Soapstone has a wide variety of uses, and while many people would assume that it’s a hard stone due to it’s most common applications, in terms of the family of rocks, it’s actually very close to the softer end of the spectrum.
Soapstone is most commonly associated with countertops and floor tiling, but is also used for its waterproof properties including shower trays and sinks. There are also a multitude of uses in manufacturing due to the heat resistance qualities of soapstone such as forming molds.
As you can see in the image above, soapstone naturally offers an appealing and detailed surface. Kitchen countertops (known as worktops across Europe) are a very popular application of soapstone as a material as it’s hard to damage with hot pots and pans and at the same time pleasing on the eye.
While the material can seem relatively expensive, it offers a long term, hard wearing solution for modern kitchens. While it can easily be scratched by sharp contacts like knives, taking care while cooking by using good cutting mats is a simple way to protect the finish of the countertop. What’s more, superficial damage to soapstone surfaces can be polished out relatively simply.
Another key attraction with soapstone is the fact that the material is a naturally occurring resource, in sharp contrast to mass produced wooden surfaces that often feature a synthetic covering layer. Soapstone differs entirely in that you get a truly unique finish with every length that’s produced. For this reason, genuine soapstone countertops are a far superior choice compared to imitation soapstone patterned finishes that are mass produced.
Floor and wall tiles are another excellent opportunity to take advantage of soapstone. Just like countertops, tiles need to be hard wearing and suitable for long term use, so can benefit from the natural properties the soft rock offers.
Again, naturally occurring patterns provide a unique design that can be used as a premium feature of interior design. Compared to some alternative tiling materials, soapstone is also easy to cut and fit, making it a popular tiling choice.
They work well in bathroom and kitchen wall and floor tiles thanks to the waterproof quality we mentioned earlier with countertops, but flooring is where the material really excels in terms of tiling because the weight of tiles can be problematic on walls.
Once again heat resistance is a valuable property for welders, who can mark out measurements onto the surface of soapstone to use under the intense heat of welding. Markings will remain clearly visible during work, meaning that soapstone can assist with greater accuracy in this skilled industry where precision can be critical.
While soapstone can be an expensive material to source, it’s popular for longevity in skilled trades – markings can be rubbed or polished out and the same piece reused repeatedly and rarely needing to be replaced.
Soapstone Uses In Arts & Crafts
Many artists have utilized soapstone in their pieces, but one of the more popular disciplines is sculpture.
Carving out pieces from solid soapstone allows artists to start with a goal in mind but at the same time allow the finish to be governed by the colors and patterns within the stone.
This fusion of artistic skill and natural resources offers a reliable result in relation to an outstanding and eye catching finish while at the same time guaranteeing a truly unique piece.
These two elements are ideal for creating one off pieces that can command a greater value for the creations of highly skilled sculptors.
In a similar vein to the welding applications, many crafts can benefit from soapstone’s protective benefits. These can range from use in kilns for potters where extreme heats bake creations to sewing where seamstresses can work on a solid surface than can be marked, erased and reused over and over again.
Less Common Uses And Innovations
Most uses for soapstone are motivated by one of three key properties of the material:
The unique, natural appearance gives a natural and stylish finish
- Heat resistance
Soapstone offers a practical solution in extreme heat, offering short term resistance to heat while at the same time holding heat well energy once the temperature of the rock rises.
- Surface markings can be made and erased
The ease of marking a soapstone surface, combined with its removal makes the rock much more unique and useful than alternatives in some applications, especially those in skilled trade.
Combinations of these three benefits have meant that innovations pop up from time to time.
A great example in recent times has been to solve the problem of drinks being diluted by ice cubes. Many of the more expensive drinks (obvious examples might include whisky or gin) are often best cold, so popularly taken with ice. The downside is that if you drink them neat, the effect of a melting ice cube is significant in diluting the spirit.
Soapstone has been used to replace the ice cube, in similar sizes to a traditional ice cube or even with branded or novelty carvings. Leaving the ‘cubes’ in the freezer cools them as you would with water to form the ice, but when placed into drinks provide the cooling effect without the dilution.
In military settings, soapstone has been used to mold bullets. The nature of the material lends itself well to being created as a mold while at the same time offering the necessary resilience to heat and repetitive use to reduce wear and tear. As a result, manufacture can be ramped up relatively quickly relative to alternative manufacturing processes.
There are also additional properties of soapstone that combine with the main set of three above in specific situations. For example, electrical conductance is low in the rock, making is a great insulator. That means that industrial machinery can benefit from soapstone in places where humans are likely to interact with machinery operating at high voltage to highly reduce (if not eliminate) residual shock risk. Therefore power hungry machinery can benefit from soapstone controls.
Historical Soapstone Uses
Many of today’s uses for soapstone derive from applications and techniques that have been in place for centuries or even millennia. That’s especially the case in cooking situations, where soapstone was known for heat resistance.
Cooking was made more versatile and predictable with soapstone cookware, ranging from primitive cutlery like cutting knives to sturdy cooking pots. Slabs of soapstone were even used as cooking surfaces over fire, with the material very gradually absorbing heat from fire below without risk of damage and able to provide a steadier heat than the flames themselves for cooking pots to sit upon.
Health And Safety Considerations While Using Soapstone
While soapstone is far from the most hazardous material to work with, the simple truth is it doesn’t belong inside the human body.
Particularly when being cut, soapstone can create dust that floats in the air and could be inhaled. It’s therefore (highly) advisable to take precautions such as wearing an appropriate mask when working with soapstone – especially when cutting pieces down.
In addition, limiting exposure by reducing the amount of time that you’re working with the surface of the rock can help to reduce any future health risks associated with inhaling dust. Read more about these hazards on the CDC NIOSH website.