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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, and they’re 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 style countertops are made of pieces of wood that are bonded together by some kind of adhesive. But how the pieces are 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 made with long, wide planks – similar to the way most wood floors are put together. This type of installation is often considered the most attractive, but it’s also the least durable, and is susceptible to knife marks if used as a cutting board. 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 or Unfinished

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)

Wood countertops can be sealed or left unfinished, and which option is right for you depends entirely on what you want to get out of them. Traditionally, wood countertops are left unsealed because they’re used 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 and needs to be regularly treated and maintained. 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)

Butcher blocks can be made out of just about any type of wood, though maple is one of the most popular choices. Cherry one of the most durable options for a true butcher block, while 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.

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)

Wood is one of the most high-maintenance materials you can choose for a countertop. Spills need to be cleaned up quickly to prevent staining, and you’ll need to be very careful around wet areas, as prolonged exposure to water can cause the wood to discolor, warp, or even rot. Wood counters should be wiped clean with a soft cloth every day, and need to be periodically treated with mineral oil and beeswax (or resealed) to prevent them from becoming dull.  Butcher blocks are designed to be used as prep stations (the name isn’t for nothing!) and they have natural antibacterial and antimicrobial qualities, but they can be difficult to sterilize, and will start to show knife marks over time, even with a high quality wood. Wood also doesn’t stand up well to heat, so you’ll have to take care not to place hot pots and pans directly on the counters. Unlike most other materials, small mars, scratches, and stains can be sanded out of a wood countertop, but because wood is softer, it’s also a bit more likely to be damaged in the first place.

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 adequately 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, though, wood counter tops are generally priced in the same neighborhood 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 can be summed up pretty simply: 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), and 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. But tell me what you think – are wood counters worth the hassle? Let me know in the comments below!