Friday, April 23, 2010

Redneck Washing Machine and DIY Laundry Soap

What do you get when you combine a 5 gallon bucket and a toilet plunger? A redneck washing machine, aka an off grid washing machine. Well, maybe not a machine in the traditional sense, unless you consider my hands the motor. This is something I have been wanting to make for quite some time now. The other day while I was in town, I saw a toilet plunger on the shelf and put it in my cart. I also picked up 3 bottles of Mrs Stewart’s bluing, I’ll explain more about that in a bit.

This primitive prototype washing machine started out as a 5 gallon bucket and the plunger. I handed the plunger to PB and asked him to cut some holes in the plunger, that makes it easier to plunge the clothes without making tons of bubbles and a big mess. I left it up to PB to decide how to cut the holes and in what shape. He took it downstairs for a few minutes, then brought it back to me, he handed me the plunger with 3, perfectly round, quarter sized holes. he handed me the rubber plugs that came from those centers.

I had a few socks and a couple of thermal shirts, all white, that needed to be washed. I put them in the bucket, filled it with enough water to cover the clothes by a few inches, added some homemade laundry soap (recipe to follow) and began to plunge. It worked like a charm. But of course, PB is never happy with prototypes, he wants to improve things, so he decided that a lid was in order, the lid would keep the water from splashing about as I plunged the clothes. We didn’t have a lid for the bucket, at least not one we wanted to cut a hole in. PB found another 5 gallon bucket, it had a bad place in the bottom, but it had a screw on lid. PB cut the bottom off that bucket and slid it into the first bucket, it fit like a charm.

Next, PB cut a hole in the screw on lid, he created a gasket using a prescription pill bottle, that keeps the plunger handle straight and keeps any water from splashing out of the hole in the top. Since the bucket is several inches taller now, the handle for the plunger wasn’t long enough, so PB removed the original handle and replaced it with a longer handle. Now I can put the whole thing on the floor and plunge from a standing position, I get more power to my stroke now. It works great!

I washed the clothes, I removed the clothes, wringing each one by hand, then I dumped out the water. I added fresh water, a bit of baking soda, that helps freshen and helps soften the clothes too. I added some bluing, put the top back on the primitive washing machine and began the rinse cycle. I plunged for several minutes, until I felt like everything was rinsed well. I removed each piece of clothing, wringing each one, then I hung them on the clothes line to dry.

The next thing I want to get is a mop bucket with a roller wringer, that’s the cheapest way I can go if I purchase one, perhaps PB will make a roller wringer for me in the mean time, I wouldn’t be surprised. I can use the roller wringer for my clothes, the water would drain into the bucket, it would take less time to dry on the line, and the clothes would not have to be hand wrung, that makes more wrinkles. Using a roller wringer, it would smooth out wrinkles instead of causing them, dual benefit.

Now to my homemade laundry soap, this is something I have been using for years, long before I moved off grid. it is so much cheaper to make and use, I have control over what is going in. My clothes come out clean, clean smelling, not smelling of perfumes and chemicals. My clothes are also softer.

The recipe is so simple, it’s 3 ingredients. Bar soap, borax and washing soda (not baking soda). I prefer using a castile soap, you can use Dr Bronner’s, or my personal favorite right now, Kirk’s Castile Soap, of course you can use a bath soap like Ivory, just don’t use anything that has moisturizers or major additives, they may work for your skin, but they will not work well to clean clothes. You take the bar soap, grate it in a food processor, or you can do it by hand, you want to get it grated as fine as possible, I like to run the blade attachment on the soap after I grate it, just to make it finer, it dissolves better that way. Once you have the bar soap in powder form, measure it, you can just eyeball it if you want, it doesn’t have to be exact. Add an equal amount of borax and the same amount of washing soda. Measure by volume, not by weight. So, it’s one part powdered bar soap, one part borax and one part washing soda. Put everything in a container with a lid and mix it well, you might have to break up any lumps in the borax and washing soda.

I know a lot of people who use homemade laundry soap like to take it to the next step and make it into a liquid, some people just like using liquids better, they say the powder doesn’t dissolve well, I have not had that problem, I think it’s because I grate the bar soap so fine, that’s the part that will give you trouble dissolving, especially in cold water if you don’t get it fine enough. Since I go ahead and take the extra time to use the blade attachment of my food processor, the bar soap is pretty fine and it dissolves just fine for me. If you want to make this into a liquid, just do a search for homemade laundry soap, you’ll find lots of recipes that take the next step of making it into a liquid, I just prefer not to do it myself, it takes up much less space this way too.

