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Interior Design & Window Treatments

Oct 17, 2016Care and Maintenance for Butcher Block Countertops and Kitchen Islands

Granite, quartz, and stainless steel: so sleek, modern…and maybe a little bit cold. This might be why many homeowners are adding some natural warmth by installing butcher block countertops or kitchen islands. Butcher block is an affordable and ecological option; wood is widely considered the healthiest building material in the world. It is reliable, sturdy, and can last a long time without requiring excessive protection.

However, wood is a natural living material and, unlike man-made materials, it reacts to living indoors. Remember, the wood used to be a tree, and the only purpose a tree has in life is to absorb the elements around it. Just because it isn’t living as a tree anymore, that doesn’t mean its personality has changed. An untreated butcher block surface is eager to continue living up to its reputation, and will retain moisture from whatever it comes in contact with, such as vegetables, food oils, or that big glass of red wine.

Feeling overwhelmed but still want butcher block? Don’t fret, we’ve got you covered. Keep reading to learn some basic maintenance tips that will result in beautiful butcher block surfaces for years to come.

Finish tops with a Mineral Oil

Mineral oil is to butcher block countertops as sunscreen is to a pale skinned person at the beach. Once installed, the wood must be oiled regularly on the top and sides. Be sure to pay special attention to the end-grain area where any cuts were made; the wood here is most likely to absorb humidity. For kitchen top applications, it’s important to use a product that is specially designed to come in contact with food, thus a mineral oil. The benefit here is that it won’t go rancid; other oils that are not food safe will contaminate the countertop, and then your food as you’re preparing it.

We recommend doing this job in your pajamas. Not only will you be more comfortable, but the oil should soak the wood for 8-10 hours, so before bed is the best time to do this project. Simply pour a small quantity of oil on the wood and then spread it with a soft brush or rag. Go get a good night’s rest, then remove the excess with an absorbent paper towel the following morning while your coffee is brewing.

A simple rule of thumb:

After installation, when everything is sanded to your liking, begin applying the mineral oil…
Once per day for the first week
Once per week for the first month
Once per month for the lifetime of your counters
After any sanding you might do to remove scratches or cut marks

Maintenance

With these types of counters, heat and moisture are your enemies—avoid them at all costs! Now is the time to bust out that crocheted pot holder that your Aunt Dottie made you, or buy a modern new trivet to place under your pots and pans. Be sensitive about what you’re using to clean your counters.

Vinegar on a wood top finished with mineral oil can cause cupping or cracking, as can corrosive chemicals or harsh detergents. In order to keep your wooden top clean, periodically wash with warm soapy water and dry it well with a cloth or paper towels. Apply mineral oil using our schedule above. Alternatively, you can use Howard Butcher Block Conditioner, which is a combination of mineral oil and beeswax. This provides additional protection against both stains and moisture. Over time, you’ll begin to notice that water will bead on the surface instead of immediately absorbing. This means your mineral oil treatments are working.

What we’re trying to say is there are small prices to pay for the warmth and natural beauty of butcher block. You’ll have to give it a little more TLC than the average countertop.

Repairs

If properly installed, sealed, and periodically oiled, there is no reason that your top won’t last a long period of time in the same condition it was when new. Sometimes, however, due to poor maintenance and improper environmental conditions, some problems might arise. Here are some potential pitfalls and solutions:

Warping in the wood happens whenever there is a significant difference in moisture between the top side and the bottom side of the panel. If possible, place the top on a flat, hard surface, concave side facing down. On the convex side, place some fairly heavy objects. It will take up to 12 hours until the panel will straighten completely, after which, oil it abundantly on all sides. If it is not possible to remove the top, generously apply mineral oil on the concave side until the panel straightens. In this case, however, you might need to repeat this process several times to obtain the desired result.

End splits occur whenever the wood is living in an excessively dry environment without being properly sealed. To repair, mix wood sand with a small amount of water-based wood glue and fill the cracks thoroughly. Allow 15-20 minutes to cure, sand the area with a 120 grit sand paper and then oil the top freely.

Scratches, cut marks and food stains can be removed by sanding the affected area and applying a new coat of mineral oil. The finger-jointed panels can be sanded to a 3/8” depth, while for the continuous lamella panels and the end-grain butcher blocks, there are no such restrictions.

To Poly or Not to Poly?

A solid wood surface finished with polyurethane requires no maintenance at all. However, with the surface coated in polyurethane, scratches, cut marks and other damage will be more difficult to repair. Further, though the label may read that polyurethane is safe for counters, what if a piece chips off while cutting on the surface and gets into your food? Our answer is that we don’t know; for countertops that will get a lot of daily use, we feel it’s best to go natural with mineral oil. But that’s just us.

What are your thoughts on butcher block counters? Are they for you? We always love to hear your thoughts. CLICK HERE today for a no obligation appointment in your home or office! 630.737.1510.