Adventures in Staining Butcher Block - What Worked, What Didn't and Lessons Learned

Adventures in Staining Butcher Block – What Worked, What Didn’t and Lessons Learned

It’s day 70 into the kitchen reno (Day 70!!) and during this time there has been a lot of trial and error and some compromises and changes made to our plan. But this one – the butcher block staining issue – was a big one. See, for as long as I can remember I have wanted the countertops from this photo in my kitchen. That nice, gorgeous dark stain.

The thing that’s deceiving about dark butcher block countertops is that usually they are stained with ‘regular’ stains such as Minwax, Rustoleum, Behr, etc. and those stains aren’t food safe. Meaning that if you plan to use your countertops to place food on, you need something (another finish) to protect the colour stain to make them food safe. A popular one is Waterlox. The snowball effect of that is that all of this requires maintenance. Quite a bit actually. And it really depends on how you use or plan to use your kitchen. So what works for one person, their cooking habits and overall lifestyle, may not work for another.

I wanted a food safe stain. Period.

Now before I set out on what happened in my staining adventure in hopes of helping out anyone in the same predicament, I had read a ton of blog posts from other bloggers who through trial and error shared their stories and experiences with butcher block countertops. Some of the most helpful are the following:

  • Old Town Home  – And what they wound up using in the end along with links to their review of their IKEA counter tops.
  • Addicted 2 Decorating – If you want dark countertops, you need to read every post that Kristi has written about her experience with staining them dark, using Waterlox and what happened that she had to re-do them four times.
  • Newly Woodwards – Which is what I wanted mine to look like.
  • This and That – Also another gorgeous finish.
  • House Tweaking – How Dana takes care of her butcher block counter.
  • Chris Loves Julia – Which made me ask why I didn’t take the time to find Walnut butcher block to begin with.
  • Natural Mommie – I’ve reached out to Amanda about her counters and I should have listened to her advice from the get go. Her Instagram account has lots of photos of her kitchen.
  • Domestic Imperfection – They wrote a great review of how their IKEA butcher block counter tops have held up after 2 years.

After reading all of the above and then some, I came across a product from The Real Milk Paint Company called Dark Tung Oil that has excellent reviews. It was like the heavens parted and I thought Finally! A dark wood stain that’s food safe. Then I read these posts from bloggers who had used it with success:

All of their results looked amazing so I thought I had found my answer.

Unfortunately it didn’t work out that way. And it’s not the fault of the product, but that of the butcher block that we purchased and the colour undertones it has. Like any cautious person I tested out the Dark Tung Oil on a scrap piece of our butcher block countertop.

It is important to note, we bought the IKEA HAMMARP butcher block countertop in Birch. IKEA has it also available in Oak and Beech. I do not like Oak wood grain and the Beech tends to have a more rose undertone so we went with Birch.

And here is how my Dark Tung Oil experiment went (I even tried it over wood filler to see how it would do).

Dark Tung Oil & Citrus Solvent

Coat # 1

Dark Tung Oil Coat 1 - northstory

Coat # 2

Dark Tung Oil Coat 2 - northstory

Coat # 3

Dark Tung Oil Coat 3 - northstory

Coat # 4

Dark Tung Oil Coat 4 - northstory

By this coat I knew it wasn’t going to work. And you’re probably looking at that photo thinking it looks fine and dark right?

This was the “problem”. These are our Engineered Hardwood floors. They cover the entire first floor and they are from Laurentian Hardwood – their Kendall Lock Exotics collection in Ironwood. A flooring that has been discontinued no less. We put this hardwood in our home 5 years ago when we first moved in and it is a very good product that we wanted to extend into the kitchen during this reno versus doing tile as to create a bigger cohesive space on our first floor.

I have to thank Floors First for their helping us to locate it when we couldn’t find it anywhere and no other dealer would help.

Laurentian Hardwood Kendall Lock Exotics 5 inch Ironwood - northstory

Laurentian Hardwood Kendall Lock Exotics - northstory

And this is what the stained countertop sample looks like next to it. Minus the blue light from the outdoors.

Yeah. I cringed too. They just look awful next to each other. The oil just did not work with this particular wood and our dark floors. I know computer monitor colouring is deceiving but it was full of yellow undertones. That piece also took over a week to fully cure and dry. So that was a no go.

Dark Tung Oil against my dark floors - northstory

In the end after much discussion with friends and some research into making my own stain with tea and even coffee, it was Kristi’s post – especially after this incident with lemon juice and Waterlox – that I said I should just listen to what seems to be the go to solution for quite a few bloggers when it comes to sealing their butcher block counters.

And that is with mineral oil.

Cheap, easily available, no stress inducing mineral oil.

This is a side by side comparison of our countertop and an untreated scrap block of the HAMMARP. Our countertop at this point had been treated with 7 coats of mineral oil. I plan to follow Old Town Home’s instructions on how to care for them.

IKEA HAMMARP butcher block in Birch - Comparing  one side treated with mineral oil to an untreated side - northstory

IKEA HAMMARP butcher block countertops - northstory

IKEA HAMMARP butcher block countertops - Birch - treated with mineral oil - northstory

Am I going to have my dark counters? No. Well at least not right away. Wood ages on its own over time, so in a decade, this butcher block may have some hope. Alas we won’t be in this house by the time that happens.

Very much like Karen from The Art of Doing Stuff, I like butcher block to feel aged. To be used and develop character. It’s a nice contrast with our clean modern cupboards too. As well, (re: Kristi’s story) I use a lot of lemon juice for salad dressing and lay my food out on the counters every day. I cannot and do not need the stress of dealing with sanding and restaining countertops down the line. It’s just not a practical solution for our life. However it works great for other people and that is how it should be. It’s your home and you need to decide what works best for you and your kitchen.

And for the time being, I’ve decided on my friend mineral oil.

Remember these lessons when it comes to butcher block:

1) All butcher blocks are not created equal. What wood your butcher block is made from will impact the final result of your stain, no matter what you choose to stain it with. Walnut looks very different than Beech. When you read a post online or see an example of stained wood, pay attention to what wood it is versus the one you have in your home.

2) Figure out how you plan to use your countertops. Are they there to look pretty and you never place food on them? Or do you want to chop on them directly?

3) DO A TEST STAIN on a scrap piece of your wood before you go slathering your end product with stain. Preferably do this before you install your counters.

4) Stain colours online, that you see on your computer monitor and cell phone screen are deceiving, very much like photoshop. Refer to Step 4.

If you have any questions, feel free to ask away in the Comments. I strongly recommend anyone interested in Butcher Block countertops, goes and reads the great posts from bloggers I linked up above. They will really help your decision on whether or not to go with them.