Wood countertops and This Old House
- Peter May 11, 2007 12:02 PM
I'm planning a kitchen renovation. In addition to the stone counter tops I'll have through most of the kitchen (likely soapstone, maybe granite) I'd like to make the island top out of wood.
Not butcher block mind you, just plain old wood. And here's the really unusual part -- I'm thinking of cutting right on the wood -- no cutting board used. I know it'll get ugly, but I think it'll age beautifully over time.
Here's why I'm posting this -- I swear I've seen an episode of This Old House where the homeowner did the same -- a non-butcher block wood counter and they intended to cut right on the surface.
I poked around the TOH website, but came up empty. Short of methodically going through every house of the last decade, does anyone recall which house this which house this was?
Has anyone had experience doing the same?
Any advice or leads would be appreciated.
I don't think that's odd at all -- kitchen food prep surfaces were made of wood long before most of the other materials being used today. I think it's a much softer, warmer look than the granite/stone so popular now. I would guess that you treat the wood much as you would a butcher block: with several coats of oil. You'd want a fine-grained hardwood so it doesn't splinter easily. You'll probably want to sand it down and refinish it periodically, but it should be pretty durable. If I ever replace my tile, I'd certainly consider wood.
There's an "ask This Old House" link on their web site -- they'd probably be the best people to help you find the episode you want.
ccbweb, It's smart to keep notes as you go along -- as I plan a renovation I find myself dredging up random ideas from memory past -- if only I took notes on the way!
And why not butcherblock? Appearance. I want the island to be all one piece of wood -- and the ability to cut and chop wherever you want. A piece of butcher block that large -- 3' by 7' or 8' would be unattractive to me.
Ruth, thanks for the support. As far as treating the wood, I'll probably use a product called WaterLox -- it's foodsafe and seems to do the trick.
So... does anyone remember the house from This Old House??! I'd love to hear what Tom Silva had to say about the subject.
Not that unusual for an old house, Peter, and much better looking than the current trendy granite that IMO looks very out of keeping with the patina of historic interiors. Wood, marble, limestone, soapstone, etc. do require a little more care than some other materials but they've been around for centuries and stood the test of time. Don't think of it as "getting ugly." This stuff has character.
I live in an historic district and many of my neighbors have used materials like this. I have a Victorian oak table in a country farmhouse that I use much like you intend to use your island. I use it for everything except heavy chopping - with a cleaver or something. We eat crabs and leave wet things on it with no worries. I keep it well oiled with mineral oil. Very old oak, hard as a rock. My sister used old heart pine. Other friends have also used reclaimed woods from rivers.
I think the secret is to use old woods which you can find on the internet from companies that salvage them. Buy close-grained hardwoods. They're available in all colors and with all sorts of grains that will match the age of your house and probably the indigenous forests from your area. You'll have to hunt around on the internet. Here's one company http://www.elmwoodreclaimedtimber.com... but some of the really wonderful woods may not be hard enough for heavy duty use. There will be trade-offs but you won't have the same old Boos block like everybody else. The worse thing that will happen is that you'll have to use a cutting board for some tasks and that's not so bad if you get to have the beautiful island of your dreams.
I'd also investigate some woodcrafters forums, where hobbyists will have experience with several important questions you will need to ask. Along with Google, a few calls to your local specialty lumber dealer and specialty woodworking tool supply stores should steer you to the appropriate forums. Tell them as many details as you can, and they'll jump on it like flies just like we chowhounds do about food.
The main reasons for butcher block being used are: If laminated so that end-grain is your work surface (think chessboard squares), it is the most durable. If laminated to cut on sidegrain it's not as durable, but is the more common lamination. Lamination, which produces the visual feature you are hoping to avoid, adds tremendous strength against the "cupping" that often occurs on a single piece.
Maple is the species of choice because of its high density. Woodwork forums can steer you to other woods that approximate its strength.
To find a knot-free maple board that is 3 feet wide is going to be very expensive. They exist mostly in the reclaimed from river loss that Making Sense alludes to, from the era when the virgin timber was being cut. They are in high demand for many woodworking applications, and the price reflects it. To paraphrase Will Roger's aphorism on Land: "They ain't making it any more." You could consider using a veneer of such wood applied to a cosmetically inferior heavy stock, but then your service life of re-surfacing by sanding is limited by the depth of your veneer.
A single solid board that is 3 feet wide will possibly "cup" and become unlevel. A newer single board of that size will "check", ie develop cracks. All these virtues of lamination are why butcher block is used intead of a single board.
Elevate at least an inch from abutting worksurface levels so that over the years you will be able to evenly dress the knicked and stained surface with a belt sander. There's nothing wrong with using the knife on the wood itself, but if you do there is no way to avoid nick and stain degreadation.
I have a 4 x 4 island in my kitchen that is made of laminated maple. Not end grain - lengthwise grain. I've used it for chopping, serving, kneading - you name it - for over 25 years. It has knife marks and stains and it still looks fine to me. Used, but fine. Every so often I will wet it down with pure bleach, let it soak for a while, then scrub it all clean and give it a light oiling. Sometimes I don't oil it and it's still perfectly ok. I've never even bothered to sand it. Germ-phobia has finally forced me to stop cutting raw meat directly on it, but I do cut vegetables and bread and whatever else. And the truth is I cut raw meat on it for many many years with absolutely no ill effects. It's obviously crucial to keep the surface clean, but if you maintain some reasonable standards it's pretty safe.
