas)        

Thomas, would love to see your recipe. I do hope you will share.

All the replies has jogged my memories. I remember now the ashes from burning wood in the wood stove being carried out to a certain place on the property for disposal. And the lye WAS kept in a large sealed can. I do remember now my Grandmother was very particular about the ratios, she would fuss and talk to herself, she took it very serious. She was proud of her soap.

Don't recall using it to wash dishes, but for everything else it was full throttle. Don't think my mother wanted much to do with the stuff.

The cure for poison ivy, I had totally forgotten about that. Do you think that the soap was made a certain time of year, more so than others??? I'm thinking when work had to be performed in the fields, in the fall. Perhaps someone on here can help me out. I remember the winter time that the house would smell of the soap.

Launderess, "meth farms?" I had no idea. That came as a big surprise. Which leads me to the next question for those that are still making the stuff....where do you buy lye? I have never seen it for sale anywhere.

Thanks for the replies, very interesting thread.

Post# 966958 , Reply# 15   11/9/2017 at 00:19 by ea56 (Sonoma Co.,CA)        

ea56's profile picture
You can buy lye on ebay. Here’s the link.


Post# 966964 , Reply# 16   11/9/2017 at 00:53 by mieleforever (SOUTH AFRICA)        

Just made my first batch of home made soap yesterday evening - I used the cold method but in time will experiment with the hot method as well. I used coconut oil and olive oil with the lye aka drain cleaner. Was a bit sceptical with regards to the drain cleaner, but it looked like it worked.

Now it will have to cure for a few months.

Will report back

Post# 966977 , Reply# 17   11/9/2017 at 07:49 by jeb (Mansfield Ohiio)        
Lye soap

I have found that pig fat makes a whiter bar and cow fat a yellowish bar but both smell the same. To see if your lye water is strong enough float a FRESH egg in it. if it float with about a nickel size portion above the water it is strong enough. You can also stir a feather in it and if the hairs of the feather dissolve in a few seconds it is strong enough. I also notice that it doesn't really bubble up. After demonstrating all day the water in the washtubs is milky and slippery but not sudsy.

Post# 966997 , Reply# 18   11/9/2017 at 09:37 by Stan (Napa CA)        

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Check to make sure that the "drain cleaner" you used was 100% lye or 100% sodium hydroxide. If it was not and has other ingredients, throw that batch out and start over.
Barry. I can understand your grandmothers "fussing" I understand what and why. It's somewhat daunting to make soap under her circumstances.
I can return later to provide more info, that may further jog your memory of this childhood event.. Why you remember the fall of the year, and explain the odor you recall.

Post# 967118 , Reply# 19   11/10/2017 at 04:23 by mieleforever (SOUTH AFRICA)        

I am not 100% sure but will have a look. Thank you very much for that info.

Post# 967152 , Reply# 20   11/10/2017 at 10:42 by Stan (Napa CA)        

stan's profile picture
It can be injurious to skin if it was not 100% Lye.
Since your two oils where olive oil and coconut oil, a safe bet would have the percentages close to a 20 80 split. Olive oil at 80% coconut oil at 20% with a 5% super fat (lye discount)
A third oil added would be good to bring your formula up a notch (nicer)
Remember it's the fatty acids in each of the fats and oils that your trying to react.
If you want...You can give me your formula, and tell me your your desired batch size and I'll help you with the math for a easy formula to follow.

Post# 967182 , Reply# 21   11/10/2017 at 15:30 by mrsalvo (New Braunfels Texas)        

Stan, Yes, I asked my Dad about the Lye soap and when it was made and I was correct. He said they butchered livestock in the fall, for curing, and said his mother made huge batches of soap in the fall afterwards. (He said that he hated the process as the door knobs in the house and other things were greasy!!) Many, many people that lived in rural areas made lye soap, esp, during WW2 because of rationing, you just couldn't go out and buy everything that one needed. That mindset never went away. Well, that makes perfect sense. It was my maternal grandmother that I remember her making it one cold autumn morning. It lasted so long, I never thought she would use it all up.

I'll never forget the smell. It's hard to explain, strong cardboard with some grease, bacon fat, yet it smelled clean.

