One countertop material often overlooked when designing or remodeling a kitchen or bathroom is soapstone. While soapstone is not for everyone or for every design, this natural stone possesses several advantages that make it a viable competitor of more traditional countertop materials, such as granite, laminates and solid surface. Soapstone is chemically inert, resistant to heat and durable. These qualities, combined with its beauty and ease-of-care, have made it the countertop material of choice for many gourmet chefs and some of the top kitchen designers in the world.
What Is Soapstone?
Soapstone, also known as steatite, is a quarried stone composed primarily of talc, silicate, chlorite and magnesium. 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 the fact that the talc in the stone makes it soft to the touch, similar to that of a dry bar of soap. The talc content in architectural soapstone 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 the United States, Brazil, Finland and India.
Several natural properties of soapstone make it suitable for use as a countertop surface. Besides being relatively easy to quarry and fabricate, it is resistant to heat and chemical reactions. In fact, soapstone is often used for casting metals, such as lead, pewter and silver. It has also been used traditionally for cooking pots and tobacco pipes. Soapstone is nonporous, which makes it stain-resistant and limits the ability of microbes to penetrate the surface.
Soapstone is a very attractive stone, but it is limited in color. It is light gray in color, but it can have either a green or blue tint. It has considerable veining, which provides for a wide variety of grains or patterns. 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 applied to make the darkening process spread evenly throughout the surface.
Although soapstone is not as strong 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 most of these can be removed with only a light sanding.
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 finger prints or drip marks showing. And, because soapstone is nonporous, it is weatherproof, which makes it popular as a countertop surface for outdoor kitchens as well.
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. When used as a firebrick, it can absorb great amounts of heat, which it will softly radiate for several hours.
One final use of soapstone in homes is as any sort of decorative basin. Soapstone is 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.
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. Many fabricators moving too fast have taken off much more material than originally intended.
Pricing and Availability of Soapstone
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 3 cm (about 1-1/4 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 3 cm slab may be retailed from $40 to more than $100 per sq. ft.
Caring for soapstone 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.
The editor would like to thank The Artisan Group for its assistance in writing this article. For more information go to www.artisan-counters.com or call 512-263-7625.