Modern plastics not clean enough? Try good old wood!
Appearances can be deceptive. Householders have been seduced for years by the idea of fitting out their kitchen with easy-to-wipe surfaces, and throwing out those old wooden cutting boards in favour of shiny new plastic ones. So much more hygienic, it is thought.
Dean Cliver and Nese Ak, two researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, beg to differ. They set out to find ways of decontaminating wooden kitchen surfaces and ended up finding that such surfaces are pretty good at decontaminating themselves.
Working with wood from nine different species of tree, and with four sorts of plastic and even an old rubber chopping board, the results were always the same.
When they spread their gut-wrenching bacteria - salmonella, listeria and E. coli - over the various samples and left them there for three minutes, the level of bacteria on the plastic or rubber remained unchanged while the levels on the woods plummeted, often by as much as 99.9 per cent. Left overnight at room temperature, the bacteria on the plastic actually multiplied, while the wooden surfaces cleaned themselves so thoroughly that Dr. Cliver and Ms. Ak could not recover anything from them.
At first sight, these results seem astonishing. But, unlike polymer chemists, plants have spent hundreds of millions of years fighting off bacteria. They should be quite good at it by now. And trees might be expected to be the best of the lot. After all they live longer - not only longer than most plants, but longer than the animals as well. And even when a tree is dead, its wood can hand around for decades, resisting the attacks of micro-organisms. Slaughtering a few should be child's play.
Dr. Cliver and Ms.Ak do not yet know exactly what is happening, but their guess is that the porous structure of the wood is soaking up the fluid with the bacteria in it. Once inside, the bacteria stick to the wood's fibres and are "strangled" by one of the many noxious anti-microbial chemicals with which living trees protect themselves - exactly which, they have not yet worked out. But they are searching. In the meantime, perhaps surgeons should search out their old chopping blocks.
[And don't miss the excellent article on this same subject at http://www.gi.alaska.edu/ScienceForum... ]
You know, I have always felt ok about cutting meat on the counter. And if I am to be totally honest, I have done so more than I will admit in certain circles. However, if I have a small cutting board handy I'll usually grab that instead. I just don't always trust my own hygiene standards...
Not that anyone has EVER gotten ill from anything in my house to my knowledge. I'm just a little queasy about it. Not psycho, just queasy.
I agree. I don't have an entire wood countertop anymore, and I keep a big maple board with a channel all around it just for cutting meat.
Our problem is that we aren't butcher shops doing nothing but cutting meat; we're usually cutting raw meat at the same time we're working with the rest of the meal and don't want to have to worry about whether something that's not going to be cooked is going to come in contact with fresh residue of the chicken we just cut up.
What's nice about this info is knowing that all I have to do to my meat board is stand it under the hot water faucet, swipe it with my little detergent-dispensing brush, rinse and hang it back up with no worries that it won't be sanitary the next time I need it.
Same with all my kitchen woodenware, and I use it constantly. I don't even use detergent on my boards/bowls/spoons except when they're greasy; just a good rinse. I've never had a case of food poisoning from my kitchen; neither did my mother or my grandmother.
When I did have a wood countertop and was between meals doing nothing but cutting up meat--a roast or leg of lamb into stew meat for the freezer, making bulk ground meat into patties, etc.--I used the countertop all the time, cleaned it with paper towels, then a soapy rag, then a rinse with vinegar water.
I rented a place some years back that had a wooden countertop. It was a real
mess when we moved in: stains, deep cuts, uneven wear, and just general grody-ness.
A little (well, a lot actually) of sanding, bleaching, and oiling one weekend afternoon,
and it restored beautifully. A little maintenance every once in a while kept it looking
As mentioned above, maple is the wood of choice. You're not going to find a 3-foot
wide plank for anything under tens of thousands of dollars. So you're going to have
to join narrower strips. It's not a problem at all for a decent woodworker to glue
you up a nice non-butcher-block-looking countertop out of roughly 8-inch wide
You're going to have to contend with damage issues. Warping is a definite possibility.
The thicker the top, the less likely. You probably want at least a 2-inch thick top.
Consider quartersawn maple. Quartersawn wood tends to be much more stable than
plain- or flat-sawn wood (many diagrams on the web explain the differences, if you're
not already familiar). And the price difference is small.
Staining: there have been a couple of threads here lately about stains on cutting
boards. This will happen to your countertop too. It can get ugly but for the most
part can be easily fixed.
Burns: You'll need to be real careful about setting a fresh-from-the-fire pot down
on the countertop. A charred black ring will be a real bother to sand out.
Knife marks: If you're doing cutting directly on the wood, once a year of so you're
going to want to refinish the top. A hand sander, some mineral oil, and an hour or
so and the top will be back good as new. If you're like me, this will be a very
While you're getting the top made, you could also have a couple of matching
18x24" cutting boards made too. They could just unobtrusively live on top
of the counter, ready for the heavy cleavering, pork-chopping, and generally taking
some of the beating away from the countertop.
