Hand-crafted soap. Kind of like do-it-yourself beer brewing and kombucha, homemade soap is everywhere these days.
Head to any farmers market, and no doubt you’ll find several people selling these multicolored square bars with scents and ingredients like “lavender chamomile” or “lemon rosemary goat milk.”
“Want to Sell Handmade Soap? Join the Crowd” a 2017 headline in the New York Times read. The story reported that there were 300,000 soap-making businesses in the United States, according to the Handcrafted Soap & Cosmetic Guild, and growing.
“I think it’s because people are very conscious now about natural products,” said Camas soap-maker Gail Horn. “All the sudden I’m like ‘What am I putting on my skin? Maybe I should be concerned about what’s in there.’ ”
Horn, 54, owns a storefront devoted to the product. She jumped on the trend a bit earlier, starting her business at home back in 2000 after her family opted for a handmade-only Christmas. Working as an accountant didn’t indulge her creative side, so she found joy in the process of making soap. Though making soap can be creative, it’s technical too, requiring a working knowledge of basic chemistry and how ingredients like lye and water react to one another.
The Soap Chest
521 N.E. Everett St., Camas
Revenue: Undisclosed, but owner Gail Horn said business increased 14 percent from 2017 to 2018 and 8 percent from 2016 to 2017.
Number of employees? Three, including two part-timers and Horn.
Bureau of Labor Statistics job outlook: The bureau does not specifically track soap-making as an occupation, but more generally “craft and fine artists,” where employment is projected to grow 6 percent through 2026. Growth is dependent on the state of the economy and whether people have the extra funds to buy art or handmade crafts. The bureau also doesn’t show wage specific to the region, but the average hourly wage for craft artists in the state of Washington in 2018 was $21.95 and the annual salary was $45,660.
“When I started this I was like, ‘OK, this is back to high school chemistry, how did that go?’ There is a lot of chemistry involved, especially with new recipes,” she said. She makes up to 112 bars of soap a day and takes pride in a “from scratch only” approach.
Horn’s husband, a graphic designer for C-Tran, helped support development of the business, she said. They bought the plot of land in 2014 at 521 N.E. Everett St., Camas, for a commercial structure for $45,000, when Horn felt she had a large enough clientele to sustain a brick-and-mortar business.
Walking into the The Soap Chest, you’re predictably greeted by an invisible mountain of pleasant aromas and seemingly endless types of soaps. A new type she had just concocted, still drying on racks in the back room: Columbia River Gorgeous, featuring crushed walnuts as the riverbed and blue swirls above it like water. The Columbian caught up with Horn at her shop to learn about how she’s surviving in soap-making.
How do you sustain your soap-making business?
There are a lot of soap-makers these days. You can find it anywhere. So I guess consistency, and at the same time, new things. I’m always trying a new scent or blend or color. My kind of niche is everything is handmade and from scratch, down to the herbs that I put in from my garden.
What are some challenges?
Well, the online part of it. How do you get ranked higher on Google? I was just at a workshop on Monday: How do I get my website ranked higher? The strategy I had two years ago might not work now. And I am off the beaten path. Fourth Avenue, which is just the next street down, is where the main part of our businesses are. I call this area the “Pearl of Camas” (referring to the district in Portland) because we’re just north of downtown, but we’re hip and cool.
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Do you sell to any other businesses?
No big-box stores. My wholesale accounts are niche stores; for instance I do soap for a lavender farm in Hood River (Ore.) and for a chocolate shop in Seattle. I couldn’t discount my soap enough to put it in a big-box store. You have to discount your soap to wholesale and yet you don’t have to sell it yourself either. It’s a balance there. If I only wholesaled I’m not sure I could make it. You can raise your prices, but I didn’t want to do that. I don’t want it to be just a luxury thing that you keep; “I paid $20 for this soap and I can’t use it, it’s too expensive.”
What is required with wholesaling to a big-box store?
The main thing is, they’re national so I’d have to make so much soap that it would be impossible for my size of business. I was in New Seasons for a while.
Why did you stop?
A multitude of reasons. It became too difficult for a small business to do. The paperwork was overwhelming, and I’m a paperwork person. I’m an accountant. Paperwork doesn’t bother me but it became so arduous that it wasn’t worth it for the amount of sales that I had there.
Do you feel it’s actually more difficult to sell online because there’s such a bottomless pit of competition with sites like Etsy?
Even online I’m relying on word of mouth. Somebody will come up on vacation, they’re visiting their relatives, they come in the shop, and they’ll buy some things. They’ll go home to Virginia and place an order. It’s a competitive market online.
Do you have to be certified or inspected by the Food and Drug Administration or any other agency to do this?
No, I actually am a certified soap-maker, but it’s not through the government; it’s through the Handcrafted Soap & Cosmetic Guild. Last year I took the test to be certified. But there’s no governmental certification you need to make soap. It’s not a cosmetic, so you don’t have to have FDA approval or anything.
Are there like, rogue soap-makers making horrible soaps out there?
There are all levels, there really are. I want to keep learning as long as I go. The guild is good for that. I mean you might find handmade soap out there that’s … interesting. That’s a weeding out thing, because you buy it, you use it, and go “Oh, that was slimy, I won’t buy that again.” Unless soap-makers are honing their craft, they aren’t going to survive.