February 21, 2012

From Ashes to Lye

Where there is an action there will be an equal opposite reaction, at least according to Newton’s Law of Motion. One of the ways I would like to illustrate this begins with the wood burning stove. When you burn wood you are then left with a plethora of ashes that need to be removed.
Don’t just throw the ashes away, recycle them! There are many uses for ashes. Just to name a couple, you can use them to add to your compost pile or collect them to make lye. By adding ashes to your compost pile you are adding potassium which helps plants fight plant diseases and improve their over all health when adding the compost to your garden. 
Lye can be used in food preparation, soap making, bio diesel production, and household uses, such as oven cleaner and drain opener. In this tidbit I will explain how to make lye.
To start off I am going to emphasize that lye is caustic and may cause severe burns. Handle with care. With that disclaimer out of the way, here are a few items you will need are:
1.      A few 5 gallon wooden, stainless steel, or plastic buckets (because lye is caustic metal buckets such as aluminum may corrode)
2.      A pot for boiling water
3.      Cooled hardwood ashes (you can use softwoods but hardwoods work best)
4.      Straw
5.      Water (preferably rain water as it is soft and with no additives such as fluoride)
6.      Drill
7.      Something to plug your hole such as a nail
8.      Something to place one bucket above the other such as cinder blocks or bricks
9.      A few handfuls of small rocks
10.   Safety glasses and a pair of gloves
With one of your buckets you will take your drill and bore a hole near the bottom of the bucket. Then, line the bottom of the bucket with the rocks under around 5 in. of straw. The straw and rocks will act as a filter.
Next, you will fill the rest of the bucket with your cooled ashes making sure the ashes are well compact and leaving enough room at the top to add your water. I emphasize, making sure the ashes are cool and there are no live embers, so that the straw does not catch fire.
Here you see Lenny has added a spout to the first bucket which is optional. He just wanted to make sure the lye water made it to the bucket as a precautionary measure.

 When you have completed those initial steps, you will take that bucket and place it on the blocks or bricks and place the second bucket under the first bucket. The second bucket should line up to where you had drilled the hole in the first bucket.
You will then bring around 2 and a half gallons of water to a boil in your pot.  I ideally would like to be using fabricated metal shelf that Lenny had added to our wood burning stove but it does not produce enough heat to bring the water to a boil. I will instead be using the rocket stove Lenny had also fabricated to heat the water. Take the boiling water and gently add to the ashes. 
This shows the reddish-brown color you should see

Over the next few days you will continue to add water until your second bucket is filled with lye water.  The water should be reddish-brown. Once the water no longer has color, do not add any additional water. At this point I suggest breaking out some safety goggles and a pair gloves.
You will transport the lye water to a cast-iron or stainless steel pot and begin to heat the lye water. Once it is hot and not yet to a boil you will filter the lye once more through the used ashes and straw to create a stronger lye. When the lye water has completely filtered through, you will plug the hole and discard the used ashes and straw to the compost pile. To test the strength of the lye you can either put an egg in the water, which should float, with about a quarter size of the egg showing above the water, or place a feather in it and watch to see if it dissolves.

The process is now almost complete. We now want to take the lye water and form lye crystals as it is a lot easier to measure and store than the lye water itself. There are a couple ways you can accomplish this. The fastest way is to take your lye water and put it into the cast-iron or stainless steel pot and bring it to a boil. At first you will begin to see a dark residue called black salts form. As long as you are able to maintain the heat additional impurities can be removed, leaving a grayish-white substance. You can then take this, covered with a lid, and store it on a low shelf in your garage, basement, or other space where it will not be easily knocked over or easily accessible to small children. The second way is to leave the lye water out in the hot sun until the water has evaporated. You should now have lye crystals.
For more information or if you have any suggestions for this project feel free to e-mail me at thehomesteadjones@yahoo.com .

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