You use 1-3 tablespoons of the mixture per wash load, no more, it will not seem like enough, especially if you are used to using commercial laundry detergent by the cup full, I like to use a coffee scoop, it is just right. This will not suds up in the water, if you feel like it’s not enough, or you have an especially dirty load of wash, then run it through another wash cycle with another 1-2 tablespoons of powder, adding more to the initial wash will not get things any cleaner, in fact, it will defeat the purpose as it may not rinse out well if you add too much. Have you ever looked at your rinse water in the laundry? Notice how dirty and sudsy it looks? That’s because your clothes are not getting rinsed out very well. Your clothes will be cleaner, fresher and will rinse cleaner using this homemade laundry soap. Give it a try.

Some of you might say that you remember line dried clothes feeling rough, scratchy, not soft at all. One major reason that happens is because not all of the commercial laundry detergent is being rinsed out of your laundry. Take a peek at the rinse cycle about halfway through, you will probably be shocked and disgusted at how dirty and sudsy the water looks, this is being dried into your laundry, chances are you will probably want to do a second rinse cycle after that. It’s amazing at how much dirt and detergent is left behind on your laundry, this is the main reason why if you line dried this laundry, it would come out stiff as cardboard and scratchy as well. I think you will be pleasantly surprised at how much cleaner your clothes will be, smell and feel, no matter how you dry them.

Now to the Mrs Stewart’s bluing. One thing that commercial laundry detergents have are optical brighteners, this makes your colors look brighter and your whites look whiter. I say they do it to combat the dulling residue that is left behind from the detergent itself. Since the homemade laundry soap does not have these optical brighteners, eventually you will notice your colors and whites are not as bright as they used to be, so if you go back to what your grandmother used, Mrs Stewart’s bluing, you will not have that problem. You use this in the rinse cycle. Be sure not to get any undiluted bluing on anything, it will stain.

Today, I used my improvised laundry washing “machine”, I used the bluing in the rinse, the only problem I have now is I am going to have to use this on the rest of my socks for sure, half of them are going to look whiter and cleaner than the other half.

It’s a funny thing, when I explain to my friends out here about my improvised washing machine, they each tell me that I am more than welcome to come over to their house to do laundry using their washing machine and dryer. In a way, it is not a surprising reaction, they think I’m doing everything the hard way, who in their right mind would want to do laundry by hand when there are perfectly functioning, modern washing machines and dryers available? Well, perhaps I am a bit nutty, living off grid, heating with wood, hauling my own water, generating my own electricity… it seems natural to me to want to wash my clothes by hand and dry the clothes using a solar dryer, a clothesline.

Of course I can use a washing machine and dryer, any time I want, but knowing that I CAN do it without electricity or machines, unless you count muscle power. I am now one step closer to being more independent. There is also a small laziness factor in there too. How can doing laundry by hand be lazy? Well, it’s easy, to do laundry with a washing machine and dryer means I have to gather all the laundry, sort it and carry it down the hill to my neighbor’s house, it’s a big hill. I am tied to his house for as long as I am doing laundry, then I have to lug those clothes back up the hill, did I mention it’s a big hill? Then put them away. If I am doing laundry at the skycastle, then I can do them as I please, without having to lug anything up or down the hill, I can do the laundry as I go, I don’t feel like I have to have a full load, I can do smaller loads with no guilt.

Would I recommend this to everyone? Probably not, most of the people I know wouldn’t be interested. But for those who are interested, this is one way to do it. Even if you don’t use the primitive method of washing, you can still use the homemade laundry soap, it will save you money, it will get your clothes cleaner (IMHO), and you will feel better about the whole thing. I know there will be someone out there with a dozen kids, several toddlers and at least one in diapers who will say they aren’t interested in all the extra work, and to them I say, my heart goes out to you, and more power to you, thank God for modern conveniences like washing machines and dryers. You can still try the homemade laundry soap, it doesn’t take that long to make and you will save money using it, plus the extra cleanliness factor of using the homemade stuff verses the commercial stuff. You also might want to put aside a bucket or two, and a clean (unused) toilet plunger, just in case, you just never know when it may come in handy.

One cautionary note, if you use a gray water system and your gray water pours out on plants or grass that you want to keep alive, do not use the borax, it will kill plants. Just omit the borax in this case and don’t worry about it, your clothes will still come out clean.

I am now wearing one of the thermal shirts as a sleep shirt, it is soft as can be, it smells clean, not of perfume, but clean. Did I mention it’s soft? I love the feel of the material against my skin, knowing there is nothing that is going to irritate my skin, not that I am particularly sensitive to things like that, it’s nice to know that I don’t have be concerned about it. It is possible to develop sensitivities by being exposed to chemicals over a period of time. And yes, I know that everything I listed above is a chemical, the difference is I know what these chemicals are, I can pronounce the names, they have been in use for generations. Yes, I feel better about using these.

