Ah, butcher block. There are so many good things to say about the beautiful, warm texture that wood counters can bring to a home! But there are also a lot of concerns associated with butcher block in a kitchen because, well, it is just wood, after all. Water + wood is bad, right? Some people choose to only use butcher block in areas that are predominately dry, like on a kitchen island, but I decided to get crazy and use it everywhere! Let's talk about why I selected butcher block and how we installed it ourselves—even by the sink.
Butcher block is relatively inexpensive compared to many other kitchen counter surfaces, with laminate being the obvious choice as a cheaper alternative. Our existing counters were a textured laminate made to look like stone. It had pulled away and broken off at the corners, in the process tearing holes in my clothing that caught on the corners! Devastating, I know. But it's only clothing. Let's not forget the bigger picture—the countertops! Laminate was just not doing it for me. I didn't love the color, fake texture, and overall cheap look of the laminate counters. I also didn't like how the laminate wasn't holding up well over time, and I couldn't fix it because of how it had broken. Honestly, though, our laminate counters weren't that bad. I could've lived with them for many more years, but I was becoming increasingly curious about inexpensive replacement options.
My first replacement choice was a light-colored, solid surface countertop, like this faux stone option Corian offers. But even the solid-colored bottom tier of Corian would cost over two thousand dollars for our space, making solid surface countertops way out of my price range. The only other option in my mind was tile or butcher block. Most inexpensive, tiled countertops aren't very visually appealing to me, and they're definitely not resilient, with the tiles susceptible to cracking, and the grout becoming easily stained, so I didn't have to think about that option for very long. Thus began my research into butcher block as an all-over option for our kitchen counters.
Let's start with the bad news first. My top concerns with butcher block were staining, scratching, and water damage. I tried my best to impartially consider these issues, though my heart was saying, "DO IT! DO IT!" Pinot noir is my drink of choice, and I love to let homemade sauces and soups simmer on the stove. Blueberries? They're my daughter's favorite food. All of this meant I would have to be realistic and understand that while I can be proactive about keeping my counters wiped off after cooking or food prep, there will probably be staining as I become less obsessive about the new counters.
As far as dings and scratches go, I've always been one to use a cutting board, but had become slack since living in this house. I hated our countertop so much that abusing it with knives was weirdly therapeutic. But installing beautiful butcher block counters meant using a cutting board would be a must to avoid scratches. I don't foresee this being a problem for me, but just in case, I keep cutting boards lying about, should my laziness become particularly irresistible at any given moment.
The biggest concern for me was definitely was the idea of water damage. Putting butcher block around a sink is risky enough, even without the sinks being under-mounted. You definitely have to make sure to use silicone around the sink seam and also use a good wood sealer. I began considering using polyurethane around the sink area for extra water protection and then using a food-safe tung oil elsewhere. But the more I read about it, the more I learned a few coats of tung oil would wear better and protect the wood more than something like polyurethane. So I used five coats of the well-reviewed Waterlox sealer and will make sure I'm maintaining the finish as time goes on, reapplying oil twice a year. I can't let standing water hang out by the sink and must keep on top of sneaky areas that might have water, like around the soap dispenser. This is why I bought a little enamel dish for my sponges and soaps to rest on, and luckily my faucet has a little bar that is perfect for hanging damp wash rags. I don't have a steel subset area to drape the cloth on my sink, and it needs to stay off the counter.
Basically, it would seem the biggest con of having butcher block counters is having to think about them. I'm already starting to get used to it, though I've really never been one to leave out really dirty dishes on the counter or standing water by the sink anyway. Are you the kind of person who gets anxious about the possibility of a knick on your brand new car or who flosses three times a day? If you are, then the nature of wear-and-tear on butcher block counters might drive you crazy. I've never even owned a new car and can appreciate the patina of antiques, so I figured butcher block would be a decent choice for our lifestyle, budget, and style.
Sourcing Butcher Block
Ikea has fairly inexpensive butcher block that seems to be well loved by those who use it, according to some Internet sleuthing. But because I needed two 12' lengths and one 8' length, and the nearest Ikea to my home is 1 1/2 hours away, it wasn't really feasible for me to transport butcher block from Pittsburgh to Canton. Driving 10 minutes home from Lumber Liquidators with butcher block hanging off a trailer was much more doable, so that's what we did. Unlike the Ikea version, the butcher block available here at Lumber Liquidators is actually solid wood, so I'll be able to refinish these as many times as I need to in the future (like if we ever put this house on the market). We chose maple wood, and two 12' and one 8' pieces cost me $1,040.51, including tax.
The cost of the countertop actually goes beyond just the wood, though. We also needed a food-safe sealer (I chose Waterlox), a new blade for our circular saw, and tite joint fasteners. That doesn't include the materials for installing the sink—stainless steel bolts and waterproof silicone caulk.
Because we were working with very expensive (comparatively) wood, we wanted to practice as much as possible along the way. My dad very graciously led the way, because he's very experienced with all things woodworking related, and I was very, very nervous about making an expensive mistake. We used Masonite to practice our cuts and also to use as templates when it came time to cut into the actual butcher block. Why did we use Masonite for a template? Well, because it's inexpensive, it's pretty thin, and it cuts easily.
