Q&A / 

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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