Subtractive Sculpting In The Studio

After interviewing Stone Carver Ted Strandt (you can watch it here), Andy (my son) and I thought we’d give subtractive sculpting a try. We decided to start with soap carving and then step it up to plaster carving. This is how it worked out.

Recommend for ages 6 and up
This is a very simple way to give subtractive carving a start.


  • A bar of soap. You’ll want to find a brand new bar of soap and the bigger the better so you can scale up your design
  • Simple carving tools like butter knives, and skewers
  • Sandpaper

Start by drawing your design on the soap.

Then cut off the big chunks around the edges using your bigger tools.


After the outline of the form is complete you’ll need to start using small tools to get the form of the shape developed. Remember to change your lighting from time to time so you can more clearly see how the shadows relate.

Once you feel the shape is formed use some fine grade sandpaper to soften any rough spots. 

Voila! Your first subtractive sculpture!


Recommended for ages 12 and up

This method is a little tougher to complete and uses more specialized tools.


  •  Plaster
  •  Plastic bowls
  •  Cling Wrap
  • Water
  •  Carving tools like butter knives, linoleum cutters (if you have them) and strong detail carvers         similar to what you’d use on clay.
  • Sandpaper

Start by following the instructions on the box to mix the plaster.

We mixed the plaster in a disposable plastic container that was lined with cling wrap.

Let it sit to dry following the recommended time on the box

Draw out your ideas on paper first then transfer onto the plaster.

Remove from container and start carving with the same approach used for the soap…. Remove big chunks until you reach the outline you drew, use smaller tools to remove details, and finally use sandpaper to soften any edges.

Our progress:

We had trouble with this one. We think it’s because we started working with the plaster when it was still damp. The moisture made it very messy and prone to deep cracking to the point entire limbs broke off our pieces while we were working on them. Carving is tiring on your arms and fingers so that caused us trouble too. We were just too excited to try another project after all the fun we had carving soap.

Our messy and failed attempt.

We’re going to need to try it again on a completely dry block to see if carving gets easier. Then we'll have to learn how to control the dust since it was easy to manage when there was moisture in the plaster.

We really enjoyed the soap carving and would definitely do it again. The best part of subtractive carving is you have to plan the project out and be very open to making changes as you go because once you removed a piece you couldn’t go back. Getting comfortable with the unexpected is always a good thing.