Soapstone is a type of ?metamorphic? or ?fire? rock that forms as a result of intense heat and pressure deep beneath the Earth?s crust over the course of millions of years. Given its fiery genesis, it seems appropriate that there should be such a thing as a soapstone fireplace.
Soapstone was a common construction material in early American homes; many a soapstone fireplace has been in use on a daily basis for two and even three centuries. Despite its relative softness, soapstone is a highly durable substance that is both heat and stain resistant.
American soapstone comes primarily from quarries located in New England, which geologically is far more ancient than the rest of the continent. The North American Craton, of which the Northeastern United States are a part, is a massive, solid piece of bedrock that has existed for well over a billion years; it is beneath this surface that the material from which a soapstone fireplace is constructed was formed. Back then, the mountains ancestral to the Adirondacks and Appalachian were as geologically active and volcanic as the Pacific Northwest?s youthful Cascade Range is today. Those same geologic forces produced the combination of talc, magnesium and dolomite that geologists refer to as steatite, more commonly called soapstone.
The material that goes into the making of a soapstone fireplace is called a schist by geologists; this refers to rocks that have a definite grain similar to wood, and includes marble and shale as well as soapstone. Soapstone differs from marble however in its inert properties. Whereas marble can become stained and/or discolored if it comes in contact with other substances, soapstone is virtually impervious to such deep, penetrating stains. Cleaning is as simple as wiping or light sanding with fine sandpaper or steel wool. A soapstone fireplace will develop a rich patina over the years unless treated with mineral oil sealers; however, many who have a soapstone fireplace leave well enough alone, finding that such a patina adds to the aesthetic value.
Soapstone is heat resistant, but also a very efficient heat conductor and radiator as well. One can burn any number of fuels in a soapstone fireplace, and the material will absorb and continue to radiate heat long after the fuel as been consumed.
One of the best qualities of soapstone is its versatility. It is a material that is both traditional and contemporary; its good looks blends in with any period or style of d?cor from Mediterranean to Victorian to contemporary ? and everything in between.
A soapstone fireplace is a tremendous value. Though the initial cost may be higher than for other materials, it is an investment that will provide an excellent return in terms of aesthetic value and durability.