An Intimate Craft

01 Apr 2019

The art (and science) of making handcrafted soap and bath treats


Bonnie Howard became the village soapsmith after retiring to Pinehurst for golf and becoming very bored. Her former life in commercial real estate, first as a loan analyst and later as a project development manager, left her wanting more. A desire to be self-sufficient led her to gardening. After exploring other ways to live off the land, she took a soap-making course and the rest is history. 

“When I decided to make soap, I invited a friend to come along for the class,” Howard says with a smile. “At first my friend agreed, but ultimately declined the offer. I later learned she thought I was absolutely out of my mind. After I started selling at craft fairs, many of my former golf pals would ask me why I wanted to do this, when I could be out playing golf.” 

Howard never hesitated taking up the craft. As a little girl, she remembered her grandmother making soap and it always fascinated her. “We lived on a dirt road 3 miles outside of a little town called Wardensville, West Virginia. My family had been there for generations and it was a great place to grow up. We were dirt farmers who grew everything we ate.” 

Down by the creek is where they butchered the livestock and that’s where her grandma had a fire pit. She put lard she’d rendered into a big cauldron in the yard and stirred it like making apple butter. 

“It would take her all day and then she would pour it into a huge wooden box that was lined with rags. We didn’t have liners back then, of course, so the rags kept the soap from sticking to the box.”

Like her grandmother, Howard likes being independent. “She was probably the most self-reliant woman I’ve ever known, way before it was fashionable. You always knew where you stood with her and she was absolutely fearless about speaking her mind. I think I’m carrying on my grandmother’s heritage by making as much as I can from scratch.”

The fear of working with lye is the biggest hurtle to overcome in learning to make soap. Lye is a caustic and if you spill it on yourself you can be severely burned. Howard says, “I get raw soap on me a lot, but if you get it off quickly it doesn’t really hurt.”

For Howard, handmade goods are so special. “After I retired and had time to actually make things, I learned that handcrafted products were much better and you can control them to get just what you want.”   

The core business at the Village Soapsmith is soap – that’s Howard’s passion. She also makes body products, such as lotions, bath balms and salts, and for two years she’s been making candles and fragrant room sprays.

Soap making is a combination of art and science. Proper proportions of lye and oils are needed for a successful product and it has to appeal to the senses to be marketable. As a rule, Howard likes subtle and traditional colors, “pastels like you might find in an Impressionists painting – that’s my esthetic.”

When it comes to beauty sometimes less is more. Howard says, “It’s not something you put on – it comes from within. I started making my own facial products and had so many people comment on my skin, that I now offer a skincare line consisting of products I personally use.”

“The soaps I like are very sudsy and I never thought about it until I started making them. Different oils produce different suds. I like a bar that starts off with big fluffy bubbles and then breaks into a lighter foam.”

“What I do is a very intimate craft – it’s very personal for me to make it and for you to use it. Like the saying goes, ‘All over you like a bar of soap.’ Well, people get naked to use my creations and I’m literally all over them.”

Every day is different and that’s one of the things Howard loves about her work. “You can make soap so many various ways and every day is new for me. I also like helping people and when my clients say my products improved their skin, it brings me great joy.”

 “A part of my grandmother lives on through me and now my protégé is my granddaughter. She comes in the summer during school break and works in the shop. Bath balms are her favorite and we do some glycerin soaps that she designs – she might just have it there.”

The Village Soapsmith is located at the Design Market of the Sandhills in Aberdeen and online at Etsy. 

Prev Post Events April-May 2019
Next Post Restoring the Classics
Pinehurst Medical Clinic