Craftsman of the Month
Cover of Rock&Gem V1N1 March-April 1971

William Parker - August 2000 - Soapstone Crappies

I have been a rockhound since I can remember and even took lapidary as an elective in college. Many years later (I'm 54 years old now), I have decided to do something with my interest. I live in a small trailer in Northern California now, with no room for much of a shop. There are several local sources for steatite (soapstone) in this area, and I am pleased to be able to work this rock using only commonly available tools.

The photograph shows life-sized "crappies," which I carved from a single piece of stone found in a local road cut. The overall carving is approximately 12 inches long and 5 inches tall.

Having never sculpted before, I practiced carving various shapes out of small pieces of the same stone. After several attempts, some being OK and others more suitable for the junk pile, I decided to attempt a "meaningful" piece.

For tools, I used an old hand saw, a jack knife, a common wood rasp, a coping saw and some cheap wood-gouging and wood-carving tools. Any steel tools can be used.

First, I made outline sketches for each fish, and then cut them out to use for templates. Next, I selected the stone and planned how I could make my fish fit into it. The task of rasping and sawing off excess rock took considerable time, but when it was done, I had a smooth surface for the transfer of images from the templates.

The carving process itself took many sittings of one hour to two-and-a-half hours. Sometimes, days would pass by with no carving at all, while I would try to figure out what to do next. During these "carver's block" times, I worked on other projects.

Since soapstone is so soft, it practically refuses to take a polish of its own. I sanded my stone with drywall sanding mesh, various grits of sandpaper and finally with the finest steel wool that I could find. It is important to be very careful not to sand off any fine detail.

My final steps were to paint on boiled linseed oil and to wipe off the excess.

Here some tips that might be helpful to others:

1. Don't be impatient. Most of my mistakes (primarily in removing material I should have saved for a fin or something) resulted from my hurrying and not studying ahead.

2. Use your tools as gently as possible. Soapstone is soft and sometimes fragile. A slip can result in a broken piece and wasted hours--or (and I'll testify to this!) possible gashes and gouges in your own anatomy.

3. Since soapstone is very often associated with asbestos, it would seem reasonable to use a dust mask or other precaution to avoid breathing the dust from your work.

4. Many people I've talked to have said they wish they could carve, but are afraid of what others will think. I try to keep a mind-set that what I'm doing is making a shape that is pleasing to me. If others like it: Great! If not: Oh, well!

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