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Samples of soapstone

Soapstone (also known as steatite or soaprock) is a

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.


The definitions of the terms "steatite" and "soapstone" vary with the field of study. In geology, steatite is a rock that is to a very large extent composed of talc. The mining industry will define steatite as a high-purity talc rock that is suitable for manufacturing of, for example, insulators, the lesser grades of the mineral can be called simply "talc rock". Steatite can be used both in lumps ("block steatite", "lava steatite", "lava grade talc"), and in the ground form. While the geologists logically will use "steatite" to designate both forms, in the industry "steatite" without additional qualifications typically means the steatite that is either already ground or the one to be utilized in the ground form in the future. If the ground steatite is pressed together into blocks, these are called "synthetic block steatite", "artificial block steatite", "artificial lava talc". [1]

In industrial applications soapstone refers to dimension stone that consists of either amphibole-chlorite-carbonate-talc rock, talc-carbonate rock, or simply talc rock and is sold in the form of sawed slabs. "Ground soapstone" sometimes designates the ground waste product of the slab manufacturing.[1]


A block of talc

Petrologically, soapstone is composed predominantly 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.

By mass, "pure" steatite is roughly 63.37%

silica, 31.88% magnesia, and 4.74% water.[2]
It commonly contains minor quantities of other oxides such as CaO or Al2O3.

Pyrophyllite, a mineral very similar to talc, is sometimes called soapstone in the generic sense, since its physical characteristics and industrial uses are similar,[3] and because it is also commonly used as a carving material. However, this mineral typically does not have such a soapy feel as soapstone.

Physical characteristics

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.[4]

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.[5] The resulting material, harder than glass, is sometimes called "lava".[6]

Historical usage


Ancient Egyptian



smoking pipes, a practice that continues today. The soapstone's low heat conduction allows for prolonged smoking without the pipe heating up uncomfortably.[9]

Honolulu Academy of Arts

Indigenous peoples of the Arctic have traditionally used soapstone for carvings of both practical objects and art. 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 in their dwellings.

In the modern period, soapstone is commonly used for carvings in Inuit art.[10]

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.


The 21st-century BC statue of Iddi-Ilum of Mari, Syria, is made of soapstone

The ancient trading city of Tepe Yahya in southeastern Iran was a center for the production and distribution of soapstone in the 5th to 3rd millennia BC.[11]

Soapstone has been used in India as a medium for sculptures since at least the time of the Hoysala Empire, the Western Chalukya Empire and to an extent Vijayanagara Empire.[12] Even earlier, steatite was used as the substrate for Indus-Harappan seals.[13] [14] After carving, the seals were heated above 1,000 °C (1,830 °F) for several days to make them hard and durable to make the final seals used for making impressions on clay.

In China, during the

Spring and Autumn Period (771–476 BC), soapstone was carved into ceremonial knives.[15] Soapstone was also used to carve Chinese seals

Soapstone was used as a writing pencil in Myanmar as early as the 11th century Pagan period. After that, it was still used as a pencil to write on Black Parabaik until the end of the Mandalay period (19th century).


Pipes and decorative carvings of local animals were made out of soapstone by


The Minoan civilization on Crete used soapstone. At the Palace of Knossos, a steatite libation table was found.[17] 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.[18] In Shetland, there is evidence these vessels were used for processing marine and dairy fats.[19] Several surviving medieval buildings in northern Europe are constructed with soapstone, amongst them Nidaros Cathedral.[4]

Modern usage

The outer layers of the Christ the Redeemer sculpture in Rio de Janeiro are made of soapstone.

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,[20][21] 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.[20][21]
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.

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.

Resistance to heat made steatite suitable for manufacturing gas burner tips, spark plugs, electrical switchboards.[6]


Steatite ceramics are low-cost biaxial porcelains of nominal composition (MgO)3(SiO2)4.[22] Steatite is used primarily for its dielectric and thermal insulating properties in applications such as tile, substrates, washers, bushings, beads, and pigments.[23] 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.


Architectural soapstone is mined in Canada, Brazil, India, and Finland and imported into the United States.[24] 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.[25]


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.[26] Most whiskey stones feature a semipolished finish, retaining the soft look of natural soapstone, while others are highly polished.


People can be exposed to soapstone dust 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.

United States


immediately dangerous to life and health.[27]

Other names

The local names for the soapstone vary: in Vermont, "grit" is used, in Georgia "white-grinding" and "dark-grinding" varieties are distinguished, California has "soft", "hard", and "blue" talc.[28] Also:

  • 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.[29]


See also


  1. ^ a b Chidester, Engel & Wright 1963, p. 8.
  2. .
  3. . Retrieved 26 November 2018.
  4. ^
    ISBN 978-82-90273-90-8.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link
  5. ^ "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.
  6. ^ a b Hall, A. L. (1927). "On the talc deposits near Kaapmuiden, in the Eastern Transvaal". Transactions of the Geological Society of South Africa. 30: 83.
  7. .
  8. .
  9. ^ Witthoft, J.G. (1949). "Stone pipes of the historic Cherokees". Southern Indian Studies. 1 (2): 43–62.
  10. .
  11. ^ "Tepe Yahya," Encyclopædia Britannica, 2004. Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. 3 January 2004,
  12. ^ UGC NET History Paper II Chapter Wise Notebook | Complete Preparation Guide. EduGorilla. 1 September 2022. p. 485. Retrieved 26 October 2022.
  13. .
  14. ^ "Soapstone sculptures". 2008. Archived from the original on 15 February 2009. Retrieved 26 November 2018.
  15. ^ "Steatite Knife" at the Bath Museum of East Asian Art
  16. ^ Kelham, Megg (November 2010). "A museum in Finke: An Aputula Heritage project" (PDF). Territory Stories. pp. 1–97. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2019-05-10. Retrieved 11 May 2019.
  17. ^ C.Michael Hogan (2007) "Knossos Fieldnotes", The Modern Antiquarian
  18. ^ Else Rosendahl, The Vikings, The Penguin Press, 1987, page 105
  19. ^ Steele, Val. "Report on the analysis of residues from steatite and ceramic vessels from the site of Belmont, Shetland" (PDF). Shetland Amenity.
  20. ^ a b Weideman, Paul (2017-11-05). "There's a stove for every taste". The Santa Fe New Mexican. Retrieved 2017-12-14.
  21. ^ a b Damrosch, Barbara (2017-01-19). "The enduring appeal of wood stoves". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2017-12-14.
  22. ^ "Royalty Minerals". Retrieved 26 November 2018.
  23. ^ "Superior Technical Ceramics". Retrieved 26 November 2018.
  24. ^ "Soapstone gives countertops, tiles a look that's both new and old". The Washington Post. 2013-05-30. Retrieved 2014-01-11.
  25. ^ Barnett, Antony (2003-06-22). "West's love of talc threatens India's tigers". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 2007-01-09.
  26. ^ "Interview with the Inventor of Whisky Stones, Andrew Hellman". Whisky Stones. Retrieved 2021-06-08.
  27. ^ "CDC - NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards - Soapstone (containing less than 1% quartz)". Retrieved 2015-11-21.
  28. ^ Chidester, Engel & Wright 1963, pp. 8–9.
  29. ^ "CST Personal Home Pages". Retrieved 26 November 2018.
  30. ^ "Soapstone sculptures". 2008. Archived from the original on 15 February 2009. Retrieved 26 November 2018.


Further reading

  • Felce, Robert (2011) Soaprock Coast... The origins of English porcelain

External links