I get a lot of questions asking about my experience with the soapstone countertops in the kitchen. The soapstone questions run a close second to the questions I get asked about marble, which I wrote about HERE. So, as promised to all those who have asked, here is my take on soapstone. Please note that this is only my personal experience with soapstone.
First lets talk about soapstone and just what it is.... Soapstone is a natural material, a metamorphic rock that is composed primarily of talc with varying amounts of chlorite, micas, amphiboles, carbonates and other minerals. Soapstone was formed millions of years ago under intense heat and pressure. Soapstone started out in a molten state deep within the earth and because it has an unusually stable composition, soapstone can comfortably withstand fire and dramatic changes in temperature. It has been known for centuries for its ability to retain heat (for example, all of our original hearthstones in the farmhouse are made of soapstone). Other natural stones, such as granite and marble also hold and radiate heat, but only soapstone has the added benefit of being able to withstand direct flames indefinitely. Soapstone is often used for pizza ovens. The fact that soapstone is composed primarily of talc makes it a soft stone (it is often used for carvings), and also makes it:
nonporous, nonabsorbent, have a low electrical conductivity, heat resistant, have a high specific heat capacity, and resistant to acids and alkalis.
Since it is nonporous it is naturally antibacterial and stain resistant. It is an inert material that is impervious to chemicals, acids, and heat. You can place cookware from the stove top, or oven, directly on soapstone without damage. Soapstone is the only natural stone that does not need a chemical sealer since it is siliceous, meaning it is unaffected and unharmed by acids in things like lemon juice, wine, vinegar, etc. It does not "etch" like marble. It is easy to clean, needing no special cleaning products. That said, since soapstone is a rock, its mineral composition can vary depending upon the parent rock and the conditions of the metamorphic environment. That means that soapstone can vary from quarry to quarry, and even within a single rock.
Like granite and marble, soapstone is very durable, but since it is a softer stone it has the tendency to scratch and chip more easily. Again, its durability has a lot to do with where it was quarried. I get asked often where our soapstone was quarried, and unfortunately, I do not know. Soapstone is typically grey, grey-blue, green or dark grey in color, often variegated. After being cut its finish will naturally oxidize from light grey to dark charcoal in color, though this process can take years. Its name is derived from its "soapy" or soft feel. The color of the stone and the degree of veining/lack of is all very personal. I have heard that a solid color (no veining) slab is often desired, but I love the large veins of green in our slabs, which is why I chose it. I felt it would add a natural element of beauty and interest to the countertops.
To answer the question I receive most often about soapstone..
YES, I absolutely love the soapstone countertops and would use it again in a heartbeat. I recently received an email from someone saying she really wanted soapstone, but everyone was telling her it was impractical and that it's for magazine shoots and for people who don't use their kitchens. That made me laugh as soapstone has been used for over a hundred years in the kitchen. In fact, that is why I chose it to use the kitchen of our antique home, because of its historical New England reference and the fact that I knew it would stand the test of time, and not be a trend. As I did with my marble, once I set my sights on soapstone I did my homework and research, and read all the positives and the negatives I could find.
As I mentioned in the post I did on marble, if you do your research and educate yourself and still want a product in your kitchen (or house for that matter) do not let people who probably don't own the product themselves talk you out of it. I have heard so many stories of people who were talked out of marble or soapstone by a salesperson. That's unfortunate, but in my opinion, that was their own mistake. In building/renovating you must have a very clear vision of what you want your space to" feel" and "look" like because at every single turn some salesperson/contractor/carpenter/painter/plumber/etc... will try to talk you into their vision.
Research. There are so many fabulous products available now that you really have to do your homework.
Know the maintenance and upkeep and decide if any product is something that you want to live with. Know the pros and the cons, if any, of every single thing you put into your home. Know what you want and don't let anyone dissuade you from your vision. Period
The Pros and Cons of Soapstone
Pros: I've mentioned most of the pros throughout this post (see above).
Cons: It is only available in basically one color, or one tone of color- grey. It is usually only quarried up to 84" in length, so if a longer piece is needed it must be seamed together. It is soft and easily prone to scratches and nicks. While low-maintenance, it is not no-maintenance, in my opinion.
