Soap carving is one of those crafts a lot of kids do once or twice during childhood. Few people, though, master the pastime quite like Janet Bolyard, author of “The Complete Book of Soap Carving.”
Bolyard credits sculptor Brenda Putnam for elevating soap carving into an American art form. Looking for a medium to sculpt other than wax or clay, Putnam settled on soap and Procter & Gamble helped her procure large blocks of the malleable substance to work on. But that didn’t make the pastime popular. Bolyard explains that the marketing team at Ivory was looking for a way to make soap popular with kids who hated cleaner because they were always told by their mothers to wash with it. The answer? A national soap carving contest for kids? A year after Ivory launched the contest, in 1923, more than 20 million kids carved soap.
For anyone learning the craft, safety is always an initial concern. After all, working with sharp tools isn’t always easy for kids and can also be dangerous for adults.
Most soft carving tools are made from wood, so they’re not as dangerous as metal tools, but there are still a lot of ways to make sure the practice is safer. In the following excerpt from “The Complete Book of Soap Carving,” Boyland explains tips for keeping soap carving safe.
Not toys: Carving tools are not toys and should only be used for carving.
Adequate room: Prepare a space with adequate room to carve.
Use a carving mat: A carving mat or shelf liner prevents slippage, protects your table surface, and keeps your table clean.
Wear an apron: To keep your clothes soap free, you can choose to wear an apron.
Safety glasses: Wear proper safety glasses to prevent flakes or chips of soap from getting in your eyes. Glasses will also prevent you from accidentally rubbing your eyes with soapy hands.
Soapy eyes: If you do get soap in your eyes, ask for assistance from someone near you to help flush your eyes out with water. It may take up to 15 minutes to clear. If symptoms fail to clear, seek medical attention.
Be focused: Carve only when you can focus on your work.
Be alert: Don’t carve when you are on medication or groggy or tired.
Elbows on table: You’ll get the best tool control by having your elbows on the table.
Carve away: When possible, carve away from your body, not toward it.
Fingers safe: Keep hands and fingers behind the cutting edge at all times. The hand that is holding the soap needs to be behind the tool.
Small strokes: For better control, make small, slicing strokes instead of big, hacking ones. Applying too much pressure can cause soap fractures and unwanted soap loss.
Clean up: Always clean up after soap carving. A few soap shavings combined with even just a little bit of water can make a floor pretty slippery! Keep your carving tools clean and sharp.
Let the tool hit the floor: Never try to catch your carving tool when it falls off of your carving table. The odds are high you’ll catch the wrong end of the tool. Just let the tool go—sharpening a tool edge is less painful then getting a cut.
Go fragrance free: Some carvers get allergic responses from some soaps. The various fragrances and compounds in the soaps’ formulas can affect those who are sensitive to certain scents. I am one of those lucky carvers affected by such reactions. So what I do before getting started is set up a little desktop fan and position it so that it draws the fragrance of the soap away from me. This helps me considerably and lets me enjoy my craft.