Soapstone (also known as steatite or soaprock) is a talc-schist, which is a type of metamorphic rock. It is largely composed of the mineral talc and is thus rich in magnesium. It is produced by dynamothermal metamorphism and metasomatism, which occurs in the areas 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 magnesiocummingtonite), and trace to minor FeCr-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 dolostones.
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 that from which soapstone derives its name.
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 soapy when touched, hence the name. There is no fixed hardness 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. Common, non-architectural grades of soapstone can just barely be scratched with a fingernail and are thus considered to have a hardness of 2.5 on the Mohs scale. If a candidate rock cannot be scratched with a knife blade (hardness of 5.5), it is not soapstone.
Soapstone is often used as an insulator or housing for 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 1000–1200 °C into enstatite and cristobalite; in the Mohs scale, this corresponds to an increase in hardness to 5.5–6.5.
Soapstone is used for inlaid designs, sculpture, coasters, and kitchen countertops and sinks. The Inuit often use soapstone for traditional carvings. Some Native American tribes and bands make bowls, cooking slabs, and other objects from soapstone; historically, this was particularly common during the Late Archaic archaeological period.
Vikings hewed soapstone directly from the stone face, shaped it into cooking-pots, and sold these at home and abroad.
Soapstone is sometimes used for construction of fireplace surrounds, cladding on metal woodstoves, 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 counter tops and bathroom tiling because ot the ease of working the material and its property as the "quiet stone." A weathered or aged appearance will occur naturally over time as the patina is enhanced. Applying mineral oil simply darkens the appearance of the stone; it does not protect it in any way.
Tepe Yahya, an ancient trading city in southeastern Iran, was a centre for the production and distribution of soapstone in the 5th–3rd millennia BC. It was also used in Minoan Crete. At the Palace of Knossos, archaeological recovery has included a magnificent libation table made of steatite. The Yoruba of West Nigeria utilized 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 superstitiously "the staff of Oranmiyan"
In Brazil, especially in Minas Gerais, due to the abundance of soapstone mines in that Brazilian state, local artisans still craft objects from that material, including pots and pans, wine glasses, statues, jewel boxes, coasters, vases. 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.
Some Native Americans use soapstone for smoking pipes; numerous examples have been found among artifacts of different cultures and are still in use today. Its lack of heat conduction allows for prolonged smoking without the pipe's heating up uncomfortably.
Soapstone is also used to carve Chinese seals.
Currently, soapstone is most commonly used for architectural applications, such as counter tops and interior surfacing. There is currently only one active North American soapstone mine. That mine is found in Central Virginia and is operated by the Alberene Soapstone Company. All other architectural soapstone is mined in Brazil, India and Finland and imported into the United States.
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 craftsmen as a marking tool because its marks are visible and not permanent.
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.
Soapstones can be put in a freezer and later used in place of ice cubes to chill alcoholic beverages without diluting.
Steatite ceramics are low-cost biaxial porcelains of nominal composition (MgO)3(SiO2)4. By mass, steatite is approximately 67% silica and 33% magnesia, and may contain minor quantities of other oxides such as CaO or Al2O3. Steatite is used primarily for its dielectric and thermal insulating properties in applications such as tile, substrates, washers, bushings, beads and pigments.
- Combarbalite stone, exclusively mined in Combarbalá, Chile, is known for its many colors. While they are not visible during mining, they appear after refining.
- Palewa and gorara stones are types of Indian soapstone.
- A variety of other regional and marketing names for soapstone are used.
Soapstone slot & tab tomb in Dahlonega, Georgia, USA.
An Egyptian carved and glazed steatite scarab amulet.
Steatite scarab. The Walters Art Museum.
- “About the Hardness of Soapstone” by Soapstone.com
- "Some Important Aspects of the Harappan Technological Tradition," Bhan KK, Vidale M and Kenoyer JM, in Indian Archaeology in Retrospect/edited by S. Settar and Ravi Korisettar, Manohar Press, New Delhi, 2002.
- Kenneth E. Sassaman (1993-03-30). Early Pottery in the Southeast: Tradition and Innovation in Cooking Technology. University Alabama Press. ISBN 978-0-8173-0670-0.
- Else Rosendahl, The Vikings, The Penguin Press, 1987, page 105
- "Tepe Yahya," Encyclopædia Britannica, 2004. Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. 3 January 2004, Britannica.com
- C.Michael Hogan (2007) "Knossos Fieldnotes", The Modern Antiquarian
- Barnett, Antony (2003-06-22). "West's love of talc threatens India's tigers". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 2007-01-09.
- Witthoft, J.G., 1949, "Stone Pipes of the Historic Cherokees", Southern Indian Studies 1(2):43–62.
- Royalty Minerals Ltd., Mumbai, India.
- Superior Technical Ceramics Corp., St. Albans, Vermont, USA.
- GemRocks: Soapstone
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- Soapstone Calculated Refractory Data w/ Technical Properties Converter (Incl. Soapstone Volume vs. Weight measuring units)
- Ancient soapstone bowl (The Central States Archaeological Journal)
- Soapstone Native American quarries, Maryland (Geological Society of America)
- Prehistoric soapstone use in northeastern Maryland (Antiquity Journal)
- The Blue Rock Soapstone Quarry, Yancey County, NC (North Carolina Office of State Archaeology)