When you think of sculpture, chances are you are thinking of marble, wood, or clay. You may now add soap to that list. Soap is a very good introductory material, with the firmness and invisible lumpiness of wood and the passive-aggressive squishiness of clay. To top it all off, it is cheap and inherently useful no matter what form it takes.
It’s up to you what soap you use, but I would recommend getting a block. Personally, I got a three-pack at the dollar store, so that’s what I’m using. Think of what you want to carve, and try to draw how it looks on the sides of the block. Cars are pretty simple to start with, but I wanted to do something I dreamed of when I was a kid: a tank.
As you can see, some drawing skill is necessary, but not too much. A lot of these lines are going to be cut away. As for what you use to draw them, I would recommend anything that comes to a solid point. A nice long nail (of the metal variety) is pretty ideal, though you can just use a butter knife tip and/or edge. Once you have the outline of what you want to carve, get to sawing off the big unnecessary chunks. You can use a steak knife, but a butter knife is pretty serviceable and considerably less dangerous. When I was a kid, I cut myself in pursuit of that tank, and my dad comforted me in the special way of dads everywhere: “At least it’s a clean cut.”
At any rate, diagonal cuts are difficult, and not a good idea for sawing. Rather, do vertical and horizontal to get rid of everything else, then carefully shave away until you get the slope you want. Remember, carving is a subtractive art, and so it is much better to take your time and get it right than doing it quickly and trying to fix it later.
Speaking of taking your time, sawing away at a soap block with a butter knife can be rather hard on your hand. To ease the discomfort, try wrapping a hand towel or wash cloth around the handle. Congratulations, you have reinvented wrapping the hilt of a knife; you are now 30% more medieval!
When you get close to cutting the chunk out, the soap will tear before you can make it a neat line. This is because nature is sassy.
This is where you take the tip of your butter knife and/or fingernail and scrape out the rough bits, like on the left side of the picture. A word of warning about using your fingernails: they are pretty good at delicate work, but if you aren’t careful , you may end up prying them from the nail bed a little. It’s a persistent and irritating pain, and my thumb is just now feeling better, two days after the fact.
I was so foolish then. To avoid my sad fate, try different holds on your butter knife, gripping it up on the blade itself. Back to the sculpture. When you have fiddly bits, sawing is a bad idea. It puts stress on the thinner bits, and then they break off. Rather, scrape gently from both sides until you get the shape you want.
Detail work is a little tedious, but worth it. Once again, draw the lines in the soap and shave way the excess. A note about soap, and to a greater extent, clay: when you draw a line in the stuff, it pushes material to both sides as well as gouging out a small line of material. If you do a lot of lines next to each other, they will warp the ones before. Likewise, if you press on lines you have drawn, they will partially fill in. You can take advantage of this by taking shavings and rub them into the lines you want to get rid of.
So while you whittle the bar into a proper shape, you may break things you don’t want to. Once you are done crying, pull yourself back together and get ready to melt soap. By now you have a decent pile of soap shavings, and some big chunks. Put these into a microwavable-safe cup or bowl, (styrofoam is a good choice) and pour water in until it meets the level of the soap. Then pop it into the microwave in 30 second intervals until it starts to bubble up. Then pull it out carefully, it’ll be hot. Use a spoon or a fork, or yes, your faithful butter knife to squish the soap into one lump and pour the soapy water out.
This is your salvation. Dip the broken edges of the broken bit in the molten soap, and put it back on where it should be. Try to put it in a position where it can set without tipping over.
You can see my leftover soap lump cooling in plastic wrap to the side. Bonus points for those who can identify what those two bottles used to hold. Are you done? Not yet. For one thing, your hands are probably covered in soap dust, as is your table even if you put something down to catch that stuff. You might have soap splatters in your microwave as well, but the good news is this is all water soluble. Once you get done washing everything, you may feel dangerously, arrogantly clean. You do not have the power to make things cleaner just by touching them. In fact, you might try rubbing some moisturizing cream on your hands; whatever natural oil on them is long gone.
I hope you use this skill for good, like infesting bathrooms and sinks with tanks and cars and Han Solo in carbonite. If you do manage to make the last one, please send me a picture, I would really like to see that.
Brandon is originally from Olmsted Falls, Ohio. He has studied both at Baldwin Wallace college and Brigham Young University, and is currently pursuing Chemical Engineering, among other things. He considers himself a jack of all trades, and a master of none. In his spare time, Brandon enjoys knitting, guitar, reading, origami, writing, and photography.