AskDefine | Define soapstone

Dictionary Definition

soapstone n : a soft heavy compact variety of talc having a soapy feel; used to make hearths and tabletops and ornaments [syn: soaprock, soap-rock, steatite]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. a soft rock, rich in talc, also containing serpentine and either magnetite, dolomite or calcite

Extensive Definition

Soapstone (also known as steatite or soaprock) is a metamorphic rock, a talc-schist. It is largely composed of the mineral talc and is rich in magnesium. It is produced by dynamothermal metamorphism and metasomatism, which occurs at 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 from which soapstone derives its name.

Physical characteristics and uses

Steatite is relatively soft (because of the high talc content, talc being one on Mohs hardness scale), and may feel soapy when touched, hence the name. Soapstone is used for inlaid designs, sculpture, coasters, and kitchen countertops and sinks. Traditional Inuit carvings often use soapstone, and some Native American groups made bowls, cooking slabs, and other objects from soapstone, particularly during the Late Archaic archaeological period. Soapstone is sometimes used for fireplace surrounds and woodstoves because it can absorb and evenly distribute heat while being easy to manufacture. This is found in many upscale Alaskan homes. It is also used for griddles and other cookware.
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
Another instance of use in the ancient world is found in Minoan Crete at the Palace of Knossos, where archaeological recovery has included a magnificent libation table made of steatite.
Soapstone has been used in India for centuries as a soft medium for carving, but unfortunately the world wide demand for soapstone is threatening the habitat of India's tigers. The Hoysala Empire temples were made from soapstone.
Soapstone is used by welders and fabricators as a marker because, due to its resistance to heat, it remains visible when heat is applied. Soapstone is used to create molds for the casting of pewter objects.
Soapstone smoking pipes are found, for example, among Native American Indian artifacts.
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.
The term steatite is sometimes used for soapstone. It may also denote also a type of ceramic material made from soapstone with minor additives and heated to vitrify (to change or make into glass or a glassy substance, especially through heat fusion). It 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. It was used for beads and seals in ancient civilizations. Steatite 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 from 1 to 5.5-6.5.

Other names

Kisii stone from Kenya is a type of pyrophyllite used by the Kisii people of the Tabaka Hills in Western Kenya. They use this material to make pots, used to carry fat for massaging into their skin to guard against the elements.
Combarbalite stone, exclusively mined in Combarbala, Chile, is known for its many colors. While they are not visible during mining, they come out after refining.
Palewa and gorara stones are types of Indian soapstone.
A variety of other regional and marketing names for soapstone are used.


External links

soapstone in Danish: Fedtsten
soapstone in German: Speckstein
soapstone in French: Stéatite
soapstone in Latvian: Steatīts
soapstone in Norwegian: Kleberstein
soapstone in Portuguese: Esteatite
soapstone in Simple English: Steatite
soapstone in Finnish: vuolukivi
soapstone in Swedish: Täljsten
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