Local soap and candle maker is one of nearly 200 vendors preparing for Market Street Festival

April 17, 2009

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Chris McDill has been creating something from almost nothing since he was " ... old enough to have my hands on anything." 


Maybe it was those long stretches of Sunday afternoons as a boy, waiting for the evening preaching. 


"I grew up in the country; my father was a minister, still is," explains the 26-year-old Columbus man. "We would visit different churches, and a lot of times that meant staying between morning and evening services. I''d be at the church and was always doing something to keep busy ... " 


The pastor''s young son occupied himself by drawing, or tinkering with whatever was handy. Bits of wood one week, remnants of leather the next.  


"We didn''t have a lot of resources as far as being artsy. I was pretty much limited to what was in the Wal-Mart craft section or what I could gather up. You kinda learn how to use what you''ve got." 


McDill did more than that. Over time, his hands-on curiosity helped him develop into a first-rate craftsman, adept at working with wood and other materials. More recently, however, his focus has been on developing a line of soy candles and natural soaps, products that find a wider audience every year.  


On May 1-2, Chris and his wife, Katie, a full-time art teacher and the owner of Image 4 Photography, will join nearly 200 other arts or crafts vendors from 10 different states at the 14th annual Market Street Festival in downtown Columbus.  




One man''s trash 


Chris named his business "item 13," drawing on "file 13," the tongue-in-cheek catch phrase for the trash bin.  


"People throw a lot of things away that maybe in their eyes aren''t good for anything, but in someone else''s eyes can be used for something." 


McDill, who works at New Home Building Store, is an old hand at reclaiming the reusable. An old fence, torn down and discarded, became coffee tables, a cupboard and free-standing cabinet in his patient hands. He also became accomplished at turning wood to make writing pens and, last year, mentored by fellow artisans George Dyson and his father, explored making wooden spoons. 


But for the past three or four years, the candles and soaps have taken center stage. "I was trying to juggle everything, and finally decided I wanted to focus on this and turn it into a real business. 


"God bless my wife, she lets me have a whole room dedicated to it," he claims with a grin, surrounded by batches of nature''s ingredients -- oatmeal, rose, lavender and patchouli leaves. Carefully organized bottles of oils and other ingredients line the shelves. 




Learning the craft 


A friend in Medieval re-enactment, a "lady dripping with talent," shared her soap-making recipe with Chris, who adapted it to dovetail with his own preferences.  


"When I started, the biggest thing that scared me is you use lye, sodium hydroxide. It''s not the most accessible thing in the world; you have to find suppliers, sign waivers, and I had to get comfortable using it. That was a hump I had to get over." 


After research, the do-it-yourselfer made his own loaf-like wooden molds and set about perfecting his clean craft. The process is meticulous, but after the combined ingredients are finally ready, the pudding-like mixture is poured into molds lined with wax paper to sit for 24 hours, insulated with towels. Then, the muscle work of cutting each loaf into 24 4-ounce slices begins. That is followed by a long eight-week drying period on a shelf. 


Looking over an assortment of earth-hued, slightly rough-hewn soaps in fragrances like patch honey, green tea and nag champa (a fragrance from India), Chris smiles, "I''m a stickler for things that are hand-crafted; I like things that have character. ... The soap isn''t exactly pretty, but it smells good and it''ll get you clean." 




Waxy development 


"When I was about 6, I tried making a candle; I remember because I got in trouble for it," Chris says with a chuckle. "I actually took a Coke can and cut it in half and melted a box full of hand-me-down crayons down into it on a campfire. ... It made a deep hue of purple."  


Fortunately, his tolerant mother eventually took her inquisitive son into the kitchen and let him melt down her old candles.  


Now, he makes a whole line of soy candles, including the 8-ounce table candles used at J. Broussard''s Restaurant in Columbus, a dining establishment that prides itself on going green where possible.  


"The soy wax is unique to America; it''s a renewable resource, not like paraffin wax," McDill points out. "It burns cleaner because it''s plant-based."  


He''s also crafted specialty soy candles such as a Paschal, or Easter, candle for Annunciation Catholic Church. "It was about 3 feet tall and weighed about 14 pounds; you can imagine me being quite nervous carrying that around," Chris shares.  


While the McDill''s "item 13" products are carried locally at locations such as Le Gourmet and New Hope Pharmacy, the Hitching Lot Farmers'' Market and events like Market Street Festival are prime sources of distribution. More information about soy candles and handmade soaps is available by contacting McDill at [email protected] 


Amber Murphree, director of Main Street Columbus, organizers of Market Street Festival, said, "We''re thrilled with the response we''ve had from art and crafts vendors this year; we have a wide variety, and certainly something for everyone at this year''s festival. We had 176 vendors last year, and this year we''ve already filled 194 spaces."  


A complete list of all vendors, musical acts and activities can be found at www.marketstreetfestival.com.

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.