Solid Wood Countertop?
November 28, 2006 8:15 AM   Subscribe

Wood as a kitchen counter top - pros and cons?

We're in the process of ordering everything for a kitchen update, and while we were originally considering granite as a counter top, I've been grooving on photos of a solid oak counter top from Ikea - It's also (no surprise) dramatically cheaper. Anyone have experience with wood in the kitchen?

I don't mind oiling it, and we'd still use cutting boards, but I'm wondering about overall durability and water resistance (thinking of the puddles around my sink whenever we're cleaning pots and pans). Are there any issues with germs/bacteria and disinfection that might vary from other surfaces?
posted by jalexei to Home & Garden (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
What do your cutting boards look like now?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:16 AM on November 28, 2006

Don't set any hot pots directly on it.
posted by caddis at 8:26 AM on November 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

I don't have experience of wooden kitchen tops but having moved into my new house I find myself constantly exasperated at the state of the shiny black granite work surfaces in my kitchen. If you don't polish them like you would aluminum, every smudge and water spot is visible from across the room.

So if like me you're borderline OCD when it comes to smears, consider that another reason to avoid granite. Good luck with the kitchen!
posted by Ness at 8:29 AM on November 28, 2006

i have heard stories about wooden counter tops and bacteria and whatnot, but my parents have a beautiful wooden-topped island that hasn't had any problems of that sort in years. they also have granite counters on the rest of the kitchen and those are beautiful as well. my recommendation would be to go with whatever pleases your eye best and fits your wallet.
posted by shmegegge at 8:31 AM on November 28, 2006

when i say "hasn't had any problems in years," i mean hasn't had any problems ever and they've owned them for 6+ years.
posted by shmegegge at 8:32 AM on November 28, 2006

I've heard that wood counter-tops can be partially antibacterial, some of the PR for them say the same thing.

Personally I'd choose wood, whether or not it's true.
posted by edgeways at 8:33 AM on November 28, 2006

Response by poster: What do your cutting boards look like now?

Reasonably whole - my wife prefers plastic ones as she eventually likes to chuck them once they get really torn up (every few years) and the wood ones we have were gifts (beautiful birds-eye maple, I can't imagine taking a knife to them ;-) and are mostly used for serving.

We also have a butcher block cart we're keeping that we use for prep.
posted by jalexei at 8:36 AM on November 28, 2006

I've got an Ikea kitchen with wooden worksurfaces and I do like it but a few things to bear in mind:

1. It stains. Particularly red wine; irritating.
2. If you take something hot off the stove and put it where you shouldn't then you get a burn make in a pretty half-moon effect.
3. Deal breaker: after a time the wood will begin to warp and separate where it encounters water regularly, in particular around your sink.

I've finally found linseed oil for restoring the original finish and I'm going to give the worktops a belt-sanding the like of which they've never dreamed of but I'd prefer to be wiping them down with a cloth.
You can probably mitigate these things by being super-careful all the time but I'd go with resilient in future. It's a kitchen you know and I like to cook - there's a reason real kitchens have aluminium worktops!
posted by dmt at 8:48 AM on November 28, 2006

I have Oak worktops - after three years they still look new. They do need a coat of Danish Oil every 4-6 months which keeps the water pooled on the surface and the dirt out. They're pretty thick and show no sign or warping at all.

I keep a couple of offcuts cut to the size of large chopping boards around, particularly where we might be tempted to put down anything hot.
posted by funboytree at 8:56 AM on November 28, 2006

Response by poster: Personally I'd choose wood, whether or not it's true.

I think I'm leaning that way - Granite is beautiful, but we were considering it more from the "benefits eventual re-sale value because it's a keyword people expect to see when describing an updated kitchen" mindset than any deep, personal need. If we can save money too, all the better.

I also like the idea that the wood doesn't necessarily look cheap, even though it (comparatively) is. Unlike the laminated particle board in there now that screams "I was $29.95 at Home Depot!"