As far as pricing, maple is about $7 a board-foot more or less, depending where
you live. A board-foot is a 12"x12"x1" volume of wood (ie, 144 cubic inches). So
a 3-foot by 6-foot, two inch thick countertop, factoring in 10% overage for inevitable
waste) is going to be close to $275 for the wood alone. Then three or four hours of
labor at maybe $50/hr. I'd say it's entirely worth it.
Peter, more thoughts. (Don't miss the "Is Wood Safer?" articles in my first post).
If I were doing a kitchen again I'd get very good quality--I mean clear, straight, well-seasoned, well-milled--maple tongue & groove flooring lumber. Put a thin coat of Gorilla Glue (non-toxic when dry) between each board, tap them closely together, clamp some way til dry.
Chuckles is probably right about needing ~2" stock if the maple is to make the whole countertop, but if you lay the 3/4" flooring on a 3/4" plywood base, you might save some money.
You do have to be careful about burns, but believe me that the inevitable stains/marks will become less and less noticeable as it patinates with age and use. Just looks like a kitchen that's really used for cooking.
We are SO gullible. Millions of beautiful old wood countertops were ripped out in the 30s-40s when the burgeoning plastics industry convinced us that wood was not "hygienic". I still weep for the 20 ft. of beautiful old maple countertop, perfect condition, scrubbed patina, slanted/grooved on either side of the sink to drain, still hard as a rock after ~40 years, that my daddy took out ca. 1940 in favor of cherry red Formica.
I have beautiful turquoise Mex. tile on my countertop, but I do everything on wood cutting boards. I have a special one for garlic & onions, little round ones for bread and cheese. My pride and joy is an old mellowed 1"X14"X36" slab of maple I found at a farm sale years ago. I keep it at the end by the range where I do most of my work. It's compacted so hard with age that it's almost petrified; never shows cutting/chopping marks, just fits along the working front of the counter leaving the ~17" of space behind it free for convection oven, utensil crocks, etc.
I also do 90% of my cooking/baking/serving in wood bowls. I use my electric mixer in them and love the pleasant "thunk, thunk" instead of "clang,rattle", they don't abrade the countertop, need only a quick rinse and wipe after use and a yearly rub of mineral oil. I have an overhead shelf of them in every size & shape. They're not only hygienic but beautiful to look at.
So soon so old, so late so smart.
Interesting idea with the flooring, but ...Flooring is much more expensive than raw
lumber plus you have the problem where one end of your counter has a groove an the
other has a tongue sticking out. And then there's the issue of the plywood showing.
And then your counter looks like a floor.
Gorilla glue is ridiculously poisonous. http://www.gorillaglue.com/pdfs/msds.pdf
Do not use it anywhere near your kitchen for anything. A waterproof PVA (white
or yellow glue, essentially elmer's school glue) is the generally recognized as safe
option. Also, PVA works as well or better than any modern "miracle" adhesives on wood. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PVA_glue
As far as the plastic/wood controversy, the best that can be said is the jury
is still out. But is it pretty clear that any harmful bacteria die within a couple
of hours once any kind of board is dry. So basic hygene will generally protect you
with either type of surface.
re: Chuckles the Clone
(1)You say, "plus you have the problem where one end of your counter has a groove an the other has a tongue sticking out. "
Uhh, you cut off the tongue and you trim out the edges, just as you have to edge most countertops--Formica/ceramic tile/copper/zinc/breadboard ends on solid wood......
(2) "Gorilla glue is ridiculously poisonous"? Not unless you drink it.
"Non-toxic - Gorilla Glue is non toxic when cured, free from solvents & fillers, contains no carcinogens and does not release fumes when liquid or dry."
(3) "But is it pretty clear that any harmful bacteria die within a couple
of hours once any kind of board is dry."
That is simply untrue unless you can wait a day or so after each meal to use your kitchen again and be certain the humidity has been under 10% long enough to kill all the germs.
"Bacteria differ from us in a number of ways. They are single-celled organisms that have a simpler structure than the cells that make up our bodies. However, like our cells, bacteria need a source of food, vitamins and minerals to 'live.' They certainly need these things to actively grow and divide. When the going gets rough, however, most species of bacteria can enter a quiet state where they do very little. They are still alive, just not very active. Many microbes can survive for weeks or longer by entering this "quiescent state." In addition, two genuses of bacteria, Bacillus, and Clostridium have an added mechanism of survival -- they undergo a process of sporulation when conditions become less than ideal. The spore is a tough little capsule that contains the DNA of the microbe. It is not actively "alive" but has the potential to germinate into a living cell when conditions improve. Spores can survive for years before germinating into living cells again.
On the flip side, some species of bacteria can divide at a maximal rate of once every 20 minutes under the best of conditions. This means that a single cell will give rise to two daughter cells so, in a sense, you can think of the original cell as having a life span of 20 minutes!
"Microbes can live on household surfaces for hundreds of years. The good news, however, is that most don't. Some well-known viruses, like HIV, live only a few seconds.