The only issue I have had with my soapstone is small nicks on the edge of the countertop (most found above the dishwasher and around the sink.) I've tried to take photos which show the small chips, but there are really not that many and you do not notice them when you are standing in the kitchen- you either have to "feel" them to know they are there or take a super-closeup photo! What I'm trying to say is they are a non-issue for me. Like I do with my marble, I use a cutting board and take minor precautions, like placing a towel under a bottle of wine while uncorking. But.... and as you will see in the photos, that hasn't always been the case and even now I get in a hurry, or careless, and will get knife scratches. chips and dings. The scratches recede a bit after oiling/waxing, but many of the photos were taken before waxing so you could see what it looks like. I also slide things across the top and basically use and abuse both my marble and soapstone. So, while I take precautions most of the time I'm also in there to cook and "use" the stone, so things happen;)
Just like using marble, you must remember that this is a "natural" stone and it WILL show the signs of life and a kitchen used. If you, or your spouse or partner, want a forever "perfect" countertop this might not be the right choice for you. But if you love being surrounded by natural elements and like the patina that time and use give to a surface then I can't express enough how wonderful (and easy) soapstone is to live with!
Small chips above dishwasher.
This area is just to the left of the sink and gets a LOT of use. This photo was taken prior to waxing and you can see all the little knife marks.
Same shot as above, only closeup to show (center of photo) the row of dents from the bottom of a wine?? bottle that was opened directly on the stone. We now simply place a dish towel under a bottle to prevent this from happening. (fyi- The white-ish sheen at the top of this photo and the next is sunlight and not the stone itself.)
Maintenance and Upkeep
There are several ways you can use and enjoy soapstone as counter or table tops.
You can "oil" the soapstone with mineral oil, you can "wax" the soapstone with a wax made specifically for soapstone, or you can simply leave the stone "natural".
As I mentioned, soapstone once cut into slabs will naturally oxidize from a light blue-grey to a dark grey charcoal, but that could take years, so many people choose to accelerate that oxidation process and enhance the soapstone with either oil or wax to produce a dark countertop. This will not only darken the stone, giving it a deep, rich sheen, but it also enhances the the minerals and veining in the slab and gives the overall countertop a uniform color. This would be akin to holding a rock under water and suddenly you see all the beautiful colors and formations in the stone.
Here's where talking about soapstone can get a bit confusing..... as already stated, soapstone is "nonporous" which means that nothing will penetrate the material, but...you can, and will, get surface discolorations from water ,various oils and products that come in contact with the stone if it is not treated with either mineral oil or soapstone wax. The marks just do not penetrate the surface, or etch the surface (like marble) and can be removed through cleaning (more on this further down.) Using mineral oil or soapstone wax will make the stone resistant to many of those issues; however, even after oiling (especially if it has been a while since the oil was applied) or waxing you can still get an occasional mark, but they are only on the surface and are not permanent.
Quite honestly I cannot imagine having soapstone in a kitchen that was not treated with either mineral oil or soapstone wax.
I had one reader tell me that they interested in soapstone for their kitchen, but they had a friend who had soapstone and it was a splotchy mess- oil rings, water rings, stains, etc. After hearing her description I said that it sounded like the soapstone had never been oiled/waxed and she later wrote to tell me that after asking her friend that my guess was accurate.
I also want to recommend when shopping for soapstone for a kitchen, and you find a slab you like, that you wipe down an area of the surface with a water-wet paper towel to see what the color of the stone will look like once it is oiled/waxed. Some stones will be a dark green color and some will be a dark charcoal or almost dark black. You want to know what color your soapstone will darken to before it is installed in your kitchen. Also, if your stone yard is indoors under fluorescent light, don't hesitate to ask to see the slab in "natural" light. Slabs are easily moved with forklifts and can be taken to a warehouse door to be viewed in natural light. Countertops are a big investment and you don't want to get a slab that isn't exactly what you want.
#1 Mineral Oil: Did you know mineral oil is a liquid by-product of the distillation of petroleum to produce gasoline and other petroleum-based products from crude oil (per Wikipedia)?? It sounded so healthy and natural before you knew that, right?! When I read that mineral oil is a "non-drying oil", meaning that it does not evaporate, but instead it disappears from the surface of the stone by being picked up and transferred around the house I was a bit creeped out.
But, using mineral oil is probably the most popular method to enhance and darken soapstone. This is what I have used for the last 4 years up until recently when I started to use soapstone wax (more on that further down).
