A Deeper Look at Soapstone
By Raphaiane Silva and Kevin Cole

Although it has been used for countless years in a variety of applications, soapstone is often overlooked as a countertop material when designing or remodeling a kitchen, bath or other potential areas of application. While no material can fill every material demand, soapstone possesses several natural advantages that make it a viable competitor of other countertop materials. Soapstone is chemically inert, resistant to heat and durable, yet also malleable. These qualities, combined with its beauty and ease-of-care, have made it a suitable option for multiple choices of use.

Just What Is Soapstone?

Soapstone, also known as steatite, is a metamorphic rock composed primarily of talc, with varying amounts of chlorite, micas, amphiboles, and other minerals like carbonates, magnesium, silicate, etc. Most soapstone deposits were formed from 300 to 400 million years ago, and they can be found throughout the world. The name soapstone is derived from its “soapy” feel that is soft to the touch caused by the talc in the stone which exudes a sensation similar to that of a dry bar of soap. The talc content in architectural soapstone generally ranges from 50 to 75 percent, making it soft and smooth. However, the other minerals in the composition lend the stone its strength and durability.

Soapstone is a metamorphic rock that was formed by millions of years of fluctuating heat and pressure combined with the infusion of mineral-rich water and other liquids. It has been quarried and used for thousands of years throughout the world. Major distribution centers in the ancient world were known to have existed in what are now India and Iran. Today, the most productive soapstone quarries are located in Brazil, the United States, Finland and India.

Several natural properties of soapstone make it suitable for use as a countertop surface. The hardness/durability of soapstone can be compared to high-end marbles; however it is relatively easy to fabricate. As a metamorphic rock, it is very resistant to heat. In fact, soapstone is often used for casting metals, such as lead, pewter and silver. It has also been used traditionally for cooking pots, pizza stones and other cookware, fireplaces and wood-burning stoves, and even tobacco pipes. Soapstone is also nonporous, which makes it stain-resistant and limits the ability of germs and bacteria to penetrate the surface, increasing its hygienic properties. It is also suitable for use as basins and sinks.

Because soapstone is primarily talc, which is chemically inert, it is highly resistant to etching and chemical reactions that may mar it’s beauty.

Soapstone is an attractive stone that is typically gray, bluish, green and sometimes brown in color. It can have considerable veining, which provides for a wide variety of grains or patterns. Some people confuse serpentinite for soapstone, but they have very different characteristics.

Soapstone naturally darkens with age and use, even though substances cannot penetrate beyond the surface. This natural darkening occurs at different rates across a slab, so for aesthetic purposes, mineral oil or wax is sometimes applied to make the darkening process spread evenly throughout the surface. Mineral oil application will turn the stone into a dark charcoal gray or even black. Some varieties that contain a hint of green will draw out and enhance the green hues.

Although soapstone is not as hard as some other countertop surfaces, it can easily last a lifetime with the proper care. The edges may soften, and scratches or nicks may develop with use, but soapstone is completely renewable.

Soapstone In Use

Soapstone has a wide range of practical applications in the modern home. It is primarily found in the kitchen, which coincides with its historical uses as cookware and stone cooking slabs. The ability of soapstone to resist heat has continued to make the material popular in both gourmet and working kitchens as a countertop surface. Fabricators like working with soapstone because of the ease in which it can be cut, while consumers enjoy soapstone for its aesthetic value and durability. Soapstone countertops not only resist heat damage, but their appearance and integrity is upheld through their resistance to both acidic and alkaline chemical etching. It naturally has a matte or honed finish so end users do not have to worry about fingerprints or drip marks showing. And, because soapstone is nonporous, it is weatherproof, which makes it popular as a countertop surface for outdoor kitchens, or even swimming pool borders.

Soapstone is not only used in kitchens as a countertop surface, but it is also used as a material for upscale kitchen sinks. This use extends to the bathroom, where soapstone can be used for vanities and as tub surrounds. Soapstone may also be set vertically or tiled onto shower walls. Some architects have also found that soapstone tiles work well for bathroom flooring because of their water resistance and high traction. Because it has a low heat conductivity, soapstone is not as cold in the winter as many other types of tile flooring.