To begin, we cut the Masonite to the width of the butcher block. To do this, we used a circular Skil saw and a straightedge clamped to Masonite (over scrap plywood for a cutting surface).
After cutting the Masonite pieces and angles and making sure they fit perfectly on the kitchen cabinets (thankfully the kitchen corners are a nice 45˚ angle), it was time to cut the angles on the butcher block counter. We traced the Masonite onto the butcher block and cut the angle with a circular saw and then a router to make sure the cutting edge was made at a perfect 45˚ angle to help it fit snugly against the adjacent piece of butcher block.
If you were wondering if butcher block is reversible, I can't attest to all butcher block, but I can say that our pieces were not. The wrong sides of the counters were noticeable because of gaps between lengths of wood and also more knots. This can be worked around, though, and I'll share more about that soon.
Joining the Butcher Block
We used the scrap pieces of butcher block to practice the miter joinery. To join the corners, we used these handy little tools called tite joint fasteners. They need to be recessed into the wood; then you slip them into the space and use a little metal tool to twist the ball and tighten the joint. You can see this process a few images down.
To make the recessed spots for the tite joint fasteners, we clamped the counter down and drew lines perpendicular to the joint. Then we drilled holes (spaced according to the length of the fasteners) with a forstner drill bit and routered a straight line to connect them.
After we practiced and made sure we understood how the tite joint fasteners worked, we drilled and routered holes in the actual countertop pieces, doing a quick dry fit to make sure the joint was lining up appropriately. Then it was time to glue together the joints.
Because the end grain of wood is so absorbent, wood glue isn't the best choice of adhesive for this project. Gorilla Glue sets up rather quickly and is a great industrial strength adhesive for countertop joints. To activate the glue, the manufacturer recommends wetting the area to be glued first. We did this with a sponge. Then we quickly spread glue along the cut edge of the wood with a spatula. After the glue was spread on both pieces of butcher block, we pushed them together and got to work on the tite joint fasteners.
Don't just tighten the fasteners while ignoring the good side of the cabinet, because you might not be able to tell if the two pieces of butcher block are perfectly flush on the good side. I shifted each side up or down as Dad tightened the fasteners and felt the good of the counters with his other hand to see if the two pieces were lining up perfectly or if I needed to shift them a bit. This took a lot of tweaking. If you don't get it lined up perfectly, you're in for lots of sanding to smooth out the bump on the right side of the counter.
After about an hour, you can use a metal spatula to scrape off the dried foam that came from the activated Gorilla Glue. This part is really fun! Because of the tite joint fasteners, you can stress the joints before the complete cure time advised by the manufacturer. Now it's time to cut holes for the sink, and in my case, the stove too.
This process was a little bit different for me than it will be for you, but I'm guessing you don't have a round butterfly sink, eh? Usually double-basin undermount sinks have just one hole in the counter, so the subset (dividing area between sinks) is not covered by the countertop. I wanted my subset to be covered by the countertop, though, because we were using our existing sink, and it had holes from previous hardware (the sprayer and knobs) that weren't needed for our new faucet.
Because our sink is so unique, our process of cutting holes for it was different than yours. Typically, you can make a template for the sink by clamping plywood (with a rough-cut sink opening) to the top of the sink (after duct-taping the sink to protect the surface) and then routering out the hole. The bearing edge of the router follows the form of the sink hole while the blade cuts out the shape. This YouTube video shows how simple it can be.
We planned on spacing out the sink holes a bit to give space to the miter joint, so we didn't bother tracing the sink exactly. Instead, we measured the holes of the sink and cut out the holes of the template to be placed exactly where we wanted them to be.
The circle was drawn precisely by using a compass made from a scrap piece of wood with a nail hammered into the radial point and a marker fit into a drilled hole on the other end. The next step was to use a jigsaw or Sawzall to cut out the shape, leaving about a 1/4" border along the inside of the marker line. The router would take away that 1/4" border as it cut out the precise shape with the use of another makeshift compass attached to the router. (See below left.)
To cut the holes in the butcher block, we traced the circle from the template and cut out the holes with a Sawzall, leaving a border just like we did for the template above. Then we clamped the Masonite template into place (see below) and routered the cut edge to get the hole to the precise size of the template. At times, the router would go against the grain and start roughing up the cut edge, so then we came at that area from the opposite side to make sure the router blade was always going with the grain, ensuring a smooth cut edge.
Right before cutting the sink holes, we realized that we had put a tite joint fastener too close to the sink hole opening, meaning there was a routered hole right where the edge of the sink hole should be. We had planned for where to place the fasteners, making sure there would be plenty of space around them for the sink holes, but somewhere along the routering process, we got mixed up and put a fastener in the wrong spot. Oh, no! My heart sank, but then I just realized, "It is what it is," and we needed to figure out how to move on from there, without spending more money.
The only way to work around the errant fastener was to move the sink basins farther away from each other, leaving room between them for the fastener. To do this, we used a metal cutting wheel to slice apart the sink in the middle of the subset. The cut edge would be hidden by the countertop, so it didn't need to be perfect.
