How to Make Soap

If you haven’t noticed in my writing, I’m very much against being wasteful.  At home, I hate making food from a recipe where you only use a part of something and throw the rest out.  When I explained how to make biodiesel I briefly noted that you could use the leftover glycerin to make all sorts of things.  One of those things is soap.  Don’t get me wrong, soap is absolutely a luxury item.  But ideally, for every liter of biodiesel you make, you’ll end up with 200mL of glycerin.  That adds up, so why not make some soap.  You’ll be clean and you can use it to barter with other people.

Bar Soap or Liquid Soap?

Interestingly enough, the procedure for making bar or liquid soap is essentially identical.  The only difference is what type of lye you use.  Something about sodium hydroxide causes the glycerin to crystallize during the saponification process that doesn’t happen with potassium hydroxide (chemists or chemical engineers, feel free to let me know the specifics).  So if you want bar soap use NaOH, otherwise use KOH.

It should also be noted that if you used a different type of lye in the biodiesel process than you are using to make soap, your soap may not turn out exactly how you planned.  If you are making bar soap, you can add more NaOH to help it solidify, but if you do, you need to let it sit for longer afterwards to ensure all the lye has reacted.


  1. Glycerin, and lots of it.  This is the ingredient that all others are keyed off of, so it doesn’t matter how much you use.
  2. Water. You need 200mL of water for every liter of glycerin.
  3. Lye.  If you are using sodium hydroxide (NaOH) you will need 50g per liter of glycerin.  If you are using potassium hydroxide (KOH) you will need 75g per liter of glycerin.
  4. Smelly Stuff.  You don’t really need this, but if you want your soap to smell pretty you’ll need something to make it do so.

The Procedure

  1. First things first, you need to clean your glycerin.  This ensures that you have no particulate matter (dirt, old food, twigs, leaves, zombies, etc.) in your glycerin.  You typically don’t want these things in your final product, so get them out now before your process becomes more complicated.
  2. Remove any alcohol remnants.  Any alcohol left in your soap can be bad for your health, especially methyl alcohol.  You need to bring your glycerin to a temperature of 65C for methyl alcohol or 80C for ethyl alcohol.  FOR THE LOVE OF PETE, be careful when you do this.  What you are doing is boiling of the alcohol and methyl alcohol will sink.  So make sure that you do this in a well ventilated area do everything you can to avoid exposing your flame to the vaporized alcohol.  If your flame turns an odd color or starts to crackle, then disperse your flame and rethink your setup.
  3. Once you are sufficiently sure that there is no alcohol left in your glycerin, begin heating it to 60C.  While you wait you can combine your water and lye.
  4. Add your water and lye to the glycerin.  Stir continuously and heat to boil.
  5. Once at a boil, reduce heat and let simmer.
  6. If you’re making smelly soap, add your smelly stuff at this point.
  7. Once a skin starts to form on the surface of your concoction, check it by ladling out a spoonful and pour back in, if a film is left behind, it is done.
  8. If you are making bar soap, pour into molds.  If you are making liquid soap, pour into the containers you intend to store it in.
  9. Let the soap sit for around 3 weeks.  During this time, the glycerin and lye are reacting and you need to let this reaction complete.  If you try to use the soap and it burns or tingles, it isn’t ready yet and you just gave yourself a lye burn.

As you can see, making soap is really easy and a good use for the glycerin byproduct of biodiesel.

How to Make Biodiesel

Traditional diesel fuel is made from petroleum, and in a post-apocalyptic world that will be hard to come by.  Thankfully, biodiesel is an alternative that can be made from any organic oil or fat that doesn’t require any kind of modification to your diesel engine.

Generally, you are adding a catalyst to a triglyceride-rich liquid in order to break a glycerin molecule off of the fatty acid chains in the oil and forcing each of three fatty acid chains to recombine with the introduced alcohol to essentially create a new alcohol.  This process is called transesterification.

Transesterification: ester + alcohol = different ester + different alcohol
Transesterification: ester + alcohol = different ester + different alcohol


Organic Oil/Fat

This can be nearly any kind of oil or fat (I’ve seen biodiesel made with rendered pig fat).  There are a few considerations to take into account though:

  • Peanut oil, coconut oil, palm oil, tallow, and lard all have a higher clouding point than other oils, meaning that they start to crystallize and gel at a higher temperature.  This means that they will work perfectly fine in warmer weather, but may cause problems in cooler temperatures.
  • Olive oil, peanut oil, palm oil, tallow, and lard have a higher acidity.  This can interfere with the transesterification process and means you probably want to titrate a sample (explained later) to determine if extra lye will be needed.
  • If you are using used oil, you need to process it before going forward with the recipe.

