Friday, February 4, 2011

Stainless Steel or Soapstone?

Just when I thought our final kitchen finish decision involved a mere edge profile, another quandary.

we couldn't bear to do this with marble
We want our perimeter kitchen countertops, the ones where all the action takes place, to be capable of withstanding all of the ravages of cooking.  To be, in a word, indestructible. We are wanton, messy cooks around here.  Butter, wine, lemon, curries, vinegar, pot lids encrusted with browned bits from long braises--the countertop must take all comers, and the counter must win, hands down, every time.

We thought we had our winner in stainless steel.  Stainless has lustre, strength, incorruptibility, and a fantastic pedigree.  It is, after all, the surface of choice in almost all restaurant kitchens.  But then the quoting process.  Stainless is expensive.  In the hands of an inexperienced fabricator it can look a little rough around the edges and wobbly in the middle.  Plus, we were getting conflicting information about gauge and type of stainless: 16, 14, 304 or 316...we just couldn't get the definitive answer.  And while this was happening, our eyes began to roam.

Initial finishes palette (plus brick wall, not shown, see here)

Cruising the amazing GardenWeb kitchen forum one day (here), we saw a post about someone's ss countertop.  Thinking ss meant stainless steel, we followed the thread and discovered stainless steel's possible nemesis: soapstone.  Soapstone is similarly incorruptible.  Its structure is inert--undamaged by acid or oils.  And although it can scratch, its softness allows it to be gently buffed back into uniform smoothness.  And soapstone can do something else.  Unlike stainless, which can only reflect what's around it, soapstone has its own inherent beauty.  It can provide a subtle but strong anchor to a white kitchen, a counterbalance to a neutral colour scheme. 

Revised palette with cast iron pan as proxy for soapstone
What do you think?   Unfortunately, I don't have any photos of the soapstone we might use, so I used a cast iron pan as a poor substitute for the soapstone.  We'd been planning to allow our eclectic dishware and enamelled iron pots to provide the colour in our kitchen, but lately we've been thinking things might be a little washed out, and in dire need of some contrast.
Here are some other things that will be in the finished kitchen:

this marble, called calacatta carrara (more about it here)

our wall mounted stainless steel gas fire place

one of three Franklin pendants in antique silver, brick in background

shorebird carvings whose neutral colours guided some of our finish choices
Maybe, just as the shorebird's bills and tails lend them a lovely graphic quality, the dark soapstone would give some definition to our neutral kitchen.  We have yet to go to see the available slabs of soapstone, so we can't judge how well it go with our marble, but we will very soon.  We like the idea that soapstone changes a little--lightening and becoming grayer--in between oilings.   To make matters worse, in the last couple of days we finally found a steel fabricator who says he could make  the counters we want with integral sinks and marine edges.  The prices for stainless and soapstone are neck and neck.  What would you do?  We'd love to hear your opinion.


And this s.s. vs s.s. decision doesn't even touch on the new dilemma regarding the marble island top.  Just as we thought we had committed to building up the edge of our 2cm marble slab to give it more presence, along comes Paul Anater, kitchen designer and blogger extraordinaire, freshly back from an influential furniture show in Cologne, Germany with a report about the new sleek trend in countertops: thin is in: 1 cm thin to be precise.  Aack!  What to do?!.  Read about it at his blog: Kitchen and Residential Design.


Roncy Vic said...

If i were doing my kitchen now, i'd probaly use either soapstone or wood. Soapstone is inert and so gorgeous in a white kitchen, even if it does require some regular re-oiling.

S and N said...

Thanks Roncy Vic,
I think we're leaning that way. Maybe you'll get a chance to use soapstone at your cottage.

Fred said...

We are in the process of selecting countertops for our own home... currently leaning towards a lighter shade of Dupont Zodiaq, which is a quartz-surface product (also sold as SileStone and I think a few other brands carry similar). We're leaning that way because its got granite-like qualities from a looks standpoint, but it is also better at heat resistance and is non-porous (doesn't need to be sealed). Some of the lighter colors seem to resemble the tone of soapstone, but none would have the character and markings since it is a manufactured product. Thanks for introducing me to it.

(P.S. just noticed you require folks to have a google or openID account to comment, but our blog is actually at and many folks like me don't have logins for these services because we run independent sites.

S and N said...

Thanks Fred,
We looked into some of the quartz surfaces too, but in the end we decided we wanted something, as you suggested, with more character. But the quartz products do have appeal. If you prefer a lighter colour, apparently you can leave soapstone unoiled for a much less dramatic look.
And thank you for the information about restrictions on comments. I'll look into it.

Windlost said...


Thanks for your comment on my blog. I think the white kitchen you are referring to is from Elle Decor. It is the one with the big leafy tree on the left? I checked and it is Elle Decor but I don't know which month. I will check their archive and see if I can find it for you.

Send me your email address and I will send you the image I have which might be larger than what I posted!

Windlost said...

Here is the link to the kitchen I posted, from Elle Decor 2007. Is this the one??

Good luck. Wow - you have a great blog!!!!!

S and N said...

You are wonderful. Thank you very much for tracking down that photo! I have followed your blog off and on for years (since we first started ours), but we have had many lapses while you have continued going strong. The Elle Decor link says the countertops are Carrara, but it looks as though the perimeter counters might be soapstone. We may use something like the edge detail on that marble countertop in the foreground on our island counter--we wrote about that particular dilemma in the previous post.
I really appreciate your effort on our behalf. Thank you.

