Counter regrets/satisfaction (concrete, soapstone, slate)

PhronesisMay 25, 2013

I'm trying to make decisions about counters and like the looks of concrete, soapstone and slate. I've read all I can find and much of the information is several years old (particularly for concrete).

So, in terms of cost and then actual performance, anyone have regrets or satisfaction regarding concrete, soapstone or slate?

Or, basically, any words of wisdom regarding how to decide among these?

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Had soapstone in by previous kitchen and loved it. One of the harder varieties. Liked looks, performance and feel. Will use it again in the kitchen we are currently working on. Cost in my area was similar to mid-priced granite. My contractor, who is pretty creative, tried 3 times to cast concrete counters for his own kitchen, each time the panel cracked and he finally gave up. Moral of that is find someone skilled in concrete casting, I think its somewhat tricky. Don't know cost of concrete. Love the look of slate but no experience. All three of those surfaces have a lovely matte feel/look to them, I would have been happy with any.

    Bookmark   May 26, 2013 at 2:33PM
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Stone: Pros & Cons

Pros: Sinks can be undermounted and some stones can can handle hot pans (but some cannot, so be careful) and can resist most stains if properly sealed and maintained. Many suppliers of soapstone, marble and travertine can also provide matching sinks. The material is available in a great many colors and patterns.

Cons: The major drawback of all natural stone is that it is to some degree porous and requires periodic sealing, usually once a month. Stone can stain and be scratched and leaves watermarks if spills are not immediately cleaned up. The calcium-based stones, marble, travertine and limestone, are very susceptible to damage by even mild acids such as vinegar or lemon juice. Soapstone is very easily stained. Even water will leave marks. However, all but the deepest scratches and stains can be buffed out. Soapstone can be renewed with a light sanding or even scouring with a ScotchBrite pad to remove surface stains. Seams between slabs can be very evident especially if the surface has a clear or plain pattern. Stone can contain natural fissures that look like cracks. These are harmless but many homeowners do not like the look.


The look of soapstone is timeless and historically accurate for almost any period of American architecture. It is warmer, denser and heavier than granite but not nearly as hard. The primary ingredient in soapstone is talc, about the softest mineral around. It can be scratched with a fingernail but rarely are scratches more than superficial and can be removed with an application of mineral oil. More severe scratches disappear with fine sandpaper or even a scouring pad.

Unlike granite and most of the other natural stone countertops, soapstone is almost impervious to water penetration, unaffected by acids or other kitchen chemicals, and absolutely heat resistant. These are some of the reasons it is the preferred material for countertops in chemical laboratories. Even the hottest pans can be set on it without harm. Since it is almost impervious to liquids, it does not require sealing. But, it does stain. Even water leaves a mark. Soapstone afficianadoes don't mind -- it's all part of the patina that gives soapstone its unique look. Stains are easily removed, but it is bothersome to keep it looking new and unblemished. So, those who are not afficianadoes may want to stay away from it.

Classic soapstone from New England is light gray to almost black, often with a greenish tinge, but the material can range from light brown to terracotta depending on its source and treatment. Very little soapstone is now quarried in the U.S. Most comes from Brazil.

A soapstone surface darkens naturally with age or when exposed to water or oils. To darken it evenly, soapstone can be treated with food-grade mineral oil. The darker it gets, the more light grey or gray-green veins stand out adding to soapstone's appeal. New "dry wax" coatings have been developed that replace mineral oil and last longer, but are, of course, considerably more expensive. Many soapstone fans, however, simply let it age naturally over the years, adding a patina of wear and use. But, renewing soapstone is easy &msash; simply sand away the old surface for a brand new look. Repeated restorations are possible over many years.

Concrete: Pros & Cons

Pros: Can be formed into just about any shape. Has a unique feel. Can be polished to a high shine or left dull. Increasing number of colors and finishes.

Cons: Pricey, very easily stained, high maintenance. Can have a definite "industrial" look about it. Can chip and crack, although these defects can be invisibly repaired in many instances.

Concrete is hardly a new materia. It has been around for centuries. But, the concrete used in countertops bears only the slightest resemblance to the stuff in your driveway or sidewalk. What has been done to concrete has to be seen to be believed.

Concrete countertops are the very latest thing among the California and New York glitterati. In fact, a number of well-known kitchen designers are predicting that concrete may one day eclipse granite as the up-scale countertop matrials of choice. It may seem odd to use a pedestrian material like concrete in a kitchen or bathroom -- unless the bathroom is attached to a gym or the county jail --" but in fact concrete countertops are warm and attractive with an almost unlimited choice of finishes and colors. Concrete: crack, although these defects can be invisibly repaired in many instances.

Concrete countertops may be formed in a studio, then installed much like natural stone slabs. This process, however, leaves joints that must be filled. Poured-in-place concrete countertops are one seamless unit. The disadvantage of this method is that it is a huge, gigantic, incredible mess.

