Review: Soapstone versus Granite and Quartz

As the granite countertop trend continues to slowly ebb in high-end homes, other alternatives are starting to pick up in popularity. The National Kitchen & Bath Association recently conducted its 2010 survey of designers and found that although granite was still the number one choice for new countertops, quartz was closing the gap.

soapstone countertopWhile granite and quartz are the overwhelming choice for most homeowners, we just completed a kitchen remodel in Vancouver, WA where we installed soapstone countertops in the kitchen. The homeowners, Jim and Liz Luce, loved the understated look of the material in contrast to the flashier polished granite and quartz. We thought we’d take our recent experience and compare soapstone with the other two familiar products:

Granite has been popular for many years because of the wide variety of styles that can be found and because it has depth and when polished has a lot of sparkle from crystals embedded in the stone. Although these “inclusions” are the bane of good diamonds, they give polished granite depth, interest, and a randomness that can be hard to replicate in man-made materials. But these inclusions also give granite it’s main weakness: it’s porous, which means it needs to be maintained regularly and can harbor bacteria. I have it in my home and do not maintain it according to the “recommended rules”. I don’t seal it, I use Windex to clean it (which is a no-no), and I don’t worry about it. I have a family with kids, so I’m not going to lose sleep over maintaining my granite countertops!

In the meantime, quartz countertops are engineered from natural quartz crystals that are joined using a resin and then formed into slabs by the manufacturers. This means that unlike granite, quartz is not porous. But it also means it can’t take the same heat as granite, so you will need to keep the hottest pots and pans on trivets. The engineering process also means that quartz can be chosen in specific colors, giving designers more control over the finished look. This is a material that can withstand neglect.

Soapstone is coming back into popularity. It was used as an old-world building material and often found in older American homes. It features a matte finish and is really only available in dark grey. It’s very durable, not particularly absorbent and stains stay on the surface of the stone and can be scrubbed off. In fact, according to this site, it can be completely refinished to look new, even after 100 years of use. Another option is to oil the soapstone. This will provide a darker look, but will require a little work at least in the early years of your counter. Owners also tend to love it or hate it after living with it for a few years because it gets darker and develops a patina after a lot of use.

Here are some things to consider:

Granite Quartz Soapstone
General Cost (not including installation) $70-$100 per sq. ft. $70-$100 per sq ft. $70-$100 per sq ft.
Choices Many natural and random colors and styles. Many colors, fewer random patters than granite. Most often found in dark grey, with light gray veins.
Installation Can be expensive to install in slab form, brittle, and can break during installation. Pre-determined slab sizes can lead to more seams in installation. Easier to install than granite. About the same installation difficulty as granite.
Care Mild soap and water only, NO abrasives, reseal every 6 months to a year. No sealing, soap and water or glass cleaner Seal with mineral oil regularly, and let a patina develop over time. Can be cleaned with household cleaners.
Durability/use Since it’s porous, granite can harbor bacteria. Extremely hard. It can chip and stain, but it is scratch resistant. Hot pots and pans can be placed directly on the surface. Very hard and durable, not prone to staining or scratching. Not as heat resistant as granite. VERY difficult to repair. Feels soft to the touch but is very durable. Scratches easily but also easy to repair. Resistant to acids and alkalies. Absorbs heat – hot pans can be placed on it. Gets darker in color as it ages and oxidizes.
Longevity* Personally, I like granite but think it suffers from overuse. Some styles, if maintained, will stand the test of time while others, such as some solids and granite tiles, will date many high-end homes built during this era.  But it is my favorite for easy care and daily use. Since it is an engineered product, I think quartz will have its moment in the kitchen then go the way of the Dodo.  But if you have your heart set on a particular color – it may be your best bet. Because of its limited colors, won’t see very wide use and therefore is a good choice for a timeless look. Its use in early American history also helps. I love the oiled soapstone, but don’t know that I would like the labor involved. Many people love it or hate it when it develops a patina. Finally, it’s rough finish can, over the years, scratch your glasses, dishes and pans.

* Remember, this is just my opinion.

Which to choose
Each of these materials costs about the same per square foot and have similar installation costs. Each brings something different to the countertop party. If you like the randomness and variety of natural stone and don’t mind occasional maintenance, granite is a great option. If you want a low-maintenance countertop that has consistent coloration and can be chosen quite precisely to match other colors in your design, choose quartz. If you want something old-world yet unique in modern construction, like the color, and don’t mind its maintenance or tendency to change in shade over time, then soapstone will be a great option.

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