Windlost said...

Hello again!

You are welcome. I know what it's like to covet something in a photo and never find the source (and the blogger never emails you back!).

Do you read blogger Stef at "Brooklyn Limestone"? I think they put soapstone in their kitchen and they love it, but I don't think they cook as much as it sounds like you two do! Check out her blog if you haven't. I am linking to you and will live vicariously through your kitchen re-do. I am glad I'm not doing that. What's in is out, can't find what you love, etc. and one gets confused but from the looks of things, it will be classic and crisp and elegant and timeless.

I LOVE the look of the white and gray marble. I did not know that it stains so readily.

Blogger Holly of "Things That Inspire" is also building a new home and has talked about kitchens and lives in sophisticated Atlanta with lots of choice. Check her out too if you have not.

Where are you?!

xo Terri
Terri xo

S and N said...

Hello again Terri,
We're just a little west of Toronto and a long way east of you.
I do read the blogs you mention. I admit I was most interested in watching the progress of fellow renovators, so I've fallen off the Limestones a little since the completion of their lovely house.
And, yes, the kitchen must be the most nervewracking renovation of all. So many choices!
It will be nice to know you're following our progress. Thank you for the vote of confidence.

for the love of a house said...

hi! thank you so much for your comment!
ohhh do I love thee- let me count the ways! I ADORE our soapstone. I, too, had read about it being soft, but I think a big part of that is where it is quarried. I have not had that experience. I love its properties... that you can put anything on it- i.e. heat, nothing stains it, and love the look and more importantly "feel" it give the room. I would think it is the exact opposite of ss, and you would first need to decide how you want the kitchen to "feel"! I get some spotting from soap splatters around the sink, but Barkeepers Friend gets those right up. And I find the oiling to be a lovely thing to do and not a chore!
regarding the marble.... this too is just a personal choice. I briefly considered the 1 3/4" (mine is 1 1/4"), but in the end that would not have been what you would have seen in an antique farmhouse, so I chose against it, but that is my house. In my humble opinion (but you did ask;) I think the beefed up marble always looks just that... beefed up... manipulated, man-made. I like to see the natural stone in all of its naturalness! Again, just my opinion!

good luck with your decisions!

for the love of a house said...

p.s. your wall mounted SS fireplace is STUNNING! love it!

S and N said...

Hello Joan, and thank you for visiting!
When I run through the various blogs I've bookmarked, yours always catches my attention and makes me stop to read because you have such an enviable lifestyle, and are building such a beautiful home for yourself (not to mention the quality and uniqueness of your posts). We passed through your adopted state this summer on our annual journey to Nova Scotia--gorgeous country.
Given the beauty of your kitchen, your opinion carries weight with us. In fact I don't think we know of a single detractor of soapstone who actually has it installed. I keep hearing about its tactile qualities, which is certainly one thing it doesn't share with stainless steel. If only the snow would stop, I would be out to see the available soapstone slabs from the few importers in our area.
I do share your opinion about the built-up marble, but the slabs in our area are almost all 3/4" and I don't know if a single thickness will read as stingy. Because it's the island (and unplumbed), it may be worth waiting to see if we can find a thicker slab. We're wondering if we should rethink the subtle veining of the marble slab we've tagged in favour of something bolder to match the strong drama of soapstone.
Thank you for voicing your opinion! We did ask.
Oh, and I'm glad you like our fireplace. It is a design originally intended for yachts, so it can be installed in a 6" exterior wall. It certainly doesn't have the same ambiance as a woodburning hearth, but its warmth is undeniably appealing at the breakfast table on a chilly autumn morning.
I hope you'll revisit to see our kitchen progress.

Kathleen said...

I'm so glad I read through the comments. Now, I know what to do about those soap spots on the soapstone.

S and N, you have a great house. I've been going through all your projects. You've done a wonderful job. I can't wait to see how the kitchen turns out!

S and N said...

Hello Kathleen,
Yes, it's great to find a valuable tip in the comments. That one in particular helped sway us toward soapstone. We will look at slabs on the weekend.
Thank you. We love our old house, and parts of it are very nice, but it is still a bit piecemeal. I hope we have the stamina to see the whole thing through. I should have more pictures and stories very soon. Our cabinets go in (primed only, to be painted in place) next week.

Paul Anater said...

Thanks for the mention! I followed a click through back to your blog and what a blog it is. Bravi.

While it's true I saw more 1cm counters than anything else at the show in Germany, none of those skinny counters were made from natural stone. Most of them were porcelain, a counter material that's not available in North America yet.

Carry on as you were though, and for what it's worth, my money's on soapstone.

S and N said...

Most welcome, Paul. Thank you.
And soapstone it will be. We found the most glorious caramel veined soapstone. Soon...

for the love of a house said...

Checking in, and looks like you chose ss?! Looking forward to hearing and seeing the results!

S and N said...

Hello Joan,
Thanks for checking back. Soapstone did prevail over stainless. The cabinet maker has been here with his crew for the past two weeks and our soapstone counters will be installed on Wednesday. The marble island counter will be installed sometime after that. I hope to have a new kitchen post up soon. In the meantime we've been camping out in my studio, which fortunately has a tiny fridge, a sink, a little butane single burning stove, and an espresso machine. Even so, the novelty of garret living is wearing a little thin.