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Lye from Wood Ashes

Updated on February 5, 2013
Marye Audet profile image

Marye Audet-White is an internationally known food writer, food editor for Texas Living, cookbook author, and food blogger.

In the past, all homemakers knew how to prepare their own lye for soap making. Today, people run out to the local market or mass merchandise store for shampoo, body wash, dish detergent, and more. They have forgotten that in the end, all of these items are just soap. Soap that has been scented or extra chemicals added for aesthetic reasons.

Getting back to your roots can begin with something as simple as learning to leach lye from ashes. Self sufficiency can begin right now, even if you live in the suburbs.

image: sxc
image: sxc


To begin leaching lye you will need a few things:

  • A wooden, watertight tub with a few small holes drilled into the bottom.

  • Cinder blocks, bricks, or wooden blocks

  • Two waterproof wooden or glass containers (heavy plastic will work, too)

  • Soft water, (rainwater is best)

  • White ashes from hardwoods

  • Gravel

  • Straw

  • Thick gloves

  • Safety glasses (these can be purchased for $1 at some discount stores, do not make lye without!)

A special note:

While hardwood is the best source for lye, you may also use dried banana peels or cocoa pods. Some soapmakers say that oak and applewood make the very best white ashes. Do not use soft wood like pine or you will not produce usable lye.

Start Leaching!

  1. Cover the bottom of the wooden container with one or two inches of gravel. Thickly cover this with straw, pack well. A depth of four to six inches will work well. (Never remove this straw without thick, non-reactive gloves after use!)

  2. Place the container on a stable base, high enough to place the lye-water catchers under. *Be sure this base is stable! Lye is very corrosive and can cause dangerous damage to skin, clothing, and eyes.

  3. Pour the cooled, white ashes over the filter layers. Fill the container to two or three inches below the top of the container.

  4. Slide your catcher under the leaching container.

  5. Slowly pour the lye making water over the ashes. The amount to use is approximately what fills the catcher container up to two inches from the top. Some will be lost in the leaching.

  6. Wait for the water to drip into the catcher container. When it is full, carefully pull out, replace with the second catcher, then pour the water back over the ashes. The lye water should appear a reddish-brown. *Use gloves and safety glasses!

  7. Repeat step 5.

Use caution. Lye can burn your skin. image:wikimedia creative commons
Use caution. Lye can burn your skin. image:wikimedia creative commons

Finishing Your Lye

Test the lye water.

The old method for testing the strength of lye is floating a fresh egg in the lye water. If the egg floats with just the tip above water, the lye is strong enough for soapmaking. Sinking indicates weak lye and an 'overfloat'-egg floating high out of the water- shows too much lye that should be watered down. Destroy the egg and throw away, out of reach of children or animals you'd like to keep around.

Weak lye water can be put through the leaching with new ashes or boiled to remove the extra water content. If you choose to boil, use a pot that will never be used for food again. The pot must be non-reactive (no aluminum).

You're done.

Place the lye water into glass containers, cover, and place out of reach until you are ready to make soap.


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    • sarovai profile image

      sarovai 6 years ago

      Great tips for making lye from natural materials. Thank u for sharing the valuable tips.

    • crystolite profile image

      Emma 7 years ago from Houston TX

      Interesting and educative article which you really researched on thoroughly but am so sorry wouldn't give this particular one a trial.thanks for sharing.

    • crescentaurora1 profile image

      crescentaurora1 7 years ago from Alameda, CA

      Thank-you, this is a very informative article about leeching your own lye.

    • profile image

      handmade natural soap 7 years ago

      I love trying new things.May be try this one too.


    • Erin Myers profile image

      Erin Myers 8 years ago from Grand Prairie, Texas

      I would almost be afraid to try it!!

    • Gypsy Willow profile image

      Gypsy Willow 8 years ago from Lake Tahoe Nevada USA , Wales UK and Taupo New Zealand

      Don't think I'm going to try this one, interesting info though!