Microbes, of course, are everywhere. Each square centimeter of skin alone harbors about 100,000 bacteria. And a single sneeze can spray droplets infested with bacteria and viruses as far as 3 feet. The microbial life span depends on many factors, says Philip Tierno, director of microbiology and diagnostic immunology at the New York University School of Medicine. Because viruses must invade cells of a living host to reproduce, their life spans outside are generally shorter than that of bacteria, which reproduce on their own. Although viruses can survive outside a host on household surfaces, their ability to duplicate themselves is compromised—shortening the virus's life span.
Humidity also makes a difference; no bacteria or virus can live on dry surfaces with a humidity of less than 10 percent. Any sort of nutrients—food particles, skin cells, blood, mucus—helps microbes thrive.
Butcher block is, as others have stated, made the way it is for LOTS of very good reasons, some of which have been stated, but the SINGLE biggest reason that I have not seen so far is that it CANNOT split/separate.
I have seen EVERY species of solid wood and wood joined with the grain SPLIT due to temperature/humidity changes. There is NO WAY that I would accept customer money to install non-butcher block countertops -- we are talking a slab of wood that could cost as much as a used CAR and split in some catastrophic why -- just too big a risk.
You can get butcher block tops that have food grade stain impregnated in the them, as well as bamboo blocks. I suppose you could even get some sort of 'removable/replaceable' butcher block. Any of those options would be better than having a ruined wood top.
Basically all hardwoods that available in the US of today are grown in such a way that they cannot be considered stable enough to hold up as kitchen work surface.
I am fairly certain that Tung Oil is NOT approved for use in food prep areas, becuase it can be poisonous: http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/co...
Perhaps it leaves a "water proof" surface after curing but I would be very concerned about any sort of household solvent (like wine or orange juice) 'uncuring' it...
I've seen 2" maple tongue & groove stay tight and beautiful for almost 40 years now on a kitchen island in Hot Springs, AR. I probably wouldn't try it near a sink or range where moisture and heat are a constant factor, but well-installed on solely prep/eating surfaces it is beautiful and practical. Perhaps it's better maple, as you suggest, than is available today.
I think the best kitchens combine 2 or 3 different countertop materials for different purposes: tile/Formica/granite-type for moisture/heat areas, wood for cutting/chopping, maybe even a slab of marble.
(My kitchen "island" is an old French marble-topped pastry table 27"X48", and there's nothing like it for pastry/biscuits/making fudge.)
And BTW, any finish like Tung oil/Danish oil/poly/varnish destroys the germ-killing property of wood. All it should have is an occas. treatment with mineral oil or one of the good oil/beeswax products made for kitchen woodenware.
It really depends on whether Peter wants a kitchen for show or for go. If he's the type who wants his kitchen to stay looking like one in a new model home, he won't be happy with any kind of wood work surface.
Thanks for the info,
What kind of kitchen do I want? A combination. Something that looks nice but is eminently practical.
Indeed, I'll have a mix of counters. Soapstone along the walls, which includes on either side of the stove. Wood for the island. An old marble-topped table nearby for the occasional toffee or pie crust.
As far how I'll treat the wood, ideally I'd just oil it. Unfortunately it will have small prep sink in it and therefore I'll probably have to do something more along the lines of WaterLox -- and therefore the natural anti-bacterial properties of the wood will be sealed away forever.
And yes, I tried to get rid of the prep sink, but the odd kitchen layout created by the pre-existing and literally unchangeable constraints require the main sink/dish area to be well outside anything resembling a work triangle.
The prep sink will make an incredibly efficient work area -- fridge, stove and prep sink in a equilateral triangle with 4' legs. Everything just a step away.
Please reconsider the tung oil/WaterLox. Antibacterial isn't the problem; food safety is. Tung oil is treated with something or other that makes it unsafe for use on surfaces that will be in contact with food. Read the labels. Do some more research.
I've got an old oak table that has just been oiled and oiled and oiled with mineral oil and water just beads up on it.
If you use old, reclaimed wood with a tight grain and get it well-oiled, you won't have any problems even if you have that prep sink. You might want to consider a raised edge sink rather than an undermount so that the end grain of the wood isn't exposed because that will be harder to keep oiled and more likely to absorb water. I have friends with wood kitchen counters and the undermount sink is the only place they have trouble.
BTW, it only took me a couple of weeks to get the oil finish built up. It's no trouble at all to maintain.
I second this. Almost any finish on wood is more trouble, eventually, than it's worth. It was when mfrs. started putting shellac/varnish on wood bowls (in response to that "Wood is not hygienic" craze of the late 30s) that wood bowls became more trouble than they were worth. The finish cracked/peeled/crazed/flaked.
There are countless100-150 year-old wood kitchen work bowls that never had a finish on them--probably seldom if ever even oiled--that are still as good (and even more beautiful with the mellowness of age) as the day they were carved or turned. Look at old wooden spoons that have stirred a zillion pots of steaming food and been scrubbed and banged around for a century or more.
Makingsense is right that you should try to find old wood. It takes time for wood to mature to maximum hardness, stability, strength and color. New wood is like a new car: you are a nervous wreck trying to save it from that first chip or dent or discoloration. And until it has enough chips/dents/scratches/general deepening of color to make a patina, all those things make you want to refinish it (which means you'll start worrying all over again).
Thanks for the opinion. (And thanks to everyone for the great advice!).
