There is a reason soapstone is so highly sought after, and not just for chemistry labs. As we exit the shiny granite, swirly marble trend, soapstone with its understated style and exceptional functionality is once again proving to be the countertop material that truly stands the test of time.
Soapstone is a naturally occurring metamorphic rock called Steatite. It is composed of several minerals, the most abundant being talc. Steatite, because of its additives, is harder than talc, making it suitable for durable surface applications like countertops. Soapstone with a higher talc content is far softer and is often used for carving.
New England has a long history in soapstone, the Francestown Quarry was the first in New Hampshire, and it’s riches were discovered by accident. 1808 landowner Daniel Fuller discovered that his rocky land was worth more than he could have imagined. One day while out mending a fence he dropped his newly sharpened axe, to his surprise the axe was not harmed and had sliced through the ledge below. Fuller went on to become a very wealthy man and the soapstone industry was born.
Over the last century, almost every US quarry has closed and most soapstone is imported from Brazil,the Albarene Quarry in Virginia is still working and producing soapstone slabs for the US market.
Functional beauty. If a countertop material has been put through its paces in a high school chemistry lab, you know it can take some rough treatment. For years, soapstone was the go-to choice for lab counters because of it’s dense, non-porous surface. It can withstand spills of bleach or acid, burst pens or spilled soda which makes it pretty great in a kitchen. The non-porous surface also makes soapstone naturally anti-bacterial and incredibly easy to clean. My favorite part? You can put your hot pans right from the oven onto the counter, no scorching and no trivets.
Mineral Oil, no gas masks required. Because soapstone is non-porous it doesn’t require any sealing, which means no chemical off-gassing in your kitchen. The stone can be left in its natural state, and will remain light grey, or it can be oiled to reveal the dark black and charcoal that soapstone is known for. Food grade mineral oil does the job – a quick wipe on/wipe off and the stone will immediately go black, leaving any veins white and creating a beautiful contrast. The oil doesn’t sink into the stone (non-porous… ) nor is it sealing or protecting the stone, it is only “speeding up” the natural darkening process. The oil will fade after time and will need to be reapplied, after about 6 months of regular oiling the dark color will be almost permanent. Wax is also an option, it tends to stay on a slightly longer than the oil, but it takes a little more effort to apply.
Soapstone has character. Over time, the patina of the stone develops gradual imperfections, it will never be the right choice for someone looking for a highly formal or shiny surface. Soapstone is naturally matte and has an understated quality that quietly exudes style. Soapstone is soft, it can be scratched with a fingernail (and a little effort), fortunately, the scratches disappear with the application of mineral oil and any deeper marks can be buffed out with some light sanding.
Shades of Grey. Any type of soapstone, in its natural state, is a shade of grey. Some darker, some lighter, some with more green tones and some with blue. Each species or type of soapstone has characteristics that are developed in their environment and are unique to that species. When looking for soapstone find a dealer who has a few different types in stock, so you can see the differences between them and choose the stone that fits your look.
Nuts and bolts. Soapstone pricing typically falls in the range of higher end marble and granite. If you’re handy and willing to do some work there is that option, soapstone is soft enough for the weekend warrior to work with and most soapstone distributors will offer DIY options from installing it yourself, to doing all the fabrication.
Soapstone is niche, it will never be mainstream (and that’s OK). But, with its undeniably subtle style, and true functionality soapstone can be a wonderful choice for a beautiful kitchen.