Rapeseed (or canola) oil, corn oil, soy oil, and sunflower oil are considered to be the preferable choice for biodiesel production.


It is possible to use either methyl alcohol or ethyl alcohol for biodiesel.  Methyl alcohol is preferable because there is less work involved with methyl alcohol.  Either way, you want as close to 100% pure as possible.


There are two types of lye potassium hydroxide (KOH) and sodium hydroxide (NaOH).  Either can be used, but KOH is preferable since it dissolves easier in alcohol.  Also, conveniently enough, it can be made per the instructions I give in How to Make Lye.


  • 10 parts oil
  • 2 parts methyl alcohol or 2.7 parts ethyl alcohol
  • 3.5 grams NaOH or 4.9 grams KOH per liter of oil used (plus any excess lye as indicated in titration for used oil)

The Process

Biodiesel and Glycerine separated into layers
Biodiesel and Glycerin separated into layers

Mix your alcohol and lye in an HDPE container (like a milk jug) and swirl occasionally until all the lye is fully dissolved.  This could take as little as 10 minutes for KOH and as much as overnight for NaOH.  This creates you methyl or ethyl esters.

Blend the ester mixture with oil/fat heated to 55C for roughly 30 minutes.

Let the mixture settle for 24 hours.  In this time, transesterification will occur, leaving behind glycerin as a by-product.  Three distinct layers will form, the heavy (bottom) layer is the glycerin, the light (top) layer is the biodiesel, and the middle layer is a soapy emulsion created by the reaction of lye with oil.  You can keep the glycerin, as it is useful in other situations, but unneeded for the rest of this recipe.  Move the biodiesel into a different container, ensuring that no glycerin or soap is carried along, and either store the glycerin or through it out.

Quality Testing

  • The Wash Test – Put a small amount of fuel in a PET bottle with water and shake vigorously for  approximately 10 seconds.  Let it sit for a half an hour.  If water separates from fuel with a very thin, foamy layer between (or no layer at all), then you’ve produced quality fuel.  If they don’t separate or there is a thick foamy layer, then your fuel is of poor quality.  This can be caused by too much lye or contaminants present acting as emulsifier.
  • The Methanol Test – Mix 25ml of biodiesel with 225ml of methanol.  If anything is going to separate, it will happen nearly instantly.  Each milliliter of biodiesel that separates from the methanol equals a 4% impurity.  Ideally, nothing will separate, meaning your fuel is 100% pure, but a little bit won’t hurt.


After testing to ensure your fuel is good you need to “wash” it.  This process removes any physical impurities or unconverted ingredients from the fuel, as these can all cause problems in your engine down the line (lye can corrode the fuel injectors and fuel tank, glycerin and soap can clog any number of parts, etc).  Mix 1 part fresh, clean water with 2 parts biodiesel until it appears homogenous.  Let the mixture settle for several hours, then drain water.  Move fuel to new receptacle and repeat process 2-3 times.  Let the fuel sit for several days. once it is no longer cloudy, it is “dry” and ready to use.  If it doesn’t clear up, you can try washing it again.

Processing Used Oil

You can use “certified pre-owned” oil to make biodiesel, you just need to do some things to it first.

Cleaning Old Oil

Some people recommend filtering the used oil first, but I say that it is unnecessary.  All the gunk and goo in the old oil will sink to the bottom and since you are usually working with the top layer of a separated liquid, you are naturally filtering it as you work with it.  However, there is a significant amount of water suspended in used oil (typically from the food cooked in it) and that can be a problem.

To remove the water, bring the oil to a boil at 100C and leave there until boiling slows, then boil at 130C for approximately 10 minutes.  This should ensure that most of the water is removed.


Every time you use or heat oil you create free fatty acids, which are basically broken-down triglycerides.  This means that there is more work required to convert your oil into biodiesel than with new oil.  This work is done by adding extra lye to the process.  To find out how much more lye to add, we use a process called titration.  This process should also be used if you are using ethyl alcohol instead of methyl alcohol, or an oil with a higher acidity.

First, make a 0.1% lye solution by mixing 1g of lye into 1 liter of distilled water.  Now dissolve 1ml of oil in 10ml of isopropyl alcohol.  At this point you need to choose a way to determine the pH of the oil/alcohol mixture.  You can use a pH tester, phenolphthalein droplets, or (if push comes to shove) red cabbage juice – seriously it indicates pH really well..  Add the lye solution drop by drop until pH is around 8-9.  If you’re using phenolphthalein, this is indicated by the liquid turning a pinkish color, if you are using red cabbage juice you are looking for a blue/blue-green color.  The number of milliliters of lye solution added to the oil solution equals the additional number of grams of lye per liter of oil to use in the transesterification process.


