Butcher block countertops?
April 24, 2012 8:21 AM   Subscribe

Does anyone have experience with butcher block countertops (or better yet, bamboo butcher block countertops)?

We're designing our kitchen right now. I cook a lot and I feel that the convenience of being able to cut directly on the countertop is worth the maintenance trade-off. But some sources say you shouldn't even use the countertops for cutting. Does anyone have butcher block countertops? I'd love to hear your opinions and advice (and like I said, the specific type we are most strongly considering is bamboo butcher block). Thanks.
posted by malhouse to Home & Garden (15 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
No personal experience, but Consumer Reports has a great public Pro/Con list for counter top materials (Click link to Types for bamboo and butcher block).

The short is that they don't recommend bamboo because it has very low durability and because it stains easily. Butcher block is more durable but both are considered much higher maintenance than other materials. They don't recommend bamboo or butcher block around sinks because moisture causes permanent warping.
posted by iheijoushin at 8:34 AM on April 24, 2012

But some sources say you shouldn't even use the countertops for cutting.

I can think of 2 likely reasons for this advice.

One is that they're talking about countertops that have a film finish like polyurethane, conversion varnish or even a heavy build-up of tung oil. Film finishes are basically a layer of plastic stuck to the surface of the wood, and can easily be cut through, leading to discoloration, adhesion problems and general unpleasantness. This is good advice in the context of a film finish, but irrelevant if you don't have a film finish.

The other reason is the oft-repeated claim that wood surfaces harbor bacteria and are inherently less safe than other cutting surfaces. IANAD, but I believe this claim is almost entirely BS.

Sinks can be a problem. End-grain around an undermount sink is especially vulnerable to moisture, and so needs a vigilantly maintained film finish. Seals between the sink and countertop are prone to failure, with both undermount and drop-in types, because the countertop expands and contracts with humidity changes while the sink stays the same size.
posted by jon1270 at 8:37 AM on April 24, 2012

I have butcherblock. It splits, it stains, it gets gouges, and if you cut on it, you'll have a hacked-up countertop or you'll be constantly sanding. When mine gets replaced, it will not be with more butcherblock.
posted by sageleaf at 8:45 AM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I went with wood for my old condo (which I still own) and it's been fine -- but I used a top-mount sink, am tidy, am not picky about cut marks, and applied mineral oil every 6 months or so with no other treatment. Also, I sealed the lower surface of the wood with a thin silicone caulk layer in the vicinity of the dishwasher to make sure I didn't get steam damage. Also, I was aggro about the caulking around the sink (high-quality flexible caulk, applied with a relatively large bead both on the down-surface of the mount and then again around the joint).

Note: I didn't use fancy end-grain butcher block, just Ikea Numerar, so YMMV. Looks nice, was pleasant to use, and I think I prefer it to my current dark granite.

Sanding it down in the beginning (prior to first surface treatment) was sort of irritating since I did it by hand.
posted by aramaic at 8:47 AM on April 24, 2012

A friend of ours has butcher block countertops (not bamboo; I'm not sure what kind of wood it is.) They still use cutting boards. Even so, sanding out the inevitable dings and dents has left their counters a little uneven in places, and there is some water staining around the sink and some scorch marks near the stove.

We loved the bamboo floors in our last house, but I don't think I'd care for a countertop made of that material.

Before you commit to this, I'd suggest taking a bamboo cutting board you've used it for a while and then trying to sand it down smooth again. Look at the results and decide if you want your entire kitchen to look like that. (You may be fine with it; it certainly won't look new but it doesn't necessarily look bad, just different.)

Personally I have one of those gigantic cutting boards -- the kind with a built-in lip that wraps around the counter edge -- more or less permanently stationed in the prep area. I think it's the best of both worlds: it's as convenient as if it were built-in, since it's always there; it's large enough to be stable and not move around at all while I'm cutting; if necessary I can still lug it over to the sink for a good scrubbing; and I'll be able to replace it when it wears down without having to redo the whole kitchen.
posted by ook at 8:51 AM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have a section of counter that's butcher block (away from the sink) and a butcher block table in the middle of my kitchen. I do not cut directly on either one of them. I love how butcher block looks and feels and I don't cut on them to maintain the look. They get banged up and "lived-in" enough without that.

If you like the cut-up look, then go for it. I use a food safe mineral oil on them from time to time and one could cut on them with no ill effects. Make sure you know what the finish is, if any, and how to maintain it if you want to cut directly on it.

Personally, I wouldn't put wood next to the sink, but I know that some people do that successfully.
posted by gingerbeer at 8:54 AM on April 24, 2012

Do you typically cut everywhere in your kitchen or do you have a cutting space, an assembly space, a loading space, and so on?