We did a dry fit of the sink, attaching it to the wrong side of the counter with stainless steel #10 screws. I sat underneath the counter making sure the sinks were perfectly positioned inside of the holes we had just cut out, while Dad drilled pilot holes and then screws to hold it in place.
At this point, we flipped the counter right side up and brought in the faucet to see how it would fit. Because the sinks were farther apart now, our faucet's reach wasn't far enough. I wanted the faucet to reach farther in the sink, for obvious reasons, so I began searching for a faucet with the farthest reach I could find. The faucet I settled on was a bit of a budget buster, but it was definitely a necessity because of our big mistake. And I just love the way it looks!
I thought the wait on the new faucet to arrive would hold up our progress, but it turned out to be the perfect amount of time to seal the counters. So we removed the sinks and worked on applying the wood sealer—a process which took six whole days, because of drying time between coats.
Because of the great recommendations I found on woodworking forums around the Internet, I settled on Waterlox as my wood sealer. Waterlox is a food-safe tung oil that penetrates the wood for extra protection. Because it soaks into the wood, you need to use a few coats for extra protection.
I couldn't find Waterlox at our local Lowe's or Home Depot, but the large, independently owned hardware store I frequent (Hartville Hardware in Northeast Ohio) had a low VOC version in stock. According to the manufacturer's advice, I needed a lot of oil for the amount of counter space in our kitchen, so I decided to go ahead and get a gallon (it's also available in quarts) of the sealer, and then I would have some extra on hand for maintenance down the road. Waterlox is definitely not cheap (I paid $120 for a gallon), but I think paying more for a quality sealer will help my countertops look great as time goes on.
Prepping & Sealing
To prepare for sealing the wood, we sanded down the surface with 120 grit sandpaper, and then went up to 180, then 200. Finishing with the 200 grit sandpaper will give you a beautifully silky surface for the oil. We wiped it down with a slightly damp rag, and after the wood was completely dry, we brushed on the first coat of oil.
We did five coats of Waterlox all together, and I could tell as the week wore on that the wood darkened some after the first coat. The wood will feel rough after sealing, because the moisture causes the wood hairs to stand back up, even though you sanded it before sealing. You'll also see brush marks from the oil application process, which are unavoidable. So before the last coat of sealer, I lightly hand sanded the surface of the counter with 400 grit sandpaper to get rid of the brush marks and then followed that by sanding with a super fine 0000 grade steel wool. The steel wool will give you a wonderfully smooth surface and take away any minuscule scratch marks left by the 400 grit sandpaper.
In case you were wondering about how far the gallon went in our kitchen after five coats, I still have a half gallon in our garage left over from this project, but I know I'll use it up with reapplications in the future.
We mounted the sinks before the counter was finished being sealed, and I don't recommend doing that. I had to scrape the Waterlox off of the inside of the sink, and that could have been avoided if we had waited until the counter was completely sealed before installing the sink.
To install the sink, one person sat under the counter holding the sink in place while another person watched from above to make sure it was perfectly in place. After applying a ribbon of waterproof silicone, the sink was put into place and secured with several #10 stainless steel screws (which we had already drilled pilot holes for). We wiped away the excess silicone and even used a rag soaked in mineral spirits to wipe the area to make sure there was no residual silicone on the wood or sink.
The silicone will protect the seam between the sink and wood from any water. It's now impenetrable and safe from rot due to water damage. I will have to make sure I check the seam from time to time, though, to make sure the silicone is in good shape.
Before sliding the counter into place, we used staples to attach a piece of aluminum sheet metal to the underside of the counter where the dishwasher is. This will deflect steam from the dishwasher, preventing warping of the counter or water damage to the wood.
Lastly, we drilled a hole for the faucet with a spade drill bit, placed the counter onto the cabinets, and secured it in place with L-brackets from inside the cabinets.
Faucet source: Amazon
So far I'm loving the butcher block counters and have been really good about using a cutting board. I haven't settled on a counter cleaner that I love just yet, but I've read that it's important to use a gentle cleaner on butcher block, which means no more Lysol disinfectant for me! I found this article at Houzz to be really helpful for natural butcher block cleaning ideas, so I'm considering making my own. In the meantime, though, just an all-natural, gentle counter cleaning works just fine.
I plan on checking for scratches and stains every July and January when it's time for another application of tung oil. If there are any damaged areas, I can sand them away at that time right before sealing again. Hopefully all it will need is just another quick coat of oil and maybe some sanding with steel wool to get me by for another six months.
So what do you think about butcher block counters? They're a beautiful, less-expensive countertop option, but I can see how the maintenance involved isn't for everyone. I know there's a lot to say about butcher block, and kudos to you if you're actually still reading, but there's still a chance I may have left things out, so if you have any questions, I'd be happy to talk about them in the comments below! –Mandi
Read more about my kitchen renovation at the links below:
- Planning a Budget Kitchen Renovation
- Refinishing Kitchen Cabinets
- Cleaning, Painting, and Drilling into the Brick Wall
- Reconfiguring Existing Cabinets for a Fresh Look
- How to Make an Inexpensive Plank Backsplash