Soapstone (also known as steatite or soaprock) is a talc-schist, which is a type of metamorphic rock. It is composed largely of the magnesium rich mineral talc. It is produced by dynamothermal metamorphism and metasomatism, which occur in the zones where tectonic plates are subducted, changing rocks by heat and pressure, with influx of fluids, but without melting. It has been a medium for carving for thousands of years.
Petrologically, soapstone is composed dominantly of talc, with varying amounts of chlorite and amphiboles (typically tremolite, anthophyllite, and cummingtonite, hence its obsolete name, magnesiocummingtonite), and traces of minor iron-chromium oxides. It may be schistose or massive. Soapstone is formed by the metamorphism of ultramafic protoliths (e.g. dunite or serpentinite) and the metasomatism of siliceous dolomites.
Pyrophyllite, a mineral very similar to talc, is sometimes called soapstone in the generic sense, since its physical characteristics and industrial uses are similar, and because it is also commonly used as a carving material. However, this mineral typically does not have such a soapy feel as soapstone.
Soapstone is relatively soft because of its high talc content, talc having a definitional value of 1 on the Mohs hardness scale. Softer grades may feel similar to soap when touched, hence the name. No fixed hardness is given for soapstone because the amount of talc it contains varies widely, from as little as 30% for architectural grades such as those used on countertops, to as much as 80% for carving grades.
Soapstone is easy to carve; it is also durable, heat-resistant and has a high heat storage capacity. It has therefore been used for cooking and heating equipment for thousands of years.
Soapstone is often used as an insulator for housing and electrical components, due to its durability and electrical characteristics and because it can be pressed into complex shapes before firing. Soapstone undergoes transformations when heated to temperatures of 1,000-1,200 °C (1,830-2,190 °F) into enstatite and cristobalite; on the Mohs scale, this corresponds to an increase in hardness to 5.5-6.5.
Soapstone has been used widely throughout history, by many cultures.
Ancient Egyptian scarab signets and amulets were most commonly made from glazed steatite. The Yoruba people of West Nigeria used soapstone for several statues, most notably at Esie, where archaeologists have uncovered hundreds of male and female statues about half of life size. The Yoruba of Ife also produced a miniature soapstone obelisk with metal studs called "the staff of Oranmiyan".
The Minoan civilization on Crete used soapstone. At the Palace of Knossos, a steatite libation table was found. Soapstone is relatively abundant in northern Europe. Vikings hewed soapstone directly from the stone face, shaped it into cooking pots, and sold these at home and abroad. In Shetland, there is evidence these vessels were used for processing marine and dairy fats. Several surviving medieval buildings in northern Europe are constructed with soapstone, amongst them Nidaros Cathedral.
Soapstone has been used in India for millennia as a medium for carving, perhaps most famously in the so-called Priest-King sculpture) from the Bronze Age Indus Valley Civilization site of Mohenjo-Daro.
Native Americans have used soapstone since the Late Archaic Period. During the Archaic archaeological period (8000-1000 BC), bowls, cooking slabs, and other objects were made from soapstone. Use of soapstone in native American cultures continue to the modern day. Later, other cultures carved soapstone smoking pipes, a practice that continues today. The soapstone's low heat conduction allows for prolonged smoking without the pipe heating up uncomfortably.
Indigenous peoples of the arctic made use of soapstone in carvings. The qulliq, a type of oil lamp, is carved out of soapstone and used by the Inuit, Chukchi, and Yupik peoples. This kind of lamp was the single most important article of furniture for the Inuit peoples in their dwellings.
In the United States, locally quarried soapstone was used for gravemarkers in 19th century northeast Georgia, around Dahlonega, and Cleveland as simple field stone and "slot and tab" tombs. Small blocks of soapstone (8" x 10" x 1") were also heated on the cookstove or near the fire and used to warm cold bedclothes or to keep hands and feet cozy while sleighing.
In modern times, soapstone is most commonly used for architectural applications, such as counter tops, floor tiles, showerbases, and interior surfacing.
Soapstone is sometimes used for construction of fireplace surrounds, cladding on wood-burning stoves, and as the preferred material for woodburning masonry heaters because it can absorb, store, and evenly radiate heat due to its high density and magnesite (MgCO3) content. It is also used for countertops and bathroom tiling because of the ease of working the material and its property as the "quiet stone". A weathered or aged appearance occurs naturally over time as the patina is enhanced.
Soapstone can be used to create molds for casting objects from soft metals, such as pewter or silver. The soft stone is easily carved and is not degraded by heating. The slick surface of soapstone allows the finished object to be easily removed.
Welders and fabricators use soapstone as a marker due to its resistance to heat; it remains visible when heat is applied. It has also been used for many years by seamstresses, carpenters, and other craftspeople as a marking tool, because its marks are visible but not permanent.
Steatite ceramics are low-cost biaxial porcelains of nominal composition (MgO)3(SiO2)4. Steatite is used primarily for its dielectric and thermal insulating properties in applications such as tile, substrates, washers, bushings, beads, and pigments. It is also used for high-voltage insulators, which have to stand large mechanical loads, e.g. insulators of mast radiators.
Soapstone continues to be used for carvings and sculptures by artists and indigenous peoples. In Brazil, especially in the state of Minas Gerais, the abundance of soapstone mines allow local artisans to craft pots, pans, wine glasses, statues, jewel boxes, coasters, and vases from soapstone. These handicrafts are commonly sold in street markets found in cities across the state. Some of the oldest towns, notably Congonhas, Tiradentes, and Ouro Preto, still have some of their streets paved with soapstone from colonial times.
Soapstones can be put in a freezer and later used in place of ice cubes to chill alcoholic beverages without diluting. Sometimes called whiskey stones, these were first introduced around 2007. Most whiskey stones feature a semipolished finish, retaining the soft look of natural soapstone, while others are highly polished.
Architectural soapstone is mined in Canada, Brazil, India, and Finland and imported into the United States. Active North American mines include one south of Quebec City with products marketed by Canadian Soapstone, the Treasure and Regal mines in Beaverhead County, Montana mined by the Barretts Minerals Company, and another in Central Virginia operated by the Alberene Soapstone Company.
Mining to meet worldwide demand for soapstone is threatening the habitat of India's tigers.
People can be exposed to soapstone in the workplace via inhalation and skin or eye contact. Exposure above safe limits can lead to symptoms including coughing, shortness of breath, cyanosis, crackles, and pulmonary heart disease.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has set the legal limit (permissible exposure limit) for soapstone exposure in the workplace as 20 million particles per cubic foot over an 8-hour workday. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has set a recommended exposure limit of 6 mg/m3 total exposure and 3 mg/m3 respiratory exposure over an 8-hour workday. At levels of 3000 mg/m3, soapstone is immediately dangerous to life and health.
A 12th-century Byzantine relief of Saint George and the Dragon
Soapstone slot-and-tab tomb in Dahlonega, Georgia
An Egyptian carved and glazed steatite scarab amulet
Steatite scarab at the Walters Art Museum