If you want to get super technical in your measurements, the amount of KOH used depends on the strength.

Purity Measurement (in grams)
99% 4.9
92% 5.3
90% 5.5
85% 5.8

Red Cabbage Juice

pH 2 4 6 8 10 12
Color Red Purple Violet Blue Blue-Green Greenish Yellow

How to Distill Alcohol, part 3: How to Make Methanol

[error]DISCLAIMER: The following is highly dangerous or illegal and it is not recommended to be used under any circumstances, except zombies.[/error]

Methanol, or methyl alcohol, can be used primarily as a fuel source or feedstock (a chemical used to make another chemical).  For our purposes, we can either use it to fuel cars, trucks generators, etc. or to create biodiesel (both very useful in a post-Apocalyptic world).  In this part of our series on alcohol distillation, we discuss how to use your still to produce methanol.

Methanol is more commonly referred to as wood alcohol because, until breakthroughs in modern chemistry, the only way to produce it was by extracting it from wood.  You shouldn’t drink methanol EVER.  Not only does it taste bad, but it can kill you.  In fact, methanol is used to denature ethanol products, rendering them undrinkable by making you violently ill when you drink even that small of an amount.  If you want to make drinkable alcohol read about it here.

Producing methanol is a much less involved process than producing ethanol.  Put wood chunks or shavings (or paper) into the bottom of your cooking vessel and add enough water to cover the wood.  Heat the cooking vessel to around 78C and wait as the methanol vaporizes from the wood and out the condenser coil and into your storage container.

If you are making both ethanol and methanol make sure you label them.  I can’t stress to you how important it is that you don’t drink methanol.

How to Distill Alcohol, Part 2: How to Make Ethanol

[error]DISCLAIMER: The following is highly dangerous or illegal and it is not recommended to be used under any circumstances, except zombies.[/error]

In Part 1 of this article series, I showed you how to make your still.  In this part, we go over the specfics of how to make actual ethanol, or ethyl alcohol.

Ethanol is most commonly known for being the ingestable alcohol in liquor, but there are plenty of uses for it aside from drinking.  First and foremost, everybody likes alcohol, so if you can make your own, you have a valuable commodity to trade with other people.  Beyond that, it is a disinfectant, an antiseptic, a solvent, it is flammable so it can be used as a fire source or a fuel source, and interestingly enough – it can be used to treat alcohol poisoning from other, more toxic, types of alcohol.


Fundamentally, all that distillation does is seperate the alcohol from everything else.  So in order to distill ethanol, we need to create something that contains ethanol.  You need to create a mash using some sort of starchy substance.  Pretty much any type of grain will do, corn is a good starch source and is probably the most prolific option.  Rice will also work, but may be in short supply.  The fermentation process for distilling alcohol is very similar to that of making beer but has more leeway, since you don’t really care about the flavor that the mash itself develops.

Your first step is to heat up a volume of water at a ratio of 3 liters of water to 1 kilogram of starch source to around 65-70C.  Add your starch source to the water and maintain temperature for around an hour or so.  Larger quantities will take longer to get to temperature and longer to drop temperature, it’s not unheard of for home distillers to let the mash sit for days before proceeding.  What this does is convert the starches in your starch source into fermentable sugars (mono- and disaccharides).  Let it cool to a temperature no greater than 27C (the maximum tolerable temperature for most yeast) then add 0.5kg of yeast per 200 liters of mash.  You can also add table sugar at this time to aid in fermentation, but it isn’t terribly necessary.  Let the mash sit for around 10 days to ferment.  A rough indicator that fermentation is done is when the mash stops bubbling.  Fermentation continues passed this point, but unless you have equipment like a hydrometer available to test the specific gravity of the mash, no bubbles is a good enough indicator.


First, let me clue you in on how dangerous this part of the procedure is.  You are playing with alcohol, a highly flammable substance, over an open flame.  If there is a leak anywhere in your system, it will literally go up in flames.  Which means you could just as easily go up in flames.  Add the fact that you are working with a closed system, you are essentially pressure cooking a flammable substance.  If your system isn’t balanced properly, pressure will build up inside your cooking vessel and eventually cause it to explode.  You are basically standing next to a bomb for several hours, if not days.  Be vigilant or your still could rain fiery death on you at incredible rates of speed.