The forms for the concrete are assembled on top of already installed cabinets that have to be protected. Often the floor is also finished, another protection problem. Once the forms are in place, then the concrete is usually carried in by the bucket-full - many buckets-full in fact. Then it must be carefully tinted, finished and allowed to cure for several days while being kept damp so it does not crack. Obviously all this is quite the chore -- and one best left to the pros.

There are additional drawbacks. Concrete countertops are expensive -- more costly than natural stone in most places. They are so heavy that the cabinets (and sometimes the floors) under them may have to specially reinforced. Concrete typically develops hairline cracks due the natural shrinkage of curing concrete. Some people like the look of age that the cracks suggest. Others hate the idea. Concrete, like natural stone and unglazed tile, has to be sealed and resealed periodically. It is, in fact, fairly high maintenance if it is to be kept looking "new". Many owners, however, like the "character" of concrete that is showing a little use.

Within the last five or so years, regional and nationwide sources of concrete-based products have emerged. Unlike locally-made countertops, these are composite products -- a combination of some very special concrete blends used as a binder, and a filler material.

Most manufacturers of concrete composites seem reluctant to call the binder "concrete". It's a "natural mineral binder" or "fiberous cement" or "eco-ceramic cement". It's really just concrete, but not "just concrete". It's concrete on steroids: More flexible and up to 10 times stronger that regular concrete. None that we have looked at recently showed any evidence of shrink- or stress-cracking, so those problems appear to have been conquered in this third generation of concrete formulations.

Filler materials may be stone, shells, paper, glass, metal or just about anything else, often mixed together in interesting ways. The goal of the filler is three-fold. It adds "green" content to the material by using post-consumer waste. It reduces the serious weight of concrete to something approaching merely back-breaking. And, fillers dramatically change the look of the resulting material. IceStone, for example, looks like very expensive terrazzo because of its high glass content.

The greenness of the product, even with eco-friendly fillers, is suspect, however, since concrete itself is not especially green. It requires a lot of energy to manufacture. But, many of these products qualify for U.S. Green Building Council LEED credits, so at least someone thinks they are fairly eco-friendly.

Every manufacturer has its proprietary concrete recipe which is a closely guarded secret. Concrete does not naturally bind to glass -- glass is too slick. So the concrete must be especially formulated if the finished product is not to be seriously weakened. Other fillers like paper and stone aggregate are less of a problem. The material is cast into large slabs and left to cure, then polished to expose the filler and refine the surface. A high polish, very unlike anything ever seen on ordinary concrete, is very possible with these products.

Just like solid surfacing or engineered composite countertops, composite concrete is typically shipped in large slabs to be fitted and installed by a local countertop installer with the special tools, training and experience to cut shape and polish the material. Some manufacturers, however, will cast the countertop to size, eliminating local cutting, shaping and polishing, and most manufacturers will also make sinks and other accessories to match. Some allow the buyer to select his own filler and finish.

For more information on the choices of countertop materials for kitchens, and the pros and cons of each, follow the link below.

Here is a link that might be useful: New & Traditional Countertop Choices

    Bookmark   May 27, 2013 at 12:41PM
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I can't scream enough how much I love the look and function of our soapstone counters. About 2 years now of daily abuse and I love it as much now as ever. Sometimes we wax... often times not. Never had a problem with water rings or oil stains.

    Bookmark   May 27, 2013 at 12:46PM
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I'm with remodelfla- I LOVE our soapstone. Not one regret. I've never had any problems with water marks or drips (3 years now). We don't oil. Any oil ''stains'' fade away. I'd do it again with no qualms whatsoever.

    Bookmark   May 27, 2013 at 12:54PM
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Love my soapstone. Never had a problem with stains or maintenance. Lovely stuff that does not need to be babied. The only blessing of my slab leak in 2010 is that it destroyed cabinets and allowed me to replace my concrete counter. It was an expensive install by the area expert, but it was a B**** to keep looking nice. Wax, buff, wax buff. Repeat too often.
So, after the slab leak destoryed 1/2 the kitchen, I was relieved to re-do and have no regreat about soapstone--which in So. Calif was much less expensive than concrete. I still have concrete counter in master bath where it has worn well. Concrete did not hold up in my kitchen.

    Bookmark   May 27, 2013 at 1:43PM
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We did soapstone on the cheap. We used a remnant place and got them done for around $2000 and we had a decent sized kitchen. Loved the look and feel but since ours were cheap and what was available they scratched so easily. I once dropped a cup full of coins on it from and upper cabinet and had hundreds of dings in a small space.

It was fine for us as we were selling the house so didn't want to spend a lot of $. I would do soapstone again but make sure I had a sample and test for durability. I could easily scratch mine by slight digging in with my finger.

    Bookmark   May 27, 2013 at 2:53PM
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