I agree that today's wood isn't stable enough for this. But what's to keep me from buying a bit of reclaimed old-growth, antique boards for this purpose?
After all, we're talking a 3' x 8' area -- it really wouldn't cost very much (especially since I'm reflooring ~2,000 square feet with reclaimed lumber. What's another 24 square feet?)
MakingSense had an excellent post on the practicality & durability of good old well-seasoned hardwoods for hard use in kitchens, and suggestions for sources. There's almost always some antique salvage lumber on eBay, and Old House Journal is such a great resource for finding stuff like this.
And your prep sink shouldn't be a problem unless you're incredibly sloppy. You'll be using mostly cool water for light washing. I lived for years in a Queen Anne Victorian in Michigan that had narrow-board maple tongue & groove floors in both the kitchen and the baths, and the wood--which had no apparent finish on it, scrubbed-looking--was still gorgeous after 100+ years: pale, unstained, hard and smooth, joints perfectly tight. And you can be pretty sure it had had lots of water on it.
Here, BTW, is an interesting article on wood countertops.
God, I love the Internet!
I'm so pleased to see so many good opinions and useful (albeit occasionally contradictory) information here.
I'm definitely going with old-growth reclaimed wood. It'll have a tight grain and I'm not worried about the tongue and groove and all that -- I'll just have it milled off! (Or more likely, it'll never be milled onto the boards in the first place.)
Hearing all of this about oiled wood has given me food for thought.
It'll VERY likely be an undermount sink. The whole reason I want an all wood counter is so I can chop right.on. the. counter without having to limit myself to the cutting board and then sweep the leftover bits and such right into the disposal in the prep sink. Having it drop-in instead of undermount completely defeats the ability to sweep things right in -- the edge would catch all kinds of junk.
I think I can oil the bejeezus out of the counter, including the edge around the sink, and keep it up for a while. I can also apply dozens of counts of oil before we put the counter in place so that the underside around the sink is well treated.
As far as treating that edge after the sink is in place -- I'm just gonna have to do my best and see what happens. Maybe I can undermount and then put some sort of silicone caulk in the crack so I can oil right up to the caulk.
Again, thanks for all the info -- when this is all in place (about a year from now) I'll post photos.
In the meantime, if anyone else has anything to add, I'm all ears!
On the undermount sink point, I must agree with you. Trying to brush debris over a raised lip is the kind of thing that makes you crazy. And since the wood surrounding it is exposed to air circulation and will quickly dry, it shouldn't be a problem. It's standing water and trapped moisture that can ruin wood.
I'd probably brush on several coats of one of the many non-toxic water seal products to the cut edge only. You can easily reapply it now and then.
There's an interesting amount of misinformation building up on this thread.
First, much hardwood is not all that different now than it was 100 years ago. Yes,
the giant, 300-year-old trees are mostly gone. However, maple is not farmed. It
is, for the most part, sustainably harvested one tree at a time from us and canadian
forests. It is milled, dried, and graded. If you're dealing with FAS-grade lumber and
have an experienced woodworker to help, you can get some very nice material. There
is nothing inherently different in the wood from a 50-year-old tree today from the same
age tree 100 years ago.
Safety: trust the MSDS over whatever you read on the web. If the manufacturer of
a product says there are health dangers, there are health dangers. If they don't make
it clear that the health dangers are ameliorated when the product cures, dries, ages,
then there are *still* health dangers when the product cures, dries, ages.
Regardless of the behaviour of bacteria as an entire class, the one particular bacterium
you need to be concerned with is Salmonella. Again, you can get your info from
random postings to mad scientist message boards or you can go straight to the USDA Food Safety service, where the solution is to exercise basic hygene:
There are a number of wood finishes which are food-safe. There are a much larger
number which are not. The ones that are safe are very clearly labeled as such.
What you want to avoid are the heavy metals (cadmium, lead in particular) that are
added to commercial finishes to aid in drying and hardening. One brand in particular
that I've had success with and that my colleagues who do strictly green building
have recommended is Ardvos, manufactured by a Norwegian company named Livos:
It dries to a nice hard amber waterproof surface. It's a bit expensive and I've only
seen it available mail-order, but .75 liters should last you a bunch of years. This
is what I use on my butcherblock countertop at home. My cutting boards I give a light
wipe with walnut oil (straight from the grocery store) but this probably isn't the
best option for an entire counter.
You really do want to finish your countertop. If you do not, the first time you leave
your cast iron pan sitting wet on it you'll end up with a round black rust stain that
will not come off and will have soaked deep enough into the wood that it will be
prohibitive to sand it off as well. The first spilled red wine will be a gray mar that
will bother you forever too. The government actually does some useful things for
us; one really good thing is the Forest Product Laboratory Technical Report series.
Here is, in dense format, everything there is to know about wood finishing:
I'm not sure we're all using the same definition of "butcher block". Traditionally, this
means a surface constructed from face and edge laminated boards oriented with the
end grain up. Anything else, with the boards oriented horizontally, is not a butcher
re: Chuckles the Clone
Thanks Chuckles. Indeed, several seemingly knowledgeable people seem to be stating contradictory things. The information you post is very helpful though.
