The one thing we take for granted today is that we can throw our clothes in the car, forget about them for an hour, and then come back to see everything clean and tidy.

When I was born, my military family was so poor that my mother washed her two children’s diapers in the bathroom. Not just on her lap, but also on her little hands as she wrings out all those layers before hanging them on her lap. The day my dad went to third grade, he borrowed a crow (third grade badge) and brought it home. When my mother saw it, she cried, danced around the room and screamed at the same time: We’re rich. We’re rich. His salary went up to $190 a month. They walked away before my dad got his next check and bought a washing machine for $8 a month.

Washing your face in the sink or bathtub is all well and good, but mom, God rest her soul, and many others will agree that this is not something you want to do long term.

When I lived abroad, I did all my laundry in the concrete sink behind the house, using my hands as a stirrer and a brush for tough spots, and wiping everything down by hand.

In my pursuit of self-sufficiency, I knew that a manually compensated clothes washing system would be desirable and necessary in the world of TEOTWAWKI. I also knew I didn’t want to hold her like my mother did.

A kind neighbor gave me a never-used concrete sink that had been lying in the grass behind his shop for years, so I gladly accepted it. After some research, I decided to adopt the system and use the sink outside to wash dishes after a particularly dirty job and to clean garden produce before bringing it inside. But it still works as a backup.

Hand washing machine

Browsing through Lehman’s Amish catalog, I found exactly what I was looking for: something called a mobile breath washer, and Lehman’s best hand washer, as shown in photo 1.

Unlike the soft rubber toilet cap, the mobile respirator has a hard plastic bubble with a bottom made of a strong plastic mesh that looks like a thick net. Above the bubble is a smaller bubble with an air gap between them. Holes in the top of the large bubble allow water to flow through the bubble and into the space between the two bubbles. This smooth motion allows the mobile washer to circulate lots of soapy water in the laundry room as it moves up and down.

The hand wringer has brackets at the bottom with two large screw handles for fixing in a stable vertical position. Both rollers are adjustable to accommodate different thicknesses of linen, and below the rollers is a slanted plate that directs the water to the right or left where it can be drained.

When I bought these two items six years ago, they were much cheaper than in the current Lehman catalog ($30 and $249 respectively). The pestle costs about $30 in most stores, but there are cheaper options for the online pestle. Make sure the pestle has a wooden or metal handle, not plastic.

Design and construction

After I found and bought a hand washing sink, I tried to figure out a way to simplify the use of these two things.

I made my drawings in Excel and designed a polished wooden stand, with a plastic sink on the right and my washing drum on the left, separated by a high partition to put the wringer on, as shown in picture 2.

In my great-grandmother’s day, baths were used, but I avoided them for two reasons. First, I wanted to be able to empty the gray tubing through the hole at the bottom of the barrel and sink. Second, the fundamental laws of physics told me that more water would flow through my clothes in a tall, narrow tank than in a wide, shallow tank where the water would flow sideways instead of through my clothes when I was submerged. I chose a 20 gallon plastic barrel, 15½ wide and 26 high, to give me a high water column, and in practice it worked as expected, moving large amounts of water through my clothes.

The wash drum and sink have their own set of hot and cold water taps with threaded hose connections for more variety and ease of use. I have a small piece of garden hose attached to the cold water tap in the sink, which does not reach all the way to the bottom of the sink. This prevents water from splashing around when the barrel is filled, and reduces soap emissions when the water hits the bottom.

I won’t go into the tedious details of the actual design, but Figure 3 shows the drawing I used, which should be fairly easy to follow. The dotted lines under the trunk indicate where the trunk is hidden behind the tree, and the notches mentioned in the drawing can be seen and understood more clearly in the photo above. There are other ways to do the same thing and still keep the canon straight without making it difficult to make the cuts.

