Playing in the ashes

My brain is currently in soap and lye mode. Between having the honour to judge a lye experiment at Gulf Wars A&S War point (If you wrote that paper, I’d love a copy please! If you know the good gentle who wrote it, please nudge them to share it!), planning to teach saponification at the University of Atlantia in June and also planning to teach soap making at Fruits of Our Labours in May.. well there’s a lot of soap and lye thoughts running around in my brain.

Historically lye is produced by running water through hardwood ashes, to get a very alkaline potassium solution. Lye is not a specific term, but a general term that can refer to sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide. What we’re aiming for is that the potassium carbonate (potash) that is in the ashes to react with the water we’re providing to give us potassium hydroxide. Modern lye is produced from pure sodium hydroxide crystals being hydrated in water, but the process to refine sodium hydroxide into pure crystal form wasn’t established until about 1790, which is solidly outside SCA period. If you are fortunate enough to live where you have marine (not lakes.. has to be salt water here) vegetation to burn for ash, you are likely to get enough sodium for your lye to be mostly sodium hydroxide, which made (and makes) nice firm bars of soap. Soap made using potassium hydroxide tends to never really get firmer than play-doh sort of solid. It washes fine, but it’s not a good solid bar of soap.

Homemade lye with an egg floating to test strength

Generally I get my ashes from a good friend with a wood fired pizza oven, we don’t have a fire place or a wood stove of our own and honestly the bucket I got from him about 3 or 4 yrs back is still mostly full, so I don’t need a refill all that often. That being said, that is not always completely burnt wood, there’s a lot of chunks of charcoal left, and half burnt wood. It’s not a fine white ash of utterly burnt. It works alright after sifting the worst of the chunks out, but it’s not ideal. Leaving chunks of charcoal in your ashes lets charcoal do what it does best, filter things. Including the lye you are trying to make, so you want to take those chunks out.

Yesterday was the first perfect day of spring around here. Warm, sunny and perfect, so we decided to grill burgers for supper. We’re those weirdo folks who have a charcoal grill and after dinner, I was eyeing all that lovely white ash. I have no idea what commercial charcoal is made from, but I decided to operate on the theory that it was probably hardwood and give it a test this morning. For the record, coals about 18 hrs later are still hot enough to melt your plastic colander. I switched to the metal sieve after that.

Whoops. Don’t be me, use a metal sieve.

While just letting ashes soak is not my preferred lye making method, its good enough for a proof of concept. Traditionally you want the water to run through the ashes and be filtered through straw at the bottom of your barrel, rather than a messy sludge of ashes and lye. (Or in my case, the plastic ice cream bucket, and my straw filter layer is a small piece of linen over the hole). I also don’t have ideal pH strips for lye experiments, as mine stop at 9 and lye is in the 13 – 14 range. I wanted these to be more specific over the neutral range, rather than have a wider range. I’ll have to pick up the wider range ones at some point. Still, proof of concept here, and success! The water sat for an hour or so at most, and its reading at least 9 on the pH scale. Found a new source of ash for experiments!

My pH strips are inadequate for this task!

Alchemy 201: Saponification

The next class in my Alchemy series debuted last weekend. The numbers are purely about topic.. the 100 series are dye, the 200 series are soap. I haven’t decided what (if) the 300 series might be. Suggestions welcome. (I mean you can tell me that it’s a terrible idea too if you want. XD)

The class went well, over all. It had normal first class jitters. Where you stumble over those quips that sounded so clever when you were preparing, or can’t remember exactly where in the notes you wrote that detail. Students were generally engaged, asked good questions, although it was rather less rambunctious than my last class. I need to work a bit on the notes to include a bit more overview, and manage expectations a bit. This isn’t a how to class, and these notes are not going to give you instructions on how to make soap (nor did the mordant class teach how to mordant yarn for that matter). And of course, I had grand plans of taking a class selfie, and then totally forgot. Whoops.

I’ve added my class notes to my documentation page, although be aware that they are going to get an update soonish (Before Pennsic, eep!)

I did go into this one feeling a lot more confident about the subject. Saponification is a really interesting reaction and is very well researched and understood. There’s a lot more definite answers about what’s going on in there than with mordants. It’s also a fairly controlled thing. These items go in, this happens, this stuff comes out, everyone shouts hurrah and goes home.

The next step is to take a deep breath, gather up my 20 seconds of courage, and offer to teach it at Pennsic. Teaching at Pennsic is something that’s always intimidated me (no, I have no real clue why.. possibly I just trust the Ealdormere A&S community not to be a jerk to my face.), but that’s ridiculous, and at some point I am going to have to put on the big kid pants and do it. They won’t bite, and if they do.. well after a consolation drink or two (mmm. Slushies), I’ll have great stories to tell. Having missed the book deadline by.. well.. a lot, there’s also the distinct possibility that I will sit by myself in a classroom for an hour and that’ll be that. (Weirdly, I have no such fear of teaching at Known World events. Apparently I trust string folks too. Hunh. Brains are terribly odd.)

Pennsic prep (and panic) are in full swing! Packing, classes and garb, oh my!

