Debbie Knight

Outside the lab, Santa’s elves were busy!

In Outside the lab on December 31, 2012 at 9:30 am

I realize this isn’t a post about life in the lab. But, as you might suspect, there is life outside the lab.

Here is what this “elf” has been up to: sculpting soapstone into a set of bookends for a Christmas present.

As far as stone goes, soapstone (also known as “steatite”) is fairly soft. Think of it as the “pine” of the wood family. Marble, a favorite of sculptors, would be more like mahogany or oak by comparison.

I like it because I can use wood carving tools like rasps and chisels without destroying the tools.
(Side note: I once carved a small piece of alabaster, a much harder stone. It was beautiful when all polished with its translucence and veins. But the darned thing destroyed all the tools I used to carve it.)

The soapstone I use is mostly composed of talc which gives it a “soapy” feel, hence the name.

There are slightly harder forms of soapstone which are used for lab benchtops and kitchen countertops. I’m not sure what the difference in composition is, but I tried to carve a chunk of an old lab bench — it was hard!

It’s been a few years since I’ve carved anything. So taking on a project that I needed to complete in a week was a challenge.

I’ve never made bookends before.

The challenge here was to make them match. So I used a single piece of stone that I cut in two pieces.


I cut it first to prevent chipping of the finished design. Soapstone has quite a few fissures (veins) which can cause unexpected chips and crumbles.


After cutting, I realized I had three flat surfaces that I could easily confuse, so I marked two of the surfaces with a Sharpie marker.

To ease myself back into the carving saddle, I started carving one of the smaller sides. Mostly smoothing and gently shaping the side.


The sculpture at the end of Day 1.

I should note when I carve, it’s more of a “doodle” in stone than something I plan out. Whatever happens, well, “happens.”

So at the end of Day 1, I wasn’t really happy with the way things were going.

The small hole I carved resembled an “eye” and the the sculpted portion looked like a duck bill to me. Decided this might be a good stopping point. The “duck” shape certainly wasn’t working for me and I hoped I hadn’t messed things up too badly.

The next day, I decided to work on another part of the stone. I wasn’t ready to deal with the “duck side” just yet.


The sculpture at the end of Day 2.

I was much happier with the way things were shaping up (pardon the pun).

There were a couple of days I took off — had other things to do in the evenings when I could sculpt. Even though I wasn’t sculpting, I was looking at the sculpture and thinking about what to do next.

My husband’s band was practicing the following night, so I decided to haul the stone and my tools there. I could sculpt while listening to some tunes. Perhaps the music would influence the sculpting mojo.

I turned the “eye” that had bothered me so much into a swirl. I was much happier with that — though not completely happy.

The sculpture at the end of Day 3 of sculpting.

The sculpture at the end of Day 3 of sculpting.

By the end of band practice (and day 3), I was pretty much done with the sculpting phase.

I wanted to leave one side completely untouched so that the recipients of the final product had the choice of presenting the flat side or the sculpted side on the bookshelf. I didn’t want to presume my design would appeal to them.

The next phase was to polish the stone with a series of sand paper — from coarse to fine. I use wet-dry sand paper for this and polish the stone while wet. I find this gets the stone the smoothest. I had forgotten how much work (er, I mean “fun”) this step was.

The sculpture after sanding.

The sculpture after sanding.

The final step was applying boiled linseed oil to the stone, followed by buffing and polishing the stone. My favorite part because the stone’s colors really “pop” and the detail really stands out.

The sculpture after applying linseed oil.

The sculpture after applying linseed oil.

The final sculpture, though abstract, kind of gives an “organic” feel.


I find it interesting that even though I went to great lengths to make the two carved halves fit together when standing side by side, when separated by books, the eye wants to connect the “lines” across books in a different way than I intended. I’ll have to keep that in mind for future bookend sculptures.

The final product!

The sculpted side.

And the flip side.

And the flip side.


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