Decor

What it’s really like having a Butcher Block countertop

Lean in really close. I swore I wouldn’t put butcher block in a kitchen again. No really, here’s a whole Twitter conversation I had about this. After our previous kitchen renovation where we had butcher block, I was like nope. I can’t do this again.

Then some time passed. And I realized that a great deal of why I didn’t want a butcher block countertop again had to do with several key issues with the previous one we had, not butcher block itself. So seeing as we did put in butcher block into this kitchen which I can’t stop gushing about like some crazy fan girl on Instagram, I obviously had a change of heart. In which case, as part of the kitchen renovation series, I thought it would be a good (and helpful idea) to take the time to write a post about the pros and cons and reality of having a butcher block countertop for everyone out there debating on whether or not to put one in.

First the basics. Remodelista has a great post about what exactly butcher block is (how it’s made), the types of butcher block (there are different styles) and the types of wood used to make them. It’s a good primer for butcher block 101.

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.

Third, I wanted to share which butcher block counter tops we went with this time, so you know which ones I am talking about to compare my experiences with in the previous house vs this one. And the ones we went for for this kitchen were from Lumber Liquidators. Yes the flooring store, they sell butcher block counters. Quite a few of them actually.

They have the following butcher block counter top choices:

  • Maple
  • American Cherry
  • American Walnut
  • Acacia
  • Oak
  • Hevea
  • Teak

Some are made for islands, others are made for longer countertops. They carry butcher block countertops up to 12 feet long. You know what that means? No ugly seams. It’s like the whole curtain length debacle. 84″ length standard curtains when most people need far longer curtains than that. No one likes countertop seams, aka the unnecessary evil of longer kitchen counters.

Now we had wanted walnut counter tops since even before the last kitchen renovation. I love walnut wood, I love how strong it is and I love the variations and warmth in the tones of the walnut. I mean look at this:

I didn’t realize that Lumber Liquidators sold butcher block prior to our previous renovation and had I known, things would have gone very differently. But then I wouldn’t be able to tell you the differences between the butcher block from the place that sells furniture and Swedish meatballs and Lumber Liquidators. So this is a little learning experience bonus. I did a lot of research on this counter before we decided on it.

So let’s break down the most popular concerns and questions people have about Butcher Block.

THE FOOD SAFETY ISSUE

There’s this never ending rumour about wood counter tops being worse than other materials for bacteria and food. This NY Times article helps to dispel that myth. Turns out your plastic cutting board is probably leaching more stuff than you want it to. The real food safety issue with wood counters comes from the sealers used on the countertops to protect them from water damage. A lot of them obviously are not food safe. I discussed all of this in the post about staining butcher block. The very obvious way of getting around this, is to use an oil to protect your countertops vs a polyurethane sealant. As of the time I am writing this, I use plain oil mineral oil. I say as of the time, because things change.

This is ONE coat of mineral oil on the walnut butcher block. One coat. Look how pretty that is.

If you insist on staining your butcher block, use a Tung oil like this one or use the mineral oil and buy the counter tops in the colour and species of wood that you want your counters to look like.

Our last kitchen was like this. I wanted a dark counter. This is obviously not a dark counter. I could have stained it and used Waterlox over it to protect it, but again, read the butcher block staining post and you’ll find out why I didn’t go that route.

INSTALLING BUTCHER BLOCK COUNTERS

I was going to write a big post about installing the countertops but it literally took our contractor no time to get them done and it was nothing fancy or complicated. The counter tops were cut and screwed into the base cabinets from underneath. Why is it easier this time? Because we were doing a Butt Joint (2 cuts side by side) vs a Miter Joint (45 degree angle) in the corners.

In our last kitchen we did a miter joint due to the proximity of the sink to the corner (it would have looked ridiculous to have a butt joint leaving us with a slab of butcher block the size of a cutting board next to the sink). But it’s a little more complex underneath and requires really precise cutting, so if you don’t know what you’re doing, it can wind up a complicated mess.

If you want a great tutorial on a miter cut for butcher block, go read the Fisherman’s Wife Furniture post on how they did their miter cut as they also used the walnut counter top from Lumber Liquidators. And they used Waterlox. Which leads me to…

WHY WATER AND BUTCHER BLOCK ARE NOT FRIENDS (and the reason I started to hate my old butcher block counters)

In our previous house we did an under mount sink in the butcher block counters. Looks very nice right? That’s where it ends.

