Old House Journal - - Contents - By Pa­tri­cia Poore


Would you be sur­prised to learn that gran­ite is por­ous and thus needs more up­keep than the oth­ers? Or that soapstone used for coun­ter­tops isn’t soft,

• like the lit­tle soapstone blocks used for carv­ing in art class? A meta­mor­phic rock, SOAPSTONE is made up pri­mar­ily of mag­ne­site, dolomite, chlo­rite, and talc. Steatite is its ge­o­log­i­cal term. Artists’ soapstone, with up to an 80% tal­cum con­tent, is not the same soapstone used for coun­ter­tops, with per­haps 30% talc. Be­cause of the tal­cum, soapstone does have a warmer, softer or silkier feel­ing than gran­ite, which is quite hard

• and cold. Soapstone is com­pletely heat­proof—your whole coun­ter­top be­comes a trivet. As it is non­porous, it is nat­u­rally anti-mi­cro­bial, it’s nearly im­per­vi­ous to stain­ing, and acid doesn’t af­fect it. It is a dense stone that won’t chip eas­ily or break, but it can be scratched or dented—which can be re­paired by sand­ing. Counter topthick­ness soapstone doesn’t re­quire a sub­strate for sup­port.

Soapstone is not sur­face-per­fect like Co­rian or lam­i­nate. It has veins and even larger streaks of quartz or crys­tals called am­phi­boles. It will change color slightly de­pend­ing on de­gree of use, and it will pick up slight dents, thus it de­vel­ops a patina. Oiled soapstone has a slight sheen, but doesn’t take a glossy sur­face as does pol­ished gran­ite. These at­tributes make it ideal for kitchens meant to look his­tor­i­cal—on the other hand, soapstone can be a beau­ti­ful coun­ter­point in an oth­er­wise sleek, mod­ern kitchen.

Soapstone does not need to be sealed. Most peo­ple ap­ply min­eral oil, at least ini­tially, to ox­i­dize the sur­face, im­part­ing an even, char­coal-to-black color. “Af­ter we in­stall the stone, which comes out of the ground light grey, we tell peo­ple to oil it ‘once a day for a week, once a week for a month, once a month for a year’,” says Glenn Bow­man of Ver­mont Soapstone. “If you don’t keep up, noth­ing bad hap­pens.” The process is ex­ceed­ingly easy: cheap drug­store-brand min­eral oil is wiped on, left for five min­utes, and then wiped off in sev­eral passes un­til the stone has no oily feel. “We’ve be­gun of­fer­ing wax as an al­ter­na­tive to oil,” Bow­man says. “It holds up for months, if not a year, but it’s time­con­sum­ing to ap­ply and you have to let it cure for a week with no stand­ing wa­ter, no ap­pli­ances put back in place.”

Soapstone doesn’t of­fer a wide color selec­tion. Some ar­eas pro­duce dark grey soapstone with black or green un­der­tones. You can ask for a slab with a lot of vein­ing, large min­eral deposits— or not. But you won’t have the end­less color, pat­tern, and grain­ing op­tions avail­able with gran­ites from around the world. Soapstone is quar­ried in slabs about 30" deep by 7'. So ex­tra-long coun­ter­tops will need a seam. Since the stone is al­most monochro­matic, well-done seams are not ob­vi­ous.

SLATE, TOO, a fine-grained sed­i­men­tary, meta­mor­phised stone com­posed largely of quartz and mus­covite (a mica) with bi­otite, chlo­rite, hematite, and other min­er­als, is durable and non­porous. Like soapstone, slate needs less fuss and up­keep than gran­ite and cer­tainly than mar­ble. Slate has a sub­tle shift of col­oration but the ef­fect is uni­form. You can get slate in black, char­coal, lighter grey or pewter, brown-black, and dark with un­der­tones of green, pur­ple, or red. Slate won’t eas­ily chip or scratch and stands up to heat. On the down­side, slate is slightly brit­tle, so less “work­ing” of edges is done—cor­ners can be sharp. Cre­at­ing a sink is ex­pen­sive. Slate is usu­ally honed to a matte smooth fin­ish, es­pe­cially for use in kitchens.

GRAN­ITE IS DURABLE and of­ten very beau­ti­ful, with a wide range of col­ors and pat­terns. It may be highly pol­ished, or honed for a matte sur­face. But gran­ite is a por­ous stone. It must be re­sealed (usu­ally about twice a year, de­pend­ing on use), and spills should be wiped up im­me­di­ately. The sealer is ex­pen­sive and takes some care in ap­pli­ca­tion.

All of these coun­ter­top ma­te­ri­als are ex­pen­sive to buy and in­stall. Then again, they don’t wear out. When you add up the cost of stone, prepa­ra­tion, and in­stal­la­tion, prices are com­pa­ra­ble. The big­gest range in ma­te­ri­als price comes with gran­ite, be­cause there are so many va­ri­eties.




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