Interview: Hayley Croom of Paintbox Soapworks

June 06, 2011

Paintbox Soapworks is a fantastic soap foundry that is the creation of Hayley Croom, a self-described "trained pastry chef, DIY queen & mother with my heart in west England, my soul in Chicago, & my feet in south-central PA." Paintbox Soapworks currently features SLS-free, hand-cast luxury glycerin bath soaps, 89% organic hand & body lotions & emulsifying (i.e., sudsy) sugar scrubs. In addition, Hayley has just released her line of Gentlemen's Shaving Soaps, currently available in some of her most popular scents: Big in Japan, Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground, The Englishman, This Charming Man, and Blackbird.

Those who have tried her fabulous soaps, scrubs and lotion know that this lady has some real scent-making talent! An Etsy success story, Hayley will be breaking free of her day job this month, and being soapmaking full-time (which is no doubt music to her fans' ears).

Hayley's soaps are beautiful (often glittery or speckled), smell divine, and have a glorious silky-smooth texture. In addition to a solid year-round catalog, Paintbox Soapworks features a variety of seasonally-inspired scents that rotate throughout the year. Her new summer LE, Pick-a-Duck, went live on Etsy this weekend, and is described as "A riotously sweet carnival blend of sticky strawberry taffy, fried dough & Cracker Jack & a swirl of smoke from darkened tents." It's available in three color blends, so what you get will be a bit of a surprise (unless you ask nicely, of course).

Check out our interview with Hayley below to learn more about this little-soapworks-that-could (and by all means, visit her shop to pick up some summer goodies today!).

How long have you been making soaps and such?

Not that long, in the grand scheme of things – it'll be just 2 years this August. But I am a life-long tinkerer, blender, creator and quasi-alchemist.

How did you get started?

It's all Switch Witch's fault! I'd got a bit of soap base to utilize some of my BPAL stash. Then the SWitches started in with the beet jokes, and I thought that a beet-scented soap would be funny – thus, Beet It was born. Pants Relief Elixir and Fantasticake quickly followed, and I offered the set as a SWitch gift. It was a heap of fun! Then the BPALers started pestering me about selling soap – they finally wore me down, the minxes, and I opened up shop in January 2010.

The scents you create for your soaps are so creative (hello, Sweet 100s!). What sorts of things inspire you to make a new scent? How do you come up with specific combinations?

All manner of things inspire me, but I do draw heavily from music, books, travel and my childhood mythology (you know, those things you remember so vividly but that your family completely debunks). I'll get an idea stuck in my head, say a line to a song or a play on words, and roll it around for a while and see if it sticks. Then I start sourcing components for it – sometimes that stops the development cold, if a particular note is impossible/unaffordable, and sometimes the research phase introduces a different angle or note that I'd not originally envisioned. I'll usually start with two or three basic notes that I want to highlight, tinker with the proportions and then try adding some extras to see where the scent wants to go. Some scents spring from my head fully formed, and I only need to do a single test batch to nail them; others take several tries to find their feet.

Do you personally like all the scents you create, or are there some that you know are good fragrance combinations, even though they don't appeal to your personal taste? (And if the latter, how do you judge a scent that you might not personally use?)

There are some that I'm not quite as fond of, but as a rule, I have to at least appreciate a scent in order to work with it. Personally, I'm not huge on florals or really gourmand scents, but I have fun creating them. On occasion, I'll send out prototype samples in a few orders to see what other noses have to say, and my husband and a few key friends are valuable consultants. There are some notes that I can't work with at all (oak moss, vetiver, a lot of fruit and floral notes) because they give me horrendous migraines, which does narrow the field slightly. I have a jasmine/dragon's blood/milk scent in very early development that I know from the start isn't anything I'd ever use myself, but the concept is too good not to attempt – we'll see how far I get with it. It's a bit of a personal challenge.

Do you have a personal favorite?

Now come on, that's like picking a favorite kid! If pressed, I'd have to say that I like Sky Blue Sky and The Victorious Sun the most, for my own personal use. In terms of scents that I'm most proud of, Dead Leaves on the Dirty Ground and The Queen is Dead are personal triumphs.

What has been your greatest challenge in creating Paintbox Soapworks?

