What is Soapstone

No, you can’t clean your hands with it, but you can use it to make bowls and ornaments. How does that sound? 

Since ancient times, soapstone has been a popular medium for carving. Thousands of years ago, Native Americans used this rock to make smoking pipes and bowls, and ornaments. Prior to that, the Scandinavians started using this soft-rock during the Stone Age and continued to do so throughout the Bronze Age. It was then that humans realized that the stone could be easily carved. They also found out that soapstone can absorb heat and release it slowly, making it perfect for cookware.

Its unique properties and ease of extraction inspired humans to use the material for a variety of uses. In this post, we take a closer look at soapstone, its properties, and its uses. Let’s get started. 

What is Soapstone?

Soapstone
Image by kalhh from Pixabay

Soapstone, in its purest essence, is a metamorphic rock that primarily contains talc. Alongside, it also includes minerals such as carbonates, micas, chlorite, pyroxenes, amphiboles, and several other minerals in trace quantities. Since the stone contains a large amount of talc, it is soft, making it ideal for carving. Moreover, it is typically gray but can also be found in several other colors such as green, blue and brown. The stone got its name from the softness and a texture that closely resembles soap; hence it’s known as soapstone. 

If you are planning to purchase soapstone (for any of its diverse uses), you need to know that miners and drillers use this name for any soft rock that has a soapy or slippery feel. Moreover, craftsmen also refer to other soft stones such as serpentine or alabaster as soapstone. So make sure you know the differences so you can end up with the suitable material. 

The Formation of Soapstone 

As mentioned earlier, soapstone is a metamorphic rock, and it usually forms at the convergent plate boundaries. Since it is the region that is most exposed to heat and pressure, convergent plate boundaries provide the perfect environment where the rock can be metamorphosed into soapstone. The rock is abundantly found in Southeastern Brazil in the state of Minas Gerais. 

Physical Properties 

Soapstones of different colors
Soapstones of different colors. Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0

If you look at the composition of the rock, it is almost 100% talc and hence it shares many physical and chemical properties of talc. Given its physical properties, soapstone is suitable for several uses.

 

Some of the physical properties of soapstone include the following.

    • Soft and easy to carve 
    • Nonporous, hence nonabsorbent  
    • Poor heat and electricity conductivity 
    • Resistant to alkalis and acid 
Talc Block
Talc Block Wikimedia CC

While soapstone primarily contains talc, its composition also depends on the parent rock since it is a metamorphosed rock. Moreover, the temperature and pressure conditions of the environment also play a role in how the rock behaves.


Furthermore, the level of metamorphism also plays an integral role in determining the grain size.

Soapstone with fine grains is perfect for detailed carving. Lastly, the presence of other minerals and the level of metamorphism can influence the hardness of the stone. 

Hence, you can expect that the physical properties of the soapstone can vary significantly depending upon the location of extraction that they depend on.

    • The level of metamorphism, 
    • The temperature and pressure conditions, and 
    • Presence of other minerals

Common Uses of Soapstone 

Given its unique physical properties, soapstone has a variety of uses. Again, its use depends on the grain size, hardness, and level of metamorphism as all of this affects the physical properties of the rock.  Some of the common uses of soapstone include the following. 

    • Cooking pots, slabs, and boiling stones, 
    • Electric panels, 
    • Cemetery markers, 
    • Countertops in labs and kitchens, 
    • Sinks,
    • Plates and bowls, 
    • Sculptures and carvings, 
    • Floor tile, and wall tiles, 
    • Metals casting molds, and 
    • Cold stones. 

The uses of soapstone were first identified by mankind during the Stone Age when people carved their first cooking pots with the mineral without using any metal tools. Later, skilled craftsmen carved into the mineral and identified all the other uses. Since then, it is a popular medium for carving for skilled artisans. 

Geological Occurrence 

The rock is abundantly found worldwide, but it is present in considerable quantities in the following regions. Most of the soapstone that you find today comes from China, India, and Brazil. Significant deposits of soapstone can also be found in Canada and Australia and several other European countries, and the United States. As mentioned earlier, soapstone from different countries will have different physical properties and hence different usage. 

Soapstone Around the World 

Brazil 

Several of the world’s largest quarries for soapstone are found in Brazil. Large slabs of soapstone are quarried in the region and are extensively used for sinks, countertops, and carving sculptures. The famous Christ, the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, which is around 98 feet tall, contains many soapstones. 

Asia 

Soapstone is also quite popular in Asia and can be found in several colors. The Asian soapstone is primarily used for carving. Moreover, it is also used for cooking utensils such as bowls, plates, and teapots. Soapstone artifacts have been excavated from the Indus Valley in huge quantities, proving that the rock was extensively used during the Harappan period, which dates from 2600 B.C. to 1900 B.C. 

Europe 

Soapstone was a popular rock in Rome and ancient Greece. Archeologists have found evidence that the Vikings also used soapstone as it reflects heat. 

Final Words 

Soapstone is a metamorphic rock that primarily contains talc. However, depending upon the region where it comes from, the level of metamorphism, and the parent rock, it can also contain other minerals as well. Hence, no two samples of soapstone that come from different origins can have the same physical properties. However, soapstone is a soft rock that has several uses.  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.