Soapstone Carving




Introduction: Soapstone Carving

About: I like to try anything once and dabble in a bit of everything.

Traditional to northern First Nations communities, soapstone carving has been a past time and a form of art. You can find many shops that sell soapstone carvings from various places and cultures. Soapstone carving is not difficult, but time consuming. Not many tools are needed, and you can do it all by hand.

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Step 1: What Is Soapstone?

Soapstone is actually talc (the stuff in baby powder). According to the Mohs rock hardness scale, talc is the softest rock, whereas a diamond is the hardest. Any drop, scratch, or scrape will damage the rock. You can actually scratch the surface of the rock with your fingernail.

There are many different types of soapstone. The best way to tell what the stone will look like, is to wet it. Keep this in mind when selecting soapstone.

You can find soapstone in various fine art stores (such as Curry's), in tool stores (Lee Valley Tools), and online.

Step 2: Supplies Needed

Once you have selected your soapstone you will need the following tools and items.

-rasps and files - this is what you use to carve the stone. You can find various sizes and shapes. You don't need to purchase the most expensive set, any will do. I use a combination of both rasps and files depending on the detail I am trying to achieve.
-various grits of sand paper including waterproof sand paper - as we finish the piece, the courseness of grit will be reduced to finally finish with wet sanding. I recommend 60 grit, 100 grit, to 200-300 grit for wet sanding. If you can find a higher count, that would be good too.
-a bucket or basin to hold water for sanding

-mineral or baby oil (unscented)
-dust mask
-safety glasses

Step 3: A Word on Safety - Very Important!

As you are filing away, soapstone dust will be airborne. The dust particles can be fine enough to be inhaled, or go into your eyes. When carving soapstone, make sure it is in a well ventilated area, and wear a dust mask and safety glasses at all times. It is safe to remove safety equipment while you are wet sanding.

I usually work outside wearing all equipment.

Step 4: Sketch the Pattern - Inukshuk

For this instructable, I will be carving an Inukshuk. An Inukshuk is a grouping of rocks that form a humanoid pattern that many people of the Arctic used. It would represent home and community.

When drafting a pattern, you'll want to consider all six sides of the stone. Draw your design in pencil.

Step 5: Start to Carve - Rasps

Put on all safety equipment, and an apron. You will be quick to find that soapstone carving is very dusty.

Using the rasps, start carving up to the pencil sketch lines.

Take breaks often. If you haven't tried soapstone carving or haven't carved in a while, your hands and arms will ache.

Step 6: Carving With Files

After you have gotten close to the sketch line, or you are happy with the shape of your carving, switch to files. Files allow you to have more control as you carve so you can get your desired shape. Files also smooth out the rasping marks. Continue to use the files until you are happy with the shape.

Step 7: Sanding Round One

Using your most course (roughest) sandpaper, sand the entire carving. By sanding, we are reducing the roughness on the surface. You should be able to tell that your surface is getting smoother.

Step 8: Sanding Round Two

Once you have sanded the entire carving, move onto a finer grit of sand paper. A good way to tell when you are able to move on, is when the file marks are no longer visible. Think of the sanding as "erasing" the file marks.

Continue sanding the entire carving.

Step 9: Wet Sanding

You may now remove all safety equipment, as particles are not airborne when wet sanding. I recommend two different grits of wet paper, but you can do it in one (it will just take more time).

Fill your water basin and wet your carving and sand paper. Start sanding the wet rock. As you sand you will notice two things are happening: One your surface is becoming marble-like smooth, and two sanding gunk is building up. Once there is enough gunk in your way, or you want to check the smoothness, dunk and "wash" your carving in the water basin.

Continue to sand until you are happy with the smoothness of your carving.

If you have a finer grit, repeat the process.

Once finished, allow your carving to dry completely.

Step 10: Oil Finish

Make sure that your carving is completely dry before you work on this step.

Like wood, soapstone has a tendency to absorb oil. We will be applying the oil by hand, and will use the heat of our hands to help with the absorption process.

Pour a small amount of your oil in your hand and rub the oil all over the carving. You want to make sure you are rubbing enough so that the heat of your hands will transfer to the rock. You'll be able to tell which spots you might have missed.

Once satisfied with the look, let it set for a while and then go back and repeat the process. You should oil at least three times to ensure oil is absorbed.

Step 11: Keeping Your Carving Gorgeous!

Now that your carving is finished and no oil is rubbing off, you can find a nice place to display your piece of art.

If you ever find that your carving is looking dull, rub oil and allow to soak in. Some of my pieces needed another rub of oil after a few years.

If your carving falls, gets scratched, or breaks, you can easily repair it. If a chunk has broken off, you can repair with crazy glue. As for scratches, you can repair by wet sanding and reapplication of oil.

Have fun carving!

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    3 Discussions


    8 months ago

    I've been thinking of trying this for years, but didn't know how to get started. Thanks so much for these very clear instructions! Can't wait!


    2 years ago

    I've never tried soapstone carving, but you've convinced me now. It looks like a lot of fun, and the finished look is very impressive. Nice!!


    Reply 2 years ago

    Be sure to post pictures! Soapstone carving isn't hard. The hardest part is trying to figure out what to carve.