Soapstone is a mineral that forms in the earth's sedimentary layer through metamorphosis. Heat, chemicals, and pressure affect the composition of one or more of its original components and produce a dense, non-porous rock. This natural stone is composed mainly or entirely of talc; however, some deposits also contain mica, quartz, tremolite, or chlorite. A soapstone carving may be a decorative item like an official seal, sculpture, or artwork; others have utilitarian purposes, like pottery used for cooking, vases, or tableware. A carved soapstone elk head, attached to a club made in Finland around 7,000 B.C. is one of the earliest soapstone carving that archeologists have identified.
Soapstone has a greasy or waxy feel, hence the name soapstone or soaprock. It is possible to find major soapstone deposits in southern and east Africa, North and South America, northern Europe, Asia and India. Soapstone has had many names through history; depending on the region in which it is found, it may be known as steatite, combarbalite, or agalmatolite. Some similar minerals are called soapstone by mistake. True soapstone is resistant to both heat and acid.
Native American populations carved soapstone artifacts long before the arrival of European explorers. Museums worldwide house examples of their sculptures, some completed with no tools other than flint. Zimbabwean soapstone carvings range from small objets d'art to massive life-size sculptures.
The National Art Gallery in Harare, Zimbabwe, is a repository of some of the country's most outstanding soapstone carvings. In Brazil, the famous sculpture of "Christ the Redeemer" that rises above Rio de Janeiro was constructed from concrete, and then covered with soapstone. Notable soapstone carvings also include Chinese ornaments and Egyptian jewelry.
Common soapstone colors are white, gray, light green, pink, red, and brown, sometimes with mottling. Black soapstone is native to Canada, Malawi, and Zimbabwe; green soapstone is the most common color in India. Alaska has white and black soapstone; China has pink.
Due to its high talc content, soapstone is easier to carve and polish than many other stones like marble and jade. The simplest, small soapstone carving does not require special tools; generally, the stone is soft enough to shape with an ordinary common pocketknife. Creating objects of art or decorative household items from larger soapstone rocks and blocks often requires tools like chisels, files, saws rasps, and lathes. A soapstone carving can be kiln-fired to increase its durability. Many sculptors finish carvings by sanding and polishing them with wax or oil to increase the sheen.