Learning to carve and whittle soap is a great way to introduce knife safety and knife skills for kids grade 1-5.
Kids will use plastic knives for this introductory carving project. The canoe shape is familiar and simple, yet satisfying, and materials for retries are cheap and readily available.
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Step 1: Select Your Soap
Choose a solid soap. Ivory is the traditional choice, and is a nice combination of soft and firm.
Soaps from the Dollar store will often be dried out and brittle and discouraging for younger learners.
I like to buy a multipack so I know it's double sealed: individually wrapped bars, in a larger wrapper.
If the soaps are very fresh, you might want to unwrap them the night before the craft so they can dry out just a bit.
Step 2: Prepare Your Knives
This is a 'first steps' craft for young carvers, so save your fancy gouges and chisels for later. For this craft simple plastic picnic knives work well.
I like to run them quickly through the bench wheel grinder to remove the serrated edge, then clean up the melted plastic with a sharp knife.
You can get the same effect with more work and time with sandpaper. The goal is a smooth sharp non-serrated edge.
Don't worry, these are still sharp enough to cut soap. They can be sharp enough to cut the kids too, so a quick lesson on knife handling and safety is in order first.
Step 3: Draw Your Template
Lay your soap out on some graph paper. You want to maximize the size of your carving; bigger is easier for small hands, and soap is already pretty small.
I drew a simple canoe two ways, one making the canoe wide, and one tall. The tall canoe is easier for younger carvers: grades 1-3.
Be sure to do a vertical and horizontal outline, and make sure your dimensions match up for each.
Step 4: Transfer Template to Soap
Trace or copy your master template onto a fresh sheet of paper.
You can transfer to the soap a number of ways, but I use two:
1) for simple designs like this, cut out the shape, place it on the soap and trace around it with a pencil or toothpick. Easy.
2) for more intricate designs, use a soft lead pencil on the back of the paper and shade heavily along the lines of your drawing. You are essentially making your own carbon paper. Then with the shaded side against the soap, trace your drawing firmly with a round pencil. The lead will transfer to the soap.
There are also blue transfer papers available at good craft stores. Invaluable for fancy pumpkin and soap carving.
Be sure to trace front and back sides of the soap, and top and bottom. Don't worry about being too accurate, you are just marking the material that you won't be using.
Step 5: Rough Out the Shape
It's getting exciting! For grades 1-3, I rough out the shape for them, so they are starting with something roughly canoe shaped. For grades 4-5, they can remove the excess material themselves.
Cut wedges of material, smaller is better, ensure the kids cut away from themselves, and that they do not support the carving with a part of their body. They should always ask: what happens if the knife slips? Ensure there is a safety circle around the carver: an area the radius of the carver's outstretched arm that no one should be in.
Keep cutting away wedges and curls until you have a rough canoe shape. Turn the material frequently. Work on all areas a little bit, don't try to cut it right to the line all at once.
It's important not to try to hollow out the canoe yet.
Step 6: Refine the Carving
Younger kids start carving here, with the roughed out canoe. Older carvers will have roughed out their own soap blanks.
The photo shows a roughed out canoe and a partially carved one, and the second photo shows a partially carved and a finished canoe.
This is the fun part!
All of the safety rules apply from the previous step, and first time carvers will need frequent reminders not to rest their carving on their laps or legs, to cut away from themselves, and to make small chips or curls.
Continue to chip and curl the material away, working all parts of the carving slightly. Don't focus on one area to perfection, work on the whole object. Remember it's easy to take more off, a whole lot trickier to put it back on.
Leave the bottom flat, creating the illusion of a waterline when the canoe sits on a flat surface.
Save the hollowing out for the end, soap snaps easily. Be sure to support the canoe fully while hollowing it out. Take shallow long v-shaped cuts to hollow it out.
Finish off by ensuring that all exposed surfaces are worked with shallow chips for a whittled look.
Step 7: Finishing the Carving
Final touches: it's usually best to put the carving aside for a day and return to it to finish it off with new eyes later. Store it in a ziplock.
When you are truly done, let it dry in an open ziplock for a week, then you can polish it up with some paper towel.
Congratulations! You can be very proud of your first carving, and it will even float in your tub if you like.