By Ana Alexander
HOWARD LAKE, MN A fresh, fruity scent drafts through Katie Huff’s dining room as she carefully pours a thick, colorful batch of her handmade soap into a silicone mold.
The mold is swaddled in towels to insulate the soap, which is still at a liquid state. Huff deliberately pours blue, green, and pink soap into different places in the mold until it is nearly full.
Huff and her husband, Gary, are the owners of The Scientist and His Mad Wife Soaps, based in Howard Lake.
The two have been making soap for three years, ever since Gary, a chemist, made soap in one of his chemistry classes.
“My husband really wanted to [make soap], so I would do it with him. He really liked the technical aspects of it, the science behind it, and I really liked the creative aspects of it,” Huff said. “There’s a lot of room for perfection in it. Making it isn’t bad at all, it’s easy. But making it look really good, and how you want it to look, is just really gratifying.”
Huff said she has always liked to have a creative outlet in her life.
“I like consumables, it’s fun,” Huff said. “Everybody uses soap.”
Part of the reason Huff likes to make soap is because it’s something everyone needs.
“I want to offer something to somebody that they can’t make or do themselves,” Huff said. “I like to provide that service to people. I’m filling in something that you actually need and use all the time, and you don’t want to make for yourself, but you want it to be high quality.”
Huff and her husband began making soap for family and friends for Christmas gifts, and received positive responses to their products.
“People liked it so much that we decided to start making it to see if we could sell it,” Huff said. “We decided it would be something fun to do together. We planned out the financials of the initial investment, decided to buy the stuff to make the soap, and started trying to sell it.”
This February will mark two years of The Scientist and His Mad Wife Soaps being in business.
The name came from an Instagram post Huff made. She took a photo of herself and her husband wearing protective goggles while making the soap, and captioned it “The Scientist and His Mad Wife.”
“I thought it was funny,” Huff said. “Then, everybody loved the name, so we decided it would be a catchy name. It is it’s fun and it’s totally accurate. My husband is really a scientist and I’m kind of eccentric.”
The business has evolved throughout the last two years, and will continue to evolve, according to Huff. One of the challenges of starting the business has been finding a tempo for the business’s growth.
“I’m a very all-or-nothing person, so it’s been challenging in that it’s been hard to pace myself and go at a speed that’s realistic, because businesses have a really specific speed and growth,” Huff said. “You can’t force it. Maybe you could, but I like things to happen organically.”
One of Huff’s favorite parts of the business is interacting with others.
“It’s really great interacting with people in the community,” Huff said. “We bought our house about four years ago, and being new to the community it was really nice to have a reason to be out.”
In addition to her friends and family, Huff has cultivated a customer base.
“I’m insanely grateful to my long-standing customers who buy a lot of soap from me. Without them I probably would have quit after two months,” Huff laughed.
Huff hopes to continue to grow and evolve her business.
“There are several soapmakers that I really admire, and my goal is to really stay level with the creative process, and maintain the business to enjoy it moment-by-moment,” Huff said.
Huff also hopes to get involved with the Howard Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, and is currently applying for a grant with the organization. The Scientist and His Mad Wife Soaps recently received the “Dream Big” award from the Howard Lake Chamber of Commerce, which recognizes new businesses in Howard Lake.
Huff’s process is “full-on, from scratch soapmaking.” The base of her soap includes coconut oil, palm oil, olive oil, water, and lye.
According to Huff, the blend of the coconut, palm, and olive oils helps create moisture in her soap.
“I like the feel of this oil blend, because it doesn’t have too much slip, it’s not slimy,” Huff said.
All of Huff’s soaps are “superfat,” which ultimately makes them more moisturizing.
“To make soap, you have to have a molecule of water, a molecule of sodium hydroxide, and a molecule of oil or fat. It has to be a balanced ratio,” Huff said. “So, if you want your soap to be superfat, then you need more oil than necessary to make the soap, so there’s some [oil] leftover there’s some remaining.”
According to Huff, one thing people typically have strong opinions on is the presence of lye in their soap whether or not they want soap with lye in it, or absolutely none at all.
“There’s actually no such thing as soap that doesn’t have sodium hydroxide in it, which is what lye is,” Huff said.
The lye is mixed in with water, and can be dangerous in the initial stages of soapmaking. Huff covers her arms, wears protective goggles, and has gloves on before she starts making her soap.
“You add the lye to the water in a certain ratio, and then you mix it with oils. I use palm, coconut, and olive oil, which makes a really good blend for both cleansing and moisturizing,” Huff said. “So, the lye, water, and oil come together and make a completely new molecule, so there’s no lye remaining in the actual soap at the end.”
When combining the oil and lye mixtures, Huff pours the lye on the sides of the bowl, so it doesn’t create too many bubbles.
Next, Huff uses an immersion blender to combine the two mixtures, and a chemical reaction starts to take place.
