Renovating his 1960s-era rambler in Arlington led management consultant Scott Nycum to consider alternatives to granite for the kitchen countertops. “Granite has become so common and I wanted a more distinctive material,” said Nycum, 37. “I remembered the countertops in my high school and college science labs were made of soapstone, so I started researching the material.”
Soapstone, a bluish-gray metamorphic rock, is soft but extremely dense, nonporous and resistant to bacteria and chemicals. It has better thermal conductivity than granite and marble, allowing the stone to transfer heat and cold. As a result, soapstone is well suited for tiles over heated floors and small rocks used to chill drinks instead of ice.
The stone, which contains talc, is often speckled or veined, and gets its name from its soapy feeling when touched.
“Soapstone almost looks like gray flannel,” said Nycum. “Once I realized it was sourced locally, that made it even more attractive.”
The stones cut into countertops and fireplace tiles in his home come from the Alberene Soapstone Co. in Schuyler, Va., about 25 miles southwest of Charlottesville. Founded in 1883, Alberene is the only company in the nation that still quarries the stone.
“Ninety-five percent of soapstone [sold in this country] is from Brazil,” said Rich Saypack, marketing manager of Green Mountain Soapstone, an importer in Castleton, Vt. “It’s a niche market.”
While far less popular than granite today, soapstone was big business during the first half of the 20th century. Alberene once employed about 2,000 people to mine the rock from 6,000 acres of quarries. The company fabricated products ranging from laundry tubs and sinks to griddles and fume hoods.
But after several ownership changes over the past five decades, the company languished and nearly closed.
In 2012, under new management, Alberene reopened its Old Dominion quarry in Albemarle County. “Before, we were taking boulders that had been discarded or never processed and slicing them into countertops,” said the company’s managing partner, Tripp Stewart.
The company recently upgraded older equipment and purchased new machinery to cut and polish larger slabs from its quarry. “By the end of 2013, we will have invested close to
$2 million into the operations,” Stewart said.
Retooling the company, he said, is helping to meet growing demand for soapstone since Martha Stewart and other design trendsetters started promoting the material as a good choice for kitchens. Increased production of Alberene’s stone is also helping to keep its prices competitive with Brazilian imports.
“Soapstone from Alberene used to be 50 percent more expensive than Brazilian soapstone,” said stone contractor Bob Blanchard of R. Bratti Associates in Alexandria, one of several local sources for the Virginia stone. “The company’s new management has greatly increased availability and brought down the cost.”
Blanchard said Alberene soapstone “runs $75 to $80 per square foot, about the same as higher-end granite.” He said soapstone is well suited for older homes — “it’s not shiny, glitzy or cold” — and can be used both indoors and outdoors.
But he warned, “it is not going to stay pristine” because the surface will darken with use over time. The softness of the stone also makes it prone to scratches.
The finish can be more evenly darkened by rubbing the stone with dry wax or mineral or walnut oil. Blanchard recommends applying the oil to the stone every day for a week and then once a week for month. “Once you get through the first month, you don’t need to do it too often,” he said.
Alberene quarries two types of soapstone, a mottled version and a more uniformly light gray stone with veining. The company expects to extract a darker, harder stone from its quarry by the end of the summer.
In addition to soapstone slabs for countertops, Alberene produces flagstones, pavers and cobblestones ($6 to $12 per square foot) and one-foot-square tiles ($12). The company also sells a fire-pit kit ($295) with a tubular guide for stacking the stones into a circle.
Visitors are welcome to tour Alberene’s plant on weekdays to pick out their stone. The walls of the 1906 structure, where the blocks and slabs are processed, are entirely built from soapstone.
Deborah K. Dietsch is a freelance writer.