Look to science labs for the evidence: soapstone is the material of choice for countertops designed to take a beating. Soapstone is a durable and hardworking natural stone that is virtually maintenance free. Too good to be true? We've done our research and test drives (I used soapstone in my Seattle kitchen remodel) and created a soapstone primer to help you decide if this is the countertop material for you.
Above: A soapstone counter defines the kitchen at Harbor Cottage in Maine designed by architect Sheila Narusawa (for more of this project, see our feature A Cottage Reborn in Rural Maine). Image by Justine Hand.
What is soapstone?
Soapstone is a natural quarried stone. It's a metamorphic rock that is called soapstone because of the soft, or soapy, feel of its surface, which is thanks to the presence of talc in the stone. Most American soapstone is sourced from the Appalachian mountain range, or imported from Brazil and Finland. There are two varieties: artistic and architectural that are differentiated by talc contact. Artistic-grade soapstone has a high talc content and is soft and easy to carve. Architectural-grade soapstone has a lower talc content (usually between 50% and 75%), which makes it harder—and more suitable for countertop use. It's not as hard as granite or marble, however, and can be easily cut, shaped, and installed. Unlike granite and marble, however, it's typically quarried in smaller slabs, meaning that for counters longer than 7 feet, several pieces (and visible seams) are necessary.
Above: A detail of lightly veined soapstone from Brazil. Image by Janet Hall.
Above: Architectural-grade soapstone can be easily fabricated to include options like an integrated drainboard. Image by Janet Hall.
Soapstone has three properties that set it apart from other natural stones, and make it a great countertop material:
1. It doesn't stain. Soapstone is dense and nonporous; it does darken when liquid pools on its surface, but it lightens back up when the liquid evaporates or is cleaned off.
2. It can stand up to acidic materials. The fact that soapstone is chemically inert means it's not harmed by lemon juice or cleaners that must be avoided with other natural stone surfaces. That's why it's so popular for use as science lab tops.
3. It's heat resistant. The density of soapstone makes it an amazing conductor of heat, which enables it to withstand very high heat with no damage. You can put hot pans right on the surface without worry about scorching or staining.
Above: In a San Francisco kitchen renovation, architect Mark Reilly used soapstone countertops to give a warm feel to the modern space.
Do soapstone counters need to be sealed?
Because soapstone is nonporous, it doesn't need to be sealed or protected. Not only does this cut down on maintenance (see below), the absence of chemicals in the fabrication and ongoing care leads many to consider soapstone an environmentally responsible choice.
Above: In addition to not requiring any sealer, soapstone stays looking good. Scratches and nicks are part of its character, but bothersome marks can be removed with sandpaper. Image via Mark Reilly Architecture.
Is soapstone available in a variety of colors?
Soapstone is available in a range of shades on a sliding gray scale, some with blue or green undertones. Each slab is unique and varies from quarry to quarry. The widest variation in soapstone is in the quartz fleck and veining patterns. Some slabs have large but few veins; others have dense veining.
Above: Soapstone naturally darkens with use over time. Architectural grade soapstone can be altered to achieve a dark-charcoal black by applying mineral oil. You can see the result on this slab of soapstone that has been coated with mineral oil on the left, and is in it's natural state on the right. This process can also serve to highlight veining. Image by Janet Hall.
Above: MADE LLC a New York-based design-build practice, often chooses soapstone for countertops. "We like to use materials that develop character as they're lived with, becoming increasingly beautiful as they wear in over the years," says founding partner Ben Bischoff. "Soapstone is one we come back to again and again. It's beautiful at the start and becomes even more so as it breaks in with your work patterns." Image via MADE LLC.
Above: Food Grade Mineral Oil; $7 from Brooklyn Slate Co.
To darken soapstone, MADE LLC specifies: "You can speed up the natural darkening process by flooding the material's surface with mineral oil, allowing it to soak in, and then wiping it off. We repeat this process a few times before the client moves in and then provide a bottle of mineral oil that they can use to re-coat as necessary until the surface is completely saturated."
Where can you use soapstone?
Because of its resilience and adaptability, soapstone can be used for much more than countertops; it works well as sinks, fireplace surrounds (thanks to its heat resistance), flooring, and throughout the bathroom. It's also a great choice for outdoor counters and sinks as it's impervious to weather and bacteria.
How do you clean and maintain soapstone counters?
Low maintenance is the name of the game with soapstone. Soapstone's nonporous quality makes it bacteria resistant, so harsh cleaners are not needed. Simple soap and water cleaning is all that's recommended.
If there is one maintenance issue with soapstone, it may be its softness and susceptibility to scratches and nicks. You can protect the surface by using cutting boards. And the good news is that user-caused imperfections generally can be removed, as mentioned above, with a quick sandpaper buffing. No professional repairs required.
Above: An architectural-grade, mineral-oiled darkened soapstone counter and apron sink. Image via M. Teixeira Soapstone
How much does soapstone cost?
Soapstone Counter Recap
Intrigued by the idea of a soapstone sink? See our Soapstone Sink Roundup.
Researching new countertops? Read 5 Questions to Ask When Choosing Your Kitchen Countertops. And for more specifics on the subject, see our Remodeling 101 posts: