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 counter tops from this photo in my kitchen. That nice, gorgeous dark stain.

The thing that’s deceiving about dark butcher block counter tops 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 counter tops 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 counter tops. 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.
  • The Ugly Duckling House – Read how Sarah takes care of her Lumber Liquidators walnut butcher block counter

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 counter top.

It is important to note, we bought the IKEA HAMMARP butcher block counter top 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 counter top 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 counter tops 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 counter tops. 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 3.

If you have any questions, feel free to ask away in the Comments. I strongly recommend anyone interested in Butcher Block counter tops, 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.


Since writing this post we moved and renovated another kitchen where we also installed Butcher Block. Except this time we used a different brand and a lot of things went differently. I break down the Pros and Cons and reality of having a butcher block counter in this post, as well as what happened to the butcher block in this kitchen. And most importantly, why after all of this I am switching from mineral oil to something else.

Want to read about the whole process and see the Before and After?

Part 1 of the Kitchen Reno story: The Beginning

Part 2 of the Kitchen Reno story: Installing your IKEA SEKTION Kitchen

Part 3 of the Kitchen Reno story: Adventures in Staining Butcher Block 

Part 4 of the Kitchen Reno story: The IKEA SEKTION kitchen, Before and After



  • Reply
    April 15, 2015 at 7:24 am

    Just as an added resource for anyone that’s researching – I also installed Ikea butcher block and used a product called Rubio Monocoat. I can’t stop talking about how amazing it is. It’s one coat (hence the name), dummy proof to apply, 100% viscose free & food safe and waterproof. It also comes in about 20 colours if you want to stain & protect at the same time. I have NO idea how it’s not more popular. It’s not widely available but it’s totally worth tracking down. Here’s my experience:

  • Reply
    Tash @ The Dreamhouse Project
    April 15, 2015 at 11:47 am

    Thank you, THANK YOU for writing this post & including all of those amazing resources! As you know, I’m somewhat in the same boat as you but my floors aren’t nearly as red so I’m thinking the Dark Tung Oil might actually work for us…or at least I was thinking that until I saw Melissa’s comment above! OK SERIOUSLY?!?! I do not know how I missed that post on her blog!! One coat?!?! I’m off to research that Rubio product & check out the colours asap!!!

    • Reply
      April 15, 2015 at 2:44 pm

      I know right? I read her comment and was like What is this goodness? I have to look into it should I decide to be crazy one day and strip the counter top and start over.

  • Reply
    April 23, 2015 at 7:11 pm

    Things are looking really great in your kitchen Alex! I think you made the right decision by using the mineral oil – it’s a great contrast with your floors!

  • Reply
    May 20, 2015 at 11:01 am

    I’m just seeing this now! I totally get your frustrations and think you made a fantastic choice. I used mineral oil too and have been so happy with how my oak counters have aged over the past two years. I’m relieved that I didn’t stain or seal them! They’re so easy to care for..I think you’ll enjoy them! Looks great!

  • Reply
    January 11, 2016 at 12:08 pm

    Hi, I have also just purchased and installed IKEA Hammarp Birch countertops, and having the same issue – blotchy stain. My tests look about the same as your Dark Tung oil tests. The birch just doesn’t take stain very well. I’m wondering – how has the Mineral Oil coating held up? Do you have to be super careful about staining and water? How often do you have to recoat? Thanks for your post!

    • Reply
      January 11, 2016 at 2:35 pm

      Well, we’ve since moved. I know. I had a nice kitchen for awhile and am now back in hell (reno to be happening down the line at our new house). But the mineral oil works great. It really does. You do have to be careful around any areas with water because they absorb a lot more. Go and check out Old Town Home’s (the link should be in the post) as they did a great write up on their use of Mineral Oil and how it’s lasted for years.

      • Reply
        January 11, 2016 at 2:52 pm

        Thanks very much for the fast reply. Great and informative post! Good luck with the new renos.

  • Reply
    July 5, 2016 at 5:38 pm

    We also purchase the Ikea Hammarp in birch. First we bought 2 countertops, but could not work on them for a couple of months due to some unforseeable events. When we did start working in the kitchen again, we found we needed one more countertop so we went back to the store and bought another. Now this one did not stain like the first two and we have been pulling our hair out because it is in one long run of counter. The piece to the left of the sink and around the corner turned out just like yours, but the new piece to the right of the sink is so blotchy and spotty. We did the exact same procedure on all pieces. My question: Did you do a lot of sanding when you began working on your countertops? We have found what appears to be some kind of yellowish lacquer on all the pieces, but the new one just won’t seem to sand off and it affects the color. Thank you for your great post on this topic.

    • Reply
      July 5, 2016 at 8:56 pm

      I did absolutely no sanding prior to doing the test stains with the tung oil or the regular mineral oil coats. If you look at the longer shot (the second last photo) there’s a couple of lines in it to the right of the sink, where no matter what I put on it, the colour would just not change. It was only in spots but not throughout the entire piece. If I were you, I would bring this up to IKEA and see what they can do to help you. We bought 2 pieces of the wood and had to return one because when we opened up the packages, one of them was completely warped. So it very well could be a fluke that your piece (like my wonky piece) just wasn’t up to par. Don’t settle. Believe me, I understand what you’re feeling. It would drive me crazy too.

