Wood ash is nothing more than the burnt remains of wood and the ash typically represents about one percent of the initial wood weight. The composition of wood ash is nitrogen at very low levels, calcium carbonate at between 30 and 40 percent, and then 10 percent potash.
Do not collect wood ash for survival uses if you have burned any composition woods, treated wood or woods you suspect or know have been contaminated with any chemicals.
It is recommended that you sift the ash prior to use to remove any grit and pieces of charcoal. This is particularly important for soap making or when using the ash as a scrubbing agent for glass or metal to prevent scratches.
The hotter the fire the whiter the ashes and white ash is ideal for soap making.
1.) Hide Tanning
Leather has been used for clothing for thousands of years but you cannot simply skin a deer or antelope and drape yourself in the hide, it has to be tanned for preservation and usability. The tanning process is not an easy one but wood ash can make the job a little easier if you soak the hides in slurry created from wood ash and water.
In the field, you would use the brains for tanning but prior to applying the brains to the hide you can soak the hide in an ash and water slurry, which helps the brains to break down the tissue or mucopolysaccharides. If soaked overnight you may find you only have to apply the brains once. The slurry also helps to remove the animal hair.
2.) Insect Repellent
The process of making insect repellent takes time because the mixture must soak for up to a week. This mixture is not for use on humans. It is effective on untreated woods however, to repel wood damaging insects and other pests that could get inside your shelter. To make you simply let wood ash and water soak in a glass or plastic jar in the sun, do not use a metal container however.
You can add hot pepper flakes and/or oils from hot peppers to enhance the mixture. Once the soaking period is over simply paint it on or otherwise apply to wood surfaces to repel insects. Apply it around doorways, windows or on any untreated wood surfaces inside or on the outside of the structure.
3.) Agricultural/Farm Uses
Balance the acidity in the soil for plants like tomatoes and other alkaline-loving plants such as garlic, onion and asparagus by adding some ash in the planting hole or around the developed plant. Be careful however when using around trees, shrubs and plants like pine or azaleas that do love acidic soil. Do not mix wood ash into raw compost because this will create ammonia, which in turn will destroy nitrogen making your compost less effective as a fertilizer.
Mix some wood ash together with some fine soil or sand for use on chickens to repel mites and other pest that aggravate the birds. Chickens love a dust bath and they will get dusty to repel the pest so make the dust bath more effective by mixing in some ash. Place on the ground or make a special container for them to get into for their dust bath.
Sprinkle the ash around the garden patch to stop slugs and other soft-bodied pest from getting at your plants. The ash will actually destroy slugs and snails by soaking up the mucus that acts as a protective coating on the insect’s body.
4.) Camp Kitchen Uses
Scrub pots, pans, coffee pots and even your hands by mixing a small amount of wood ash with water, which will create a weak soapy lye compound. The slightly abrasive and caustic nature of the ash is used to clean the carbon build up on pots and pans created from cooking over open flames.
5.) Make Soap
Create a white ash and sift out any grit, charcoal and foreign pieces. Soft water is usually recommended for soap making because the minerals in hard water can react to the chemicals in the ash. However, in a field environment you may not have access to soft water.
Rainwater is soft water so collect it whenever you can in anticipation for soap making. Distilled water is soft water, as well, but distillation is a labor-intensive process and the yields are low. For field expedient soap making use, whatever water is available.
Salt can be used to help harden the soap, but it is not required and lack of salt will not have an effect on the efficiency of the soap, it simply means it may not harden as much. Essential oils can be added for fragrance.
Animal fat is required for lye soap making in the field and the fat must be rendered as pure as possible by boiling straining and boiling again. Once the mixture has cooled then you can begin mixing it with lye.
Make lye by putting wood ash in a strainer of some sort and then pour water over the mixture. What is strained out is a weak lye mixture. You can also add water and ash together in plastic, wood or glass container and let sit overnight. However, it is assumed you are operating with limited resources and with limited time, so these instructions are designed for field expediency.
Once you have collected the strained water you can run it though again to create a stronger soap. If the mixture dissolves a feather or if an egg floats partially submerged it is ready for soap making.
Typically, the mixture is 12 parts lye to 1 part fat (tallow) but you can experiment to see what works best.
Heat the lye slurry and grease together until it resembles corn mush, do not cook in an aluminum pan the lye will eat a hole through it. Once the consistency is right, pour it off into a wooden mold (s) or glass pan to cool. Once cooled cut into soap bars and let dry for a few days. You can use the soap right away if needed for washing body and hair, laundry and for washing dishes.
6.) Remove Odors
Place an open container of wood ash inside of coolers or any small space to remove smells.
7.) Ice Melt and for Traction
Ash contains sodium so it can be used as an ice melt around camp and the ash sprinkled on paths can help with traction on ice as well.
8.) Force an Ant Colony to Move
Layer some ash on an anthill to force the ants to relocate. Ants cannot move the ash so they have to move or risk being suffocated inside the colony.
9.) Seed Storing
In years past farmers stored their seeds in earthenware crocks with a thick layer of ash over top of them. This method has not been verified however, but logic tells us that the ash absorbed the moisture and thus helped preserve the seeds.
10.) Preserving Produce
Dig a hole large enough for the amount of your produce and then fill with wood ash. Then place the produce and/or fruit in the ash for preservation, but do not allow the produce to touch each other. Cover/secure the hole with wood or some other material. This method has not been verified either, but again it makes sense that the ash would protect the produce and fruit. Farmers claimed produce could be stored for weeks or months or even longer this way.