Do you use homemade laundry soap? Do you make your own bar soap? Do you use a primitive method of doing laundry? Let me know about it, leave a comment, especially if you try any part of this, let me know what you think. :)


  1. I love it, I need to do that as a back up my machine is always on the fritz.

  2. Mine isn't on the fritz, it's under a tarp outside the skycastle, LOL! I just did another load of wash clothes, hand towels and socks, they are dripping outside as I type, they'll be dry in the morning, this works great as long as you do small loads.

  3. I make my own laundry soap using Pink Zote soap. I really love it! I am super excited about this washing machine you made. I will be showing my hubby and want one in my emergency supplies. Where do you buy the bluing? never heard of it before. Sounds like a good idea. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Tara, how do you grate the pink Zote soap? I have found it to be too moist to grate, I have used the white Zote soap with no problem, it's drier and easier to grate.

    I found the bluing in the laundry aisle of the store, check WalMart, check your local grocery store, even though it's a very old product (been around for a long time), it's still a popular laundry item. I'm sure you will not have to look hard or long for it. I'll even bet you have walked past it dozens of times without even realizing it.

  5. Thanks for the info I will be looking for it next time I go out of town.
    When grating Pink Zote soap I use my grater with the small holes and grate it by hand. I must have gotten an old bar because it was dry the first time. The one I just grated was moist like you said. I have not had any problems with it not dissolving though and I love the smell.

  6. Brings back memories! My mother used a scrub board and wash pan. Then came the fancy new washing machine that was on legs and had nice roller attached so as you rolled the clothes thru the water went back into the tub. We (the kids) would get to turn the roller while another one put the clothes thru. And of course, all clothes went on lines to dry. (Same lines we hung the chickens on to drain.)
    I do not remember if my mother bar bar soap and grated it or was able to purchase it already powdered. I do remember adding borax and always bluing. (also worked on white dogs when giving them a bath if they had stains...trick was not using so much they were then blue!)
    Another one of those things for my survival/preparedness kit when there is no electricity. My wife has already converted to washing small loads every day. Now to see if I can convert her to your bucket/plunger system.

  7. Kim from MilwaukeeMay 3, 2010 at 10:21 AM

    Wow, what a fantastic invention! I remember my grandmother doing laundry by hand, and I've always wondered if we'll eventually go back to doing things this way after peak oil. I'm anxious to see how you and your partner come up with a clothes wringer!

  8. I LOVE your bucket washer. It is so cool!

    I use homemade laundry soap - the same recipe you use, except that I made mine liquid, because I wanted to try it that way, and I like it. It's actually more of a gel than a liquid, though ;).

    I still use my electric washing machine, which is silly, because I have both a wonder wash and an old fashioned wringer, made specifically for wringing clothes, but the electric washer is in my house and so it's convenient. That said, there's an electric dryer, too, but I haven't used it in a year or two ;).

  9. I LOVE this post! I have often thought about how to do these things while living off grid. It is our hope to be off grid and completely independent one day.

    Hubby says that he would build a small windmill that would turn a crank that would turn the washing machine, or a round treadmill for the dogs or donkey/horse to turn. This set up could be used for a lot of things, not just a washer.

    I have been doing research into making my own laundry soap lately. Your post comes at a good time. I am going to do it. I make my own bar soap which I cook to a gel before molding. I may add water at that stage and blend in the soda and Borax then too. I want a liquid/gel. I am surprised that you don't make your own bar soap. It is so easy.

    Can this gel be used in a dishwasher? (lol) I know that is probably generating a laugh. I am considering off grid living and have a dishwasher. I would never buy one and have been without one before, but it came with the house and saves me so much time, so I use it (even though it leaks).

    Time is always my enemy in the thawed season!

    I don't blame you for not using your neighbors washer/dryer. I would also not do so. I like being very independent and do not want to inconvenience anyone and accept help reluctantly. I don't even ask hubby for help unless I have no choice.

    Great post!

  10. Hi I just started reading your blog, both this one and your other one I really like reading about everything you guys have done.

    I just made one of those, not near as well im not very handy but I'm learning.

    I have just started a blog (i write posts a few weeks before I post them in case I have writers block) I was wondering if you would be offended if I posted my own experiences making this "machine" i will of course link back to you, but I wont post it without your permission as I stole the idea from you. :)


  11. Hello Shilme, welcome, I'm happy that you are reading my stuff. Absolutely, you can write about your experiences with your machine, you don't need my permission :) go ahead and write.

    Feel free to enter my contest on my other blog, even though you don't have much on your blog, you started it before the contest, so it's OK. If you have more content to add, then add it, don't worry about writer's block, use your positive intent to overcome your worry about writer's block, instead of worrying about it, just DO IT, try saying this:

    I am a writer
    My thoughts and words flow freely
    I am calm
    I am happy
    I am centered

    Say this everyday, out loud, as often as you can, write it down and tape it to your mirror, tape it to the 'fridge, anywhere where you will see it often.

