I used to have my own business.
One of the joys of being in academia is that you don’t get paid in the summertime, so if you want to eat when the weather gets warm you either have to set aside enough during the school year to live on for three months – and hope that your calculations were correct and nothing too unexpected happens – or you find some other source of income.
Or both. Both is good.
For about seven years Kim and I ran a hand-crafted soap company. We’d spend much of the year making cold-process soaps and selling them over the internet or by mail – we had the best-smelling basement in town – and we’d spend the summer and fall working the craft show circuit, selling what we’d made and making new contacts for further business.
Kim handled most of the creative work – finding recipes, trying new scents – and the ordering of supplies. My job was manufacturing and sales. I got to where I could make about 350 bars of soap in a day, or a bit more with sufficient Warren Zevon at high enough volumes. It is astonishing how much good music helps productivity that way.
Then of course we had to sell the stuff. That meant a lot of very long days full of heavy lifting (soap weighs more than you think it does) and a great deal of talking. I was always astonished at how little effort most crafters put into actually selling what they had made, how often they just sat there and did crossword puzzles while people whose pockets were filled with money that rightfully belonged in the till just walked on by, and I was not about to make that mistake. But they were good days, all told.
We always made enough of a profit to live on during the summers, paid our taxes in full, and never ran into the red.
It was a good run while it lasted. But as time went by the girls got too mobile and inquisitive for us to have fifty-pound bags of lye just sitting around in the basement, even under lock and key, so we decided that we would have to find other ways to go about funding our summers. We operated through the Christmas rush and then spent most of the following week clearing out our basement of all the various soapmaking supplies we no longer needed, including a truly awe-inspiring mound of brown-glass bottles that had once held essential or fragrance oils. I was deeply impressed when the recycling guys here in Our Little Town actually fit them all into their truck.
A friend of ours was interested in soapmaking around that time, so after we retired we taught him how to make the stuff and began referring our old customers his way. He’s still making and selling soap even now. I warned him at the time that it would take over his life, and whenever we catch up to one another these days – often down at the Farmer’s Market, where he and his wife are selling soap and the other related products they’ve since branched out to make – we just shake our heads in wonder at how things turned out.
We still make the soap now and then. It’s great stuff – my skin on my fingers hasn’t cracked open during the winter since we started making it, and if you want the full chemical explanation for why this is so could give it to you. Don’t all ask at once. Form an orderly line.
Mostly, though, what we do now is teach others how to make it.
Home Campus has a series of more community-oriented classes that they offer – non-credit enrichment courses aimed at people who aren’t necessarily enrolled as students but who want to learn something on a pleasant Saturday morning. Every other year or so, we teach a soapmaking class. Today was that morning.
It was an early morning, as these things tend to be – the girls were off at various friends for sleepovers and Kim and I had spent last night enjoying a romantic evening for two down at the chemistry lab getting things set up, because that’s just how we roll. And then we were back at 7am, continuing to get things set up. We had ten students, which is a nice number in a class that involves making something as space-intensive as cold-process soap. There was some introductory material about the history of soapmaking and the rather sparing use of the final product for most of human civilization, as well as some of the science of the manufacturing process, and then they got down to work.
It was marvelously chaotic, as the students went from place to place, gathering and weighing up water, oils and lye, getting everything melted and/or mixed, while we circulated among them answering questions, making suggestions, and occasionally producing the sort of concerned noises that professors make when they don’t really know the answer to something and are just stalling for time until they can think of something convincing to say. Fortunately that rarely takes very long.
The fun part was watching the students see all that chaos and seemingly random material turn into soap right before their disbelieving eyes. They never believe that it will actually work until it happens.
It takes about two hours for a beginner to make an 8lb-batch of soap, though once you get the hang of it you can cut that down to a bit over an hour. Then it sits for two days, wrapped in blankets, until you can turn it out of the molds and cut it into bars. Then it sits for two more weeks to cure.
Then you’ve got enough of the world’s best soap to last two people a year.
Not a bad job for a Saturday morning.