21 April 2009

Counters: Soapstone

My husband asked what I would write as the subject for my next post. I decided the topic would have to be about our choice for soapstone counters. It was the first decision I made in the design process, so it's only appropriate that this be one of my first posts as well.

(I have been mentally blogging about my kitchen for months now. We are completely through the design phase of the project and in fact are well into rough-in, so I have quite a bit of catchup posting to do!)

Once upon a time, I thought that soapstone was a poor choice for counters. I had read all sorts of information about how it scratches and chips so easily. I even had friends who considered putting soapstone into their kitchen, and I spoke vocally against it. Since that time I have continued learning about different counter choices and have realized that there is a lot of misunderstanding about soapstone out there. In fact, it can be a wonderful countertop surface -- for certain people. There is no one countertop material that is perfect for everyone.

Some myths about soapstone:
  • it scratches too easily
  • it chips
  • it stains
  • it doesn't take heat well
  • it doesn't react well to humidity
  • it can't be repaired
Some truths:
  • There are many different varieties of soapstone. These range from very soft soapstones which are used for purposes like carvings, to quite hard soapstones that are suitable for counters. Just about all soapstone IS scratchable, or chippable, but it is not nearly as prone to this damage if you select a harder variety. Scratches and chips definitely do not happen as often as some extreme opinions would suggest.
  • It definitely does not stain. Soapstone is non porous. It is also inert. Consider: there is a reason that soapstone is often used as counters for science labs!
  • Soapstone does not need sealing of any sort, because it does not stain. You can oil or otherwise treat the surface, but that is purely for cosmetic reasons. Oiling has nothing to do with sealing or protecting the stone.
  • Soapstone is absolutely fine with both heat and water/humidity. That is why you find 100+ year old soapstone sinks in salvage yards! That is also why you find soapstone in fireplaces and stoves. It is not damaged by heat.
  • Soapstone can be repaired more easily by the average homeowner than most other counter surfaces. Minor scratches will wear away on their own over a few days. Most deep scratches or dings (which ARE more frequent with soapstone than mainstream counters) can easily be repaired by sanding. That said, part of the allure/character of soapstone, for some owners, are the scratches and dings.
Here are some of the reasons we selected soapstone for our kitchen:
  • The main reason, really, is that it's just beautiful in our eyes. I didn't choose soapstone. Soapstone chose me.
  • The second biggest reason, is that soapstone is the only truly "organic" countertop that I know of (other than wood). I was happiest choosing a kitchen counter that did not require any level of synthetic material. Granites and other stones require sealers. Quartz composite and other man-made counters have resins/binders/etc. Soapstone is a completely natural product and the only typical treatment is oil (mineral oil, bees oil, being popular choices).
  • I don't like hunting for trivets or pads for hot pots. Of the organic counter choices (soapstone and wood), soapstone is the only one that can take a hot pot set directly on the counter without burning or cracking.
  • I want the kitchen to feel used and well loved. We are an active family and I am sure as the kids get older that they will not be careful with the counters. I don't want a kitchen that makes me get upset when I see a scratch, so my approach is to expect and plan for scratches. So in that sense, a few chips and dings here and there, are very welcome in the right setting. Chips and dings go with soapstone.
  • With the same counter, we can get the unfinished lighter natural stone look, or the oiled darker stone look. It's kind of nice to have that choice, at least at the beginning. (Not so much a choice later on when the stone has naturally darkened.)
  • I'm tired of the glossy look. I love the calm matte of soapstone. I also hear some people fall in love with the "soapy" texture of the counter (how the stone got its name). I don't know if that will happen to me- I'm not a touch person. We'll see.
  • It is easy to clean and maintain. Because it is non porous and doesn't stain, you don't have to wipe up a spill of red wine right away. It does not harbor bacteria. You don't have to reapply sealer once every year or two. If you choose to have the oiled look, you DO have to oil it frequently in the first few weeks and then consistently in the first couple years, but eventually your stone will naturally darken and you don't even need to oil it. But really, if you choose not to oil, then your counters are zero-maintenance.
I definitely would not recommend soapstone to everyone. If you don't want patina, it's a bad choice. If you like the oiled look but don't like the thought of oiling weekly right off the bat, it's a bad choice. If you want gloss, go to almost any other counter choice. Soapstone is also an expensive choice (comparable to higher end granite). Soapstone also varies so much by variety that if you are not willing to get samples and test, then you could easily end up with a soft stone that you hate. Another negative is that soapstone is highly misunderstood and therefore I think could lower the resale value of a house, if the potential buyer is wary.

