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I would like my oldest (about 3 1/2 years old right now) to carve something, because of the fun I had with my plaster carving.

However, most carving requires sharp knives and firm materials that are difficult to cut through.

I would like an alternative that is soft enough to work with using just plastic tools (which I may make myself or repurpose from other tools), but not soft like Playdough or modeling clay. That is, I want it to be able to keep its shape during and after carving.

The kid-safe aspect of this is being able to avoid sharp metal objects.

Is there anything out there that would work for me?

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    Sort of an un-answer, but the go-to solution used to be "floral foam" because it was easily carved with Popsicle sticks and plastic utensils. But don't do this. Unfortunately, these materials have been found to be quite toxic, so this is no longer recommended. Just a heads up in case somebody suggests it. See Floral Foam Safety. – Robert Cartaino Jun 10 '16 at 19:15
  • @Robert Yikes! I was thinking of some foam, maybe, but the kinds I know of fall apart too easily, or are too tough. – user24 Jun 10 '16 at 19:28
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If you are more interested in subtractive sculpting (removing material rather than adding it like clay), I spent my earliest sculpting days carving bars of Ivory soap. There may be softer brands, but you know Ivory soap is 99-44/100% pure <grin>.

How to Make a Soap Carving

A sharp knife is not necessary. Plastic knives, spoons, or Popsicle sticks could also work. But I suggest investing in a modest set of clay sculpting tools made of wood (less than US$5.00). They are tough enough to stand up to the soap without having a tendency to snap like plastic knives or Popsicle sticks.

Product Search: Wood Sculpting Tools

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    Oh, this'd be great, and cheap! I already have a ton of wooden and plastic sculpting tools that'd work on soap just fine. – user24 Jun 10 '16 at 19:59
  • Plus, you can save the carvings removed, wet them, squish them together again, let dry, then wash with the resultant lumpy mass of soap. Waste is minimized. (Alternatively, put them in an old sock and tie the end.) – pleurocoelus Jun 15 '16 at 15:08
  • For the record, we ended up using some Irish Spring. – user24 Jun 21 '16 at 11:33
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While the answer of Robert Cartaino is probably the best, I think that another alternative could be candle carving.

white candles, via Ikea

Besides the loop tools proposed by @Matt, that are apparently also used to carve candles, I would consider using different types metallic spoons:

enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here

Note that you can use both sides of the spoon, and although they are metallic, they are definitely not sharp.

Personally, I like the pedagogic side of using "homebrewed tools" instead of "professional tools" because:

  1. This will push the creativity of the kid. My experience is: the less you have, the more creative you have to be to get the desired result.
  2. It will improve their dexterity. If they can do something nice with a spoon, imagine what they will be able to do with an additional simple knife. Moreover, I'm sure they will have a huge pleasure in discovering the new possibilities offered by new tools later on.
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  • I will be trying this when I get a chance. I looked at wax blocks today but they were too pricey. I'll try cheap candles after my next project. – user24 Jun 24 '16 at 16:59
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Plasticine or molding clay would be a great material for something like this. They are not expensive and either would compliment nicely with the wood tools that Robert Cartaino suggests as well. If cared for properly you should be able to put it all away and use it again given that it is a forgiving medium (Assuming you don't want to keep the treasures!).

Playdoh could work as well but the above materials hold there shapes better and would be easier to carve with proper carving tools. In a pinch this would work.

Loops tools

You can also get into other sculpting tools like clean-out or loop tools.

Loop tools

Image from rednebulastudios.com

I wanted to mention those specifically because, even though purchasing them might be costly, there design is rather simple. You can find tutorials on how to make your own. Here is a link to another that makes some simple hand sculpting tools. Kids could find it rather satisfying to carve out chunks to then use in other locations (destruction can be fun!).

Other tools to consider

I found the following video contains a nice introduction of some basic sculpting tools including the loop tool previously mentioned. You could likely find household substitutes for some of these. At least the ones you want your children using.

Video thumbnail
Pottery Tool Kit Demo on YouTube

These tools are more geared towards sculpting but some of the same techniques will apply to carving.

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  • I feel like this would still be too soft. Gripping it to do work would cause deformation, right? – user24 Jun 11 '16 at 1:07
  • Kids might need softer hands. That is why I said playdoh would not work. Plasticine is a tougher substance. It's and idea at least. not as hard as the soap though. – Matt Jun 11 '16 at 1:16
  • Is stuff like this Crayola modeling clay the same as plasticine? – user24 Jun 11 '16 at 1:17
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My son, at that age, was crazy for floral foam. It's not especially cheap, but it carves very nicely and can be done with very safe tools like plastic cutlery for picnics. I forget how it was that we had enough for him to indulge his whims with it for a while, but if you can find a cheap supply, it could do the trick.

See the warning below: apparently, floral foam is toxic

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