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May 11, 2007 12:02 PM

Wood countertops and This Old House


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.


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  1. 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.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Ruth Lafler

      Me too, Ruth, if I ever have the opportunity to remodel my kitchen, I'd choose wood countertops over stone in a heartbeat!

    2. I'm curious about why not butcher block? Cost or appearance? I'm genuinely curious because we're keeping notes about what we want to do with our kitchen when the time comes. I'd love to hear your thinking on it.

      1 Reply
      1. re: ccbweb

        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.


      2. 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 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.

        1. 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.

          1. 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.

            4 Replies
            1. re: Nyleve


              Modern plastics not clean enough? Try good old wood!
              The Economist

              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 ]

              1. re: Nyleve

                Nyleve, just noticed this post again and am wondering if the "Is Wood Safer After All?" discussion has persuaded you that you can cut raw meat on your beautiful counter again?

                1. re: PhoebeB

                  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.

                  1. re: Nyleve

                    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.