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Butcherblock Island, how to finish it?

Hi, we just bought a home with a butcher block island, they had used it to chop food on directly, and therefore oiled it monthly to keep it in good shape. I want to get it sanded down, and then either put a light stain on it, and then seal it (with what?). I'd prefer to use cutting boards that I can really scrub, (and put in the dishwasher), than using a huge island to put food directly on.

Any ideas?

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  1. I have butcher-block counters, and even though I usually use cutting boards over them I still make sure I use food-grade oil on them just in case I want to put some food directly on them (or in case the kids forget). So they get a monthly rubdown with any good food-grade oil like walnut or peanut oil. Once a year they get a good sanding and a heavy re-oil. You could use a mineral oil as well.

    I wouldn't recommend using any other chemicals near a food-prep area. I wouldn't want any petroleum-based stains or finishes near food, and a polyurethane finish might blister if exposed to a hot pot or pan.

    1. Thanks...the only issue is that this is a 2nd home, so we will be there sporadically (missing a few months at a time), and don't want to worry about it drying out. Wondering if their is a safe 'finish' that is not oil? Don't really have to worry about kids, mine are 20-somethings... I appreciate the help!

      2 Replies
      1. re: Koukla

        Use plain old mineral oil from the drug store. Do not use cooking oil that can go rancid. I wouldn't stain a butcher block regardless if I used a cutting board on top or not.

        1. re: melo7

          Mineral oil is probably best, but I remember reading that Peanut and Walnut oils are fine, as they are higly refined, very stable and not prone to going rancid over time. Other cooking oils are, as you say, not recommended.

      2. I see what you're saying. I wouldn't worry about it drying out, especially if the former owners were good about keeping it oiled. You could lay a thick coat of oil on it before you leave it for months and just not wipe it off, and then upon your return months later a quick wipe with a towel and you're good to go. Really, just plain peanut oil is the simplest, cheapest, safest, lowest maintenance plan around.

        All that being said, I bet you're right... I'm sure I've seen these stained darker, so there must be something I don't know about. Maybe a professional wood expert/remodeler will weigh in.

        1 Reply
        1. re: acgold7

          I wouldn't worry about them drying out. Do you oil all the furniture in the house before you come and go? Of course not. The butcher block is less temperamental than a lot of other furniture so I wouldn't worry so much. Really, enjoy the luxury of a butcher block island. Give it a scrub and light oiling before you leave each time and you will have the luxury of not having to worry about cutting boards. I envy you;

        2. I would use mineral oil which can be bought very inexpensively and there would be no risk whatsoever of rancidity. If you're gone for many months nothing bad will happen. Just oil it when you return. We have some extremely fine oiled walnut furniture, and we oil it once or twice a year, and ir remains looking perfect (although it is probably a denser, less absorbent wood than your butcher block). Oil your butcher block when you can...not to worry!

          1. My dad had a butcher block island in his farm house. I think he may have waxed it once in a while (once in a while means every five years or so) and it never split even with the extreme eldery person heat level of the house. After he passed away and we winterized the house for several months with no ill-effects.

            1 Reply
            1. re: cleobeach

              Thanks, all, I appreciate all of the good advice! The waxing sounds interesting, and you mentioned the heat level...this is an Arizona, so it will be rather warm (summer) while we are gone!

            2. There's nothing mysterious about maintaining a butcher block- plain old butcher block oil ( I use Jasco) works as well as anything. Wax is not a good idea; it offers very little protection from moisture, and largely sits on the surface where it will rapidly wear off under kitchen use- most waxes used in woodworking are safe, far as I know, though the solvents aren't necessarily. Oil finishes are pretty stable themselves, but wood in some situations, such as outdoors or on counters, is subject to a lot of movement and new pores will tend to open, so it will need frequent (yearly or so) oiling to keep those sealed.
              As far as sanding, you will probably end up doing some, but the oily wood will clog up even no-clog sandpaper quickly and be quite messy. A cabinet scraper is a better choice for most of the work. This is basically a flat rectangle of hard steel, and is used to, surprise, scrape. Ideally, you should turn a hook on the edge by rubbing it hard with a burnisher or other piece of hardened steel; this will cause a slight hook along the edge that will cut a very fine shaving like a plane. This is, however, pretty tricky to do, and in your case you should be able to remove most gummy residue without it.
              Wood with an oil finish usually needs only very light to no sanding before refinishing- only to remove unevennesses that may have risen in the wood. Trying to sand through an oil finish is usually a mistake, particularly if you have a true, end grain block- the oil may penetrate quite deeply and you are likely to end up with a blotchy effect. There is no need to get rid of the old oil. I wouldn't stain it- it will darken naturally with age, and you are almost certain to get blotches if it was previously oiled. There are stains that should be safe- there is a good dark stain made of walnut husks that I'd look up before I drank it, but it is likely safe.
              Regards to Fran and Ollie.

