about those countertops

Soapstone.  Man do we love this soapstone.

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I’ve had questions about our countertops since we’ve finished the kitchen remodel (what is it? do you like it? etc) so I thought I’d write a post explaining our choice for soapstone.

First of all, yes we love it.  I think it is an excellent material for our family.  It may not be for everyone (I’ll explain why) but for us, it’s perfect.

Let me say a little about our soapstone specifically.  The stone in our kitchen is from the USA.  It’s from a quarry in Virginia very close to where I went to school, in fact.  This soapstone is Alberene Soapstone, and they are the only remaining producer of soapstone in America.  Most of the soapstone in this country is sourced from Brazil or China, but it was important to me that we support  this more “local” company.  So important, in fact, that I had to set up Alberene Soapstone with a more local distributor and fabricator, Smokey Mountain Tops, in order to get this stone installed in our kitchen.  Basically, I started a dialogue between a salesperson from Alberene and a project manager at Smokey Mountain Tops in Nashville and got them to agree to work together in order for me to buy this stone instead of soapstone from Brazil.  Alberene sent me a sample piece to make sure I knew what I was getting, and I was emailed photos of all the available slabs that would fit our dimensions.  Dr. Jay and I narrowed it down from there.  We would have been able to pick it out on-site if we had wanted to travel to Virginia, but we chose our slabs from photos and questions over email.  Then Alberene had our slabs shipped from Virginia to Tennessee to be fabricated into countertops.  Smokey Mountain Tops did an amazing job crafting our counters and I can’t say enough good things about their service and help along the way.  We had one small hiccup in the initial installation and it was fixed within two days.  Neither of these companies know I am writing about them (or that I have a blog) so don’t think I was given a discount or compensated for mentioning them.

As for soapstone as a product is concerned, I will say that there is a lot of misinformation out there.  As I began my search here for a source for soapstone, I was told by one local fabricator that soapstone “wasn’t for me” and that it’s a “showpiece” countertop, not one for every day use.  This was completely disheartening to me, and I came home telling Dr. Jay that maybe we should consider granite (which I have never wanted) because this man told me soapstone was for show kitchens and not real kitchens.  He reminded me how much research I had done and asked me to reconsider before I changed my mind. I’m so glad I did.  Folks, this might be rule number one for dealing with salespeople or contractors during a remodel.  If you’ve talked to someone for five minutes and they proceed to tell you what is or is not for you, start getting suspicious.  Maybe they are right, but probably not.

So I forged ahead in my pursuit of soapstone and became more convinced that it was the right material for us.  And I was finally able to find someone I could trust to work with.  This means a lot when you are forking over thousands of dollars on one item in your kitchen.

What do we love so much about soapstone?  We love the way it looks.  It’s a charcoal grey, but when it’s oiled, it becomes black with white and grey veining.  We chose a honed finish, so it’s not shiny and has a very real look to it.  We like that.

Soapstone is not porous, therefore it’s naturally anti-microbial.  It’s completely non-reactive, so it won’t stain and acidic food or cleaners won’t affect it at all.  Soapstone is what schools used to use for counters in chemistry labs (when plastic laminate didn’t exist) because of these characteristics.  It’s thermal qualities are incredible.  I can set a pot with boiling water on it with no fear of it cracking or leaving a mark.  Soapstone is pretty indestructible, and for a family with small kids that is important.  Ours is not a “show” kitchen by any means.  We make three meals a day here and really put it to the test.  It’s definitely a working kitchen.

Soapstone is natural though, so it is not bulletproof.  Here are its downfalls, if you will, that aren’t deal-breakers for us.  It can scratch pretty easily BUT these are only surface scratches which will disappear in a few days time with the natural oils from your hands or if you rub on some food-safe mineral oil.  I think this is why that one man was trying to dissuade me from it, but I don’t think he realized the “self-healing” properties of soapstone.  It is also very hard, but brittle.  There is already one corner that was filled in with epoxy because it chipped before it left the shop, and another corner was chipped while the electrician was here installing a light.  But this is a very minor flaw that I’ve since rubbed smooth and no one has ever noticed it.  Basically, I like that our countertops will take one some natural patina.  I take care not to drop anything heavy on it, and I’m okay with the daily scratches that come and go.

I recently oiled it with the food-safe mineral oil (which is recommended a few times a year) and it came out looking as good as the day it was installed.  I thought it might be an annoying process, but it was a relief to completely clear off the counters and have a chance to start over again.

So there you have it.  Soapstone.  I’m really happy with it.  Any other questions for me?

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Getting started (again)

Guys, we have so much to talk about.  First of all, I’m back to blogging.  I guess I couldn’t stay away.  Or maybe potty-training our son is just too good of material not to blog about.  I’m kidding about that.  I won’t write about that I promise.  Take me out for coffee if you really want to hear about it.  It’s too awful to discuss online.

