Written by Stephanie Ann Johanson
†† Soapstone also called, potstone, steatite, saponite, and other names, is actually just an impure form of talc. It is called soapstone, because it has a soapy feel.
Most people associate soapstone with Eskimo art, carved seals, whales and polar bears, but it should be realized that ancient soapstone carvings have been found all over the world. To attribute soapstone carving to any one race or area would be silly. The Egyptians and Babylonians carved raised stamps out of soapstone. These stamps were used to make imprints in wet clay. India was known for carving cooking pots, statues, and even building palaces out of soapstone. The Chinese are best known for their jade figurines, but they also carve soapstone. Apprentice carvers often start learning to carve using soapstone.
†† Soapstone is a relatively soft, as stones go. You can scratch it with your fingernail. It can be carved with bone and stone. It can be polished with sand, stone dust and fat. Now a day we have drills, saws, dremels, sanders and so much more.† We can walk into a hardware store and buy almost any tool we want, and many different types of sandpaper and polishes.
If you havenít tried carving and you would like to put your hand to it, before you dive in with the power tools, try starting slowly.† Use a rasp, maybe some files, a handsaw and sandpaper. Get a feel for the stone. Understand how each tool bites into the stone. Donít worry about how your first piece looks. Just enjoy learning how to shape the stone.
In carving you can start with an idea of what you want to carve, or you can start with a piece of stone.† The artist Karen Kazanowski likes to leave a piece of raw stone on her coffee table for a while. This way she looks at it everyday until she has an idea of what she will carve out of it. I have been known to stare at a piece of stone, turning it in my hands, looking for what I see in it. Gargoyle came from a piece of stone like that. It was like he was already in the stone and I just had to remove what wasnít him. With Mermaid, standing on her tail, I had the idea first. I sketched out several versions of the mermaid. I bought a rectangular piece of soapstone that would fit my design and I carved the mermaid. It is funny that my two favorite pieces are the gargoyle and the mermaid, even though my approach to each project was quite different.
Iíll warn you, when you start planning a carving, soapstone can break easily if it is cut too thin, so design with strength in mind. I once carved a small bird with out stretched wings. The wings were thin enough that you could see light through them. I am amazed that I managed to polish the bird without breaking them off, but it wasnít long before the bird got knocked over and both wings broke off.† Stone may seem to be strong, but if you carve it too thin it will be as fragile as glass.† I am not saying that you should never carve soapstone thin. In one of my soapstone classes a fellow was carving a Kiwi bird. They have long thin beaks, so I told the fellow it was a bad idea and that the beak would break off. He carved the bird as though it was standing on a piece of ground and the end of its beak touched that ground, making it less likely that the beak would break. It was a beautiful piece when he finished it.
Detail is hard to polish. I never use to think of myself as someone who loved detail, but when I illustrated The Hidden City I found that I couldnít stop putting in more and more detail. Soapstone is not really a stone for detail. Because the stone is not that hard, it is hard to get that smooth finish if you have lots of detail. You might have carved the most beautiful lines into the stone, but when you polish the stone you may polish that detail away.
One of the great things about carving soapstone is that you start by carving a gray piece of stone. You force your shape into it, and then you polish it until it is smooth and slowly the color of the stone comes out.† Soapstone can be gray, black, green, yellow, orange, rust, pink, bluish, white and combinations of these colors. When you buy a piece of stone, you can wet a smooth side of the stone to see the color of it, but when the stone is polished smooth and you wet, oil or wax it, the colors will amaze you.† (Information from my class handout)
A poem by Stephanie Ann Johanson
The light touch of fingertips as they slide across the stone.
It is hard, rough and cold, but warming from my hand.
Reaching out to the smooth feel of plastic and steel.
The saw grinds its cut deep into the stone; dust flows.
Touching the soapy feel of the clean cut edge,
Smooth and soft is the dust upon my hands.
Lifting, strong, hard, cold steel, to glide across the stone.
The cold, sharp, metal rasp warms with each stroke.
Touching shape, feeling form, building images.
Paper and sand move and slide, sanding and shaping.
My fingers and palm caress the smoothed stone.