  12. :) Thanks, I always like to give credit where credit is due and such. I haven't caught up with you on your other blog yet I am reading from the beginning and I am still in 2008.

    Thanks for all the encouragement I know I have issues with worrying about what I want to write, I hope its not as bad after I finish basic training.


  13. I made laundry soap sometime ago, liquifying it. Disappointed as it is lumpy and also separates, the bulk floating to the top. I am extremely pleased with the smell of my clothes. Super pleased. Got any idea what I did wrong, causing the lumpiness?

  14. Hi Sissy, I have only used the dry powder, I have no experience with making it into a liquid. I remember reading other people who do turn it into a liquid that it takes quite a bit of water, it does tend to get lumpy and I remember reading about it wanting to separate, I read that you have to use a whisk and stir stir stir... I haven't heard about any other solutions though...

    I prefer using the powder, it seems to take a lot more effort to make it into a liquid, and it takes up a lot more room, plus all the problems of it getting lumpy and separating... sorry I don't have any other answer for you.

  15. Great post... we had a summer cabin growing up that is where my homestead is now... the old wood stove had resevoir on it with a pipe to an old "rocker" washer... then a hand wringer. My mom just used to keep us in bathingsuits all summer to avoid it! When I got interested in off grid living I found the rocker in the old barn... have been on the lookout for a hand wringer.... thanks for the info...

  16. Wow that is a really great idea for doing laundry. That is one of the major things I over looked when deciding to live off the grid. Keep up the good work.

  17. Way to be creative! You're going to be an AWESOME resource for me. Keep on Surviving!

  18. Great information here! I enjoy reading your posts.

  19. I just found your blog from another blogger, & I'm definitely going to make your "washing machine". I've been making my own laundry detergent & fabric softner for about 6 months now after a lot of internet research.I combine 1/4 c castile soap with 1c washing soda, add 1 c baking soda, & slowly add 1 c white vinegar. It foams a lot at this point & I have to let it set uncovered & stir it often over the next couple of days for it to finally reach a good powder consistency without lumps. I've even used vinegar as a fabric softner in the rinse (worked pretty well), but now make fabric softner from 1-1/2 c cheap hair conditioner & 2 c white vinegar in 4 c water that works well. I love making my own cleaners - cheaper, handy, & better!!

  20. I use that detergent, and I love it. I don't have a food processor, I just grate my soap, usually Kirk's, with my cheese grater, on the finest side. I always feel like my clothes are clean, and they don't smell strongly of perfumes. I will try your washing "machine," since I am moving next month and won't have one anymore! I just found your blog today, and I like what I am seeing. Keep it up!

  21. Ingenious! And cheap, so I love it even more. I was trying to put together a hand washing setup, but the plastic laundry plungers looked chintzy to me, and the metal one they sell at Lehman's was expensive. Going to modify a toilet plunger now.

    Technical questions: How did PB put the holes in the plunger? (I'm inclined to try a small hole saw but I'm not sure how it'll handle the rubber.) How it the pill bottle plunger stuck to the lid, epoxy? And finally, how did you make the extra tall handle? I'm sure the shorter one will work fine, but I've got hip problems and not bending over to work it would be awesome.

    I've been making my own laundry soap for years (allergies), and if you unwrap the soap and store it somewhere air can get to it for a month or so, it's easier to grate.

    Still working on the wringer problem myself.

    Just found your blog, thank you so much for posting this!

  22. Blue Angel, I believe PB used a hole saw to make the holes, the holes are about the size of a quarter, not sure how the pill bottle stays in the hole, I think it's just a pressure fit, I don't remember there being any sort of glue or epoxy to make it stay, I'll have to ask PB about it... the handle is easy, it's just an extension handle originally for a paint roller, it screws into the plunger.

    Thanks for writing, I'll ask PB about the things I couldn't answer, check back later, I'll post it here.

    I need to post some updates, I don't use the 5 gallon bucket anymore, it just wasn't large enough to do much more than a few socks, or a single shirt, I have an upgraded method, I'll write about it here soon.


  23. So glad I stumbled across your blog today, this post was very inspirational!

  24. You know you are getting older when you forget to sign in, type a long missive, preview and it asks you to sign in, and then you are back to white screen again!
    I'll be 73 in March and my wife will be 67 in March. I am about same health wise and my wife is in good health except for having a bout with a malignant melanoma. Had it removed, underwent radiation treatment and will start new Yervoy treatment ILO chemo. Yervoy gives melanoma patients about 40% survivability rate to 2% for chemo.
    After Yervoy treatment is over, I am taking her to SF to see our son and daughter-in-law. Won't stay too long maybe a week.
    Still love reading your blogs and reread some more often. Of course you can see we still live in same location.


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