Brian Bell surveys a 30,000-pound soapstone one last time, making sure the giant rock is perfectly aligned beneath a narrow belt saw positioned to slice the block into slabs, which are bound eventually for homes across America.
“On a good day, I can cut 14 to 20 slabs,” says Bell, 58, a machine operator for Alberene Soapstone Co. in Schuyler, Virginia. “Every piece of rock is different.”
Extracting soapstone quarried in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, Alberene Soapstone Co. was founded in 1883 and is the only remaining supplier of American soapstone. Once used by American Indians to carve bowls and cooking slabs, the bluish-gray stone now is sought for bathroom vanities, kitchen sinks and countertops, fire pits, and other building and home renovation projects.
“Everybody’s asking about American soapstone,” says Ben Arreguy, owner of Teresina Soapstone in Roseville, California, who began selling Alberene’s soapstone last year. “They like the idea that soapstone is matte finish, not high-polished, and doesn’t need to be stained or [chemically] sealed.”
A metamorphic rock, soapstone is nonporous; heat-, acid- and bacteria-resistant; and feels “soapy” to the touch. It contains talc and has a veined, somewhat mottled appearance. During the 20th century, soapstone made its way into homes as laundry tubs and griddles and was used commercially for electrical components, laboratory sinks and counters.
During its peak in the 1920s, Alberene was the nation’s largest soapstone producer, operating on 6,000 acres and employing up to 1,000 workers. However, numerous ownership changes, sporadic production cycles and increased exports, mainly from Brazil, nearly shuttered the operation until a group of investors bought the company in 2010 and reopened a dormant quarry.
Today, with 21 employees, Alberene uses industrial saws, excavators and loaders to extract the stone. After slabs are cut and dried, a resin-mesh backing is applied for strength. Finally, slabs are machined to uniform thickness before being hand-polished.
“Since 2010, our production has more than doubled,” says Pete Farley, 26, the company’s general manager.
Meanwhile, market interest in the natural stone has revived among designers, builders and homeowners. Customers like soapstone’s “unpretentious” look and “comforting” feel, says Bob Blanchard, vice president of R. Bratti Associates Inc., a stone contractor in Alexandria, Virginia.
Some customers have another reason for buying soapstone extracted and processed by the 131-year-old Virginia company. “What appealed to me was the idea of getting this gorgeous stone made in America,” says Rick Scobey, 57, of Washington, D.C., who chose Alberene soapstone for countertops and a fireplace in his Maryland beach home.
“For people who want traditional material backed by a long story of American history and like quality and patina, it’s a stunning surface.”