The one point I'd like to delve into though is where you say:
<<There is nothing inherently different in the wood from a 50-year-old tree today from the same age tree 100 years ago.>>
My understanding is that a lot wood from the past (usually referred to as "old growth") grew up in a colder climate and therefore has a notably tighter grain as the tree put on less new pulp each year. A tighter grain, in turn, means less checking, cupping, warping, bacterial invasion, moisture absorption, etc.
Thanks again everyone!
The biggest difference between a 50-year-old tree and the 100-year-old old one is that the older one is bigger and might yield a couple of solid wide boards. There would be fewer boards to laminate and fewer seams.
A cabinetmaker friend made a fabulous dining table for himself of two 20" wide boards. The original slab had been about 5" thick and was sawed open like a book so that the grain looks like a butterfly down the single seam on the 2" thick tabletop.
We just aren't cutting old growth forest any longer - Thank God - so the only way to get boards of this size is from reclaimed sources. Those woods are also thoroughly dried, something that can take years on a thick, dense slab of wood.
The advantage to mineral oil is that it doesn't get rancid. Food oils, such as walnut oil, that can get rancid in your pantry will also do the same on your countertop. Waxes only sit on the surface and don't sink in. They won't build up a water resistant surface.
I used to buy the expensive oil from woodworkers supply until I found out it was the same as the mineral oil sold it drugstores. Don't drink it - it's used as a laxative. My cabinetmaker friend told me it's great for antique furniture and I use it on a lot of mine. It builds up a beautiful finish and it's not greasy to the touch. It develops a mellow glow that protects the wood.
I think walnut oil is the one veg. oil that will not go rancid. Its only problem is that terrifying nut-allergy. People with it become more sensitive with every incident, eventually to the degree that something that was prepared on--even laid briefly on--a countertop treated with walnut oil could, quite literally, stop breathing and die.
Re: the laxative properties of mineral oil. Neiman-Marcus' legendary Helen Corbitt wrote of her WWII years as head chef at the Houston Country Club. No salad oil was available so she used mineral oil in salads for the duration. Said she never had any complaints, maybe because her patrons were the most "regular" group in town.
Original poster here.
So it's clear I should go with reclaimed wood for numerous reasons. But the finish is still being hotly debated. Some people are saying:
<<apply a finish the counter such as WaterLox or Ardvos>>
and others saying:
<<mineral oil is the way to go>>
I'm looking to cut directly on this counter. I don't mind it looking beat up, but I don't want huge water rings or deep stains.
So... theory aside, is there anyone out there who's actually DONE THIS in their own home? Does anyone have a wood counter in their kitchen that has held up well and doesn't have heat rings, water stains, etc?
If so, how is the wood treated?
Advice is much appreciated.
Peter, nothing is foolproof. Nothing in this world is completely invulnerable to carelessness, ignorance, accidents.You can damage any countertop material I can think of. A Le Creuset skillet or Dutch oven dropped at just the right angle on tile/granite/soapstone/slate can chip it or crack a slab right in two. You can burn as big and black a hole in Formica or Corian or rubber as you can in wood. You can dent & puncture copper/stainless/zinc. It's easy to permanently scratch/chip/dent/stain marble.
Of all substances on earth, wood is the most infinitely reparable. You can sand it down, bleach it, replace a single board, cut out and plug a serious burn or gouge, and--if you're a person like me who thinks well-used-&-lovingly-cared-for things are restful and beautiful--it only adds to the charm. (That's also what I like best about ceramic tile, as I said on another thread: damaged tiles can be chipped out and replaced. )
I've seen and lived with more than a dozen different wood kitchen work surfaces, old/new, softwood/hardwood, dark wood/light wood, finished/unfinished. My only complaint about any of them has been deteriorating finishes on the ones that had received a finish. I stripped them and no more problems--at least with the employment of basic common sense. If they were softwood I used a hardwood board for serious cutting/chopping. I didn't let water stand on them and wiped up spills. I put pads and trivets under anything hot enough to burn. I occasionally treated them with oil &/or wax.
Go to a good English antique shop and look at the 500-year old blackened-with-age oak work/dining tables that never saw a finish (except maybe turps and beeswax) and still grace any room. (I have two of them.) Look at the scrubbed French/English/American dry sinks, tables, cutting boards; the butcher blocks made of a slab of tree trunk on legs. Take a historic house tour and look at the old PINE--not even hardwood!--kitchen work tables/counters/floors that never had any kind of finish. That's the best education about wood you'll ever get.
My last email to you attached a Bob Vilas article on wood countertops. Here is the paragraph on the opening page, describing the various countertop options, that linked me to it.
It says nothing about "finishes" other than mineral oil, even around sinks and ranges.
Wood has a warm and luminous appeal for countertops and kitchens. Oak, maple, cherry, red beech, walnut, teak, and mahogany are all hardwoods favored for countertop applications. Some exported wooden countertops are built with finger-jointed construction and installed with miter-bolted seams for added durability. Wood is one of the more sanitary products for the kitchen, with inherent properties in to protect it from bacteria build-up. Maintenance is required, however, starting with regular mineral oil treatments, particularly near the sink, and extra caution with extremely hot cookware. Prices for wood countertops range from $50 to $100 per square foot installed. More About: Wood Countertops
Thanks for this and all the other replies.