Black Sope

This was part of the plan for Kingdom A&S in March. I had acquired the wood ashes (surprisingly challenging when one lives in the heart of suburbia without a fireplace), I’d even managed to drip my lye by the time KA&S rolled around in March.


Homemade lye

Let me back up a step to talk about lye. That’s the hazardous part of soap making that scares a great many people off. (Yes, it will burn you. Treat it with the respect it deserves. Gloves are smart, don’t breathe the fumes, but equally don’t freak out and run screaming. You got this.) Lye is the basic (alkaline) part that makes saponification go. Saponification, in a super quick nutshell, is the chemical reaction that happens when fats and bases get together and produce soap (and some other stuff). There will be a much bigger post about saponification after I finish writing that class about it that I’m teaching at Trillium Wars. <counts days, has a quiet erk. Right!>

Modernly, you go to the hardware store, look in the plumbing section and bring yourself home a bottle of lye crystals. (Or you go to Amazon, cause Amazon.). That’s Sodium Hydroxide, and it’s pretty stable in crystal form. (Wear gloves. Don’t sniff deeply, don’t lick it.) It makes the lovely firm bars of soap that we all know and love. It’s also challenging to get in a medieval context. Not impossible, just challenging. Period lye was Potassium hydroxide generally, and much, much easier to get your hands on. Hardwood ashes + water = potassium hydroxide. Potassium hydroxide makes a soft soap, not quite liquid soap, but goopy that never really sets up hard. There wasn’t much in the way of pH meters hanging about, so the strength of your lye was determined by how well it floated an egg. (Interestingly, the strength of brine.. also determined by egg floating. Eggs are darn useful things, and tasty too! Do not eat the egg you floated in lye. Just saying.)

Right! So I dripped my (distilled) water through the hardwood ash and came out with lye. I even diluted it to the required strength for a mild soap. (My soap making directions all came from Mistress Elska who knows more about period soap than anyone else I know. Go read all of her awesome. She’s super cool.) As much lye above the egg as below it. Perfect.


pH testing magic

And then life happened. And we all know how that goes, and suddenly it was June and I wanted period soap to try washing some fleece with. Ha! Incentive to get this cooked up. A quick pH test showed my diluted lye was at least pH 9 (the indicator I used only goes to 9 and my pH meter was hideously uncalibrated and I was out of calibration solutions. The woe of the modern alchemist who wasn’t planning ahead.), so not wholly dead yet, but I had some concerns. Liquid lye isn’t the most stable of things, it’ll degrade pretty good. The recipe called for 3 parts by weight lye to 1 part by weight fat. So my 927g of lye was going to get 309g of fat. I had some lard I rendered that needed using up, and then the other half of my fat was beef tallow.


Pork lard and beef tallow

Melt the fat, pour in the lye, give it a darn good whirl with the stick blender (yes, I could have done it by hand, but it was late) and let it wait overnight. Another good stir the next day and then the cooking started. I work in a crockpot, and remember that life thing that got in the way of using the lye in the first place? Right. It kept popping up for the cooking of the soap. It was getting cooked for a couple hours at a kick, and then I’d have to leave, so I’d turn it off again, and come back to it much later and start again. So it went, and then it was the night before I wanted it and it was STILL liquid and not soap. I was headed to bed, it looked like it was JUST barely starting to come together, and I asked my video game playing spouse to keep an eye on it, stir it now and then and turn it off when it looked like thick pudding, or vaseline.

I got up the next morning to a dark brown pot of charred goo. (Yes, he forgot and yes he apologized. Such is life, it isn’t the end of the world.)  I came >< close to just chucking it, but decided at the last moment to toss it in a plastic pot and bring it along to the event. At the very least, we could have a good laugh about my charcoal riddled goop. When I was washing out the crockpot, I noticed that it.. acted like soap. It melted like soap, it felt like soap between my fingers. Not classic soap, soap with the texture of playdoh and random crunchy bits, but certainly soap. Well, hunh.


Mind the crunchy bits.

Arrive to a group of awesome people and a swack of dirty fleece and we all have a snicker of the charred goop, and decide to try it. I mean, we’ve plenty of fleece to play with, a bit of ‘well that didn’t work’ isn’t going to be the worst. While I’d been off at other obligations, they’d already tried a laundry bar soap, some laundry detergent and just water to varying degrees of clean. So into the warmish water a clump of my goop goes, with a lot of swishing about to get it to dissolve. But it DOES dissolve! (Mostly. It really does need encouragement, and well.. one needs to pick out the charcoal bits, those don’t dissolve. <ahem>)

In goes some wool, and it gets a good swish about and hotting up and after a little while, a trip through the salad spinner. (Best. Thing. Ever for pre-drying your wool. Seriously. I needs me one.) And it’s white! It’s clean! Pretty and clean! Our tepid water was doing nothing to the lanolin, but the soap of epic fail did a darn fair job at washing the dirt out, I was most impressed.

<I forgot to take pictures of the wool. Picture pretty wool, all white and clean before carding or combing>

I will try and make it again with freshly dripped lye, and a lack of forgetting it to burn, and see what we get, but wowee, even with everything against it.. we got soap! Alchemy ftw!