“This is just my 34th year,” he says. “The market for countertop materials has changed dramatically in that time. Back then you had a choice of Formica, butcher-block, or Corian. Granite was just coming on the market, so add soapstone and there were five choices. Now there are dozens of choices.”
Soapstone has become so popular that now slates and granites are being sold as soapstone. “They look like soapstone but they don’t have the heat-retention qualities,” he says, noting that, in the 19th century, people didn’t have water heaters, but they did have soapstone sinks. “They heated water and filled the sink, washed the dishes, washed the kids, and then the clothes. The heat retention of the stone would help keep it warm longer as you did your chores.” And unlike granite, soapstone does not need to be sealed, though many people oil it for uniform color.
Vermont Soapstone’s sinks have been made the same way for decades. The cuts for a four-sided sink are made on a table saw with a masonry blade. It takes two passes to go all the way through the stone. The pieces are cut to size, then rabbeted to form a groove that will meet a mating tongue on the sink’s bottom piece. (Sink bottoms are beveled so they slope gently toward the drain, using a CNC router.) Each piece is dry-fitted, and any adjustments are made before gluing.
Adhesive is applied to every surface that meets another surface, and all sinks are guaranteed to be watertight. Sinks fronts may be sloped or varied in height—“the old sinks had a sloped front to hold the front of a washboard over the sink”—or lettered or engraved with initials or the family crest.
Sadly, soapstone has not been quarried in Vermont since the Chester quarry closed more than 20 years ago. Bowman imports soapstone from Brazil, which he visits every year or so. First-hand knowledge of how and where the stone is quarried is essential, he says. Sinks and counters are fabricated in Vermont, or on location within 250 miles or so of the shop. “We work with simpler tools, so we can do fabrication at the client’s site.”