My only real regret with choosing soapstone is that it has to be shipped from Brazil. There are some options within the US but they are all (as far as I know) on the east coast, so still a considerable shipping effort. As I am trying to be conscious of making green choices, knowing that my counter material requires shipping from South America is disappointing.

The soapstone variety that I eventually selected is Duro Minas. I tested a few different varieties and Minas (not Duro Minas) came out on top. Once I had decided on Minas then I had to choose a slab. The available slabs in the warehouse at that particular time however left me completely apathetic on emotion. The owner emailed me some pictures of the next shipment of Duro Minas, expected to arrive in a month. When I opened the email, my heart skipped a beat (see photo at the top). I love the veining of this slab and what looks to be the caramel inclusions. I tagged the slab immediately. My only concern - which is minor -- is that I have never tested Duro Minas and am relying on the owner's very confident statement that Duro Minas is just like Minas, only harder. I hope that is indeed the case.

Here is a picture of my main slab, partially oiled. I think I have three slabs total tagged for my kitchen. I can't adequately express how much I love this slab.


Paul Anater said...

Bravo! You are going to love your soapstone counters. Don't be surprised if having them in the center of your home turns you into a "touch person!"

Anonymous said...

Curious how the soapstone is working out for you? I have soapstone too, and was VERY surprised to learn that it definitely DOES stain. Sure, it comes out eventually but I always have stains on my countertops from it absorbing oils, liquids, you name it.

Rachele said...

Soapstone definitely does not stain. A stain is defined as a permanent discoloration.

I do get oil marks and water rings, which many people would hate, but they are temporary discoloration, not permanent -- they wipe up or oil out easily. They were much more noticeable in the first few weeks. Now that the soapstone has been in place for almost two months, and the stone has started to oxidize some, those temporary marks are becoming less noticeable.

Oil marks and water rings do show up much more on some varieties of soapstone versus others, and in various levels of sanding grit versus others. Some of my samples of other varieties were too "temperamental" for my tastes.

Toni said...

May 2010..,do you still love minas duro.

Rachele said...

Yes, I still love the Duro Minas!

Anonymous said...

Hi. Loved your blog. I have had soapstone counters in my kitchen for about two years. I do love them and they are very beautiful, for the reasons you have described in your blog. My only problem is that I am now noticing a lot of chips, especially around the dish drainer where many chips are very noticeable. My kitchen is a very hard working kitchen. I am willing to sand out the chips but I don't know what grade sandpaper to use. I hope that you enjoy your countertops as much as I have enjoyed mine. Good luck. Jo

Susan Rollinson said...

We've had soapstone counters for 5 years now. I'm a chemist, so I wanted the connection with vintage lab benches.

We used soapstone from Finland -- mostly because that's what was available from the same company that sold/installed our soapstone masonry fireplace. (Another great choice, BTW.)

While we have a few very small chips around the sink, the rest of the countertop is still in great shape. We did have to designate one section for opening wine bottles (they really scuff-up the surface). I've had absolutely no problem with stains, water circles, etc. Everything wipes away with a damp sponge.

You can't beat the heat resistance. I have to remind myself when I'm in other kitchens that I can't just take something out of the oven and put it on the counter!

As for installation, our very talented carpenter fabricated the countertops -- soapstone works just like hardwoods. We had a few scraps for him to practice on, and he did a FABULOUS job. Including fabrication, it cost about the same as granite or quartz.

Soapstone isn't for everyone, but it suits us fine.

Gale said...

My husband likes you! He and I have been having 'the soap stone debate' for our new house and I read every word of your blog out loud to him. He is sold on your ideas....I just don't want chipped counter tops!!- but I, too am tired of the glossy kitchen counters in everyone's kitchens. They seem so hard and cold. Are you still happy with your decision? Do you wish you had waited for the Minas? Thanks- Gale

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