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Campsite Chemistry 01 – Salt, Soap, Litmus Test

Posted by on 2012/04/05

Holy shit salt is important.  Without salt you will die. With salt you’ll never get old and you’ll never die. Just like those fuckers in cocoon. 

Here are the well documented methods of getting salt :

Sea Water – While sea water contains a lot of other shit besides salt, it’s probably the easiest and most reliable way to aquire salt.  So, provided you have access to an ocean or other source of saltwater (duh) Heres the move:  Strain the shit out of the water.  Strain it like 3 or 4 times through clean cloth to get out as much unsavory shit as you can.  Boil it down to a low volume that’s still a liquid, then let it sun dry the rest of the way.  You should be left with a sediment that is mostly salt and good enough for survival purposes.

Salt Licks – Salt/Mineral deposits are common everywhere in the world, and animals excel at finding them.  Look for areas of well trod earth, with signs of burrowing; salt licks can literally be anywhere. Heavy rains have a way of exposing salt licks that are then discovered by animals, and animals will frequent these spots, so if you learn to track, chances are you can follow a trail to one.  This works both ways, if you find a salt lick, you can stake it out to hunt game.

Extracting Salt from animal and vegetable matter – Yeah, I don’t know about this, I’ll be researching it for a bit, any suggestions are welcome.

Making salt by neutralising an acid with a base – In order to make sodium chloride NaCl, we need hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide (lye).  Although there is hydrochloric acid in the gastric acid found in animal stomachs, it’s not really available in a high enough concentration to use for our purposes.  Also, the kind of lye we can make in the wild is potassium hydroxide, not sodium hydroxide; so that’s a wash too.  Still, we can make lye, and that means we can make soap.

Some handy shit to have:

Litmus Paper
Ceramic Containers (we’ll need a few, eventually we’ll replace these with glass)
Rainwater (lots) – Until we get all sophisticated and start making distilled water.
Gloves (if you were feeling fancy when you packed your SWK)
Mortar and Pestle

Since at this point we don’t have any standardized measurement tools available we’re going to wing it, which is going to seriously negatively impact our efficiency and reduce our chances of success significantly; but we’re going straight from caveman to chemist, so it’s difficult to mitigate this problem at the moment.

Okay, so first, lets make litmus paper – this will come in handy in a number of future projects.

So, since we haven’t learned how to actually make paper yet, and we’re not walking around with acid free art paper in the wilderness, we’ll have to use some natural substitutes – something with a neutral PH that can absorb our solution; or we could just use a liquid.  Ideally, we’d stain some paper with one of these juices and then use it.

1. Elderberries:   We’re looking for blue black berries hanging from branches with a pinnate (feathered/mirrored) leaf structure. The leaflets will have a serrated margin; in the spring they’ll have clusters of white flowers, which will be followed by clusters of blue black berries.  Elderberries are natural PH indicators, and the juice will change color in the presence of an acid or a base.  Blue/Black elderberry juice will turn Red when mixed with acid and green when mixed with a base.  Elderberries are also totally safe to eat, but the leaves and branches contain arsenic, so don’t eat those, and don’t use elderwood to make shit.  Also elderberry trees have spirits in them called elder mothers, if you cut down an elder tree, the elder mother will seek you out and take revenge, unless you whisper a chant before cutting down the tree: “Old girl, give me some of thy wood and I will give thee some of mine when I grow into a tree”. This is all totally true and reliable information.

2. Red Cabbage Juice:  So you take your head of cabbage, taking the reddest parts of the leaves and mashing them up in a mortar and pestle; add distilled water and stir it up until it’s a uniform solution.  You can strain out the chunks if you want.   Then heat it to evaporate it down to a concentrated juice.  This is a PH sensitive stain, dip your paper analogue into it and let it air dry, it should turn grey as it dries.  In contact with acid it will turn red, base it will turn green.

3. Red Rose Petals:  Use them like cabbage leaves to make your infusion, they won’t really react with acid, but with a base the stain will turn green.

Okay, that’s good for litmus. Kind of important as we get deeper into the chemistry stuff; we’ll refine our process as we have better tools available to us, we haven’t even reached the technological level of alchemists yet.

Lets get to the good part.

Ceramic Containers: Since we don’t know how to make glass yet, we’ll have to make do with the classic.  Earthenware.  Now, we’ve learned how to make a serviceable clay in our basic pottery lesson, but we have to get a little fancy to make something worthy of doing precision work.  I was hoping we’d have metal tools by now, but since we’re falling behind on the furnace, we’ll have to work around it.

At the moment, since our goal is to produce Lye, which is a base, and our clay is most likely going to be a little alkaline, there shouldn’t be an issue with using our simple pottery to perform this task.  Regardless, hit up Mastering the Wild : Pottery [coming soon] to familiarize yourself with some advanced pottery techniques.

