How to Carve Pipestone

The first time I carved a turtle from pipestone, it took me three hours. From the general shape to the beeswax sealant, I carved the turtle using a small pocket knife I’d found in a drawer of odds-and-ends.

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I didn’t have any specialized tools – I would learn about those later – or even a tutorial. I didn’t really need one because the red mineral, catlinite, is the perfect medium of hardy but workable stone.

Does that mean I click-baited you with my post title? Eh, sort of. A more accurate heading would be: Why to Carve Pipestone. Exhibit A:

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One of my hosts made the tomahawk. Yes, it is a functional pipe.

Because many of the pipes made with the stone are used for sacred purposes, people often think the stone itself is considered sacred. Add to that the careful distribution of quarrying rights, and it’s understandable how someone might worry that misuse of this rock could be a faux pas at best and a grave insult at worst.

My understanding of pipestone, as it was explained by another volunteer with the Keepers of the Sacred Tradition of Pipemakers, is that it is not unlike holy water. Just as water is only water until it is blessed, so the pipestone is just rock until it is “blessed,” so to speak, by virtue of its use in a religious ritual.

Instead of someone making the sign of the cross over the pipe, it’s packed with tobacco. The biggest difference between the two elements is that we use water in the toilet. You probably shouldn’t relieve yourself on pipestone. There’s no, like, official rule that says you can’t, it just seems like it’s unnecessary and there’s a high risk of splatter.

With this in mind, I decided to design and carve my own pipe.

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This is after I “ruffed” out the shape. Ha ha ha ha.

It’s going to be compact, as you can see. In the Keepers’ store – where proceeds go toward operating the non-profit – this would be classified as a mini-pipe, less than four inches in length.

The design is ambitious. While pipestone doesn’t flake as much as many other workable minerals, it’s also prone to breakage if dropped or worked improperly. Even third- and fourth-generation pipe makers might break a pipe when they go to drill it or etch micro details.

So I am probably going to break my pipe before I’ve completed carving. That’s okay, though, because I can always make it into an effigy like Mr. Turtle, and I know exactly where to get more stone.

Carving pipestone isn’t all about the end result. Working your stone is like a form of meditation. It feels good against your skin, the powder collecting at your feet and between the fibers of your clothes as you scrape away layers. It feels right to occupy a park bench on a warm summer day and turn this rock in your hand.

My go-to carving tool is nothing more than a $2 pocket knife. That’s plenty for a small piece. For anything larger than a cubic inch, you might want to pull out something more substantial:

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This looks like an intermediate-to-advanced carver’s tool kit.

Career carvers invest in tungsten carbide tools and the like, but you likely have something in your home right now that will work. You won’t even want the big horseshoe rasp unless you have a stone much larger than your fist. My favorite is the half-round file or cabinet rasp. It has one flat side and one convex side.

Travis Erickson is a renowned professional pipemaker. So was his father, and so was his father before that. This is Travis’ daily workspace:

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Travis is an artist. His pipestone work can be very detailed and delicate, so he has a lot of extra goodies to add ultrafine features to his pieces. The rest of us can gather a carving set out of mostly household items.

The red dust that’s a byproduct of the carving can be useful, too. Collect it in a bowl and then mix it with some water for washable paint that kids go nuts for. I’ve got some piling up that I plan to mix with gel medium and use in painting.

Pipestone seems to have been put on this planet specifically for artists and makers. It’s no wonder the first people believed it to be a manifestation of great supernatural power. That’s how it feels as you shape it in the palm of your hand.

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