Saturday, November 17, 2012

Passing On The Craft

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.

And then?

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.


Unknown said...

Your reason for giving up the soap-making seems wise - didn't Benjamin Franklin lose his first son, a playful child, who chose the edge of a lye vat as a play area?

Anyway, congratulations! Your soap was the best we ever had, and we miss it. I look forward to there being commercial quantities available. Selling through eBay shops makes things a lot easier these days, and PayPal has a really easy add-on for websites. Let me know if you want help with that...

Random Michelle K said...

I made soap in high school in the science lab.

I managed to set it on fire.


David said...

Julia - no, we are well and truly out of the commercial end of the soap business now. We might get back into it later, I suppose, but no plans for that are in the works. I'm glad you liked it! Next time we get together we should teach you how to make the stuff - it's time-consuming, but not all that hard.

Michelle - Kim and I have rolled that idea around in our heads this morning and we're at a loss - how on earth did you manage to do that?

Random Michelle K said...

David, you forget that I am the person who broke her ankle (BOTH leg bones!) walking across her yard.

I have MAD skillz!

I am also not allowed to use fire or water unsupervised, and must take a cell phone in case of emergency when gardening.

KimK said...


Good to know. :) I recommend the Bubble Wrap Bathrobe for the top of your wish list.

Megan said...

I've always been intrigued by soap-making.

David said...

Megan, it's a lot of fun. Kind of time-consuming, but what you get is worth it. I can send you the instructions from our class if you'd like.

Ewan said...

I would *love* to see instructions. And also to take the class, but a couple-thousand mile trip may be overkill..

David said...

Ewan - send me an email at the address listed on the left side of the blog and I'll forward a copy to you.

Also, if you've got a college campus of any kind nearby, check to see if they offer something similar - a lot do.

John the Scientist said...

I used to make soap with my grandmother, who used to order black pumice to put in hers. It would take the grease and motor oilt *right* off of your hands. Along with the top 2 layers of skin - the dead one and the first live one.

Making soap with pure NaOH is a lot of fun, if just to watch the unwary pick up a pellet with bare hands and then scream that their fingerprints are melting off.

Yeah. I don't mis teaching frosh chem. At. All.

(Ask me about the time we did the freaking THERMITE reaction with freshman. Sometime when I've had a beer or two.)

David said...

That's why we always tell them to wear gloves. Our budget does not cover earplugs - we do not need screaming students. ;)

You should talk to Kim - she just did the Thermite reaction with her freshmen on Friday. It went well, from what I heard.

Phiala said...

Soap is fun.

I've never had any desire to do the craft fair circuit, and I don't have summers off anyway, but I have a micro-micro-craft business anyway selling weaving supplies. I make more money teaching weaving; the supplies are almost a community service, albeit a marginally profitable one.

John the Scientist said...

I'm not sure how it would go with the actual professor in the room, but I was a TA with 50 students in a lab section. 25 pairs. So, the instructions were pretty detailed, but the supervision was not.

We had an iron pan with sand in it to catch the liquid iron dropping out of the paper funnel in a ringstand that held the powders. So. I check around, make sure everyone has their sand traps in the right place, and then give the go-ahead to light the Mg strips.

One group decides there is not enough sand right under the funnel, so they change their nice divot to a mound.

You can imagine what happened when the 1 cm ball of liquid iron hit the top of the mound: shit AND liquid iron roll downhill. I hear a yell, and run over to find the glob of iron welding itself to the pan. At leat it didn't melt through onto the lab bench.

So. Super-genius and his partner need to weigh their product. So I made them weigh a bunch of hteir lab-mate's empty pans, average that, then weight their pan / blob combo and subtract the difference.