How to restore a huge piece of wood
December 28, 2005 11:23 PM   Subscribe

Need furniture (wood) restoration tips I just made an unbelievable find in the trash on a sidewalk in manhattan (you wouldnt believe the things people throw out here). Its a solid wood restaurant butcher block table whch measures 24" X 24" X 10" thick! It weighs 85kilos / 190lbs !! I am really excited about restoring it. I have done some furniture restoration in the past but it always involved sanding the shit out of something until its bare again and refinishing it with a polyurethane or a stain of whatever flavor. In this case I think the butcher block has a lot of character (such as knife marks, dents and has also gotten a nice color from all the grease and oils it came into contact with) and I want to preserve that somehow. Its really dirty and kind of nasty at the moment. Can someone offer some suggestions about which solvents i can use to clean it thogroughly? I'm thinking denatured alcohol / mineral spirits but will that be tough enough to clean it?
posted by postergeist to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (11 answers total)
I'd say start by scrubbing with soap and water, get all the hard bits off. If you want to remove fatty layers from wood, washing with water and ammonia is standard procedure. The more aggressive solvents will progressively destroy the wood itself, so move on to those gradually. I can't tell you which solvent is tough enough, as nobody knows what happened with the block before it got thrown out.

If you want to reinstate it in your kitchen you'd have to look up how butcher blocks are supposed to be treated, but I guess then you'd have to sand a sizeable portion of an inch off of it to be sure it's clean enough to eat from.

Of course it all depends what you want to use it for eventually. Treating it with linseed oil seems a nice idea if you want to use it as a table, it will to some extent lock in the gunk (not as much as polyurethane of course), and gets you a nice tactile surface. If you use oil, you don't have to make it absolutely fat-free, which could save you work. If you use a synthetic, repeated washing with ammonia seems wise. I'm sure there are more powerful solvents that would work as well or better, but I'm not in the US so I won't advise a specific one.
posted by disso at 1:52 AM on December 29, 2005

You really have to decide between preserving the knife marks and cleaning it up. I'm afraid you can't do both. Do you want to use it as a butcher block again or just as a prep table? Either way, you might want to consider that it could have been thrown away because it was contaminated with something nasty and you might have to remove a bit of the top to get to sound, uncontaminated wood.

Is the end grain facing up or is the wood oriented horizontally? If it's the latter, your best bet may be to use a hand plane to take off the top 1/4" or so. Just for cleanup, mineral spirits are a good bet. They don't raise the grain and they're pretty strong. Not sure if that contaminates the wood or not, if you're using it for food prep.
posted by electroboy at 6:22 AM on December 29, 2005

Is it dirty and nasty from use for its intended purpose? If so, just scrub the heck out of it with very hot water and soap. Perhaps a light sanding if it's scuffed up in places beyond what you consider attractive. You can disinfect it by spraying it down throughly with vinegar and hydrogen peroxide.
posted by desuetude at 6:41 AM on December 29, 2005

End use is important here. That said, I can't imagine that you would want with it if not using it for its designed purpose.

End grain can be planed using a low angle jack plane. That might be more of an investment than you are willing to make but if you do, a sharp blade is essential. Do not plane over the edge without first beveling said edge. (The plane will catch the end of the grain and tear out the fiber below.) Sharpen the blade every 15 minutes. A Lie-Nielsen plane requires only a Japanese waterstone to sharpen -- no first tune-up should be required*.)

Sanding is problematic as it adds grit to the wood which will then dull your knives. This should not be a problem though if you are not that serious about sharp knives. My experience shows the presence of grit is subtle.

In the end, flatness of a butcher's block top is less important than heft and stablity. I've seen incredibly distorted (i.e. not remotely flat) tops still in use that are great sutting surfaces. Just srcub the living daylights (see above) out of it with the same cleaner you would use on any thing else food comes into contact with in your kitchen.

Treatment of the wood should be with "salad bowl finish", walnut oil or mineral oil. Do not use other vegetable/nut oils (those found in your kitchen) other than walnut oil as they are not self-catalizing.

