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Soapstone Countertops

DEAR TIM: Soapstone countertops were suggested to me by a kitchen designer for my new kitchen. Do you have any experience with soapstone counters or even a soapstone sink? I’ve never heard of this material and wonder about it. Can you tell me more about the product and it’s characteristics? Would you use it in your home? If no, why not? Tara M., Montrose, CA

DEAR TARA: Soapstone is a natural stone product. It’s quarried just like marble or granite. It’s a metamorphic rock that contains a relatively high amount of talc, which is why it’s called soapstone. If you’ve ever had a chunk of talc in your handy, your first impression is that it feels soapy. Surely you’ve had talcum powder on you and know that feeling.

Knowing this, you should extrapolate that soapstone is somewhat soft. My college major was geology. I clearly remember a lab class when we were testing the hardness of minerals. Talc was one of the softest minerals we had in the lab. It scratched very easily.

These soapstone countertops are blotchy and soft. They scratch easily. PHOTO CREDIT:  Tim Carter

These soapstone countertops are blotchy and soft. They scratch easily. PHOTO CREDIT: Tim Carter

As you might expect, Mother Nature can produce the soapstone in various grades or levels of hardness. The least hard variety is highly prized by sculpting or carving. The harder soapstone can be used for all sorts of things around the home, businesses or even labs. Harder soapstone has a higher amount of quartz in it.

If you took high school or college chemistry and worked in the labs, your lab table was very likely made from soapstone. It’s crystalline texture and makeup make it nearly impervious to chemicals or most liquids. That’s a great quality for a countertop.

Soapstone seems to have a regional mystique in New England. It’s quarried in Vermont as the Green Mountains there are loaded with tons of metamorphic rocks including, marble, schists and granite. Many people seem to love a soapstone counter and love the characteristic patina it develops with use.

You can absolutely get soapstone sinks. But my advice is for you to be sure to go see ones that have been in use for a good three to five years. See how they fare in real everyday use. My guess is that you’ll be surprised by what you see, especially if pots and pans have been bouncing around in the sink while they were being cleaned.

My current home here in New Hampshire has soapstone counters in the kitchen, and I’m not a huge fan of them. The counters scratch easily, and to make them look good all the time you have to regularly coat them with greasy mineral oil. Even the fabricators of the stone talk about regular oiling of the stone to make them look good.

I don’t know about you, but I try to avoid products that require regular maintenance like that. I’ve never had to oil my granite tops to make them look good. They shine each day with no care. Every five to ten years, I do have to apply a coat of clear sealer to the granite, but it’s not greasy and it doesn’t get on my clothes.

The best advice I can give you before making a decision as large and final as this is to do a test. The test may cost you less than $100.00. Go to a soapstone fabricator and purchase a trivet. But get a big one, say 16-inches square. Place it in a high-use area of your existing countertop. Do things to it that you’ll be doing to your new countertops.

Test it to death. Slide cans over it. Drop silverware on it. Use it as a cutting board if you’ve cut things in the past on your counters. Spill things on it like red wine, grease, etc. and let them sit for hours. See if the liquids soak in and stain the stone. Treat it just like you do your existing counters.

See if the local soapstone fabricator can tell you three places where soapstone counters have been in use for ten years or more. Try to visit those places to see how they look. Remember, many people love the look of soapstone that works hard each day. I’m just not one of them.

Soapstone changes color as it ages. That’s part of the patina. Because it’s a natural metamorphic stone, it almost always comes with random veining. The veins of color add a distinctive look. When first quarried, the stone is gray, but it gets darker with age as it begins to oxidize. My soapstone countertops, when wet or oiled, look a dark green.

Be very careful when buying soapstone. Only work with a supplier or fabricator you know uses that stone. Low quality marbles that look like soapstone may be substituted on your job. Touch is a great way to do the test. Remember, soapstone feels soapy, and marble doesn’t. Be sure you are getting what you want.

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4 Responses to Soapstone Countertops

  1. You do not need to oil soapstone. That is one of myths that keeps getting propagated by "experts." We use a product called "Oil Wax Finish" made by Mahoney's and available from a number of sources. You coat the soapstone, wait overnight, and polish it off. I used a random orbital buffer to buff the Oil Wax - although that's not necessary you can do it by hand. We do that once a year only because it cleans the soapstone as you oil wax it.

    That fact that YOU choose to use mineral oil, create a mess, and then complain about it is not a material defect it is a user defect for not investigating alternative surface treatments.

    • Steve, I think my column is pretty negative about soapstone. I talk about how you shouldn't have to buy an expensive countertop that you then need to maintain on a regular basis. Your method is prescribing just that albeit you say to use a different product. I didn't look to investigate different products because I ripped out the inferior product and replaced it with a natural stone product that requires a fast wipe-down sealer every five years. Your passive aggressive sarcastic attitude does little to advance the discussion. There was no need for that at all.

    • I'm actually happy that Steve commented here. You are both correct. Builders will tell you to use mineral oil but that's a greasy mess and needs to be done frequently (once a month or so) to aid in the patina process. But soapstone makes a BEAUTIFUL countertop and, by using a wax product like Dorado or Mahoney's, polishing can be done once a year or never. Waxing or polishing or sealing or whatevering is absolutely NOT a requirement for soapstone whereas a 5 or 10 year seal IS required for granite. Granite and other natural countertop materials are somewhat porous and WILL stain without proper sealing, but soapstone is totally non-porous and actually requires NO maintenance.

      You should NEVER seal soapstone either and my husband and I had to eventually remove all cans of sealer and hide them from our countertop contracter because, even though we told him not to seal it, he kept trying to seal it behind our backs! He was defintely misinformed on soapstone.

      The only reason to wax it is, as Steve says, to aid the patina process. Some folks prefer to NEVER wax their soapstone which is prefectly fine if you like the natural gray-stone look. And, contrary to what builders may tell you, you should NEVER place hot items on granite although a lot of people do it because they have been told that granite can handle the heat. That's actually a myth. Soapstone, on the other hand, being metamorphic by nature can handle very high temps so no trivets needed.

      Oh, and it's quite easy to hand sand out any nicks you may acquire over the lifetime of your soapstone. I've done it myself a couple of times but our soapstone really doesn't get scratches and nicks very often. But, nick a granite countertop and that nick stays with you forever.

      I realize that you didn't like your soapstone and that's fine. Maybe it was due to misinformation. Soapstone makes a wonderful countertop and is easy to maintain and rarely scratches. I would not discourage anyone who hates the shiny polished look of granite to install soapstone!

  2. I forgot to say go to Houzz, a terrific decorating, building and remodeling website and do a search on soapstone under photos and you will see lots of photos of soapstone in use inside and outside. It makes beautiful patios and won't stain from salts or chemicals - again you don't have to seal and there are sealers (not oil) if want to. Also beautiful fireplace surrounds. It is used on many masonary heaters because it holds heat and softly transfer it for hours after the fire has died down. Check out Aberdeen Soapstone or Green Mountain in VT - the other is in Virginia.

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