Maybe as a child you might remember playing with a piece of soapstone. It is composed mainly of dolomite, chlorite, and magnesite, but also contains a lot of magnesium silicate, more commonly known as talc. You may recall that talc is the main component of Baby Powder, and this is what gives soapstone its wonderful buttery feel.
If you have ever carved a piece of soapstone, a popular pastime in 1970s high school art classes, you’ll know that it could be shaped with simple wooden or plastic tools. Why would someone make a countertop from such a soft stone?
First of all, yes it isn’t as hard as granite, but it is also somewhat pliant so it will not crack like granite under the same conditions of weight or stress. Second, it is nonporous, unlike granite, slate, concrete, and sandstone. It doesn’t need to be sealed, and won’t stain easily, even if you spill oil or wine on it. This makes clean up a snap with just mild soap and a dishcloth, which is particularly useful to keep a sanitary surface when working with meats and vegetables that might have been exposed to E.coli bacteria.
As well, the soapstone used to make countertops has a much lower talc content. It still possesses that lovely tactile sensation, but is considerably tougher. Plus it comes in a nice range of colors from grays and pearls with lovely marbling, all the way up to almost pure white, with much finer marbling. Just make sure you use a cutting board, because even granite can be marked by sharp knives and metal tools.
Favored for its lustrous beauty, quartz is becoming a very popular choice. Most quartz sold is about 94.5% quarried quartz that has been ground to dust or chunky aggregate, and the remainder is resin binders, pigments, and things like metallic flakes (depending on design). These are incorporated at high temperature and pressure to make the final slab.
This engineered stone is completely non-porous, like soapstone, and just needs a wipe with a soapy dishcloth to be perfectly clean. Also like soapstone, it does not require bi-annual sealing to protect its surface. You’ll be safe from oil, wine, juices, coffee, tomato and whatever other staining material happens along.
The biggest advantage with quartz is that it can be virtually any color you wish from fire engine red to bright apple green, complete with natural looking swirls, random patterns, as well as little flecks. Because it is engineered, it can be designed to fit in any corner, to follow any curve, and to smoothly transition from horizontal to vertical with no seams.
Allowing seams can make installation much easier, and because of the engineered nature of the material, tolerances can be made so small that the seams are undetectable. Natural stone has a tendency to chip on the edges when it is being cut, making the seams much more obvious.
Quartz cannot be used outside. Sunlight will fade its colors, and possibly cause warping and cracking—so outdoor-use immediately voids your warranty. It cannot tolerate temperatures over 400° F, and the sudden thermal shock of a hot pan on the material can cause the surface to crack, so always use a trivet (heatproof pad).