You can probably mitigate these things by being super-careful all the time but I'd go with resilient in future. It's a kitchen you know and I like to cook - there's a reason real kitchens have aluminium worktops!

Indeed - numbers 1 and 2 I could probably live with (wife: "It's stained!" me: "It has a lovely patina..." wife: "It's STAINED" me: "It tells a story..." etc. etc.) but I am worried about 3 - funboytree gives me hope - Looks like I'll need to make sure we don't let the oil regimen lapse.
posted by jalexei at 9:03 AM on November 28, 2006

Sounds like a terrible idea to me. Wood stains. And burns. And cracks. And gets damp and doesn't dry. And lets things grow in it. And scratches. Yes if you maintain the sealant and are careful it'll last awhile. But seriously, why do it?
posted by Nelson at 9:03 AM on November 28, 2006

My new house came with a 10 years old, 2" thick butcher block island.

i just ripped it out and threw it away because it smelled of sour milk and bleach and 409 made no difference. Ick.

I made a shop bench out of it. i would NEVER have another one in a kitchen.

i have experience with wood, Corian, stainless, formica, tile, and concrete.

My favorite among them is Corian. Dropped glasses seldom break, it cleans up well and is durable, can be re-finished if lightly scratched, is reasonably chemically inert, is available in all kinds of colors and trim, is lighter than granite (which is 175 pounds per cubic foot!), and it's cheaper.
posted by FauxScot at 9:07 AM on November 28, 2006

We have butcher block and it's disgusting. Deeply stained from the moisture we can't get out of it, spaghetti sauce, hot pans, etc. It's all right there, looking filthy. However, I doubt it's properly sealed, because our landlord doesn't seem to do these things correctly (The sink is rimmed with peeling silicone caulk and recessed from the edge of the counter beghind a 2x4) but it does seem to be what I think of as regular old butcher block. Nevertheless I don't care, bear OCD scars, and will never have wood countertops again, as messy a cook as I am.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 9:13 AM on November 28, 2006

I installed solid maple countertops (Boos block) throughout kitchen except around the sink where I used laminate. I love the maple. I like to bake and no surface has a better feel for rolling pizza and pie dough, or kneading bread. And I can just scrape up the flour, etc with a dough scraper and clean up is a breeze. Unlike granite, it's warm to the touch. dmt is right, you'll have to watch out for staining liquids like red wine and soy sauce. You can renew the surface with a sander every few years. Hard wood is very durable.

Are you sure you want oak, though? Oak is an open grain wood (maple is close grained), and seems to me more susceptible to stains and bacteria.
posted by eirelander at 9:15 AM on November 28, 2006

We have cheapie wood counters and they are beautiful -- they're about 2 years old and have been properly maintained, so i think with wood, it's all about the oiling and light maintenance more than anything.
posted by ukdanae at 9:16 AM on November 28, 2006

We rented a place for six months with wood countertops. The wood warped (especially over the dishwasher) from the heat and moisture, and overnight with a pan lid taken from a pan of boiling water sitting face down resulted in a waterlogging ring that had to be sanded out at the end of our tenancy at my expense.

I liked the look, but would probably opt for something harder wearing.

We had granite countertops before. I love the heatsink effect if you're working to roll out pasta or pie crust.
posted by sagwalla at 9:18 AM on November 28, 2006

I've got a quartz-composite (Caeserstone) counter, and a kitchen island with a butcher-block top that I got from McMaster Carr. This is 2.25"-thick maple, significantly thicker than the Ikea wood counter.

I really like having both. We use the wood surface as a cutting board (a 6' long cutting board is wonderful). It's not hard to keep clean. Sure, it has scars and wine stains, but eventually we'll just sand it down (it's thick enough we could do that many times). I would not want to have a wood work surface that I wasn't using as a cutting board. The quartz counter is heatproof, non-porous, and perfectly smooth—it's great for rolling out dough.

