Treating plywood for kitchen use
September 7, 2021 8:19 AM   Subscribe

I just bought this Ikea Bror work bench for kitchen use, as additional counter space and storage. How should I treat the plywood in the short term for food prep use?

I don't plan to cut directly on the plywood, though it would be ideal if I could knead doughs directly on it.

From my preliminary research, it sounds like I should sand it (it's a little rough) and then apply...something? Mineral oil? (I've never done something like this before so don't worry about going into too much detail!)

I also mainly just want to take some basic maintenance steps at this stage, i.e. I don't think I am looking for a big project right now with lots else going in my life. Further down the line I might want to stain it or do something fancy, but right now I just want to take the basic steps so it doesn't get irreversibly damaged from basic kitchen food prep.
posted by andrewesque to Home & Garden (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Sand it at several, increasingly higher grits (to at least 220 if not more) to get it smooth, then either use mineral oil or go get specific cutting board oil to use (they're similar - either is fine). Instructions will be on the bottle, and will be straightforward.

That said - and I'm a woodworker who does stuff like this all the time - I wouldn't bother doing any of that. I would get a couple cutting boards and put them on top, and use those. Much less work, easier to clean, etc.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 8:48 AM on September 7, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Definitely sand it smooth, and apply some mineral oil and let it dry overnight. This will protect the surface from moisture. But if you're going to be chopping on it, use one of the Ikea thin cutting boards. If you're going to be working dough a lot think of using a pastry cloth.
posted by Marky at 8:56 AM on September 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

Ikea sells butcher block counter top, cut it to fit.
posted by theora55 at 9:07 AM on September 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

My guess is that the plywood edges will get torn up pretty quickly. There are food-safe finishes that might make the edges wear better, but a proper butcher-block top would be better.
posted by adamrice at 9:14 AM on September 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hi all -- thanks for the answers so far!

Just to clarify, I definitely plan to be using cutting boards, prep bowls, etc. -- aside from dough prep I don't anticipate preparing any food directly on the surface. But I'm also a bit of a messy cook and so spilling food or small amounts of sauces is not an unlikely occurrence.
posted by andrewesque at 9:30 AM on September 7, 2021

Best answer: Mineral oil is a terrible idea. This is plywood, not a butcher block, and wood treated with mineral oil is high upkeep and sensitive.

You need a film finish. "wipe-on poly" is the magic phrase you are looking for. Then it's basically the same as any other counter you would find in a kitchen: you can spill stuff on it and clean it with watery stuff (whatever cleaner you prefer), just don't leave puddles.
posted by flimflam at 9:42 AM on September 7, 2021 [10 favorites]

Someone beat me to the punch. I would recommend a light sanding as the veneer will be very thin, then applying a food grade polythene. I would also sand and treat the side of the plywood.
posted by tman99 at 9:46 AM on September 7, 2021

FWIW, I have a butcher block top on my kitchen island. I resurface it every few years, sanding out any stains or burns from a hot pan, working up to 400-grit smooth, and then a couple applications of mineral oil. I cut on it all the time, and it's relatively easy to keep clean and maintain. Because it is just an oiled surface, foods will stain (tomato sauce, especially) so depending on how important appearance is, you may be putting a lot of effort into maintenance.

Kneading dough directly on it really is not great. Lately, I have been wetting the butcher block and then laying down a large silpat (silicone baking mat), and sort of squeegee-ing the mat onto the butcher block with my hands. This makes it stay in place fairly well. I then knead my dough on the silpat, and wash it when I'm done. The dough doesn't stick to the silpat like it does to the oiled butcher block.
posted by xedrik at 10:17 AM on September 7, 2021

Food safe polyurethane is the answer if you want a low-maintenance surface you can just wipe clean. Oil is the choice if you're actually cutting on the surface, because you can keep reapplying it to protect the wood where it's cut or scratched; it's much higher upkeep, as flimflam says.
posted by pipeski at 11:33 AM on September 7, 2021

Plywood does not seem like an optimal surface for food preparation, unless I wanted to eat wood chips. I would put a cloth napkin on the plywood, put a piece of butcher block on top of the cloth to keep it from sliding around, and then treat the block with food-grade mineral oil. Easy to wipe clean, retreat, and resurface down the road.

Polyurethane finish is not safe to breathe, when applied. If you go that route, apply it outside or another ventilated area. I probably wouldn't want to chip away at it with a knife and ingest bits of it, either, although it is said to be much less of a hazard when cured.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 12:10 PM on September 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

Further down the line I might want to stain it or do something fancy

Applying finishes to plywood, overview. Staining over previously oiled wood, caveats. Techniques for removing polyurethane prior to staining.

[Check out Danish oil (a mix of oil and varnish; widely-available in US Watco tinted product); maybe it's an acceptable level of water resistance & color alteration, in fewer steps.]
posted by Iris Gambol at 12:48 PM on September 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

I recently bought a small sheet of plywood to protect a surface while I dabbled in watercolor painting. I sanded and applied a couple coats of mineral oil but the result was nothing like when I've applied mineral oil to a cutting board/butcher block. The plywood just sucked it right up and it didn't feel protected at all. (In fact the watercolors easily stained it). Definitely seconding others that you'll need more than just oil to protect it from spills and such.
posted by misskaz at 4:23 PM on September 7, 2021

Response by poster: Just to close the loop on this, I ended up applying several coats of water-based polyurethane and that was perfect. (I mean, I didn't exactly apply it perfectly so there are lots of air bubbles, but again this is an Ikea piece in an NYC rental apartment so I am not going for heirloom here).

Thank you all for your help (though to those who suggested cutting butcher block, you clearly have a different sense of what makes a "big project" than I do!)
posted by andrewesque at 8:46 AM on October 19, 2021

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