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People have quarried soapstone for thousands of years. Native Americans in eastern North America used the soft rock to make bowls, cooking slabs, smoking pipes, and ornaments as early as the Late Archaic Period (3000 to 5000 years ago). Native Americans on the west coast traveled in canoes from the mainland to San Clemente Island (60 miles offshore!) to obtain soapstone for cooking bowls and effigy carving as early as 8000 years ago.
The people of Scandinavia began using soapstone during the Stone Age, and it helped them enter the Bronze Age when they discovered that it could be easily carved into molds for casting metal objects such as knife blades and spearheads. They were among the first to discover the ability of soapstone to absorb heat and radiate it slowly. That discovery inspired them to make soapstone cooking pots, bowls, cooking slabs, and hearth liners.
Throughout the world, in locations where the soapstone is exposed at the surface, it was one of the first rocks to be quarried. Soapstone’s special properties continue to make it the “material of choice” for a wide variety of uses.
Soapstone is a metamorphic rock that is composed primarily of talc, with varying amounts of chlorite, micas, amphiboles, carbonates, and other minerals. Because it is composed primarily of talc it is usually very soft. Soapstone is typically gray, bluish, green, or brown in color, often variegated. Its name is derived from its “soapy” feel and softness.
The name “soapstone” is often used in other ways. Miners and drillers use the name for any soft rock that is soapy or slippery to the touch. In the craft marketplace, sculptures and ornamental objects made from soft rocks such as alabaster or serpentine are often said to be made from “soapstone.”
Many people use the name “steatite” interchangeably with “soapstone.” However, some people reserve the name “steatite” for a fine-grained unfoliated soapstone that is nearly 100% talc and highly suited for carving.
Soapstone is composed primarily of talc and shares many physical properties with that mineral. Physical properties include:
All the special properties of soapstone mentioned above make the material of choice, for a wide variety of uses such as:
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