    • Reply
      July 5, 2016 at 9:23 pm

      I tried about 30 different stains and varnishes on a large test piece of the Birch Hammarp countertop. Sanding, no sanding, sanding sealer, stain conditioner… nothing seemed to look good. The countertops come with a linseed oil based coating already on them, I think between that and the type of birch Ikea uses, results in blotchy staining. Since they already come with a linseed oil based coating, I figured it would be best to stick with a linseed (or other oil) based coating. But I didn’t want to use the cheap Ikea stuff they sell. So after some tests, I settled on a product called Tried and True Wood Finish (their website is very helpful), which is a mix of polymerized linseed oil and beeswax, and provides a non-toxic all-natural protection from water and liquids. It also turned the counters a beautiful warm golden color. So far so good. Water beads up on it nicely, and it’s very easy to apply (just rub on with a cloth). I know this doesn’t help you much, since you already have two pieces coated with stain, but maybe this will help others who encounter the same issue. To be honest, if I had my time back I would not have purchased Ikea wood counters, and instead paid more for custom made *uncoated* counters, so I could do what I wanted with them, but it worked out ok in the end.

      • Reply
        July 7, 2016 at 11:32 am

        Thank you for your great comment! We have since moved homes so I don’t have the kitchen or the counters anymore. But we will most likely be doing butcher block at our new place as a temporary update to an extremely old kitchen. I will definitely know what to look for and do better this time around.

  • Reply
    July 5, 2016 at 9:19 pm

    Actually, now that you mention it, our first two countertops were warped also, but we thought maybe we did something wrong in storing it, so we just kept it and hoped that when we screw it to the cabinets, it would straighten out. I think we have been just dumb and should not have used ANY of these pieces!

    • Reply
      July 7, 2016 at 11:30 am

      That definitely sounds like something was wrong with them to begin with. That one board was so warped it was like a wave. Definitely not comparable to the other one. Contact their customer service. See if they can help in any way. Maybe there are manufacturing issues that they are not aware of and this would help them to look into it.

  • Reply
    December 28, 2016 at 10:56 pm

    THANK YOU!!! For real, you just took a load of stress off and saved me a ton of time. Mine have been sitting on my cabinets unfinished for a few months, living with no sink, simply because I could. Not decide what to do.

    • Reply
      December 29, 2016 at 9:47 am

      You’re most welcome! Truly this process drove me crazy. At the end of the day staining was just not worth it (for me) but if it does well for someone else then that’s what this post is about. To help you decide what works best for your kitchen.

  • Reply
    Kelly Sieckhaus
    March 15, 2017 at 5:37 pm

    LOVED this article. I went with the DARK TUNG oil. I have maple…and its CRAZY how dark yours look compared to mine. I am on coat 4, and NOT EVEN close to I also wanted food safe product!! I am LOVING the ease of use from this oil from The Milk Paint Co. product so far!!! : )

    • Reply
      March 16, 2017 at 11:42 am

      It’s SUCH a great product isn’t it? Glad to hear it’s working for you and you just reiterated why it’s important to test it out on the wood you are using because different woods pick up different tones.

  • Reply
    Kelly Sieckhaus
    March 16, 2017 at 12:04 pm
    Here is how it looked on maple : )

    • Reply
      March 17, 2017 at 4:25 pm

      Thanks for sharing! This will definitely help a lot of people looking for how it looks on different types of wood.

  • Reply
    June 26, 2017 at 8:12 pm

    Hello- I just bought the hammer oak for a frugal countertop option in our semi-temporary reno. I’m ready to do the sealing before install. Did you sand them first, even though they are new, but with whatever oil IKEA uses? Thanks:-)

    • Reply
      June 27, 2017 at 3:54 pm

      Hello! Yes I did lightly sand them to smooth them out before I oiled them. I definitely recommend that you do so as it will take away any natural rough edges or bumps on the surface.

  • Reply
    July 11, 2017 at 10:11 am

    Hi I am doing a butcher block (maple, from Lumber Liquidators) for a desktop so food safety and water are not a huge concern. What would you recommend for this? I want a nice reddish look to the desktop.

    • Reply
      July 11, 2017 at 3:48 pm

      Maple, like birch, is a bit of a tricky wood to stain. We had a birch butcher block in the VARDE IKEA unit in our basement and even with a simple oil, the variations in it were a little crazy. With certain stains and dyes, it can get blotchy. I find maple overall a favourite wood grain of mine, but it does tend to have pinkish almost golden rose undertones to it when a simple translucent oil is applied to it. I would strongly recommend using a relatively big scrap piece of the product and testing out several shades from different brands as they will all react differently. I am most familiar with Minwax stains as I’ve used them the most and even with the testers in the stores, they still look different in our home due to the different lighting. So before you do anything, buy several small pots if you can and have it placed in the area that the desk will be. Our butcher block looked completely different in our basement vs the kitchen. Hope that helps!

  • Reply
    January 21, 2018 at 5:16 am

    Thanks for sharing. I must bookmark it!

  • Reply
    February 4, 2018 at 4:38 am

    I think this article is so wonderful. I have bookmarked it. Keep Sharing!!!!!!

  • Reply
    April 13, 2018 at 6:41 pm

    A brand of wood winish I use quite frequently called Tried and True makes an entire line of food safe stains. They have a dark walnut color that would work to get you the dark color

  • Reply
    Why my butcher block counter tops and mineral oil are getting a divorce
    August 5, 2018 at 7:12 pm

    […] Adventures in Staining Butcher BlockĀ  – This where I talk about our previous IKEA butcher block countertops. I go over various ways of staining them, using Dark Tung Oil, why it didn’t work for our kitchen and link to about 10 other posts from bloggers using different things for their butcher blocks. […]

  • Reply
    What it's really like having a butcher block counter top
    January 23, 2019 at 11:38 am

    […] Secondly, I wrote a very long post about staining butcher block where I break down different stains, oils and link up to a lot of great bloggers posts using different stains. If you’ve decided to get butcher block and you’re confused about what to do for stains and how to protect it, read this post. […]

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