Soap Root Brush

My 2 Cents

This is one of those projects that I looked forward to making for years, even planted the bulbs to make these. 100% of the materials needed comes from this one plant, it is something the student will use, it looks cool, connects us to the skills of the past and it will last a lifetime. In the making of the brush the students apply many skills: making cordage, making glue, as well as the overall assembly and shaping of the brush. When we made our first bushes during a teen summer camp I knew we were on the right track seeing the boys sitting around under the trees making them and overhearing them say how cool these were.

a patch of soap-root soap-root flower soap-root leaves soap-root bulbs

Chlorogalum pomeridianum is Found Throughout the West

In and near the edges of the forest you will find clumps of wavy-leaved soap root, Chlorogalum pomeridianum, this is one of those plants that thrives with a little tending. At Wilderness Skill Institute we are transplanting soap root so we will have soap root for generations. By digging up a clump of the bulbs, replacing a few, transplant few farther out in lose well amended soil, and harvesting a few you will do what many of our ancestors did for many generations and assure that this useful plant will flourish. You will need to harvest about 1 to 5 bulbs to make one quality brush and by harvesting as I just prescribed you will produce more bulbs then you will use.

cooking down the soap-root bulbs

Preparing the Paste for the Handle

You will cook down the inner bulb to make the past which will form the handle of the brush. Remove the fibers from the bulbs carefully peeling from the inner bulb in one piece and set these aside to make the fibers of the brush. Place the peeled bulbs in a Dutch oven put just enough water in to cover the bulbs. Let simmer until the bulbs can be smashed. Place the blubs on a log and mash them with a stick, then separate the past from the fibers. I make a thin past by adding waster to it to first soak into the handle, the next three or four coatings are about as thick as pancake batter. The last few coats can be colored is ground charcoal or earth pigment.

making the soap-root cordage making the soap-root cordage

Make Cordage

Make about three or four feet of cordage about as thick as para-cord form the dry leaves of the bulbs. These leave are nice and long. The cordage does not have to be very strong to give shape and hold the brush together as it is being glued. I you have not already learned to make cordage, it is easy and I will post a video soon on this useful skill.

preparing the soap-root fibers

Preparing the Fibers

While the bulbs are steamed, removed any solid membrane from the fibers, any clumps of dirt or decayed fibers. If the fiber is extremely dirty it can be soaked in water for a short time to wash off the dirt. You should have neat fan-shaped layer of fibers with a distinct.

forming the soap-root brush

Forming the Brush

Three or four such layers of fibers are arranged to make a fan shape, with the curly edge of each layer fitting into each other. The straight narrow end of the fan is then bound tightly with cordage that we make from the dried leaves. Comb the fibers of the brush to remove any loose or short hairs, to make sure all the fibers lie parallel to each other and to remove any dirt. Comb the fibers with an awl. A great deal of fiber is lost at this stage, and if the brush looks too thin it should be undone and another layer of fiber added. After the combing is complete, when no fiber comes away in the comb, the brush should look clean and neat. The handle can then be trimmed to form a pleasing shape.

Wrap the cordage around the bundle of fibers to form the handle of the brush.

gluing the soap-root brush


The brush handle should be dipped in thinned glue for a few minutes making sure not to get any glue on the bristles of the brush itself, since it can be difficult to remove. Each coating of the handle of the brush should be allowed to dry completely – usually over a twenty-four hour period. The later coats the glue should be as this as pancake batter. It can take many coatings to make a satisfactory brush handle, and the finished handle should be smooth and hard, without any major irregularities. The handle is not waterproof, and will soften if it gets soaked. This bush should last a life time.

"If you get good at this [a sling], and there are rabbits and starlings, if ever there is a need you will not have to worry where your next meal will come from."
"Every animal on earth is constrained by its energy budget; the calories obtained from food will stretch only so far. And for most human beings, most of the time, these calories are burned not at the gym, but invisibly, in powering the heart, the digestive system and especially the brain, in the silent work of moving molecules around within and among its 100 billion cells. A human body at rest devotes roughly one-fifth of its energy to the brain, regardless of whether it is thinking anything useful, or even thinking at all."
—Jerry Adler -- Smithsonian Magazine