Butcher Block Countertops: How Do They Hold Up?

    Photo: emily @ go haus go/flickrWho else loves the look of brand new butcher block countertops? The natural wood gives a rich, cozy feel. But I've always wondered how these beauties hold up over time. Among folks who actually installed butcher block counters in their kitchen remodel, opinions tend to be sharply divided. After several years of heavy use, some call them a "disaster" while others have grown to love them even more over time. This polarization of opinion is related to a number of factors: installation, type of surface treatment, and the level of care their owners are prepared to lavish on them.

    What People Like About Butcher Block Countertops

    Appearance is mentioned again and again as an enormous advantage of butcher block countertops. The wood complements every kitchen style and tends to grow deeper-colored and more attractive with the passing years. (NOTE: Because of the darkening as the wood develops a patina, choose a lighter color than you hope to end up with, when installing butcher block countertops.)

    Butcher block is often praised as "warm." This adjective does not apply only to its appearance, but also to its physical temperature. It is a very pleasant surface to work on, even in the depths of winter.

    These countertops are equally easy on the ears -- they're sound-absorbent -- and on your dishes. If in the midst of hectic holiday meal prep, you slam down or drop your favorite ceramic platter onto butcher block, it's not likely to break as it would on, say, tile or quartz.

    What's more, the smooth wood is fantastic for large-scale baking tasks like rolling pastry or kneading bread dough in quantity.

    Perhaps best of all, butcher block countertops are easy to install and even to make yourself. Even if you hire a contractor for the installation, they are very affordable.

    What They Hate

    Let's put it bluntly: butcher block requires a lot of maintenance.

    These counters need to be protected from water, which may otherwise create ugly black stains, wreak havoc with the glue joining the pieces of wood, and even cause mold. Even steam or other moisture in the air can cause the wood to expand, swell, and possibly warp if the countertop installation was not done properly.

    Cutting directly on the wood leaves unsightly marks and may splinter. This is especially true of softer woods and the weaker edge-grain installation as opposed to end-grain. Edge grain is also hard on your knives. Even worse, it can be difficult to adequately sanitize these porous countertops for cutting according to USDA guidelines. Veteran users recommend keeping offcuts from butcher block counter installation for freestanding cutting boards.

    How to Take Care of Butcher Block

    The good news is that butcher block countertops respond very well to a bit of TLC.

    Some say this type of counter must be sealed. Waterlox is a popular sealant, based on tung oil (from the seeds of the Chinese tung tree). Marine sealer, made for use on boat hulls, does an excellent job of waterproofing wood. Extra sealer around the sink area is advised.

    Others leave the counters unsealed, instead, they rely on gentle use and regular treatment with oil: olive, tung, or food-safe mineral oil (which may be sold as "butcher block oil"), sometimes incorporating a little beeswax.

    Moisture problems can be avoided by keeping the kitchen tidy. Put dirty dishes straight into the dishwasher or sink (a good habit in any case), wipe up spills ASAP, and don't even leave a glass of water on the counter without a coaster underneath. Placing a sheet of metal over the dishwasher may be necessary to protect against steam.

    Steel wool or sandpaper, followed by resealing, will remove scratches and stubborn stains.

    The consensus seems to be that butcher block countertops hold up best when they are given the same care as high quality wood furniture.

    Laura Firszt writes for networx.com.

    Updated January 31, 2018.

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