Granite and quartz countertops have been regarded as the classic high-end kitchen countertop material for some time now. But why follow the crowd?
Before you make that expensive decision for your remodeled kitchen, take a moment to consider soapstone—a unique, beautiful, and widely misunderstood natural stone.
What Is Soapstone?
Soapstone is the common name for the naturally occurring stone known as steatite, a magnesium-rich metamorphic rock containing a high percentage of talcum or talc—the same substance that's pulverized to make baby powder.
As it turns out, many of the supposed limitations of soapstone counters turn out to be myths. For the right homeowner, soapstone countertops just might be the ideal choice.
Types of Soapstone Countertops
Buyers of soapstone countertops need to know a bit of soapstone's geology before installing them. While some materials were designed and engineered for the express purpose of making kitchen and bathroom countertops, soapstone certainly wasn't. It's a natural stone that, like marble and granite, happens to have found a spot in residential remodeling and construction.
Softer varieties of soapstone, often called artistic soapstone, actually have a silky, soapy feel to them, and may contain as much as 80 percent talc. Because soapstone is used for carving, many people wrongly imagine that the stone is far too soft for a countertop.
The type of soapstone used in fireplaces and countertops is architectural soapstone. Since this architectural or construction-grade soapstone is closer to only 50 percent talc, it is quite hard and perfectly suitable for being cut into slabs.
Many people are surprised to learn that soapstone, while somewhat softer than granite, is less porous and susceptible to staining, and its hardness can be compared to high-end marbles.
Soapstone slabs are usually in creamy shades ranging from nearly white to dark gray, with subtle or considerable veining. It can appear less dramatic than most types of granite, but many people prefer its subtle beauty to the loud exuberance of granite.
Soapstone Pros and Cons
- Soapstone is nearly impervious to staining. This is in sharp contrast to granite and marble, which can be stained quite easily.
- Scratches and dents can be sanded out of the stone, much the way Corian and other solid-surface materials can be repaired. After sanding out scratches, the countertop should be reoiled with mineral oil.
- The appearance of soapstone is classically antique, especially as the countertop wears.
- No sealing is required, unlike granite and marble, which need to be sealed and resealed at least annually.
- Soapstone is immune to burns and scorches, unlike solid surface countertops or even some granite counters.
- The material does dent and scratch. But for many owners, this creates a desirable patina—an antique look and feel that adds to the atmosphere.
- Soapstone needs to be periodically oiled with mineral oil to help the stone oxidize and develop its patina. This involves one-a-week oiling for the first three months and one-a-week oiling thereinafter.
- Colors are fairly limited. Most countertops are light-gray at first, then take on a charcoal-gray color with vague green tints.
- Soapstone is fairly expensive— around $100 per square foot or more.
- Countertops longer than 6 feet will probably need to include seams.
Nearly impervious to staining
Scratches can be sanded out
Develops patina over time
Sealing not required
Do not burn or scorch
Difficult to find large slabs
Should You Buy Soapstone Counters?
Soapstone countertops can be a great choice for homeowners who like the classic charm of a countertop that develops an antique patina over time.
Aside from its warm, soft appearance and touch, soapstone has a number of virtues when used as a countertop material. Some of the limitations of soapstone are real, including the dentable, scratchable surface. But using cutting boards and other protective coverings can help preserve the life of soapstone.
While it works anywhere, soapstone is ideal for classic kitchen styles. For the right owner, these countertops will be easier to care for and with a more unique air than most other natural stone, synthetic, or engineered stone countertops.
Tips for Buying Soapstone Counters
- To save money, look for remnant soapstone slabs. They're smaller but they work well for bathroom vanities, bars, side counters, or kitchen islands.
- For the ultimate matching set, look for soapstone sinks fabricated from the same material as your surrounding soapstone countertops.
- While much of today's soapstone is imported from Brazil and India, some is quarried in the United States.
- For more of a pronounced patina, first leave the soapstone unoiled for a year or two, then apply oil.