Large-Scale Production / Quarrying Sites

Breathing new life into American soapstone

Alberene Soapstone of Schuyler, VA, is producing high-quality slabs of American soapstone

March 1, 2013
Trans

As design trends continue toward a classic, refined look, traditional products such as soapstone are finding their way to the forefront of consumer consciousness. And while much of the soapstone circulating around the U.S. is actually quarried in Brazil, there is a site for the material in rural Virginia — owned by Alberene Soapstone Co. of Schuyler, VA — that is undergoing a remarkable resurgence.

The history of Alberene soapstone production dates back to 1888, and the quarry has a storied past, during which it changed ownership many times. “Georgia Marble purchased the company a long time ago,” explained Richard Coyte, Director at Alberene Soapstone Co. “They pulled out in the early 1970s. “Alberene had been successful in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. In 1967, there was a flood that wiped out the place. Georgia Marble saw an opportunity and made some upgrades, but another flood hit in 1972. At that time, there was more imported stone coming into the country, so they got out.

“From 1972 to 1992 there were some different owners, and then Tulikivi of Finland came in during the 1980s to use the soapstone to build fireplaces,” Coyte continued. “At that time, though, the U.S. market for heaters that were $15,000 to $20,000 wasn’t strong.”

The operation was then purchased by Kierk Sorensen, who had been supplying the material to artists and art schools through his company, Soapstone for Sculpture. “He wanted to run a European-style quarry, where people could find and work their stone right at the quarries,” Coyte said.

A new beginning

As time went on, some of the design trendsetters started pointing to soapstone as a practical choice for residential design. “Martha Stewart and ‘This Old House’ started promoting soapstone countertops,” Coyte said. “The allure of American soapstone was a nice pull, and it kept the company going, but they needed to make investments to upgrade the equipment. Three years ago, an investor named Tripp Stewart — who is a veterinarian — was introduced to the stone, and he became a managing partner, along with Aharon Laufer.”

From there, management began assembling a team that would take the operation to the next level. “In 2011, they started a sales force, which the company never had. In early 2012, they asked me to join the operation. I don’t have any background in stone, but I have a background that fits what they needed. I am an attorney, and I went to Georgetown University Law School, but I never had an intention to practice law. I felt it would be good for negotiating contracts and for business in general. I had experience at Deloitte Consulting, but it wasn’t where I wanted to be forever. My experience is in advising companies how to make the leap into becoming larger, and helping with process efficiency. My passion for smaller companies and experience with larger companies married very well.”

Also critical to the company’s development, Alberene Soapstone Co. focused on revitalizing the area’s primary quarry site — dubbed the Old Dominion Quarry. Coyte explained that until recently, much of the production of Alberene soapstone was done using blocks that were quarried 20 to 40 years ago. “The plant that we are in now was built in 1903, and if you look on Google EarthTM, you can see where the rail tracks used to run from the quarry to the plant. Along that path, there are mountains of old soapstone blocks — the closer to the plant, the better the blocks were. But the sizes were smaller, and you could not predict the quality and availability.”

Once it made the commitment to quarry larger blocks from the Old Dominion site, Alberene Soapstone Co. focused on bringing in an experienced quarry master. “Dan Rhodes runs the quarry,” Coyte said. “He was with Las Vegas Rock [a producer of meta-quartzite in Nevada] for 18 years. He has designed equipment, and he has opened quarries, so his breadth of experience has done wonders for us.”

Coyte also credited some of the industry’s more experienced quarry operators for their assistance during the re-development. “We respect that our background is not in stone, and we have found that most people have been receptive to helping us,” he said. “Monica Gawet of Tennessee Marble is a great friend to us.” Additionally, Valders Stone of Wisconsin shipped a Fantini chainsaw to the quarry in Virginia, giving Alberene Soapstone Co. the option to purchase it. The company also purchased a Caterpillar 988 wheel loader from Valders.

Current operations

With the equipment in place, stone extraction progressed quickly for Alberene Soapstone Co. “We started getting good blocks right away,” Coyte said. “At the beginning, our goal was to get one good block a week, and now we are taking out one or two per day. We are extracting an average of 80 to 90 tons of solid block material from the quarry each week and producing slabs averaging 60 x 100 inches, which are backed and resined.”

Coyte went on to explain that reinforcing the slabs with backing and resin was a major step in increasing overall efficiency. “At first, we were told that we couldn’t do it for environmental reasons, but James Oglesby from Tenax worked with us, and we set it up in the plant,” he said. “We set up the resin line in September, and by November we were doing 100 slabs per week. Our yield from each block went from 20% to 70% or 80%.”

In processing the material, blocks are cut into raw slabs on a belt saw from Standish Steel, which features belts from W.F. Meyers. These raw slabs are then heated in a facility that was built in house and has an air temperature of approximately 120 degrees. “By the time the slabs go to the resin line, they’ve been heated up to 100 degrees or so,” Coyte said. “W.F. Meyers is another company that has been really good in working with us, and we are getting much longer life out of the belts now.”

From the saw, the slabs are transported on a system that includes 200 feet of roller tables, where they are backed and then treated with Tenax resin products, which are applied by hand. Once the resin has cured, the slabs receive their surface finish using two Park Wizard radial arm polishers, and the final work is done by hand.

“Everything is highly calibrated,” Coyte said. “The people who work in the plant are terrific. We have found a phenomenal pool of people in our area who are willing to work. They are dedicated, and they work incredibly hard. We have three people who have been here for 15 years, and they are the best of what was ever here. From the labor to owners, there is just an incredible level of dedication.”

In addition to using resin products on the slabs, the blocks themselves are treated with resin at the quarry site before being delivered to the plant, which is five miles away. “We are seeing 20 to 22% yield out of the quarry now,” Coyte said. “Block sizes are typically 5.5 x 9 x 3 feet, and they weigh 15 tons, which is the limit of our crane.”

In addition to the quarry master, there are two other quarry workers, and 12 more in the plant, along with sales and administration staff. In all, Alberene Soapstone Co. has 25 employees.

Products and marketing

Alberene Soapstone Co. has developed what Coyte described as a “labor-intensive inventory process” for its slab production. “We have quality control for every slab, and everything we produce is photographed,” he said. “We know exactly what slabs we are selling to somebody. Everything goes into a database, and the slabs are rated for clarity, size, grading and veining. We can also meet specific requests. If someone says they need a slightly mottled slab with a certain amount of veining, we can meet that request.”

A variety of soapstone colors and patterns come from the Old Dominion Quarry. “Our stone is consistently the the traditional gray-blue coloring that people love,” Coyte said. “But there are several types of stone, ranging from clear with no veining to heavily mottled.”

While the Old Dominion Quarry is the largest on the property, there are several quarries that are ready to be re-opened in the future. “They don’t have any overburden, but it will still require time and money to clean them out. There is a site behind the plant that has what we call ‘Churchill,’ which is a darker, nicely veined material. It got that name because there was a flood in 1969, and the Mennonites actually helped save the town, so Alberene Soapstone donated to them a church up on the hill near the quarry. The Mennonites have a lease on that church as long as they’re active.”

While the Mid-Atlantic region represents the core of Alberene Soapstone Co.’s customer base, it is also selling material beyond that market. “Our primary target is fabricators up and down the East Coast, and we are our own distributor from Maryland to northern North Carolina,” Coyte said. “We have also delivered material as far as Indiana, Chicago and Massachusetts. We are also moving into distributor sales. We will protect their territories and not sell to their clients in those areas. Most of the fabricators are buying two to four bundles at a time, and it looks like we will have some steady container clients as well.”        

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