Soapstone Carving: How-To
Soapstone carving is a blast, because it is so accessible. You don’t need expensive tools, technical expertise or a degree in studio arts, either.
Choosing Your Tools
Soapstone is so named because it has something of the consistency of soap. This makes it much easier to carve than even alabaster, which is also carveable by hand rather than machine. I use old, good quality wood chisels, yard sale files, pocket knives from the back of the junk drawer—you get the idea. They work much better if they’re sharp, which is why I have so many. Dull one, and then reach for another. (Someday I swear I’ll take that class in tool sharpening.) My favorite tools are a set of tiny, inexpensive chisels I got out of an art supply catalogue. Okay—three sets, and another one from a local art supply store. I’ve already confessed my shortcomings as a tool sharpener. Don’t nag.
Files and wood rasps remove a lot of stone quickly. You want a tool with a lot of sharp points to it. Fewer points generally mean a cheaper tool. To check how much use is left in one before you take advantage of that yard sale, run your finger gently down the face of the file, backwards. If the surface is flat and “soft” feeling, it’s worn out. Leave it behind.
Choosing Your Stone
If you know ahead of time what you want to carve, it makes picking a stone easier, I expect. Most of the time, I don’t buy a stone unless I see something in it that is itching to get out, and then I try my best to help it.
I love the talc that is my preferred medium. However, Mama’s Minerals is currently talc-less. We do have pink soapstone, which is actually a combination of a soft pink and pale lavender. We also have East Indian soapstone in a variety of colors. Both are a little harder than the talc. I have two smallish slabs of the East Indian at home, in a deep brown, which are pining to be turned into hands. My bliss awaits.
Now to using the tools. Always slide the file or rasp forward, away from you. Lift it off the stone, return to the starting position and slide forward again until you’ve skinned away as much as you want to. Don’t use a lot of pressure—let the tool do the work. And don’t take the surface down too far, either. It’s tough trying to glue that stone dust back onto the surface… And of course it doesn’t work, either.
If you’re using a saw, remember to line it up beside your body, like a pool cue. Push forward, pull back in a straight line. Let the saw do the work. If it wants to buckle, you’re pushing way too hard.
Slide chisels away from the body, and keep your fingers and hands out of the way. It is too easy for your hand to slip. Let the tool hit air and not a body part. It takes a little practice, but a lot of respect.
Developing Your Carving Technique
Keep in mind that because soapstone is soft, it never achieves the precision details of harder stones. Start blobby and then refine your carving as you learn how to use the tools and how your particular stone handles. For example, just because talc is very soft doesn’t mean it doesn’t contain little unexpected spots of nasty-hard-something-else. (I swear sometimes it feels like QUARTZ.) These inclusions, or too much pressure applied to the wrong spot, can cause the stone to break. S’okay. It didn’t want to be a bear—it was a fish all along. Just start over and learn to love randomness.
I usually begin by carving outside the house, and upwind to avoid most of the dust, by filing off the crust which forms on the outer surface of the stone. A wood saw can be used to cut off big sections to bring your shape closer to the finished product, and will save a lot of time. Then it’s start big and work smaller, from the larger knives and chisels to the smaller, until you are reasonably satisfied. If you are ever fully satisfied, you are probably not paying attention.
Finishing Your Carving
To finish my carvings, I use a pocket knife to smooth the surface, but I purposely leave some chatter marks as a declaration that it is not machine made. You want perfection to go elsewhere. Once in a while, I will sand a piece, using wet-dry sandpaper cut into small bits to get into all the crannies. You can finish with, say, an 800-grit, and do use the “wet” feature, so the ensuing dust is trapped in water. At the end of this step, use a very soft toothbrush or art brush under running water to thoroughly clean the dust off the carving. It will fight back, resisting with great determination. Keep brushing!
Now live with it a while. Let it settle into your heart and mind. A week later, you’ll see exactly what you did wrong, or didn’t do at all, and you can get started all over again.
When you are well and truly finished, you will need to apply some sort of surface protection, since, after all, this is a stone you can scratch with your fingernail. My guru uses Danish Finishing Oil, a delightfully toxic product which you should NOT let your kids work with. Read and respect all cautions on the can. After a full 24 hours to cure, it forms a thin shell on the carving. A non-toxic but less protective method is to use a beeswax product designed for finishing salad bowls. It’s food safe and nice on the hands, too.
When you’ve spent a few afternoons carving, your hands will need all the hydrating money can buy. But that’s another article…
Quick note on stone carving: Even slow carving with hand tools (power tools aside) creates a certain amount of dust; we recommend you wear a face mask and goggles.