Anyway, so we finished remodeling the kitchen over the spring.  We like it a whole lot.  I am immensely proud of the kitchen we were able to pull off for the relatively small budget we gave ourselves (small in terms of the average kitchen remodel).  This was possible mainly with Dr. Jay’s dad’s construction help, a lot of elbow grease on our part, and (I’d like to think) smart decisions during design.  We didn’t move any plumbing around and kept the appliances mostly in their same positions.  Here are the two true Before and After photos we managed to take (from the same angles).  If anyone is interested, I can do a full write up of the sources or paint colors, etc.  I still have a few items to finish on the punch list (note the unpainted beam in the photo below) so these aren’t really final “After” photos.  But I’m happy to keep blogging about the kitchen if there is interest, otherwise I’ll move on to the other topics occupying my design mind.  Our bedroom.  The guest rooms.  The apartment.  I haven’t talked about the apartment yet?  So much potential.  SO MUCH.

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A boy and his kitchen

Well, though the Young House Love couple beat me to the punch, Mark also got a custom-made play kitchen for Christmas.  Dr. Jay’s family began work on the mini-kitchen when we visited Georgia for Thanksgiving. It all started when I suggested that Mark might need a play kitchen and sent some ideas for how it could be done to his grandparents via email. Here’s a link to a few of the other DIYed play kitchens I saved on Pinterest.  Grandma D and I headed out just before Thanksgiving and lucked upon a remnant of cabinetry alongside the road in north Georgia. It was solid cherry, missing a top, and cost $20. We eventually got it home (it did require two trips and mingling with some old gents, but we managed) and Grandpa and uncle G started working to cut it down and make it usable.  This is the best “before” shot I was able to get.  The cabinet is sitting on its side.  They didn’t let it stay in its “before” state too long before hooking up the power tools and hacking into it.

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This involved cutting a few inches off the bottom (part of which was water-damaged anyway), cutting about 6 inches from the top to make it more of a toddler-height, replacing the side panel, and adding a top piece. Once this was done, I decided to make things more complicated by suggesting a back-piece with shelves. Somehow I took on the role of design-consultant and managed to stay away from the power tools.JMD_7532

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Here’s Mark with it before the side piece was replaced and before the top and back were added.  It’s still a little tall for him, but the intention is for him and his cousins to be able to use it for a few years and grow into it.  And, as of Christmas Eve, Mark now has a brand new cousin to share the kitchen with!  Welcome to the family, Henry Joseph! 

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Grandma found the bowl to be used for a sink basin at the grocery store.  Shelf installation:

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We came up short when looking for a faucet at the local Habitat ReStore, though we nearly left with some beautiful tiles for the backsplash, we decided that might be taking it a little too far. My sister-in-law (thrift queen) spotted the perfect faucet and handles at the Humane Society thrift store ($5) and there we gathered most of the other accessories like the pot and pan, wooden salt and pepper shakers, and pillow cases I used as fabric for the curtains.

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We decided that the sink side of the bottom would be open to below with curtains. I had a feeling Mark would like this little spot to climb into. We also decided that the two existing drawers would become an oven door and regular drawer- nothing too complicated, just a place to bake stuff and store stuff. Making the oven door hinge was a little complicated, but nothing Grandpa couldn’t figure out.

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My mother-in-law (Grandma) graciously painted the nearly-completed kitchen while we were away during the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. She used leftover wall-paint, a pale-blue from their guest room. We all got back into finalizing when we were together a few weeks ago. My sis-in-law painted on the stove burners and oven front.

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Here’s how it looked as we left on Monday (we’re leaving it at Grandma and Grandpa’s for all the kids to enjoy and because we lack space here in Old Town).  In the end, almost everyone helped out with this little kitchen, and the only details remaining are knobs for the stove.  We found those over the weekend, and Grandpa is working on making them moveable because we know our little cook loves moveable parts.  He’s already put the measuring cup under the faucet and turned the handles.  He does not understand why water doesn’t come out of this faucet.

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Here’s Mark using the drawer to stash all his kitchen tools.

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And yes, he loves his little hiding spot.

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And lest you think that for some reason this play kitchen is a little feminine for our rough and tumble boy, his Uncle G also constructed a real soccer goal for him this Christmas.  He is one lucky kid.

>Goodman, again…

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I read this article in the Real Estate section of the Washington Post last weekend, and since I know you depend on me for timely dispersal of information, I thought I’d share.  It’s about the house that Charles Goodman built for he and his family in the early 1950s- a structure that was originally a farmhouse from the 1850s which he gutted and added a very modern glass and steel pavilion for living.  Today the house is on the market, attracting all sorts of interest, and not just from potential buyers.  You remember Goodman, right?  We talked about the neighborhood (Hollin Hills) he and developer Robert Davenport designed in Alexandria.  Or you might remember him from this post about Reagan National Airport.

It was great to read about his personal home design and see photos like this one:

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See more images on the Post’s gallery from the article.

One tidbit about the house is that it has its original St. Charles Cabinetry (though they’ve been painted over in black).  I’d never heard of this company, but they produce steel cabinets.   St. Charles Cabinetry is also used at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth house, both on my list of must-see architecture.  Maybe I should go to one of the open houses for the Goodman house?

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p.s. Martha Stewart even uses them!