It’s hard not to think of soapstone as a living material. One of its defining qualities is to darken and patina over time, transforming, quite gracefully, as it’s used. It’s also tempting to draw a parallel between the human aging process and that of soapstone – veins deepen in color and become more pronounced, and scratches and scars tell a multitude of stories; the material’s purest beauty comes with age. But its true worth lies in its incredible versatility.
What It Is
Soapstone is a metamorphic rock, meaning its formation is a result of intense heat and direct pressure applied to existing rock, typically at convergent plate boundaries. Named soapstone for the soapy feel of the softer varieties, soapstone is composed dominantly of mineral talc, which is found in varying degrees in different stone varieties. There are generally two grades of soapstone: artistic-grade has a high talc content (around 80%), making it soft enough to carve; architectural-grade is much harder (around 50%) and therefore durable enough to use in more functional applications. Only one soapstone mine still exists in the U.S. – located in Virginia – and the rest are found in Brazil (where the vast majority of American soapstone products originate), as well as India and Finland.
Though prone to scratches, soapstone is extremely dense, nonporous (it doesn’t stain) and resistant to bacteria, chemicals and acids/alkalis. These properties make it ideally suited for its most common modern-day application: laboratory countertops and sinks. Soapstone has also seen a recent resurgence in popularity among interior designers, architects and design aficionados, thanks to its natural beauty, low maintenance (scratches are easily removed with regular sandpaper or a dab of oil) and enviable patina that makes it feel at once old and new.
Soapstone can withstand extremely high temperatures without sustaining damage, while also acting as an efficient conductor that absorbs and evenly radiates heat. The material is used for heated floor tiles, fireplace and hearth liners, woodstoves and cookware. Soapstone cookware in particular offers several benefits that make it a favorite among cooks: it heats food integrally—not just through the bottom of the pan—and stays hot for longer once heated, keeping food warm and saving energy; it’s both natural (no harmful substances that can be released into food) and non-stick (less or no oil is needed), providing a healthy alternative to Teflon. Lastly, soapstone naturally repels humidity, which is helpful for salt and spice storage.
One of the first rocks to be quarried, soapstone has been used as a carving medium for thousands of years. While the civilization credited with its discovery varies by source, it can be traced all over the world, across continents and centuries and found in everything from the strictly functional to the purely decorative.
Civilizations of the Stone Age, particularly the Scandinavians, were among the first to discover the rock’s ability to absorb and radiate heat. This sparked the invention of soapstone cooking pots, slabs, bowls and hearth liners, which could easily be carved and shaped using sharp stones, bones or antlers. While small soapstone pots were traded widely, larger ones were too heavy to move, leading archaeologists to believe that the larger pots were used at sites where people intended to stay for longer periods of time. The medium later helped usher in the Bronze Age, when it was ascertained that soapstone’s softness made it easy to carve into molds for casting metal objects, including knife blades and spearheads.
Native Americans were another people to pioneer the many uses of soapstone. In addition to making bowls, cooking slabs, pots and ornaments as early as the Late Archaic period, they also made soapstone boiling stones, which were placed in the fire until scorching hot. The stones were lifted by poking a hole through each one with a stick, then carried to a small cooking pit and dropped into a stew to heat it through.
In China, soapstone was often used to create seals, which were readily used in lieu of signatures on documents, contracts and art. During the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644), artists began looking for a less expensive alternative to jade and soapstone production reached its peak. Many of these stunning sculptures and artworks have survived (along with countless other ancient soapstone pieces), in large part due to the material’s resistance to humidity.
With its inherent refinement and unparalleled versatility, soapstone strikes a perfect balance between form and function—from ancient cooking wares to contemporary countertops. The ancient material continues to inspire the designers of today.