I found a chemical company that could sell me sodium hydroxide solution at the highest concentration possible without a license. At this level, lye is used as a cleaning agent and a pretty effective one at that, as my pristine white dishes showed. The problem starts when a higher concentration is required to make soap. Even 25% alkaline solution can burn a hole through a regular bowl, I think it was the high heat that amplified it's effects. Not to mention the irritation/burns it causes when it comes in contact with bare skin. Thank goodness I was prepared with safety goggles, rubber gloves and mask. Just never take the gloves off!
* updated on 6 Dec 2012: Lye is not detergent! It is highly corrosive and used as a stripping agent. It has been used in small amounts on 20-50 year old items that have accumulated dirt for only a short while.