              3 Replies
              1. re: oldunc

                I believe that most butcher block oil is basically mineral oil. I'm not sure which is less expensive, but that's the product I would use.

                1. re: josephnl

                  It's exactly mineral oil, and not at all expensive.

                2. re: oldunc

                  "As far as sanding, you will probably end up doing some, but the oily wood will clog up even no-clog sandpaper quickly and be quite messy."

                  This is true. This is also where drying oil like tung oil has advantage over mineral oil. Drying oil polymerize over time and can be sanded with much less difficulty.

                3. Any surface finish you might choose to use, such as polyurathane is food safe once it has dried. All the nasty stuff evaporates and only the solids are left behind. That being said, I would nither stain nor varnish a butcher block counter top. As was mentioned, none of these finishes are all that heat stable and they are certianly not that durable. Just forget once to use that cutting board and the finish is ruined and you will need to sand down to the wood again. Without question I would use mineral oil, preferably mineral oil mixed with some bees wax. The bees wax is also food safe and gives a little more durable finish to the butcher block counter. You can get bees was at hobby stores and mineral oil in the pahrmicy section of your grocery. Melt the wax in the mineral oil in a microwave and apply before it totally sets up. This is the best finish you can put on a butcher block island counter.

                  9 Replies
                  1. re: mikie

                    I wouldn't use any finish that didn't specifically say it was for use around food; there are just too many chemicals involved and too many standards of purity, Surface finishes such as polyurethane and lacquer will eventually chip off, pretty darn soon if you're using it for chopping and such. They are basically inert substances when cured, but all and none are words too large for me; I wouldn't bet my childrens' future IQs on all the solvents having dissipated. Beeswax would probably do no harm, unless you try to sand again, but you really don't need it.

                    1. re: oldunc

                      My comment on wood finishes being food safe comes from a number of magazine articles writen by wood finishing experts over the past 40 years that I've been working wood. That's what they claim and I'll go with that. Salid Bowl finish is food safe, says so on the container, but only after it's dry. It also is a bit of a surface finish and as long as you don't cut on it, it's ok, but its not going to hold up well to a lot of abrasion. Also note, I did not recommend they use such a finish, in fact, I recommended against such a finish, but not for food safety reasons, for the same reasons you state, cut on it and it's ruined and will chip, peal, etc.

                      Although you don't have to use beeswax, it does make a more durable and water resistant finish than just mineral oil. And, although per your other post toilet rings are beeswax, I wouln't use that as my source. Again, there is nothing special about a toilet seal and I doubt it is manufactured in an environment that would meet my standards for cleanliness. It's not that expensive to get a food grade or food safe chunk of beeswax.

                      1. re: mikie

                        Where? I've never seen it, but never looked for it- maybe in the lathework section of a woodworking store. Wax is pretty easy to purify, and beeswax is pretty pure to begin with, so all the sources are likely to be safe- unless it is specifically sold as a food grade product, though, there's no guarantee it's free of dangerous contaminants.

                        1. re: oldunc

                          I got a large piece, about a lb. at Hobby Lobby a crafts store in the area of the country where I live. It was about $15 and although the label isn't on it now, I think it referenced food safe. It's available on the internet and on Amazon. There is a reference to a mineral oil beeswax blend in the article posted in the other cutting board post that's active right now. Don't know how to link to it, but it has a link to Finewoodworking Magazine on food safe finishes. One of many articles on the subject.

                          I'm less worried about purifying it than I am just the general cleanliness of the manufacturing process.

                          1. re: oldunc

                            Found this on Amazon. It's rated "pharmaceutical grade" (higher than "food grade"), which might be overkill, but $17 a pound doesn't seem too expensive.


                            1. re: tanuki soup

                              This is all probably good, but really overkill. Inexpensive mineral oil which is widely available will work just fine. There's no reason for the op to do anything more. This is a simple question with a simple and cheap answer. If he/she wants to add beeswax to the mineral oil, great...but definitely not necessary. My motto = keep it simple!

                      2. re: mikie

                        If you must, the cheapest source of beeswax is probably the rings used as seals in toilet installations. It's also sold in hardware stores as a screw lubricant, and in sewing stores- probably other places too. Those bees like to keep busy, and it's useful stuff.