It sounds like you're saying that you've personally had numerous wood counters that you used as cutting surfaces, you generally did nothing more than apply mineral oil, and they held up and looked great for years. That's exactly the answer I was looking for.
BTW, you refer to maple quite a bit in your posts. Maple is lovely wood but I've never cared for its light color. I think I'm going to look for something a lot darker - some mahogany or walnut or cherry. I'm sure it will cost me a pretty penny, but I'm ok with that since it's probably the piece of the house that I'll see more than any other.
Peter, I like the darker woods better, too. Maple is simply the most available & inexpensive of the really good American non-splintering hardwoods. But you can find maple in various shades and some old maple has a beautiful depth of color.
Cherry is gorgeous, hickory is spectacular, mesquite is interesting and hard as nails, other fruitwoods like pecan are great options.. Southern yellowleaf pine is one of the hardest and most moisture-resistant woods on earth and takes a stain beautifully. Elm is beautiful, lovely soft brown color.
Check the ads in Old House Journal. Lots of interesting stuff/artisans/sources for unusual things there.
Kitchens are the best thing in the world. Good luck with yours.
I know I have lots of great wood choices. A question though. You mention staining southern yellowleaf pine.
I'm surprised to hear you mention staining the wood. Won't that bring on more trouble than it's worth? (finding non-toxic stain, having to re-stain after sanding, inhibiting the anti-bacterial properties of the wood, etc.)
Mentioning that was sort of stream-of-consciousness. Many years ago I applied some Minwax penetrating water-based stain to our inn kitchen's old yellow pine 1900-era countertops because the dratted flaking finish someone slapped on them (and I'd stripped off) had made it age-darken unevenly. Looked leprous.
I applied it with a rag, let it dry a couple of days, waxed it with an oil/beeswax product and it looked beautiful for years. It took care of an unsightly problem and allowed the wood time to even out in color by the time it was completely worn off.
No, you would not stain countertops except in such a situation.
Just for your information, the attached photo is my kitchen island (the olive oil bottle is there to give you some scale). I have chopped on it for 25 years and only occasionally do anything more elaborate than just scrubbing it down with some cleanser on a sponge. I have never sanded it and I rarely oil it - although when I do, I use mineral oil only. The top is laminated maple, 2-inches thick.
Have we persuaded you yet that you're going to be OK?
PhoebeB is right that wood is probably more forgiving than anything else. Careless people can destroy anything, even granite which can't be repaired. That being said, there is a line somewhere on the continuum between use and abuse. Ice picks and cleavers, leaving red wine spills, turmeric, hot cast iron, all sorts of things can leave ugly, ugly marks. Reasonable care and you'll be fine. An accident is fixable.
As I said, the only problem I have ever seen that I would not personally do is the undermounted sink that my friends have because the end grain of the wood just absorbs moisture. Perhaps there is a way to have a prep sink fabricated to mount flush with the top of the counter - maybe by the soapstone company. You'd only have to keep the joint well-sealed. I have a prep sink but scoop things off the counter into my hand and into the sink. Not much trouble.
A warning. When your counter is first planed and sanded, it will appear much lighter than the wood you thought you chose. It will even appear new. Don't be shocked and disappointed. This is normal. First time that wood has ever seen the light of day. As soon as you begin to oil and use it, it will begin to darken, perhaps quite rapidly. With use, it will acquire the patina that you want which is why you are using this material in the first place.
If you want instant patina, you might even search for an old table of the size you want and use only the top for the island. If the top isn't thick enough, it can be reinforced with a layer of plywood for stability and an apron can be built be a cabinetmaker. The size you are seeking - 3' x 7' or 8' - is not an unusual size for an antique table or countertop. You might have to strip varnish but the natural wood would have all the age and character you're seeking.
Yes, you've persuaded me. :)
Seriously, I was never worried. I know this is a great decision and will look great. I was just trying to get the most accurate info possible as to how well it would wear, what kind of problems I'd have, and what I could do to make the whole process go well.
And yes, the wood will indeed like a lot lighter at first, but oil will take of that in no time. I'm not a newbie to woodworking, just to using wood in the kitchen. :)
One more thought. I notice in the Bob Vilas paragraph that teak is mentioned as a possible countertop wood. I don't know whether most new hardwoods are really, as a poster said, inferior to old ones, but I do know that new teak is almost certain to be the accelerated-growth plantation kind that's almost entirely sapwood: pale and dull, no noticable grain, won't take a polish, unpleasant to the touch, lacking both the rich color of old forest teak and the oils that made it so incredibly durable. There are now serious and growing doubts about its durability, esp. for salt water marine purposes.
I know you want the single piece of wood, but I can tell you that I have 2 pieces of butcher block 30" by 4 ft., one on each side of the stove. Almost 20 years. Sand every few years and rub with mineral oil every so often. I like keeping them like new, and I do a lot of cutting every day... but use a separate board for most chicken and meat. They have lasted fabulously. See pic. good luck to you on your choice.
