Soapstone used today is anywhere from 300 to 400 million years old. It gets its name from its soft, soapy feel. Soapstone is a metaphoric rock, meaning that it was subjected to hot temperatures deep under the surface of the earth. Soapstone is popular for kitchen counter tops, but it is also used in many other ways.
Soapstone contains a high volume of talc, which makes it a soft stone. The softness of the stone makes it one of the easiest to use. Soapstone has the ability to absorb heat and then distribute it, which makes it a good choice for fireplace surrounds and wood stoves. Soapstone will change color over time, becoming darker and developing a patina.
Iran was a major producer and distributor of soapstone as far back as 500 B.C. and soapstone has been a material of choice for carvers in India for hundreds of years. Soapstone was used by the early Native Americans to make everyday tools such as bowls, cooking slabs and smoking pipes. In the nineteenth century, soapstone, not marble, was the choice for grave markers, at least in the areas where it was quarried.
Soapstone is easy to care for. Mineral oil will help the soapstone retain, deepen and darken its natural color and will help protect it from cuts and scratches. Stone sealers will help, but they are made to penetrate stones like marble. Nothing can penetrate soapstone, so it will not have the same protective effect. It can stop the soapstone from changing colors, however.
Soapstone is produced in India, the United States, Brazil, Chile, Malawi, Canada and Zimbabwe and the color varies in each location, depending on the level of talc in the stone. For instance, Combarbalite soapstone comes from Chile and comes in brown, yellow, green and red. From India, it is mottled black, tan, gray, green and even pink. There is one type of soapstone that comes from all over the world. It is called steatite and comes in one color--light gray.
Soapstone is one of the most versatile materials. It is used to make counter tops, sinks, cookware and as a material for sculptures. Soapstone is used in the fashion industry to mark hem lines and the carpentry trade to make cutting lines. Soapstone makes a good choice for casting molds for metals because of its heat resistance, ease of carving and the smooth surface that makes it easy to remove the finished item.