Maybe designate your cutting space, go with butcher block there, then use a more durable material elsewhere, particularly around the sink.
posted by notyou at 9:05 AM on April 24, 2012

Our landlords installed a butcher block countertop in our kitchen before we moved in. We thought it would be great -- a countertop we could chop vegetables on! Here are a few things that happened:

1. Water damage. The whole counter, including the area around the sink, is wood. Splashes from the faucet have resulted in sections of the wood rotting.

2. Wood splitting because we weren't religious about oiling the countertop. We keep a lot of cooking implements and stuff on the counter, and so it was kind of impossible for us to clear it all out a few times a week and rub mineral oil on the wood. Which, it turned out, is pretty necessary.

3. It ended in polyurethane. Once the wood started to split and the water damage was pretty obvious, our landlords decided to polyurethane the countertops. Sadly, this has not prevented even more water damage from taking place around the sink, and we can no longer chop our vegetables right on the counter. (Which, actually, we never did.)

When we move or go away for a few weeks (whichever comes first), I believe our landlords are planning on redoing our kitchen altogether, and they probably won't go with wood again as a countertop choice. It's just too finicky. If you keep your counters clear all the time and rub them down with mineral oil twice a week and never splash anything around the sink, I guess you'd be all right. But you'd also be an alien.

If you do go for a butcher block counter, I'd suggest doing something else for the area right around the sink. And just generally being religious about the upkeep.
posted by brina at 9:17 AM on April 24, 2012

I installed a two-by-three-foot maple butcher block countertop in a house I built years ago and used it daily for a number of years. I don't chop and whack at stuff, usually just slice with a French knife the way you're spozed to. Not especially gently, just with deliberate care. Sure the block got a little scarred and slightly charred once by a red-hot paella pan. But it was terrific--an honest work surface that looked like what it was. Wish I had it now. Just went at it a few times with a power sander and mineral oil to bring it back. If you love to cook and like things to look like what they are, I recommend it.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 9:34 AM on April 24, 2012

I've had wood countertops in two of our homes, one was from an Ikea kitchen, the other unknown. Both I found to be a nuisance. Stains, burns, cuts. Never again.
posted by gwint at 9:39 AM on April 24, 2012

We had a 3x3 section of the counter that was butcher block in the house I grew up in (not bamboo). The house is 15 or so years old and the block is totally hacked up, stained and has burn marks on it from people setting hot pans on it. So not too pretty any more. On the flip side, it was super convenient to have a huge space to chop stuff on and do food prep and set hot pans (it was right next to the stove). I would like to have one now, but I by no means have a showcase kitchen. I think it depends your priorities as far as prettiness vs. functionality.
posted by geegollygosh at 10:15 AM on April 24, 2012

In my kitchen, we've got a wall counter and an island. The wall counter (where the sink is) has a ceasarstone surface; the island, 2 1/4" maple butcher block (unsealed, NSF approved, from McMaster Carr). I love it. We cut directly on the butcher block (except for meat). Sure it's scuffed and worn looking. That's fine. We're not precious about it. It's great being able to spread out all the vegetables for a meal and for my wife and I to work at it side by side.

We are not religious about upkeep. We oil it with mineral oil a couple times a year. We should probably do so more often. Eventually we'll need to sand it down. It's thick enough that we'll be dead 10 times over before sanding will wear it down too far. Note that we had the island custom built as part of a bigger remodel, and we had it built to our desired height. Because of the thickness of the work surface, this was doubly important.

I would not want to have only a butcher block. Aside from the issue of water damage around the sink, a hard surface, such as a quartz composite, is better for rolling out dough.
posted by adamrice at 10:17 AM on April 24, 2012

We're putting in Ikea Oak Numerar butcher block countertops and we will not be cutting directly on their surface. We'll also be pre-treating it with Waterlox wood sealant (1 or 2 layers of original then 1 or 2 layers of satin), which seems to be the most recommended sealant for wood countertops.
posted by eunoia at 10:24 AM on April 24, 2012

My grandparents have a granite countertop except for one square area (it is a big kitchen with a lot of counterspace). Recessed in that one square is a butcher block. When it gets too damaged/dinged/cut, etc. they just replace that one square.

I've always thought that was a fantastic idea.
posted by magnetsphere at 11:07 AM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

We have a non-bamboo (probably maple) large butcher block counter. We use it for cutting fruits, cooked meats, and veggies. We just sanded it last week for the first time in about 10 years. After sanding, oil daily until you see that it's not drinking any more oil, then oil when you think about it. The mineral oil from the drugstore (look in the constipation aisle) is fine and much cheaper than the stuff you buy from the specialty butcher block places.

We love love love our butcher block. We are careful not to place hot things on it, or to let water stand on it for too long. If it's been a short time since the last oiling, laying paper on it will grease up the paper. These caveats are very minor compared to the nice look and convenience the surface provides.

Oh, one other thing - generally I like to cut onions and garlic on a small chopping board since they can impart such strong smells and flavors, and I'd rather not cut strawberries in the same spot and have them end up tasting like onions.
posted by Addlepated at 1:21 PM on April 24, 2012

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