You’re probably wondering why I would recommend using mineral oil if I had an issue with them and water. Well, the problem wasn’t the mineral oil. The problem was the under mount sink and that previous IKEA counter top. Within 3 months of that photo above the wood started splitting and buckling around the faucet, for the sheer reason that it was not coated with something better to protect it against water damage in an area where it will always be damp (duh). I just could not stay on top of wiping the water around the sink area. I started to joke that having butcher block was like being in a high maintenance relationship and an exercise in patience. No really, go search my Twitter. The area around the sink was always darker than the rest of the wood but once it started to bubble up and split I was just so disappointed.

After all of that, I still didn’t use the Waterlox due to reading about one too many bad experiences with the product and because it leaves a sheen. I am not a fan of glossy wood counter tops. That’s just a personal aesthetic issue. There’s a local antique dealer who seals these old soda crates with this heavy coat of something and I will never buy one because it looks like MAC Lip Glass had a frat party over on them. I like my counter tops to feel and look like natural wood.

To solve that problem with this kitchen we went with a farmhouse sink that has no faucet installed directly into the wood. (Note: our kitchen renovation is not done at the time that I am writing this, hence a lot of the process shots).

The other factor was the butcher block itself. To compare that butcher block to this walnut one we have now? There’s no comparison. In fact Sarah from The Ugly Duckling House uses an oil that is a mixture of beeswax and mineral oil on her walnut Lumber Liquidator counter tops (told you, I researched these before we decided on them) and her under mount sink is fine.

That’s because this walnut butcher block is better. Period. Again, there is no comparison between the two products. Our contractor who worked previously with IKEA and their kitchens for 10 years, as soon he installed ours, he was like this is way better stuff. It’s heavier, denser and far better quality. Our old IKEA counter? It also started splitting in places far away from the wet sink. Never mind that our first slab of butcher block from them was warped after we opened up the box. I became that disgruntled customer.

With this one? No issues. I have water dropped on this and rings from cups staying on it that dry without wiping and you can’t see a thing. In fact water pools differently on the walnut counter tops. It’s as if it doesn’t soak in. I credit that to the product and also the species of wood. Walnut is incredible. If you are unsure of what species of wood to use for your counters, talk to a professional at Lumber Liquidators and they will help you to decide on what type of wood will work best for your home.

SCRATCHES, DINGS, HOT PANS AND OTHER HIGH MAINTENANCE RUMOURS

In previous homes I have experienced granite, marble, laminate and of course butcher block counter tops. The worst one hands down for me was marble. I would never ever, ever, ever put down a marble countertop in any part of our home. It stained. It required special glosses and cleaners. It wore down far too easily around water and left a very dried out build up that looked like soap scum. Just no.

And then you think of granite, what could possibly be wrong with HGTV House Hunter’s mandatory preference of granite? Ever have oil or wine stains absorb into granite? Good luck getting the stain out and it even shows in dark granite. And here’s a surprise to a lot of people, both of the above can chip.

Laminate counter tops? Durable, heat resistant, still crappy around faucets over time (our previous faucet rotted into the counter top). I have not tried Quartz or Soapstone or Concrete (so please chime in to dispel any myths or pros and cons on those). Bottom line is every countertop has had it’s own issues. Butcher block is no exception. Here are several issues with butcher block.

1. Scratches.

They will happen no matter what you do to try and avoid them. You either accept this or you don’t get butcher block. The best part of this though is that unlike the travesty of trying to repair chipped marble, you can sand these down, re-oil and they will look as good as new.

2. Rough texture.

Speaking of sanding, when wood gets dry, it can become a little rough. So if you’re used to wiping the counter with paper towels, imagine running a paper towel over this. You will have paper towel shreds over your counter and it won’t be fun to clean.

The key thing here is to sand properly before oiling and to ensure proper maintenance by oiling your counters at least once a month. I may be trying out mineral oil and beeswax as per Sarah’s experience to see if I like that better (PS  – I tried out the beeswax and you can read about that here). Lumber Liquidators has a similar conditioning oil as well.

3. Burn marks and cuts from knives

Unlike granite and other countertops, you can’t really drop a hot pot or cast iron pan on the countertop or chop directly on it. Well, you can. But you’d better not care about burn marks and cuts on your surface. It’s one of those things where over time the dings and cuts and scratches all add character to a butcher block counter. However if you’re one of those people who is adamant about making sure your counter looks immaculate, make cutting boards and table mats your best friend. On a side note, I cook *a lot* and it just becomes second nature to do this. But I still put hot pots directly on the wood (despite this photo below depicting otherwise) and the countertops are fine.

