We heat our farmhouse with a wood stove. Kevin derives great pleasure from cutting and splitting wood by hand, and in winter you will often hear us quote, “Wood warms you twice–once in the chopping, and once in the burning!” A byproduct of our heating is lots and lots of hardwood ash and charcoal. Like most byproducts on the thrifty homestead, these are put to good use.
For one, ash is helpful for the chickens. Added to their dust-bathing holes, it helps them rid themselves of mites and lice. And I ran across this post a while back that told how to use fresh charcoal to make a water filter. Pretty neat! Good to know, I guess, in case we ever find ourselves needing to draw drinking water from the creek.
On our land, the charcoal and ash make a good soil amendment. Hardwood ash is alkaline and high in potash (potassium). It is great for “sweetening” or raising the pH of our acidic soil. We apply it in our vegetable garden, add it to compost piles, and spread it on the pastures. I’ve noticed that our beets always grow bigger and better in a bed that’s had a sprinkling of ash or some charcoal worked in, and the pasture grasses love it too so we haven’t needed to buy much lime. Keep in mind it is possible to apply too much ash, causing the soil to become too alkaline or potassium rich, so it is important to test the soil every year or two to make sure you are applying the proper amendments.
The potassium can be leached out of ashes with water. Homemade lye (potassium hydroxide) is easily made by collecting fresh (cold) wood ashes in a barrel or bucket, drill a small hole near the bottom of the container and start pouring water on top of the ashes. It takes an incredible amount of water before you start to see the amber colored lye-water drip out of the bottom. Catch this in a non-corrosive wood or plastic container, and handle it with respect as it quite caustic and can burn your skin. If you do spill some on you, rinse it off with vinegar–the acid will neutralize the strongly alkaline lye.
This is how lye was traditionally made for homemade soaps. However, the strength of the lye would vary depending on the types of wood used. I will note that we use commercial powdered lye to make our soaps so that we can carefully calculate the proper amount to use, resulting in soaps are gentle and safe to use–in fact, once the saponification process has completed there is no lye left, only pure soap. In the old days, there was no way of knowing for sure just how strong your lye was, so the resulting soap could be quite harsh. Old recipes included instructions such as “make the lye strong enough to dissolve a chicken feather,” or strong enough to “float a newly laid egg.”
Lye-water has been and is a good laundry and bleaching aid. Diluted properly so it does not damage fabric, lye is great for lifting stains and whitening whites. We use it to remove those tough iron deposits in the toilets caused by our well water. Lye-water is also perfect for scouring fabrics in preparation for dyeing, or cleaning the lanolin grease off of raw sheep fleeces. Eighteenth-century dyers handbooks call for a solution of potash (potassium carbonate) and water for scouring wool and cloth prior to dyeing. Today, soda ash (sodium carbonate) is used for the same purpose in the textiles industry.
Another use for lye, which we have yet to try is soaking dried corn to make hominy grits. The lye causes the skins of the kernels to peel off, then the kernels are rinsed and dried again. We love hominy grits, but haven’t been able to find a source of organic, non-gmo hominy, so it looks like we will have to try making our own!
The uses or charcoal and ash are numerous, so I’ve just mentioned a few here. And of course, I am only speaking of clean ash and charcoal made from burning hardwoods–not chemically processed charcoal briquettes you buy for your grill.