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Let’s Talk Butcher Blocks: A Quick Guide To Wood Counters For The Kitchen

Granite has ruled the world of kitchen counter tops for more than a decade. But in the last few years, homeowners have started branching out. Right now, wood, butcher block style counter tops are a particularly popular alternative. Wood counters have a relaxed, natural quality and a warm, homey feel – a great option for a workhorse kitchen. Butcher blocks stand up well to heavy use, and are both casual and classic, with a timeless appeal that works well with a wide range of styles. But wood counter tops aren’t for everyone, and there are a few important things to know before you buy.

Grain

True butcher blocks are more expensive and have a more distinctive pattern than regular wood countertops, but they're also incredibly durable and perfect for a prep space (by Exquisite Kitchen Design)
True butcher blocks are more expensive and have a more distinctive pattern than regular wood countertops, but they’re also incredibly durable and perfect for a prep space (by Exquisite Kitchen Design)
  • Butcher block countertops are made of pieces of wood bonded together by some kind of adhesive. But the way the wood is oriented makes a big difference both in the appearance of the countertop and its durability. A butcher block with a “face grain” or “flat grain” is one that’s made of long, wide planks. As with wood floors, these longer pieces showcase the grain of the wood, and are often more attractive. But they’re also less durable, and will show knife marks if you use one as a cutting board.
  • Similarly, a butcher block with an “edge grain” is when those wide planks are tipped on their side, showing sections of wood that are long but narrow. These types of butcher blocks tend to be thicker and are more durable, while still retaining a planked appearance.
  • True butcher blocks, though, have what is called an “end grain.” That is, the ends of the planks of wood are pointed upward, showing the rings of the tree and creating a distinctive checkered pattern. Unlike stone, where surfaces made of smaller pieces are less expensive and less durable, “end grain” butcher block is both the priciest and the most durable, and generally also the thickest. An end grain won’t show knife marks or dull your knives, but has a much busier appearance.

Finished Wood or Unfinished Butcher Block

Whether for functionality or for show, wood countertops add a nice, relaxed, casual feel to a kitchen (by PAVONETTI Office of Design, photo by Amanda Kirkpatrick)
Whether for functionality or for show, wood countertops add a nice, relaxed, casual feel to a kitchen (by PAVONETTI Office of Design, photo by Amanda Kirkpatrick)

You can either seal your wood countertops or leave them unfinished; which option is right for you depends entirely on what you want to get out of them. Traditionally, you’d leave your counters unsealed if you plan to use them for food preparation. Unfinished wood is both food- and knife-friendly, like a big cutting board, but is more susceptible to staining and water damage. Without a sealant, you’ll need to make sure to regularly treat and maintain the wood. Finished wood, on the other hand, is decorative rather than functional, but requires a lot less babying. It isn’t immune to staining or water damage, but it stands up a whole lot better, especially in iffy spots, like by the kitchen sink. Sealed wood loses some of the natural feel of wood, but has a beautiful glossy finish that can be quite attractive.

What Type Of Wood

Most types of wood will work for a butcher block counter top, but be sure to choose one a few shades lighter than you'd like to end up with, as the wood will darken with age (by Diament Builders)
Most types of wood will work for a butcher block counter top, but be sure to choose one a few shades lighter than you’d like to end up with, as the wood will darken with age (by Diament Builders)

You can find butcher blocks made out of just about any type of wood. Maple is a popular choice for the color, and cherry one of the most durable. Dense, exotic woods, like wenge, mahogany, or zebrawood are good for hiding knife marks. Bamboo (though it’s technically a grass rather than wood) is another popular option, both because it’s sustainable and eco-friendly, and because it’s very durable. That said, bamboo works best with the end grain showing, but this makes for a butcher block with a much finer patterning because the individual pieces are smaller.

Butcher Block Cleaning, Care, and Maintenance

Wood countertops pair well with other materials, which means they're great either for the whole kitchen, or for an accent - like a prep space or kitchen island (by Marshall Morgan Erb Design Inc., photo by Nick Johnson)
Wood countertops pair well with other materials, which means they’re great either for the whole kitchen or for an accent – like a prep space or kitchen island (by Marshall Morgan Erb Design Inc., photo by Nick Johnson)

Butcher blocks have natural antibacterial and antimicrobial qualities, and are safe to use as prep stations as-is. But they can be difficult to sterilize, and will show knife marks over time, even with quality wood. And any kind of wood is high-maintenance. Prolonged exposure to water can cause wood to discolor, warp, or even rot, so you’ll need to clean up spills quickly. Wood also doesn’t stand up well to heat, so take care not to place hot pots and pans directly on the counters. Unlike most other materials, it’s easy to sand small mars, scratches, and stains out of a wood countertop. But because wood is softer, it’s easier to damage in the first place. Plan to wipe your counters with a soft cloth every day and periodically treat the surface with mineral oil and beeswax (or reseal it) to keep the wood healthy.

DIY-Ability

With a little DIY-ability, wood countertops can be a great way to keep expenses low on a major kitchen remodel (by Synthesis Inc.)
With a little DIY-ability, wood countertops can be a great way to keep expenses low on a major kitchen remodel (by Synthesis Inc.)

Wood countertops are a DIY’ers dream, because it’s entirely possible to build and install them entirely by yourself. Of course, this isn’t a task you want to undertake lightly. But unlike stone, it’s relatively easy to source wood yourself, and it’s incredibly easy to cut and shape the counter to the dimensions of your kitchen. You’ll need to make sure that the wood is bonded and installed. But this is an amazing way to cut down on the cost of your kitchen if you have the tools and know-how. Even if you aren’t a DIY master, wood counter tops are about the same price as a mid-range stone, which makes them a viable alternative for most budgets.

Pros and Cons

Wood countertops are perfect for adding a touch of natural warmth to a cool, contemporary white kitchen (by CLW interiors)
Wood countertops are perfect for adding a touch of natural warmth to a cool, contemporary white kitchen (by CLW interiors)

Ultimately, the advantages and drawbacks of butcher block countertops are simple: they’re beautiful and pleasant to use, but difficult to care for. Wood counters have a literal as well as metaphorical warmth; they’re warm to the touch, sound dampening, and gentle on dishes (which make much less noise and are less likely to break when placed or dropped on a wood counter). They’ll also develop a charming patina as they darken with age and wear. But they’re very much counters that you have to be aware of – you need to be wary of drips, diligent with spills, and always think twice about what you can and can’t put on them, especially if you want them to stay looking pristine.

Wood butcher block countertops (either installed throughout the kitchen, or just on a kitchen island) can be a charming and homey addition to just about any kitchen, whether it’s a traditional farmhouse style or something a little more modern. But they aren’t a feature you can just install and forget about.