WHY WE PUT THEM IN AGAIN 

Here are my top reasons that I personally love butcher block:

  1. At the end of the day, I find that if you’re even considering butcher block, it’s because it’s up there in your list of Ride or Die countertops. That’s just slang for the highest level of companionship with a friend/lover. In this case, an inanimate object. It just looks so damn good in any kitchen. Whether it’s the entire counter or just an island, it’s usually the first “Oh my God I love that!” reaction you get from your guests. No matter how many times I think I want something else, I always wind up pinning a kitchen with butcher block somewhere in it.
  2. It’s quiet and absorbs sound. I despise clanking or drumming noises. Putting away pots and pans causes me to flinch. There is no clanking of any kind on this counter with any dishes and if anything is dispels the noise level (well at least that’s what it seems to do in our kitchen around our kids – wishful thinking?)
  3. Cost effective. It is a very budget friendly choice.
  4. Warmth. It just makes the entire room feel cozy and warm.
  5. Easy to clean. I wipe down everything with a natural disinfectant spray (PS – please note I do not prep food directly on ours) or with just soap/dish detergent and water.
  6. Eco friendly. It has a low environmental impact due to how it’s made.
  7. The walnut colour and species hides stains. If I tried to get you to tell me where any scratches are on this just by looking at it standing in the room, you wouldn’t be able to do so. With our previous counter top, every single mark could be seen from miles away. With this Walnut wood and tone, it masks anything. No extra wood stains needed. Just its natural colour.
  8. Refinishes easily. Again, to make it look new with any scratches or dings, it’s as simple as sanding it down and re-oiling.
  9. The 12 foot length. Lumber Liquidators offers a 12 foot length in this – again, no unnecessary seams.
  10. If it’s good enough for Nate Berkus’ kitchen, it’s good enough for your kitchen. Take that HGTV House Hunter’s and your granite.

If you have any questions or concerns, feel free to ask in the comments any time!

Disclaimer: I’d like to thank Lumber Liquidators for working with us on our kitchen renovation.
They provided us the kitchen counter tops. As always, opinions are my own.

6 Comments

  • Reply
    Kristi
    April 25, 2017 at 10:08 am

    We’ve been debating about butcher block counters in our kitchen, this was SUCH a helpful post to read!!!

    • Reply
      Alex
      May 2, 2017 at 10:48 am

      Thank you so much Kristi! Shannon from AKA Design is using the same ones in her kitchen as well so she should have a great post about it coming up. They’re doing things a little differently than we did so it’s great to see the variety of options you can have with this counter.

  • Reply
    Jen.
    July 15, 2017 at 1:51 pm

    Great article, after reading I looked for a company in Toronto to make me a counters over 13 feet long and managed to find a company in Mississauga(Knottys woodwork). Quite happy to get these made custom. I love butcher block counters even though we had some of the same issues described in the article.
    Just something about wood countertops, give you a warmth no other surface can give you.

    • Reply
      Alex
      July 15, 2017 at 2:46 pm

      Long pieces of butcher block are so hard to find and having had that seam in our previous one, it drove me *crazy*. But I love it. I love how when I put away the dishes or set down pots, there is no clanking or echo chamber in the kitchen. They add this instant warmth for sure.

  • Reply
    sylvia
    November 3, 2017 at 10:27 pm

    hi alex! we bought our walnut counter from lumber liquidators too—but since i’m on the other side of canada, the closest lumber liquidators was in washington 😑. still the best deal! thanks for the tip! we are in the process of installing now, which leads to my question: how did you prep your countertop in the beginning? before your very first coat of mineral oil, did you sand it? thanks!

    • Reply
      Alex
      November 4, 2017 at 2:38 pm

      Hi Sylvia! Excellent timing on your question. I am writing a post next week to explain why I am moving from mineral oil to a specific beeswax/oil product for these. Mineral oil, which it’s fine, wasn’t giving me the look I wanted without a of maintenance. I should have the post up by next Friday at the latest and I will break everything down then. You will love these counters. Everyone walks into our kitchen and it’s the first thing they ask about.

    I love your comments!