Soapstone Carving

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.

Next, using rounded rasps or files, we defined the space between the neck and the back.

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.

Again the round rasps were used to define the head and the neck.  That triangular section was the next bit to be removed (you can see we already had cut off the excess to form the beak).

Careful application of the rasp was used to make the blocky neck into a nicely curved neck.

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.

Ta-da!

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!

All that remained of the carving was to fine tune our shapes – get them to a point where each of us was satisfied that our loons looked sufficiently loony.

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).

The water brought out the color of the stone, and the sanding made it so incredibly smooth that it was hard to believe such smoothness was possible.

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.

After the birds have cooled a bit, but before the wax hardens, we used old t-shirts to buff our pieces.  If we waited a bit too long, John had blowtorches ready to reheat the stones and melt the wax.

Et voila!   Here we have four finished loons!  Each a unique piece of art.

Now, folks, if I can make one of these, then surely anyone can!  Keep your eyes on our program schedule for the next class.  If you can’t make the list for March, we may offer this again in the fall.

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About Dahlem Center

The Dahlem Center is a non-profit nature center/environmental education center located on almost 300 acres just south of the city of Jackson, Michigan. The Center is one arm of the Dahlem Conservancy, which includes land conservancy and stewardship in its mission.
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One Response to Soapstone Carving

  1. Excellent how to article. I’ve been learning soapstone carving and trying to carve animals with my 4 year old son. He really into all kids of birds and wants to make these. Thanks for showing all the steps.

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