                        1. re: oldunc

                          Sounds great, but really no need to get fancy...plain mineral oil available at any drug store will work just fine. Oil the butcher block whenever you can, every 3 months would be great, but if a year elapses, no harm will come. It's just not that big a deal...we have museum quality oiled walnut furniture (same pieces are in the White House and Smithsonan...the artist is Sam Maloof) worth very big bucks. We have them professionally oiled every few years and they remain pristine. Oiled woods may dry out a bit, but no harm will come with minor neglect.

                          1. re: josephnl

                            As I said, this kind of finishing is pointless on a butcher block- I pretty much agree with your treatment.

                      3. I would suggestion either (1) mineral oil mixed with beeswax or (2) first apply tung oil first, dry, then apply beeswax.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: Chemicalkinetics


                          I use Howard Butcher Block Conditioner (a mixture of food-grade mineral oil and beeswax) on all my wood cutting boards. Works great!

                        2. Sanding could be a problem and unless you are experienced with a belt sander, you may damage the surface. Same with a cabinet scraper. Maybe the best answer but use it incorrectly and you could produce gouges.

                          Finishing is in the KISS category. Fancy finishes like varnishes are okay but mainly sit on top of the surface and will flake away under use. Tung oil never completely dries unless it has a chemical drier mixed in. The same is true with linseed oil and other oil finishes. Stains have other chemicals mixed in and are very poor choices for use around food. Any organic oil that might contain fats is also a poor choice. If the house is closed for a period of time, you may come back to a stinking rancid mess on the counters.

                          Here is the simplest answer you will get. Go to the drug store and purchase a bottle of mineral oil. Apply to the surface, allow to penetrate and then buff off. When the areas most used look a little lighter than the surrounding surface, apply a little more oil. Bees wax is a good choice to mix into the oil. Shave some bees wax or carnuba wax into oil that has been heated in a double boiler configuration and apply. Smells great and will add a little extra water repellancy.

                          No need for fancy and expensive oils. Just keep it simple and the surface will last for a good long time.

                          1. I second the replies that suggest mineral oil should do you fine. It's unlikely that it will need replenishing for periods when you're away, because what wears away mineral oil is not so much evaporation but the accumulated effects of washing down the surface. I've had a large bare-wood island counter for 6 years now and I do most of my cutting right on it, daily. I use mineral oil maybe every 6 months. But I'm not especially fussy about all that. I mainly notice when it's seeming a bit bare and then I keep an eye out for a period of a day or two when people won't be leaning against it (takes a while for the newly oiled surface to be safe for clothing contact).

                            If you do sand your board, by the way, do not use a belt sander. Even a card scraped is likely to catch on the adjoining boards. The best tool for this job is a random orbital sander. Or by hand using sandpaper blocks...

                            1. Any method you use to sand or scrape is subject to screwups- random orbit sanders, if not kept exactly parallel to the surface, can dig in and do as much damage as an old fashioned disc sander. The relatively genle methods of hand sanding or pad sanding have a strong tendency to raise grains in grainy wood, and it's very easy to create low spots with them, by oversanding difficult areas or by using poor sanding patterns, and any form of abrasive use is prone to dipping toward the edges, and rounding off of edges and corners. More furniture is ruined every year by people who are just going to sand it down and stain it than by all the movers of the world. For a butcher block, all you really need to do is remove surface accumulations, which are as likely to be kitchen grease and dirt as old finish- I maintain that a scraper, even wielded by a beginner, is the safest way to do most of this work. A belt sander, unless you've had a LOT of practice, is an almost certain disaster.

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: oldunc

                                I agree, a metal card scraper is difficult to do much damage with. Unfortunately, if you don't know how to use it, you don't get much benefit from it either. It's still what I would use if the counter top was dingy. If the surface has already been oiled, all you will do is clog the sand paper within about 30 seconds. That's going to end up expensive and frustrating. In all likelyhood, assuming the surface is not damaged to any great extent, all it will need is a good scrubing, towl it dry and let it air dry overnight, then give it the mineral oil treatment with beeswax if you want a more durable and water repellent finish.

                                1. re: oldunc

                                  I agree about avoiding sanding if the board already has a film finish of any sort. I haven't used a card scraper personally, so I will keep an open mind there, and thanks for the reminder.

                                  My own island top I bought as a completely unfinished birch countertop board from Ikea (not fancy end-grain or anything high end). It's only treatment has been mineral oil, and my impression from the OP was that the counter he/she inherited was the same sort of deal. In my case, it's very easy to sand down a bit here and there and recreate an integrated finish. That said, I've only sanded twice over a 6 year period.