Soapstone Bowl with Stone Tools


Over the years I have worked to start incorporating more stone tool use into my skills projects. This can be challenging and a little nerve wracking because some of the tools take days of hard work to make, and putting them to the test can certainly result in critical failures. It was with this in mind that I decided to put my stone tools to the test cutting and shaping a medium soap stone bowl.

Soapstone, also know as Steatite, is an ultramafic stone formed under tremendous amounts of heat and pressure. It naturally occurs around the world and is available in pockets along the Appalachian Mountain chain. This composition is great at taking thermal shock, and the formation of most soapstone is such that the stone has integrity and yet is soft enough to carve. For these reasons it is ideal for creating cooking vessels and oil lamps which it has been used for by people around the world and throughout history. Being able to carve a water tight vessel that you can put right onto a fire to cook with is an important material item in a survival or primitive context. In the modern world it is easy to take metal pots and pans for granted, but in the stone age pottery and stone vessels were key technologies. It was soap stone bowls that allow Arctic peoples to melt water from snow and soap stone quilliq (large oil lamps) that were the hearth in the igloo, a shelter made of snow.

I love working with it an have used stone tools to create small vessels but only used metal chisels and rasps to create my bigger projects. So I put together the tools I would need to carve a medium sized bowl: three greenstone chisels, an antler chisel, some flint saws and scrapers, an elk antler chopper, and my greenstone scoop adze. I also got together a grinding set up, a big slab of bluestone with some good old fashioned sand. Then I set to work. You can see the process in this time-lapse video I created.

I set up on a sunny morning of the last day of our Ancient Living Skills course. After teaching our students what they would need to know to work their stones into cooking vessels and oil lamps I set to it. That day I finished most of the shaping and the next day I spend a couple of hours refining and smoothing it with sand. Finally I finished it by scraping it with the antler chisel and rubbing a solid coat of deer tallow into it.

The tools worked great! I had to regrind the edge on the antler about 5 times and found that a very steep angle (about 75 degrees) worked best. A note about soapstone is that it can have pockets of very hard quartzite that can ruin your tools, and if there is enough of it, cause you bowl to crack when heated. Also, some soap stones are softer than others. I found a large chunk that was on the softer side and had a relatively small amount of quartzite for this project. I only had to resharpen two of the chisels, once each. And the adze did not chip and needs just a quick re-grind to sharpen. All in all not too shabby!