Now, there’s been a lot of build up to this, but the truth is, it’s a very simple process that requires the most rudimentary of tools. You can easy fuck yourself up for good by messing with lye, so don’t be a jackass about it. You don’t want any of this stuff touching your skin ever, you don’t want to breathe it in, and you don’t want to get any in your eyes. If you’ve packed rubber gloves in your swk, this would be a great time to use them.

First step, we want a nice pot full of white wood ash; this is the layer of ash that you’ll find at the top of the ash pile in a fire pit, but really, any wood ash will do.  Hardwoods are among the best produces of ‘pot ash’.   Anyway, we want a lot of it.  For our tropical survival endeavors, dried brown palm leaves work well too.

Rainwater – The reason you want to use rainwater is because it’s unlikely to have a significant mineral content that can screw up the lye making. You should have a reasonable amount of rainwater already stored in all your urns and pots and whatnot.

The cauldron:  This is where it starts. Make it out of clay or wood.  Drill, bore, or engineer a hole about two inches from the bottom, and prepare a stopper/cork that will maintain a watertight seal, attached to a nice long handle, so that you can open and close the stopper without getting near the stream. The trick is, at no point in this process are you going to want to get any product of this process on your skin, so keep that in mind when you’re engineering this rube goldberg device.   You’ll want to prop this container up off the ground on something sturdy, like bricks.  Run some water through it to test the seal, and the spout, you should be able to open and close it without getting your fingers wet at all, because that means you’ll be in excruciating pain, some creative engineering might be in order.  Test it thoroughly before you start thinking about using it for lye.

The lye pots:  This is going to have to be a clay pot that you’ve already tested and found capable of boiling water in, you’ll need a couple of them. They too should have handles or catches for poles that you can manipulate them with, without risking getting close to the liquid inside. They should have lids too.

Now. fill the bottom of your cauldron with a mass of sticks, straw, and stones to make kind of a screen, about six inches high. Then fill the thing about 2/3 of the way with your wood ash.  Pour your rainwater steadily and spread around evenly on the ashes, filling the cauldron up about a third of the way.  Now you wait.

The lye will be ‘leached’ out of the wood ash over the course of 8-12 hours. So twice a day you should be draining the liquid into your lye pots. Periodically add more ash and water to the cauldron.  The better your ashes, the stronger the concentration of the lye in the water will be.

To make your dirty lye water into the deadly potent soap making fight club chemical you’re familiar with, take your lie pot over by the fire and gently warm it, not to a boiling point, but enough to reduce it by speeding evaporation, reduced down by about a third.  Then, after adding some more ash to the cauldron, pouring it in.  The second filtering will yield a much more potent concentration of lye.

Now, lye is weird, you can dry it into crystals, but It’s a type of dessicant that will absorb moisture from the air and eventually re-liquify.  You want to store it somewhere cool and dry where you wont accidentally knock it over and kill yourself.  The leached ashes in the cauldron should be allowed to dry out, then buried somewhere, where they’ll somehow be processed by the earth to make new trees, I’m not sure how that part works.

Okay, so we’ve got liquid lye, that we should be terrified of, and we want to make it into harmless soap.  First, make sure it’s really lye, you can do this by dissolving some of your hair in it, or using our litmus test that we just moments ago were reading about.  Lye is a base, so it should turn your elderberry-juice bright green.

Soap is pretty much just fat and lye. The lye reacts with the oils in the fats and then a wizard casts a spell, and soap comes out.

What you want to do is prepare another container, again, that can safely be used to heat water, and use that to begin melting your fat.  If you haven’t read the section on rendering fat, then it’s probably because I haven’t written it yet.  Vegetable oils, olive oil, etc will work as well, but since we’re still in the domain of hunting wild animals and using every bit of them for something; we’re going to use animal fat.

The ratio of fat to lye water depends on the strength of your lye, unfortunately without sophisticated measuring tools.  The strange arbitrary measurement that all the sources i’ve queried have mentioned is that your lye water should be of the consistency that an uncooked egg will almost sink but actually float.  All we really need to know is that we actually have lye.  Assuming that it’s a 50% lye solution, that is, half lye and half water, we’ll base the rest of this recipe on that estimation.  If you’ve reduced your lye to a crystalline powder, you can make a 50% lye solution by mixing it by weight with an equal amount of water.  This will cause a chemical reaction that will cause the lye-water to get pretty hot, but that doesn’t matter since you don’t want to touch it anyway.

Okay, so we’ve got our 50/50 lye water and our pot of fat.  We want to gently warm the fat by our fire until it liquifies, stirring it gently to help the process along.