*If the plane or blade does require tuning (i.e the sole of the plane or blade are not dead flat), it is a manufacturing defect and Lie-Nielsen should will replace the plane/balde. This is one of the few plane manufacturer's in the world that this rule applies. I do not work for Lie-Nielsen; I just happen to own a large quantity of their tools.
posted by Dick Paris at 7:06 AM on December 29, 2005 [1 favorite]

I'd start by scrubbing it with some ajax and a stiff brush.
posted by furtive at 7:21 AM on December 29, 2005

Just called my dad to ask about this (he owned several restaurants and delis in NYC when I was growing up), and beyond his extreme dislike of butchers blocks, he does know how to take care of them.
The method they used at his restaurants was to use a metal wire brush with ammonia or bleach, several times over. Once done, seal it with linseed oil (not polyurethane). The most *crucial* part of all this, is that you dont use too much water...if you do, it will get between the seams of the different slats of wood that make up the block and split.
Mind you, his real suggestion was to turn it into a serving island (cut it in half, mount it on some legs and there ye are), since he found them overly difficult to not only maintain, but to move around.
posted by gren at 7:44 AM on December 29, 2005 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wow great comments thanks to everyone. I have to give you more info to work with.. so firstly I posted a few photos of it here

That should help. I'm not sure as of yet what I plan to do with it.. i like to collect stuff people throw out and refurbish it but i live in a tiny studio in NYC so i planned to put it into storage that I rent out already and either fix it up to sell it or keep it. Putting function slightly aside, I look at this from a slightly more artistic perspective. I can see this in the home of someone who owns a loft for example as a kitchen island or even just a stand alone piece of furniture somewhere. Am I giving this thing too much credit for its aestetic quality?

I find something very country home/rustic about it and it also makes me feel good to own furniture and things which have stories behind them and their own lives so to speak. I think anyone can go buy furniture at an ikea or a pottery barn or whatever but that stuff has no life to it, its cookie cutter. Most of it is not even wood really.

Anyway let me spare you the sappy stuff and get to the follow up question. Looking at the photo would you sand somethign like this until you got the original wood? Given the knife marks and the sag that you can see in two sides it would be sort of a disconnect to look at that as freshly sanded and sort of homogenously colored dont you think?. Though I picture sanding it and adding a walbut oil to it could look pretty damn cool but once you go the sanding route you gotta commit, theres no way back. Do you think a very fine grit sandpaper could do the trick of cleaning it up without taking the color off?

What are your thoughts? Can you see what i'm driving at about wanting to keep its character?

Thanks for all your suggestions.
posted by postergeist at 9:44 AM on December 29, 2005

After seeing your photos, this is what I would do:

Apply a liberal coat of paste wax. Buff. Repeat. Wait a couple of months and repeat. Do this at least 2 times a year. Don't ever do anything else with the butcher block, except enjoy it as an occasional table, or backless chair.

Don't use it for food. Don't sand it. Don't get all caustic and abrasive with cleaning it. Just wax it and enjoy it.

I'd love to have something like that.

(If sterilization is an issue, you could probably cook the whole thing in an oven, if it will fit, at about 180 - 200 F without damaging the glues that hold it together, but I wouldn't risk that).
posted by yesster at 3:18 PM on December 29, 2005

Response by poster: yesster will the wax suggestion you gave bascically preserve it as-is? That sounds like a good idea but i would still need to clean it i think, its filthy.

Im curious about your opinion to not to sand it or refinish it, why wouldnt you do it?

Also, ive heard a lot of caution about sanitization. Could I just mix a little bleach and water or use some kind of product with tryclosan to do that?
posted by postergeist at 7:28 PM on December 29, 2005

Use a stainless steel pot scrubber and linseed oil to clean it up no grit, no ajax, just lots of scrubbing with oil, wipe up the excess oil. what an excellent find .
posted by hortense at 8:09 PM on December 29, 2005

If you finish it, definitely go with an oil finish as Dick Paris recommends. Mineral spirits is often used to get various stuff off of wood before finishing; it may work well for you too. The end grain will soak up a good deal of your solvent and, eventually, your finish should you do so.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 1:29 AM on December 30, 2005

« Older How to give Internet access to my grandparents but...   |   Creating an external DVD drive for a G3 iBook Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.