Perhaps in your travels you have come across some soapstone carvings.
I first became familiar with these when my sister was stationed in Alaska and sent some home, although the ones she sent were actually made from cast resin – much more affordable.
I inherited a genuine piece from my grandparents, which unfortunately got broken (soap stone can be very delicate). But I have loved soapstone art for many years now.
Imagine my delight to learn that we have a wonderful soapstone carver right here in Jackson County! Because I wanted to learn how soapstone is carved, I lined John Hoskins up to come out to Dahlem to teach a class this last weekend.
The class proved to be so popular (we had a waiting list almost as long as the registration list) that we’ve put in a second session on 3 March (space is limited since we had some children interested – room for 10 only).
So…just how is soapstone carved? I thought you might be interested in the process, so here it is.
We start off with a “blank,” which John had already cut into a general loon shape. Our first task was to trim a little off the sides of the head. This was done with a small hand saw. The stone is very soft, so it wasn’t much more difficult than slicing a loaf of bread.
Coarse-toothed rasps were used to do the rough shaping. Here we have the bum being shaped with quick strokes. The presence of a center line penciled onto the stone helped us keep our birds symmetrical.
John next filed in the “eyes.” This is a bit of a tricky task, since the round rasp is also tapered and has a tendency to shift. So, to make sure we all ended up with eyes where they should be, the instructor did this for us.
Then we were off and rasping, forming the rounded head. The penciled-in eye spot isn’t really an eye. It was a mark to remind us not to make the head too small – we were to leave that section of stone unrasped. And look! It is actually starting to look like a loon!
What followed next was bathing our birds. Being birds of solid bone-structure, they, of course, sank when placed in the baths. But this wasn’t a swimming lesson. What we had to do was sand our birds, removing all those rough scraping marks left by the files and rasps. The bath process occurs in three stages, each using a progressively finer sandpaper (220, 400, and 600).
After every scratch and blemish had been smoothed out, the birds were placed in an oven (250 degrees for about 20 minutes). This was to heat the stone completely through. Soapstone is notorious for its heat-holding properties, which is why it is a popular substance for making woodstoves (I had a soapstone woodstove before moving to Michigan – it was WONDERFUL).
And why were we heating them? Because once dry, the birds would return to their original pale grey color, losing the lush, rich color that the water brought out. So, to keep them colorful, after they are heated, they are rubbed with beeswax, which seals the stone. The heat draws the wax into the stone, sealing it from the elements.
Et voila! Here we have four finished loons! Each a unique piece of art.