If you didn’t ferment your mash in your cooking vessel, place it there now.  Bring your mash up to a temperature of around 79C and maintain tht temperature for the remainder of the process.  As described in part 1, you are keeping a temperature that allows the ethanol to vaporize without any of the rest of the mash vaporizing as well (for the most part).  The alcohol vapor then escapes through the condenser and is cooled down to liquid form before exiting into your storage container.  If you intend any of this to be drank, you’ll want to seperate the first few ounces from the rest of it because this first bit generally contains all kinds of impurities and all-around nastiness.

That’s it!  That’s how to make ethanol.  It’s a ridiculously simple method, but incredibly dangerous if you aren’t paying attention.

How to Distill Alcohol, Part 1: How to Make a Still

[error]DISCLAIMER: The following is highly dangerous or illegal and it is not recommended to be used under any circumstances, except zombies.[/error]

Generally, when people think of a still, they think of liquor or moonshine.  While being able to make these items in a post-Apocalyptic world can make things easier for you.  A still can be used to make other products as well (all alcohol related, but more useful than drinking).

Basically, a still is just a sealed cooking vessel with an outlet pipe that allows the alcohol to cool.  Some stills get more elaborate than this, but they all follow a similar premise.

  1. Put a substance containing alcohol into the vessel.
  2. Heat it up such that the alcohol evaporates, but nothing else does.
  3. Wait for evaporated alcohol to exit vessel via tubing.
  4. Alcohol goes through tube and cools off, trickling into a recepticle for storage.

Cooking Vessel

Keg Still and Copper Condenser

The most important thing to consider when creating your cooking vessel is size.  Remember that you’re going to be cooking off a lot of stuff in order to get a small percentage of final product.  Think of ethanol production: Your typical mash will be between 5% and 10% ABV, so you generally won’t get more than 10% of your original volume as a final volume (depending on your still efficiency).  Basically, the bigger the better.  As far as material goes, anything that can transfer heat is good, copper being one of the best things.  You also want to make sure that as much surface area as possible  is exposed to heat.  The faster to temperature, the faster you’re done.

Condenser Tube/Coil

The condenser coil is what allows the alcohol vapor to cool down and convert back into a liquid before dissipating in the open air.  The thing to consider with your tube or coil is that you need to get the temperature of the contents of the tube down to near room temperature before it leaves the tube.  So you either need an incredibly long tube (which is where a coil comes in handy), or an external means of cooling the alcohol down (e.g. ice, cool water, etc).  Either way, this needs to be considered when scrounging or making your condenser.   As with the cooking vessel, if you have access to a material that easily dissipates heat, use it.

The Procedure

First, put your alcohol bearing material in the cooking vessel.  If you are fermenting something, you might as well do it in this vessel, just make sure you don’t completely close it off or else pressure will build up.  Next, close off the vessel and attach your condenser.  Light a fire underneath the cooking vessel.  Maintain the temperature of your material as close to the boiling point of the type of alcohol you are extracting.  Ethyl alcohol boils at ~80C and methyl alcohol at ~65C.  The amount of alcohol you can distill is completely subjective.  Basically, you’ll start out getting barely a trickle of alcohol out of your condenser, then you get a steady stream of it, then a trickle again.  The trickle at the end will be less concentrated than the rest of your batch, but viable nonetheless.

Found on the Internet: The Open Source Ecology

Have you ever wondered what kind of equipment you might need to start rebuilding civilization after an apocalyptic event?  The Open Source Ecology is a project that is working on creating just that.  The folks at Open Source Ecology are going about designing 50 fundamental machines to sustain a small civilization, and open sourcing the design.  This is really great, not only for when these plans are needed, but it allows other people to look over the plans, build and test the machines, and then improve the design.

Open Source Ecology is a network of farmers, engineers, and supporters that for the last two years has been creating the Global Village Construction Set, an open source, low-cost, high performance technological platform that allows for the easy, DIY fabrication of the 50 different Industrial Machines that it takes to build a sustainable civilization with modern comforts. The GVCS lowers the barriers to entry into farming, building, and manufacturing and can be seen as a life-size lego-like set of modular tools that can create entire economies, whether in rural Missouri, where the project was founded, in urban redevelopment, or in the developing world.


Open Source Ecology

Found on the Internet: Bear Grylls Survival Academy

Bear Grylls, of Man Vs Wild fame, has opened his own survival school!  It is currently a 6 day course held in the wilds of Scotland.  Classes are limited size and teach you survival techniques like making a fire in the pouring rain, building lifesaving emergency shelters, training in knife skills, foraging for grubs and rodents, remote medical trauma, rappelling, extreme weather survival and white-water river crossings.  Since it was launched in September this year, classes are limited but expanding.  Next year the Academy will start holding classes in Africe and the US as well as offering 3 day courses in addition to the 6 day course.

Bear Grylls Survival Academy