Juggling it with a desk job and a family, definitely. There have been big swaths of time over the past 2 years when none of them were getting the attention they needed, and I was white-knuckling it just to keep up. Thankfully, I'm at the point where I can cut myself free from the desk job, so I'll have a much better balance from here on.

What is your favorite thing about making soaps (and scrubs, etc.)?

Dreaming up new scents, definitely, but the physical process of pouring soap and blending huge batches of scrub is really satisfying, as well. That mix of brute physical labor and delicacy in timing and measuring is what keeps me engaged.

What are your favorite everyday smells?

The smell of our house on the first day it's warm enough to open the windows – that amazing blend of fresh air, wood floors, budding greenery and freshly-washed cotton sheets. Also, the smell of our house the first day the furnace kicks on – hot dust, warm books and wood floors. Other favorites: burning sugar, Viburnum birkwoodii blooms, incoming thunderstorms, stony beaches, freshly ground coffee, and the smell of my son's hair when he's been out in the sun (it's amazing, like warm hay & amber).

I understand you're also a pastry chef, and I really enjoy reading your blog, Butter & Eggs. Is your love of cooking related to your love of creating bath goodies and/or designing scents? Do you approach cooking and soap-making with a similar philosophy?

Absolutely! Both involve lots of measuring and stirring and portioning and fun with percentages – lots of skills that I picked up in the food industry translate seamlessly into my soapmaking, and I'm a much more efficient crafter thanks to them. I have a huge notebook from my pastry chef days, filled with flavor combinations and dessert ideas, and I often consult that when I'm looking for new soap scents. As a rule, I cook and bake freehand, using a base concept and riffing heavily according to what I've got on hand. My measuring looks wildly capricious, and I have a really hard time writing down my recipes as a result. I cook for my family and friends, and the variety is what keeps life interesting. With my bath products, on the other hand, I have precise formulas – I want my customers to get the same quality and feel of product every time they order.

Currently, you offer soaps, scrubs and lotions in your Etsy shop. Are there any other product types we may look forward to in the future?

Oh heavens yes. I'll be soaping full time as of June, and will be putting legs on several products that have been languishing in development – men's shaving soap is a definite, and I have early formulas for a heavier cream-weight lotion, an all-purpose body balm/solid perfume, bath oil, fortified scrubs (with extra ingredients like coconut milk, ground coffee, avocado butter), wax tarts and an amazing lavender hydrosol-based butter. Hopefully some, if not all of these will survive the testing process and make it into my shop this year.

Can you give us a hint about any upcoming new scents?

June's Limited Edition revisits the state fair theme of last year's Candyfloss, but this time it's all about fried dough, caramel corn and strawberry taffy. Beach Glass will be back in a very limited run in July, along with a piratey coconut milk and cardamom blend, and a glorious nap-on-the-grass scent. I've got a Hobbity blend in the works, plus what's shaping up to be a stunning scent tentatively named The Watchmaker's Daughter. And the rumors are true – The Queen is Dead has returned as a permanent addition to my line-up.

/// ScentBase Random Q&A ///

What book do you think everyone needs to read right now?

Gads, everyone? That's tough… Titles that have blown me away recently: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy; Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks; The Thank You Economy, by Gary Vaynerchuk.

They're making a biopic about your life. Who would play you?

Alanis Morissette, or if time travel's an option, a young Enya.

What 3 things do you never leave home without?

Keys, card case and lip balm (currently Flourish's Black Tea lip balm, gorgeously smooth and tannic). (Point of interest: I don't carry a purse, never have.)

What song(s) do you listen to, to cheer yourself up when you're feeling a little down?

Iggy Pop's The Passenger. I skank around the living room and do a few yoga poses, and suddenly the world seems a bit easier to bear.

You win an all-expenses-paid trip to anywhere in the world you would like to visit. Where would you choose, and why?

That's really tough one, as I've got so many places I'd love to see. But I think I'd use an opportunity like that to do something fairly profound. I'd go to Little Lhasa, Dharamsala in India, for a chance to greet the Dalai Lama in person. Then I'd head up into the Himalaya to walk and climb and meditate. I'm not what one would call a devout Buddhist, but the basic tenants have helped me to transform my life in recent years, and I'd love the opportunity to devote myself to it for a swath of time in such an awe-inspiring setting. In lieu of India and Nepal, I'd walk Hadrian's Wall...







Return to Top