Soapstone is a relatively soft stone found in a wide range of natural colors. The combination of color choice and easy carving made this stone a popular choice for carving sculpture or tools from. Carving soapstone requires special consideration due to the mineral content of the dust and the hazards of stone chips.
Inhaling silica dust leads to a chronic or short term breathing condition known as silicosis. Silicosis causes tightness in the chest, shortened breath and raspy coughing says the Medscape Reference website. Sandstone contains high concentrations of silica that is released into the air when the stone is cut with a saw or sanded with rough materials. Wearing a respirator or properly rated dust mask reduces the risk of silicosis. Alternatively, you could switch to a stone with less silica like limestone.
Asbestos causes cancer of the lungs and digestive tract, mesothelioma and other serious health problems. While most consumers are aware of asbestos tile or insulation found in other homes, some deposits of soapstone also naturally carry this mineral. California soapstone in particular shows high levels of asbestos states the United Artworks website. Asbestos is released from the soapstone in the dust as you carve or saw through the stone. Like with silica, a quality respirator or avoidance of this particular stone are the best safety methods.
Inhaling any kind of hard dust, whether its the minerals of soapstone or concrete dust, causes irritation in the lungs. Dust particles scratch your lung's lining for a few days or even months before the body sheds them. But wearing a respirator alone is not enough. Your eyes are also susceptible to dust damage from soapstone carving processes, and a pair of sealed safety goggles or other closed eye protection is required says Pental Granite and Marble.
Small piece of soapstone carve easily with just a set of hand stone-carving tools and rarely require heavier work. Large sculptures still require a mallet and chisel for roughing out the basics of the form from a hewn block. Flying chips of stone launch unexpectedly at your face during this process and can knock out an eye or a tooth says Princeton University. Unless you are working with a power tool that throws large pieces of stone, hard safety goggles and a respirator should protect your face while carving soapstone.