Soap Carving is Good, Clean Fun

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If you are looking for some good, clean fun, soap carving may become your next obsession. Carving instructor and author Janet Bolyard uses inexpensive soap and some handmade tools to teach basic carving skills in a less intimidating way than traditional methods. With a new book out in September – “Complete Guide to Soap Carving” – Janet has made it her mission to encourage soap carving and inspire creativity in young and old alike.

Why? Soap provides an excellent medium for people wanting to dip their toes into the art of carving. “It’s a great point of entry,” she said. “Starting with inexpensive soap and creating your own tools out of upcycled materials is an economical way of find out if you like carving enough to graduate to knives, gouges and wood.” The wooden tools she teaches her students to make – from popsicle sticks – are safer and more economical than metal carving tools.

Getting Started

Using only common bar soap available at any store, you can easily create sculptures of all kinds with Janet’s methods. Her soap brand of choice is Ivory, but any brand that passes her “freshness squeeze” for maximum pliability will work. She does, however, recommend sticking with fragrance-free to avoid possible allergic reactions to the scents.

In her book, Janet instructs how to make wooden knives, gouges and chisels out of hardwood sticks like wooden dowels, tongue depressors and popsicle sticks. (The best fun is eating all those popsicles, she laughed.) All of the materials listed in her how-to’s can easily be found in your home – toothpicks, straight pins, index cards and craft brushes, for instance. No special equipment is needed to begin.

The 26 project tutorials take you through several carving styles – relief carving, in the round, caricature, stylized and chip carving. You will find handy templates and “go bys” in the back of the book to help guide you through carving each project. Her instruction is straightforward and easy to understand, with plenty of photographs to illustrate each step in the process. And did I mention the carvings are cute? Yes, super duper cute – Cat with Attitude, Chillin’ Penguin, Mother Seal with Pup, Sudsy the Snowman, Soap-on-a-Rope Pirate, Woodsy Bear and farm “Kritters,” just to name a few. 

Once you have the basics down, Janet provides information on selecting “real” metal tools to step up your game, along with some more challenging projects like Thai Soap Flower, Chip Carved Medallions and a Hummingbird Keepsake Box (yes, out of soap!).

Carving with bar soap is a great point of entry for would-be woodcarvers

Janet's book goes through 26 project tutorials including this Chillin' Penguin

Thai Soap Flower how-to teaches relief style carving like undercutting, layering and detailing

Janet’s Journey

Janet’s carving journey started when she was in 5th grade in a small town in Kansas. “We had a class project to carve something out of soap using popsicle sticks as our tools,” she recalled. “I was truly inspired with carving at the time, especially after my carved poodle (our family pet) won first place. My lifelong passion for carving began that day.”

Later as an adult, she learned relief style woodcarving in a small group, and soon after started “a little carving business” making signs and trinkets. But she said she really got hooked on woodcarving when she studied under caricature carver Dave Stetson. “He introduced me to carving in the round and caricature carving. I was under Dave’s guidance for about two years,” she said.

Janet's first carving - 5th grade class winner for her pet poodle sculpture

Janet teaches a new Santa carving class each year for her collectors. 

Woodcarving and pyrography are a great combo for creating realism. 

But over the years she became a busy mother with a career in medicine, so her carving knife took a rest for a bit. After several moves due to her husband Jon’s career, they made a pit stop in northern California where Janet joined a very active club, Tri-Valley Wood Carvers Club. She began entering woodcarving competitions and “earned a fair amount of ribbons.” At a show in Sacramento, she met caricature carver Joe You who challenged her to take her carving to the next level. “I have been very blessed to be mentored and encouraged by many renowned woodcarvers all over the country,” she said.

The Tri-Valley club also had a popular kids’ soap carving program. “We couldn’t make soap carving kits fast enough,” she recalled. “At every event the club’s soap carving tables were crowded with both kids and adults.”

Carving began on Jimmy the Carpenter - the Phoenix Woodcraft store's life-sized project - at the 2018 Desert Woodcarving Show in Mesa. He is 5' 3" tall and is 150 lbs of basswood. “Jimmy” is based on a 6" carving (below) that Janet did five years ago. 

Her family is now settled in Phoenix, where she is active in the Arizona Woodcarvers Association and the Grand Canyon State Woodcarving Club. She brought the soap carving idea with her and now has her “dream job” teaching carving classes and managing the store at the Phoenix Woodcraft, where she has worked for 10 years. Always eager to share AND to learn, she said, “Being an instructor makes me a better carver.”

The History of Soap Carving

The art of soap carving began with a 1923 Procter & Gamble marketing campaign to create soap that children wouldn’t hate. The public relations manager, Edward Bernays, said, “Children hate soap because their mothers wash their faces with soap. The soap gets in their eyes and they detest it.” A National Soap Sculpture Competition was born and in just a year, more than 20 million kids were carving bars of Ivory soap. Later on the contest was expanded to allow adults to compete as well.

But a well-known sculptor by the name of Brenda Putnam is credited with first carving soap as an alternative to wax and clay. In fact, she wrote to Procter & Gamble about making sculptures from huge hunks of soap right around the time that they were brainstorming the Ivory campaign. Ms. Putnam’s works can be seen at Syracuse University’s Carnegie Library, Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum and Brookgreen Gardens.

Skills to Build On

Janet’s enthusiasm for soap carving (and in general) is infectious, and she loves seeing others gain appreciation for carving. “It always gives me great pleasure to see a student create something entirely on his or her own and then continue growing in confidence and skill to do more challenging projects,” she said.

Dwayne Ernest, owner of the Phoenix Woodcraft store, considers Janet and her skill set an invaluable part of the store’s success. “Janet brings a unique and exciting perspective that is approachable and genuine,” he said. “Her work with soap carving opens up a new world to kids and adults who may be too intimidated to pick up a traditional carving tool. She makes it accessible and fun.”

Learn to carve Janet’s “Frank the Sweet Greeter” in Woodcarving Illustrated, fall issue.

Not only is it enjoyable, but all the skills and techniques you learn in soap carving can be used in other mediums – wood, stone, or even fruits and vegetables. Speaking of vegetables, Janet started a family tradition carving faces onto carrots for their family barbecues. “When the carrots are grilled, they shrivel up and look like old wood spirits,” she said. “We get a kick out of watching them change. They taste good too!”

Are you ready to sharpen your popsicle stick and give it a go? “Complete Guide to Soap Carving” is now available online and at Woodcraft stores nationwide! If you are in the Phoenix area, stop by and visit with Janet at the Woodcraft store at Pollack Plaza, 2003 North Arizona Avenue in Chandler.

Frank visited with Janet and Dwayne at the 2018 Artistry in Wood Show in Dayton, Ohio. Check out his interview here to learn more about Janets story, her new book and the great things she is doing at the Phoenix Woodcraft store.  

A creative grade school teacher helped spark her lifelong love of carving so Janet hopes her teachings will inspire a new batch of carvers who take up the craft. “I love seeing kids’ imaginations come alive when they create their first projects out of soap, just like mine did back in school.”

We hope you’ll be inspired!

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