I can't remember if they bought the lye or soaked the ashes. I'm leaning that they soaked the ashes, as nothing went to waste...never.
My grandmother made the best fried chicken I ever tasted, and I've never tasted the likes of it since. Everything she made was fresh and good. She had a knack for making a complete meal out of nothing.

I wonder how many would try to wash with that stuff in a HE washer with todays millennials?!?

Post# 967201 , Reply# 22   11/10/2017 at 18:22 by johnrk (Houston)        
New Braunfels

My granny, who lived on 50 acres outside West Columbia (the first capitol of the Republic of Texas) had 13 children and, like yours, never wasted. Every day, no electricity, fresh bread and huge quantities of rice as Brazoria County produced more rice per acre at that time, than any place on earth. You remember Comet rice, Uncle Ben's, etc., from down here. She was the one with the gasoline Maytag wringer. Huge garden was her pride, it was nearly an acre. Kumquats that I remember eating as a child. A few fig trees that survived that famous fig blight.

That farm land flooded with the San Bernard after Harvey.

And I remember her killing a chicken and then eating it fried a few hours later. Grocery store chicken is completely flavorless compared to that.

Post# 967244 , Reply# 23   11/10/2017 at 23:45 by Stan (Napa CA)        

stan's profile picture
Now that it's established that the fat came from a donner right there on the farm, let's consider it from that perspective, or your grandmother perspective.
The butchering of the hog (common in the fall) was sometimes timed by the almanac and sometimes according to the moon. Some belived that this timing affected the taste, as well as the odor of the fat. At the time of butchering, fat was sometimes sorted... meaning, separated from back fat and "leaf lard" The leaf lard is considerd the best for baking, and has less taste or odor than the back fat. After that chore came the rendering of the lard. Another process that could go wrong if not careful, and if not done under controled temps..too hot could release a odor. Most likely the rendering was your grandmothers chore. This may explain greasy door handles ect.
Once the lard was "put up" it was ready for use.
So..Later..maybe that month..when she was ready, she picked her day for the soap making.
Sounds like your grandmother used what was called pot ash for her lye solution. And that's where the "fussing" starts!
She had managed to raise the hog, go through the butchering process, and cleaned up all that mess, then the rendering process
(possibly separating the best of the fat) and putting it up for storing. All of which could have taken a turn, and gone wrong. When she decided to make the soap, she was aware that this also could go off the rails, but I'm sure she took a deep breath and powered through the last of what needed to be done with that damn hog!
For the soap making she may have done as explained above for checking her lye solution strength..a crude "Baume" method
(floating egg, or chicken feather) and also adding salt to this solution to make sure she ended up with harder bar soap instead of soft soap.
She melteted the lard (that she worked so hard to get) and if it got a little too hot, it could release a odor.
(wasn't like she had a thermostatically controlled element to work work with or a controlled environment)
Once the lard was melted she probably slowly added her lye solution and started stirring. Hopefully the kids and chickens stayed out of it and didn't distract her too much.
She may have reduced the fire as best as possible but keept "a strin" She had already prepared her molds and had them ready for the pour.
As she watched the greasy mess inside the pot slowly change into a thick gravy like substance, she wondered "what I'm I dong this for" Oh ya.. Soap!
When the soap began to sheet off the paddle, she had reached what's called trace, this would be the time that if she was gong to add scent.. this is the time to do it, but never mind..keep stirring..before it gets too thick! Hurry and pour it.
Once that was done, she could kill the fire, and leave things to rest a spell. (Grandma needed a rest too)
The next day sometime between her other chores, and after the soap had set up, she un molded and or cut into bars. She most likely had rigged up some kind of drying rack somewhere for the bars to continue to cure.
Oh but what about that damn pot outside, and the paddle? Well, not to worry, what was left is now soap and will wash out easy!
Thank God something was easy!
In a couple of months, she had a clear idea as to how this batched turned out. And if she was happy with the results.. of course she'd be proud off it. Now, see why she was! No small task given ALL considered.
Now was her soap lye heavy? Or not heavy enough? Who knows! It cleans good and didn't burn skin, so all good!

