Stone World

Fabricating soapstone countertops

February 5, 2008


Q: From what I have heard, I would guess that soapstone is rather soft and could possibly scratch easily. Is this true? What about sealing? Polishing?

Robert Carter, Albemarle Countertop Co., Charlottesville VA: Most soapstone that is easily available is from Brazil. It can be scratched, but it can also easily be fixed. It has lots of talc in it, and almost feels “soapy.” To seal it, we have used mineral oil, bees wax oil and Tenax products. All work well, but it will patina, which looks cool. If you are going to sell soapstone, you need to inform your clients of its wear characteristics.

Mark M., Delaware: Soapstone is usually very soft and very dense and heavy. A guy could cut it with a carbide circular saw blade and a palm sander if he had to. I don’t advise it, but I saw someone do it once. It can scratch, but a homeowner can usually sand them out themselves with fine-grit sandpaper (depending on the finish).

We seal ours with mineral oil. It takes several coats for it to set in.

Luke Getz, DUCA Tile, Holland, MI: We have been getting decent-sized slabs -- about 60 x 120 inches or so. It is one of my favorite materials to fabricate and install. It is very soft, but I try to warn my customers about this beforehand. I tell them that if they can get through the first few scratches, the stone takes on a worn patina, and that is one of the things that makes it so attractive. It is great for that “old farmhouse” look.

It is also very stain resistant, and we do use mineral oil on it if the customer wants it darker. However, some people like to leave it untreated, and the oils from your hands gradually darken the areas that get the most use, thus adding to the patina.

Adam D. Siler, The Granite Concept Co., Destin, FL: I really like the appearance of the material for a very natural looking finished product. If you are going for a “modern to rustic” look, it would be really cool looking. You don’t have any heat issues with it, and it works great for fire pits.

Mike Reenock, Premier Granite & Marble, Pen Argyl, PA: We have done quite a few jobs with soapstone. As far as scratching, it can be scratched, but as everyone else said, the scratches can be sanded out with normal sandpaper to refresh the look over time. However, it is more for a look than for durability, as compared with granite. If the customers are annoyed with imperfections, then you should probably steer them away because it will show age and use and not have that clean, perfect look of granite.

Fabrication of soapstone is quite easy. You just have to watch how fast you cut and polish with it, because you can take off more than you want without really trying.

Some people prefer the lighter unsealed look, while others like the darker sealed look. We have used mineral oil in the past to get the darker look.

Dustin Braudway, Cape Fear Marble and Tile, Inc., Wilmington, NC: What is everyone using to fill the small cracks? I have a kitchen going out with soapstone, and I want to know if I can fill the small crack with CA or some type of slurry mixed with epoxy. The only thing I am afraid of is that the CA or epoxy will stain the edges.

Also, I am going to practice polishing a piece prior to anything. I want to make sure I can get the finish to blend back in. Anyone ever have any problems blending the finish back?

Mike Reenock, Premier Granite & Marble, Pen Argyl, PA: Try using Hot Stuff [instant adhesive]. It is pretty much like super glue, but it works really well. As far as top polishing goes, it is easy to blend in.

Luke Getz, DUCA Tile, Holland, MI: Just shave off the glue with a razor blade like normal (but be careful not to dig into the stone because it is soft) and then hit it very briefly with a 200-800 pad, depending on the finish on the rest of the piece. Sometimes if there are swirl marks, I take the pad off the polisher and use it by hand just to remove the final swirl marks. A random orbital sander might work well, too.

Chris Freeman, Freeman Granite & Marble Inc., Willows, CA: Be careful with CA, as it is really hard. Try plain old polyester, leave it high and sand it off. If you finish the entire piece with 220-grit and an orbital in the shop, then polishing the seams is a snap.

Mineral oil is safe to eat (to an extent), and once buffed a little it looks even and “satiny.”

Jeff Leun, The Stone Haus Inc., Chattanooga, TN: Like Chris said, use the polyester and finish with an orbital sander. Don’t overdo the dry sanding. Soapstone does have asbestos in it, so you need to proceed with caution and do as much as possible wet to be on the safe side.

Phil Albee, Chicago Stonepro, Chicago, IL: “Asbestos” refers not to the chemical composition per se, but the fibrous structure. OSHA looked into this and found no evidence of actual asbestos in the samples they collected.

According to what I’ve heard, soapstone doesn’t absorb anything, and the mineral oil simply lays on the surface texture. It doesn’t need sealing, as it won’t stain. I’ve always oiled soapstone. I found that fresh installations initially dry out and lighten up, but stay dark after a couple years of oiling.

I’ve never tried CA on it. Knife-grade Akemi always worked for me.

Michael, Marble Polishing Contractors, Western New York: I recently was called in to repair a recycled lab top composed of soapstone, and rest assured, it was a unique experience. First, I had to remove a black hard wax with acetone, which then revealed significant chemical burns. The next step was to get serious with a 50-grit resin pad and really go to town. This proved to be quite helpful; however, slurry accumulation really loaded up my diamond pad. The next step was simple 100-grit metal diamond abrasives, of which I attached three to a larger drive head. This allowed a flattening of the stone, which was very easy due to the soft nature of soapstone.

Next I had to fill the Bunsen burner holes, which were around 1 ¼ - inch diameter. This, of course, took multiple applications -- the latter of which were tinted and then shaved, ground and honed.

Due to the nature of soapstone being so soft, I proceeded to a 100-grit resin pad, which left a nice clean pattern. However, before the next abrasive grit, I decided to ease the edge so as to take care of chips and whatnot. Fabrication of soapstone usually stops at a 400 silicone carbide end grit. This allows the standard mineral oil treatment as well as making future touch ups possible for the DIY homeowner.

Joshua, Creative Soapstone, Punta Gorda, FL: Soapstone varies in hardness. Some quarries produce soapstone as hard as your softer granites. Some are softer, like your softer marbles. So you always get people with varying opinions based upon which quarry it comes from. People experienced more in granite tend to polish up the soapstone too much. So if you wonder, always go less than you think. If the homeowner can’t use 220-grit sandpaper to fix a scratch, then you went too high.

If you have fissures in your stone, they tend to stand out more in soapstone because of its non-porous nature. So if you end up getting cracks in your soapstone, you’d better look for a different supplier. Some soapstone quarries tend to have issues, but if you find a good supplier, you shouldn’t have a problem. Some issues are normal with a natural stone, but if you are finding them in excess, you really should look for a different supplier.

Soapstone is completely non-porous. Try putting mineral oil on it, and then sand it off the next day. It doesn’t sink into the stone.

The oil is only for an aesthetic appeal -- meaning only to make it look darker. The patina of the stone only happens on the top surface of the stone. Over time, that patina builds up, and thus the stone stays darker longer. Any oil will darken the stone -- such as olive oil, butter and the oils from your body. That’s why you can leave the stone with or without oil or bee’s wax applications. The bee’s wax only builds a patina faster on the surface, so you don’t have to oil as often.

I hope this helps clarify some things. I’ve been working with soapstone for awhile, although I’m learning more and more as time goes on. I see a lot of misconceptions about soapstone. It’s a unique stone, which some people like, yet some people stay away from. I guess it’s all about your own tastes.