Other popular uses of soapstone in the home include fireplace and wood-burning stove surrounds. During the last several years, its usage has increased substantially in areas with colder climates for use in fireplace manufacture/ fabrication. When used as a firebrick, it can absorb great amounts of heat and will softly radiate for several hours.

Soapstone is also commonly used for indoor or outdoor planters, birdbaths and garden fountains. Besides its use in homes, soapstone also has several commercial applications. Soapstone has been used for decades in laboratory countertops and tabletops because of its chemical etching resistance. Its high durability makes it useful wherever a hard surface is required.

Fabricating Soapstone

Soapstone is a less complex material to work with for fabricators. Because the rock is softer than other natural stone surfacing materials, fabrication is faster, takes less labor and does not require the same high-powered cutting tools used for harder materials such as granite or quartz. Fabricators will find that woodworking tools are sufficient to handle working this material.

Soapstone fabrication involves no unique safety issues, although general fabrication safety certainly applies when working with the material. As long as general safety protocols are followed, the leading danger in soapstone fabrication involves maintaining the integrity of the slab. Because soapstone is so easy to cut and polish, it is also easy to do so too quickly, so care must be taken.

Pricing and Availability of Soapstone

Soapstone slabs are harvested from the earth, and during the production process of the slabs no toxic chemicals are used. The stone can be recycled, and it has a low percentage of silica. The production process requires a lot of attention. Blocks have to be selected carefully to make sure that the pattern, size and structure are perfect for the block to be cut into slabs. As it is a softer material, the right tools have to be used to cut the blocks; otherwise, thickness issues will make the slabs unusable. After the slabs are cut, depending on the structure of the stone, a net may be adhered to the backside of slabs to make them stronger. Selecting the correct grain of grinding wheels is very important to get the perfect finishing on the slabs.

Soapstone is generally quarried in slabs or blocks measuring 30 by 72 in., so if a job calls for a length greater than 72 in., more than one slab is required. However, when installed properly, the seams between two slabs can be very inconspicuous. The only problem may be matching up the grain because the veining can vary even between slabs cut from the same block.

The standard thickness for soapstone countertops is 3cm (about 1 ¼ in.) Because soapstone is very dense, cutting it any thicker makes for a heavy slab that is difficult to work with and install.

The pricing of soapstone varies by quality, locale, how it is finished and how it is marketed. It is generally comparable to other natural stone surfacing. A standard 3cm slab may be retailed from $40 to more than $100 per sq. ft.

Caring for Soapstone

Soapstone care requires less effort than many other countertop surfaces, natural or synthetic. At a minimum, all that is required is standard cleaning with any common household cleaners. Soapstone does not have to be sealed or conditioned, and because it is chemically inert, acidic or alkaline cleaners can be used. However, for best results, it is recommended to use mild cleansers that are not too abrasive.

Some companies selling soapstone recommend the application of stone sealer to protect the countertop surface, but many believe that it is not necessary. However, it is a good idea to apply a light coat of mineral oil or specialty soapstone enhancing product shortly after installation. Soapstone darkens as it ages, and the wax/oil keeps the natural darkening evenly spread throughout the surface. It will give the soapstone a darker charcoal appearance, and it will also bring out the detail in the veining.

Oiling/waxing is generally recommended on a weekly basis for the first three months, but then it can be reduced to once per month. After one to two years, most people find that they no longer have to oil/wax soapstone at all. However, it does help to remove light scratches. Deeper scratches can be removed by professionals through sanding lightly with an 80-grit sanding sponge.

Soapstone is a beautiful natural stone that can enhance any kitchen or bathroom. It can be used equally well with ultra-modern or rustic décor. It has a warm finish, and the properties of the stone make it ideal for working kitchens and bathrooms. With its pleasing matte finish, stain resistance and natural sanitary qualities, those choosing this material for a project can be assured that the material will age with warmth and character.

About the Author

Raphaiane Da Silva has been working in the international stone industry for more than 10 years, and is the CCO at Maq Stone, a large producer of soapstone in Brazil. For more information contact Raphaiane by email at [email protected] com.br. Editor & Publisher Kevin Cole can be reached at [email protected]