Now once the fat is warm and soupy. Our lye is potassium based, not sodium based, which only means that if you’re comparing recipes, you should be using about 1.4 times as much as you would with sodium hydroxide lye.  Actually, if we made a nice 50/50 potassium hydroxide solution, then we want about 5 parts fat to 1 part lye.

We want the lye water and the fat to be the same temperature, which should be warm to the touch but not boiling hot.  Don’t touch the lye, i’m just saying it should be. Since I’m telling you things you can’t take advantage of, I’ll add that both liquids should be around 95 degrees F, or 300-310 degrees Kelvin.

Okay, so now we have fat soup, and to do this right, we should actually use two more containers, one that you’re going to mix the two liquids in, and then a shallow pan that you’re going to pour the mixture into.  Everything can be made of clay, that’s fine, also, all the containers should be warm, so keep them near the fire.

We’re going to start slowly adding the lye-water and the fat to the mixing container. First add the lye water, about half of it, then slowly add about half the grease, and stir it for about three minutes, then slowly add more fat, stir it a little, and then gradually add more of your lye water, stirring continuously.  You’re going to want to watch the fat to make sure it’s not hardening or forming a greasy layer on the surface, that means its getting too cool, and you need to warm it back up.  You can keep warming the solution up but don’t cook it and definitely don’t boil it.   Anyway, keep mixing for about twenty minutes, and you’ll start to see white streaks forming in the brown soup.

Let it sit for about 10 minutes or so. It will take on a solid color and start to aquire the consisency of thick gravy. If you can stir it without streaks appearing, you just have to check that it’s not solidifying because its getting too cool, so warm it up a bit more, stir it some more, and test it by lifting a drop out of the pot and letting it fall back in, if the drop hangs out on the surface for a second before merging back into the liquid, then it’s soapworthy.

Okay, so pour that stuff into your tray and cover the top with straw, or cloth, or palm fronds, or whatever. Store it in someplace dry and dark for a day or two, then go remove the covering.  It will take about a week for the soap to cure into a hard slab.  Once that happens you can pull it out of the tray and cut it up.  Then you want to to air dry it for about two weeks.  Once you do that, you’ll want to smoke the soap.  Use a fragrant wood like cedar or something, and smoke the soap for an hour or so to ‘seal’ it so you can store it.

The soap will have different properties depending on what kind of fat you used, how high your lye to fat ratio was, and who knows what else. You don’t want to just start rubbing this crap on your face. Until you assess the strength of your soap and what it’s best used for, you have to hand test it.  Best to have ample water handy, try out the soap, just a little, if it feels slimy and leaves your skin with a raw or red appearance, then it’s too caustic for regular use, but can be used to do your laundry and clean your stuff.  If it makes your hands itch or creates a burning sensation, then you’ll probably have to mill it.  It might just be that you didn’t let your soap cure long enough, and you should try it again in a week.

If your soap starts showing dark brown spots, that means it’s going rancid, which means you didn’t use enough lye.  It’s safe to use once you cut away the rot, but it won’t last much longer.

Milling soap in the wild:  If your soap is too caustic to use, you have to grate or thinly slice it into a pot with a little water in it. Stir the soap and water as you add heat to slowly raise the temperature to a melting point. As you stir it, it should take on a stringy, thick texture, like melted cheese, and add some oil, not much, the oil you use should be equal to about 5% of the total volume of liquid in the pot.  Keep stirring for about 10 minutes or so. You can also add fragrances if you’re fancy, but really, who are you trying to impress?  Anyway, once that’s done, pour it back into your tray and let it cure for another 2 weeks or so.  Sorry, soap making is a slow process.  You can smoke it again to seal it and help prevent oxidation.

There’s a faster way to make a functional soap that might be a little more appealing.

When you’re done cooking meat, and you remove the meat from the cooking pot, there should be a pool of grease at the bottom of your cookware. That’s melted animal fat.  Take a big spoonful of white ash and mix into the grease.  The reaction should start pretty much right away.  Mix it up and add a little water.  If you see suds, then you can use it like soap. It won’t stay long, but it will be enough to clean your pot and hands and whatever.




2 Responses to Campsite Chemistry 01 – Salt, Soap, Litmus Test

  1. Daniel

    To make a mortar and peastle is easy considering you know how you are making your cup. All you need to do is take your knife-rock and carve out a small devit in a log with a flat side as long as you want. Go find a hoolow reed, take your tongs and put a coal in the devit use the reed to speed up the burning process carve out the chared wood. Your peastle is made with only a stick or rock that you can comfortly fit in your hand. It needs to be about 25% longer than your container.
    Congratulations you can now make buckets as big as you need to

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