Hope I've jogged good memory's of her for you, I'm glad you got a bar of her soap back. Next time you look at it, you remember this story! LOL

Post# 967267 , Reply# 24   11/11/2017 at 03:09 by mrsalvo (New Braunfels Texas)        

Stan, thank-you for the thoughtful reply. Since it happened so long ago, in 1968, my memory is somewhat fuzzy on the matter, but there are instances that stand out. Now that you mention it, she did test the strength of the lye with a feather and that was another thing I had forgotten, and the drying rack. Not that I'm an expert, I'm not, but her bars of soap had definite substance to them. Heavy maybe???
When she was making the soap I knew better than to "get under her feet." No, that would have not worked at all. She WAS serious about it all.
Not long after the soap was made, Thanksgiving came around, and there was such a contrasting sense of smell in the house...but it was all good.

Now her canned goods, garden produce, jams and jellies she entered into the County Fair. That was another "serious time" that I thoughtfully declined to inject my opinion. Competition was so stiff I think some of them old ladies started sweating. But she came home with her blue, red, and white ribbons and was so proud of them. To my knowledge Lye Soap was never entered!!!!

Stan, thank-you again and yes, you did jog a couple more memories.

Post# 967268 , Reply# 25   11/11/2017 at 03:09 by mrsalvo (New Braunfels Texas)        

Stan, thank-you for the thoughtful reply. Since it happened so long ago, in 1968, my memory is somewhat fuzzy on the matter, but there are instances that stand out. Now that you mention it, she did test the strength of the lye with a feather and that was another thing I had forgotten, and the drying rack. Not that I'm an expert, I'm not, but her bars of soap had definite substance to them. Heavy maybe???
When she was making the soap I knew better than to "get under her feet." No, that would have not worked at all. She WAS serious about it all.
Not long after the soap was made, Thanksgiving came around, and there was such a contrasting sense of smell in the house...but it was all good.

Now her canned goods, garden produce, jams and jellies she entered into the County Fair. That was another "serious time" that I thoughtfully declined to inject my opinion. Competition was so stiff I think some of them old ladies started sweating. But she came home with her blue, red, and white ribbons and was so proud of them. To my knowledge Lye Soap was never entered!!!!

Stan, thank-you again and yes, you did jog a couple more memories.

Post# 967280 , Reply# 26   11/11/2017 at 06:38 by askolover (South of Nash Vegas, TN)        

askolover's profile picture
My great-grandmother told us stories about how they used to take the fireplace ashes and put them in a hopper, pour water over them every day, and collect the lye. She said they had to use fireplace ashes and couldn't use stove ashes...for what reason I don't know.

Have any of you ever read or watched about how they make bio-diesel? Same principle using lye to react with the oils to make the fuel.

Post# 967286 , Reply# 27   11/11/2017 at 07:50 by Launderess (Quiet Please, There´s a Lady on Stage)        

launderess's profile picture
Your grandparents burned coal in the stoves, but wood in fireplaces.

It is natural plant material like wood that produces alkaline substances from their ashes. Coal OTOH has ash full of nasty things but nothing alkaline IIRC. In fact some coal is quite the opposite; acidic. Hence "acid rain" we all learned about in the 1970's as a result of all those coal burning power plants.

Think have mentioned this before but for ages the French and others laundered clothing by placing it in a large vessel with a small hole in center bottom. Then a sort of sieve like contraption containing wood ashes or whatever plant material was placed on top. Then began the "soaking" by pouring water over the ashes. As the fluid percolated down the alkaline substances (soda)released from ashes went to work on laundry. This water was collected from bottom, and the cycle repeated.

Wood and other plant material would continue to be the primary source of soda ash until the Solvay process came along.

Lye (sodium hydroxide) was historically and still used in commercial/industrial laundries. Usually as a separate "builder" or as a component of various detergents or other products. Why? Well lye does what it does best; turn fats into "soap" so it was/is used to "break" soils from fabrics. Especially laundry with high levels of fat/oil stains/soils.

As you can imagine that sort of treatment as routine was hard on laundry. But again as often have said commercial laundries are all about time. A high pH wash will get shot of blood, fats, oils and other muck faster than enzymes. Again how long your things will last is another matter.

Post# 967298 , Reply# 28   11/11/2017 at 10:03 by ea56 (Sonoma Co.,CA)        

ea56's profile picture
your description of soap making was the best I’ve ever read. Not only was it informative, it was entertaining too. I could actually visualize the entire process from beginning to end. And the part about the drying racks made me realize where my family got the practice of letting store bought bar soap “age”.