“As the oil and the lye water get together, the outside of the bowl will get warmer and warmer as it starts to create the chemical reaction,” Huff said. “So, once I pour it, I actually push my soaps through what’s called a gel phase it kind of makes it a little more transparent than if it didn’t get really hot like that.”
The mixture begins to thicken, similar to how homemade pudding thickens as it’s stirred and heated. The soap blend becomes a pale, opaque off-white as it is mixed.
“It’s actually super pretty, I think it’s really neat,” Huff said.
Once the mixture thickens, Huff adds the fragrances and colorants. Next, she pours the liquid into the molds. There are a wide variety of options in how to design the soap Huff can add different textures and create different patterns in the soap through numerous methods. One of which includes using a bent wire hanger to create a swirling, vertical design.
Sometimes, Huff sticks to a plan for her design, and other times she spontaneously creates them.
“It’s like one of those things nothing ventured, nothing gained. I’ve made some really cool designs that were just kind of on a whim,” Huff said. “It’s fun just to kind of try new things. It’s crazy there’s so many different options for things that you could do.”
One of Huff’s favorite parts about making soap is seeing the finished product. Once she’s completed her design and the soap has set for about 48 hours, she gets to cut it, revealing the patterns created on the inside of the loaf.
“I can’t make a loaf without cutting it, because I really want to know what it looks like on the inside I can’t handle it. It’s like Christmas,” Huff said.
Recently, Huff has tried to make larger batches, which resulted in less work less often, since her inventory was higher. However, she is moving back to making smaller batches, as it increases the room for creativity.
“The big reason why I do this is because I like to use it as a creative outlet. I’m not a factory,” Huff said. “I just try to play, and make it as fun as I can.”
Once the soap begins to solidify, Huff puts it on a heater to keep it warm, and keep the chemical reaction going. Then, Huff cuts into the soap, and rounds out the edges of each bar.
“It smoothes out the edges, so that when I’m transporting them or moving them around, it doesn’t get tiny soap pieces everywhere,” Huff said.
The entire process for a normal batch typically takes Huff an hour and a half. She likes to make soap once a week, but over the summer, she was making it about four times a week.
Huff makes two different kinds of soap, both of which start with the same base.
“I do fragrance oils with micas and colorants, and then I also do all-natural colorants and essential oils,” Huff said.
According to Huff, the most popular soap changes often.
“I would say Dragon’s Blood is probably the most consistently popular,” Huff said. “And men like it a lot, which is always surprising to me.”
Huff’s personal favorite soap is The Big Herb, a clean scent of lavender, geranium, and orange.
“If I wasn’t going to make soap anymore, I would still make that one,” Huff said.
Huff makes the soap with a striped pattern, using all-natural colorants. These qualities, combined with the scent, brings the soap to the top of her list.
In addition to hand and body soap, Huff makes shampoo bars. She was first approached with the idea by a group of women at a flea market, who wanted to know if she would consider making the bars.
“I hadn’t really thought of it before, but some people really like to keep it simple. Especially for traveling, I thought this would be really convenient,” Huff said. “[The recipe includes] six oils and two butters, so it’s really conditioning too. I just thought it would be really fun to try.”
Huff has also recently made solid bubble bars for the first time, which can be crumbled under running water to create bubbles.
“It was actually really fun. It’s basically like Play-Doh,” Huff said. “It’s really easy, especially compared to soap. It’s low-investment time-wise, and it’s ready right away, whereas [soapmaking] is pretty extensive, and then you have to wait.”
Huff is also working on creating fragrances, as well, and has purchased some attars from India.
“[Attars] are scents that are made from plants, flowers, and other things that are cooked down, and they skim the oil off the top. In India, it’s really common. A lot of them are jasmine-based,” Huff said.
Those interested in perusing Huff’s stock of soaps can visit her website, or send her an email with what they would like to order.
“My website’s probably the easiest. I have free drop-off and pick-up in Howard Lake, so people who buy on the website don’t have to pay for shipping locally,” Huff said. “I’m usually dropping off soap at people’s houses when I travel, so I make house calls with the soap.”
The Scientist and His Mad Wife Soaps can also be found at Fountain & Finds in downtown Howard Lake, and at the farmers market in the summer. The basic bar is a little over 4 ounces and costs $6.
“I’m also all open for bartering and trading,” Huff said. “I don’t think a lot of people are, but I think it’s a lot of fun.”
Huff creates custom batches of soap, as well, if customers are looking for a particular scent they don’t see on the website.
People can check out the business’ Facebook and Instagram page to stay updated, or sign up for its newsletter by visiting the website.
“Sometimes, I spontaneously want to get rid of all of my soap one weekend and make it all really cheap which is the mad wife aspect,” Huff said. “I feel totally justified being eccentric in some ways. I’m like you know, it really fits. It’s in the name.”