A soapy situation

Susan Manzke
Two days later the solid mix was cut into bars—two additional weeks were needed for the chemical reaction to make this soap.

Over the years I’ve made different crafts, today it is homemade soap. Bob has joined me in soap crafting as he prefers using a bar of soap without any additives. (I started making soap when a nice smelling store-bought bar caused me to break out from head to toe.)

We don’t have to make soap too often as one batch lasts us a year or more. Because of this it is like relearning the process over again.

The basic recipe we use came from a book. The three ingredients are lye, water, and lard — I’m not going to give the recipe because it’s too complicated.

When we last made a batch of soap I bought the lard and lye at the grocery store. This time there was no lye to be had. I started my search of multiple stores. 

At first, Bob and I looked in the drain cleaning section and then the paint stripping section. When nothing was found we asked for help. “Where do you keep lye?” 

Sometime people misunderstood us and pointed us toward bags of lime.

Finally at Fleet Farm an employee understood our enquiry. 

“We no longer carry lye,” she said. “Why?” I asked.

“People were misusing it,” she answered — Bob and I wondered how people were misusing lye. We had no idea.

Susan Manzek stirs cooled lye/water mixture into lard to make homemade soap.

Our search continued to Home Depot. They didn’t have lye either, but their greeter looked on his phone to see who would. I thought this was nice of him. The phone listed one megastore, which wasn’t far.

Off we went to that store. Bob and I wandered around aisles looking for lye or someone who could help. We had never been there before but eventually found the paint removers. No lye there.

Eventually we tracked down a clerk. She had never heard of lye. I explained we needed it to make soap. “Oh you want soap, that’s across the store.”

“No, I want to make soap. Lye is an ingredient.”

The helpful clerk went to her station and looked up lye — I had to spell it. She thought she located it, but it was on the other side of the store. Since we were so lost she escorted us at a fast pace across the acres of merchandise. When we got to the lye location it wasn’t on the shelf. The clerk suggested trying the Internet.

We did end up buying the needed lye on the Internet and at the same time found out the reason why regular stores no longer handle the chemical. It’s used in making meth.

After the lye arrived, Bob and I went to work making our soap.

Working with lye is tricky. We used a kitchen scale to exactly measure the lye, water, and lard. A thermometer was also needed to get the temperatures just where needed —as I said it’s a tricky process. I don’t know how women made soap out in the wilderness where they didn’t have scales or thermometers. Also, their lye came from straining water through wood ashes. Now how did they measure that?

It took half a day to melt the fat, measure out ingredients exactly, get everything together at (almost) exact temperatures and mix and mix and mix — I think we overmixed.

After we figured we had soap — we’re never exactly sure — we poured the thick mixture into a plastic container. It was then set in a warm spot, covered with a blanket, and left to solidify.

Two days later, we checked on our box, turned it out, and cut it into bars — the lye can still harm skin at this point. It then went in the backroom to rest two weeks, only after that was the concoction usable soap. 

It will be another year or more before we make soap again. It’s a hassle, but we appreciate using our own brand — if visitors don’t care to experiment with ours, we usually have tiny bars of hotel soap somewhere, or you can bring your own soap. It’s your choice.

Susan Manzke, Sunnybook Farm, N8646 Miller Rd, Seymour, WI 54165; sunnybook@aol.com.