Oiling is a bit of a pain, especially initially and for the first year. The process that I used for oiling my newly installed soapstone was to oil the soapstone once a week for the first month, then once a month for the first year, then twice a year after that (or as often as you like, to keep the oiled-finish looking fresh.) That's a lot of taking everything off your countertops to oil! But, it takes that long for the stone to acquire that rich, dark charcoal color and retain it. I would pour the oil directly on the stone then spread it with a 3-inch foam brush, wait for 30 minutes then remove the oil with paper towels and then buff with more paper towels, or a cloth towel, until all the oil was gone. I found the surface would "flash" for the first week or so- oil would seem to come back shiny/oily in some areas. I would simply re-wipe those areas with towels to remove the excess oil. Even after the first year's many applications of oil I would find that over time (approximately after 4 months, or so) the oiled-look to the soapstone would dissipate and the stone would lighten and "look" dried out, and I would have to then re-apply the mineral oil to get that dramatic dark matte, low-luster sheen again.
#2 Soapstone Wax
(This is the method I highly recommend. I am thrilled to have found this product!)
The newest way to achieve the deep charcoal finish to soapstone is to apply a wax made specifically for the stone. Supposedly, you can apply the wax to newly installed soapstone and wax it only three times (once a week for three weeks, then after that once a year), to achieve the same dark look of a year's worth of oiling. I can not verify this method since, as I mentioned, I initially used mineral oil and only recently started to use the soapstone wax on my countertops.
There are several waxes specifically made for soapstone, some sold by stone fabricators, but I found them all to be very expensive and to have the same basic ingredients as the very affordable
Real Milk Paint Co.'s Soapstone Sealer and Wood Wax,
which is the product I used. I purchased the 8 ounce-size jar and used almost a fourth of the jar to do all of my soapstone countertops. A little goes a long way and this one jar will last a very long time. It is all natural and earth friendly, made with walnut oil and Carnauba wax flakes. There are no solvents in it so is has no VOCs. Since it contains walnut oil some people with nut allergies may have a reaction; however, walnut oil is a "drying oil" which means that it will polymerize and cure in 15 to 30 days, as opposed to other nut oils, such as peanut, cashew, etc.
The Real Milk Paint Co. suggested when I called regarding the product and the fact that my countertops had previously been oiled, to remove the mineral oil prior to applying the soapstone wax by washing them down with either: dish soap ( Dawn) and water, TSP ,or their Citrus Solvent to remove the non-drying mineral oil. In the end I didn't do that since it had been over a year since I had oiled the countertops and I figured that the mineral oil had dissipated on its own by that point. My countertops turned out great! I am huge fan of the soapstone wax and highly recommend it! Besides the pros of having to apply it only two to three times instead of 15 times to get the same effect, it is natural and provides a better finished surface than the mineral oil. Products like hand soap drops around the sink would often leave marks on the oiled stone, but the wax has proven to be a better barrier and the hand soap spots don't stain the stone.
Real Milk Paint Co. Soapstone Sealer
"Before" wax to the left of the seam," after" wax to the right of the seam.
I chose to have the soapstone seamed in two places- one on each side of the faucet (as opposed to one seam directly in the middle of the faucet) as I didn't want anything to draw the eye away from the beautiful Perrin and Rowe faucet. And honestly, you really do not notice the seams at all.
#3 Leave it natural
I do not recommend this for kitchen countertops.
I chose to leave the 8-foot slab of soapstone on the metal work table base in the barn room natural. I felt the natural surface suited the space best. (Actually, I did oil the slab once just to provide it with a basic enhanced coat, but it quickly dissipated and reverted back to the natural color that it was when installed.)
Soapstone is an easy-keeper. Simply wiping the stone with a sponge or dishcloth and soap and water keeps the stone clean. If anything does leave a ring or a mark on the surface I remove it with
Bar Keepers Friend and then re-wax the surface. And, you can even buff out surface scratches with a fine grade sandpaper, though I have never personally done this since the scratches and knife marks recede when treated with mineral oil or wax.
Soapstone before waxing.
After waxing. (topiary from Snug Harbor Farm)
Again... please note, that is is purely my opinion based on my experience only.
I would love to hear of your experience if you have soapstone as it will add to the conversation!