I always buy my bar soap well in advance of when I’ll need it. When I get it home I take the plastic wrapper off the big package and stack the individually wrapped bars in a cupboard. Then I rotate my stock of bar soap using the oldest first. This allows the soap to harden and then when it is unwrapped for use it doesn’t melt away quickly and lasts longer. This is especially important with Ivory Soap, its so soft when fresh you can press a finger at least a 1/2” into the top of a new bar. I’m still very old fashioned when it comes to soap. We use Ivory Soap at all the sinks for hand washing and in the shower a deodorant soap like Zest or Dial. David likes the new body washes, but I’m still a bar soap bather.

One of these days when I get a wild hair up you know where, maybe I’ll give soap making a try with some store bought lard. Your account of soap making was inspiring. Thanks!

Post# 967300 , Reply# 29   11/11/2017 at 10:15 by johnrk (Houston)        
Soap Saving

I got on the body wash craze back in the 80's when it was sold in department stores. I'm trying to remember the name of that brand, white plastic bottle and different colors for different scents. However, because of the amount of time I spent traveling on business, I used much more bar soap in hotel rooms. Then, we started the practice of saving those bars of soap, shampoo and all the other peripherals, donating them to our local women's refuge center. By then, body wash had fallen drastically in price and I bought travel-sized for the bag.

Like Eddie, I buy Zest and rotate it so it can dry out more. Furthermore, when I get down to the last little bit, I have a large Mason jar in that bathroom and I drop those remains in the jar. When it gets nearly full, I put some warm water in it and go at it with the Bamix to make liquid soap.

Post# 967328 , Reply# 30   11/11/2017 at 12:59 by Stan (Napa CA)        
Let's define

stan's profile picture
our terms a bit LOL
Zest, Dove, Dial, are not soaps. They are Syndets. Meaning they are detergent bars with a soap base, with some oils added back in to conter the drying effects. They come with a longer list of ingreideants, so not 100% soap.
Ivory is still soap. When testing the P.H of say Dove (beauty bar) youl find a 5.6 P.H or there abouts
The ivory will still test out as alkaline, like normal soap.
When I mentioned "Lye Heavy" above, I was referring to the chemical compostion. Not to the weight of the bar itself. Lye Heavy is a soap making term that has to do with the amount of sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide required by weight to saponify a fat. Each fat requires a different amount of NaOH (sodium hydroxide) by weight.
I am a soap maker (simi retired) but if I was givin a chalange to make two for cleaning, and one for bathing, and the chalange only allowed me to use one fat, and it had to be lard..then there would be two batches made.
The cleaning soap would be calculated to be slightly "lye heavy"..I'd want some free lye in that bar. I'd also try my best to purify..sometimes referred to as "proving" the soap, by re-precipitating the soap with a salt solution to remove the impurities AKA the glycerin, spent lye ect. For the bath soap, my math would change to allow some of the fat to escape the the saponification process
(free fat) and I want to leave glycerin in tact. For the bath soap I'd also try everything I know to improve the quality of it for skin use. I might use coconut water, coconut milk, goats milk to use as part of the water phase. Maybe add Colloidal Oatmeal, maybe some aloe, vitamin E oil...anything to improve it.
Both bars would still be considerd "Lye Soap" because the only fat used was lard. The nicer one used to wash the baby, and the lye heavy one used to wash the baby's diapers!
"Grandma" was forced into a guessing game with the science and soap making chemistry! She also only had one window of opportunity (hog butchering time) and she had to come up with a dual purpose soap to be used for everything. She had no digital scale, no store bought lye, no SAP chart, no distilled water, no calculater.
At soap making time, she had to guess at how much of her lard she'd worked so hard to get, was going to be used for cooking and how much for soaping. She couldn't turn the soap back into lard, so once made she was stuck with it, good or bad. This all had to last her a year, or until the next donor was ready. I'd rather scrub 100 toilets than to be forced to do what she had to LOL
Even with my soap making knowledge and modern soap making scales ect It's always somewhat tense for me. Once false move can throw a batch off.

Post# 967338 , Reply# 31   11/11/2017 at 13:53 by Stan (Napa CA)        
A bar of

stan's profile picture
Lye Soap (for cleaning) at my kitchen sink.

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