By the way, want to add that the old counters with the great cut marks look cool, but they do represent channels where bacteria can get in and cause problems. Even wiping with a bleach solution may not always catch everything in those cuts. Sanding will bring back the smooth surface that is easier to keep food safe. And the process for sanding is to go with rough grain, and work your way up to fine grain... also, use a slightly damp sponge or towel between sanding, to bring up the grain for the next sanding. This will result in a great, hard surface, that does not get rough once your sponge hits it. A little mineral oil on top seals it from moisture and you're good to go (cut and chop).
Woodburner, that is incorrect. See this 2005 article:
There is virtually no difference in the salmonella/e coli-killing properties of old scarred wood boards/blocks and brand new ones. The capillary action of wood works in the cracks as well as it does on the surface.
"Wooden boards that had been used and had many knife cuts acted almost the same as new wood, whereas plastic surfaces that were knife-scarred were impossible to clean and disinfect manually, especially when food residues such as chicken fat were present. "
It's only scarred plastic boards that provide breeding ground for bacteria and must be put through a dishwasher to sanitize.
Well, that's good news to me (since I cut on the wood all the time). Still, I simply prefer the clean look and feel of the sanded and oiled surface -- just my preference. However, I still believe that using a varnish on an active cutting board will not hold up over time, will begin to peel, and will need to be removed. The periodic oiling with mineral oil in my experience is clearly the way to go. No gook, no mess, just a nice application that seals the wood without any mess. keeps the water from seeping into the wood, and ruining it...
Good news is right! My heart sang when I first read about this 1992 research, then I got mad! For nearly 3/4 of a century we'd been told to get rid of our lovely old wood bowls/boards/blocks/countertops/utensils--and that was based on absolutely NO RESEARCH AT ALL!!!!!
This from that first article I ever read (from the Florida Veterinary Scene newsletter, Sept. 1994):
"So where did we get the idea that wood isn't safe? Cliver and Ak [the food microbiologists who made the findings] don't know. They did a literature search and have not found any studies that evaluated the food safety attributes of wood and plastic. "
As I said in my first post, "Follow the money". The infant plastics industry needed to create a market, made a totally unwarranted assumption and it became "scientific fact" in people's minds!!! When will we ever learn???
One more question to clear a last detail.
I understand that sealing the wood with varnish or some such will cover up the bacteria-killing properties of wood, but what about mineral oil?
In other words, will oiling it turn the counter into something akin to a plastic cutting board?
Excellent question, Peter, and the answer is that oiling/waxing does affect the germ-absorptive properties of wood, but nothing like the extent or permanence of hard finishes --unless you slather on so much so often that you turn the wood into a gummy sticky mess.
Completely untreated wood is probably the most efficient germ killer. But a reasonable amount of oil can be absorbed into the wood and disperse, and every time you wipe/wash your counter you help that process along.
(Think of all the meat fat/oil that's been absorbed into old butcher-shop chopping blocks . They are virtually impervious to moisture, yet tests on them have shown no significant loss of germ-killing ability with age and/or amount of use. Wood is inexplicable: very close to a miracle, scientifically speaking. God makes good stuff.)
There's an old wood bowl-makers' oiling formula that is probably as sound for countertops:
"New bowls once a day for a week, then once a week for a month, then once a month for a year, once a year thereafter."
I follow this pretty closely and it's worked for me.
(I repeat my suggestion that you thoroughly water-seal just the cut edge around your prep sink. The prudently cared-for surface of the wood can take care of itself if you don't let water stand for long periods of time.)
Thank you for your prompt and informative replies. What you write is pretty much what I was thinking and yes, that oiling schedule/formula is exactly what I used (or intended to use) on some of my wood cheese boards and a massive wood cutting bowl my family has.
And yes, I'll definitely seal the exposed edge around the sink -- and probably the entire underside as well. I figure sealing the underside will help lock in moisture/prevent the wood from drying out from that side.
In general you want to finish both sides of a board the same.
Wood expands a lot more than you might expect, and only in certain
directions. The expansion is due to humidity in the air. Finish slows the
expansion. If one side expands slower than the other, it will warp.
If you look carefully at the "unfinished" bottom of an old table, you'll
probably notice that it actually does have a sealer coat applied, often
just a coat of paint. It just hasn't been sanded and polished like the top.
And this expansion and contraction is why a lot of people are going to
tell you you should absolutely put some sort of finish on your counter.
Wood expands when it gets wet and contracts when it dries. When parts
of a board expand and contract faster than others, you start to get cracks.
One purpose of a finish (did you read that reference I pointed out above :) )
is to slow the absorption of water by the surface of a board so it does not
expand or contract as quickly in relation to the interior of the board. And
thus lasts longer.
re: Chuckles the Clone
I hear ya Chuckles, but if I only want to apply oil to the top, what do I do to the bottom? Oiling it once won't do the trick -- it'll be inaccessible after it's installed and I imagine it will need additional coats over time..
Maybe get the piece of wood nice and early and oil it daily on both sides for a few weeks until its installed?
And yes, wood "moves", which is why it'll be fastened with screw slots to allow for exactly that kind of movement.
hi peter was goggling wood counter-tops and came across your ? .the episode is 2644 at the Carlisle house. The company who made the counter-top was Walker creek furniture. hope this is of some help for you ,as every one else seems to be more concerned with the hygiene rules. As my boss and mentor always says " were all going to die anyway so quit whinnin an worryin " take care to all and FREE TIBET