I made two changes to the design that don’t fit my current washer. First, I replaced the lever drain plug at the bottom of the keg with a larger PVC valve for faster draining. A simple rubber stopper won’t work, because it will be sucked out when the clothes are soaked. Regardless of the type of stopper, a hole must be drilled in the bottom of the barrel for the drainage system which, in my case, is connected to the sink on the right side of the rack. Use the largest valve you can afford to compensate for wet clothing blocking the flow at the bottom of the vessel.

The drawing also doesn’t show the sloping board at the top (as in the picture), on the left side of the press. Its main purpose is to prevent water from running on the floor when the laundry is transferred from the drum to the centrifuge. Once you have completed the support and attached the shrink plate, you can determine the best way to complete the task if you feel it is necessary. In retrospect, I would have used a 1 x 12 x 24 with a lower angle.

Use of washing machines

You will soon develop your own technique, but first here is how I wash clothes in mine.

I start by closing the drain at the bottom of the barrel and turn on the water. Once I have 10 to 15 inches of water in the barrel, I add detergent (any kind of detergent will work), then I soak it quickly to mix it up and make sure no drops of detergent get to the bottom.

When the drum is half full, I turn off the water and start putting in the laundry, occasionally soaking it to speed up the process so that the water is fully saturated. Then I let it soak for about five minutes so the soap could work the material. After five minutes, I let it all soak in, while the soap dissolved the hard-to-clean dirt and grease that had accumulated in the house while I worked. I rest (it’s a pretty good workout) and do something else for 15 or 20 minutes, then I come back and soak for another five minutes. On a load of particularly dirty jeans, I let the load rest a second time before loading it a third time.

When I’m sure it’s clear, I drain the water. Because there is no spin cycle, it takes longer for the water to flow out of the garment by gravity. Once the flow has slowed considerably, I close the tap and fill the vessel with rinse water. The more wash water, the less soap in the water for the first rinse. After I fill the barrel half full, I let it sit in the water for a few minutes, then I drain the water to rinse it. Experience will tell you how many rinses you need. Heavy jeans and towels usually need three rinses, while sheets and T-shirts usually need two.

At the end of the rinse cycle, I take the water out for the last time and leave the pipe open. Then I put the clothes in the mangle, one by one, by hand. I usually set the wringer for heavy jeans first and then for everything else. The wringer is not difficult to turn and manages to drain the water without any problems. Without a wringer, it’s hard to wring out a week’s worth of laundry by hand, and you can’t get as much water out of it, which slows down drying time. A hand press also leaves more water in the laundry than an electric washer, so line drying takes longer. You may need to get up with the chicks on days that are wetter, colder or less windy than optimal days. I rarely have many clothes that don’t dry in a day, usually on shorter, cloudy winter days, so I end up drying them inside by the woodstove.


This hand washing system may seem like a lot of work, but like everything in the self-sufficient post-TEOTWAWKI world, once you get the hang of it, it’s just another chore you don’t think about for a second.

Hand washing clothes after the SHTF is probably something that only a small minority of people will be well prepared for. Without a portable washing machine and a breathable hand wash, it’s going to be a stretch for most. In addition to all the other manual work people had to do, washing clothes was a time-consuming activity, so they wore their clothes longer between washes. Most of us do, but at some point we have to wash them.

Most people can’t justify the cost of building one in the near future, but it’s something to have on your shopping list when things start to get dangerous and it looks like we’re headed for a waterfall.

In my experience, the most essential part of the manual system is the hand wringer. An inferior but functional pestle can be made of wood or metal. Many types of basins, barrels or buckets can be used to store water. But a clothes spinner is hard to build, and it will do its best to speed up drying time and prevent long-term [repetitive stress] problems with your hands.

I eventually stopped using the TEOTWAWKI wash system when my hand arthritis got worse, but I lived with my preparations for three and a half years and realized that it would allow me to use TEOTWAWKI much better than any other type of wash system I’ve seen in my travels. I can also run my electric washing machine directly on my solar panels. As long as it’s not worn out, I don’t need to use my manual system when I have a long string of cloudy days. As always: Two is one and one is no, so whatever happens, I’m ready.

I hope you do too.

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