I'd be leery of having my sink set into a wood surface, as I think eventually this would lead to rot. You need to keep the wood surface oiled with a self-catalyzing oil—mineral oil or walnut oil—and unless you are really diligent, I'm sure water would take hold. Also note that any paper item left on the wood will pick up oil pretty quickly. Likewise, I wonder if having the stove right next to it could lead to oil splatters that would sink in and get rancid.
posted by adamrice at 9:18 AM on November 28, 2006

It probably would stain -- but hey it's a kitchen. Butchers don't clean their blocks with bleach, they plane them. I'm not sure if bleaching would be too good an idea. Would you bleach your cabinet or oak dresser?

I know it's not quite work surfaces, but wooden chopping boards are deemed more effective against bacteria. Whilst bacteria will cling to the surface of a plastic board, and hide away in hard to clean grooves, wooden boards will absorb the bacteria. And although the bacteria may remain alive for a little while, they will not leach back out onto the surface. Whereas, bacteria tend to prosper on plastic boards. Some woods even have certain anti bacterial properties.

If you really want a wooden counter, perhaps you should consider somewhere other than Ikea. Or at least bring someone along who can inspect the wood for you.

About water resistance and durability -- sure it would be pretty durable but it's wood. It will change over time. It will warp. You will see staining (especially near the sink). But IMHO, I like to see ring burns, and wine spills, and staining from the roast.
posted by popcassady at 9:38 AM on November 28, 2006

If you are willing to care for the counter top I highly recommend it.

I loved the one for my flat in Albuquerque - 8 foot long and abused like you wouldn't believe, but still gorgeous.
posted by FlamingBore at 10:03 AM on November 28, 2006

I can't find the message (too old for their search parameters?), but one of the folks on Woodcentral sanded an old butcher block countertop, inhaled some of the dust, and ended up with a life-threatening lung infection. I'm not saying you can't sand them once in a while, just wear some good breathing protection. safety first!
posted by killy willy at 10:08 AM on November 28, 2006

Yes to butcherblock, no to oak. Go with the John Boos maple. There's a reason the Ikea stuff is less expensive.

Oak is more porous. Boos maple is rock solid. It does stain (I don't mind; it's a work surface), but it doesn't absorb odors.

I would also second the recommendation to use both granite and butcherblock in your kitchen. You don't need every surface to serve as a cutting board, and granite is much better around a sink and, as others have said, for rolling out pastry or pie crust. And for hot pans.
posted by torticat at 11:00 AM on November 28, 2006

My parents have maple butcher block counters treated regularly with mineral oil, which never really dries. The countertops in my kitchen are mahogany with an oil/urethane finish. The two finishes are very different in how they perform and need to be maintained. The poly is permeable only if there's a crack, a cut (from a knife blade, maybe) or a lot of wear in one area. It needs to be recoated every few years and touched up now and then. The mineral oil protects against very brief water exposure, but that's about it. Foods and beverages will stain through it. You can also use a 'drying oil' such as tung oil. It seals the wood well, and is easy to use because you wipe it on with a cloth. It dries hard, and if you do enough coats, it'll protect pretty well against moisture and stains.

Oak has its own challenges. If left in contact with water, it will turn black. And it's subject to shrinking and expanding with changes in the heat and humidity, so it may develop cracks over time; if the grain is straight, the wood is more stable, while oak with wavy grain will be more affected by the atmosphere. That's much less likely to happen if it's sealed on both sides and on all edges. And oak's end-grain (where it's been sawn across the grain) has huge pores; you have to be extra-careful about sealing them thoroughly. If I were to rank various woods' suitability for use in the kitchen, oak would be far behind maple (and mahogany, cherry, walnut....)

Also, wet metals like steel and copper will stain wood severely, right through the finish. Stainless steel is okay, though.

So you would need to seal the wood thoroughly and make sure it stays sealed. Don't put hot pans on it, don't leave wet metal on it, don't cut on it. Clean it with dish soap and water, and wipe it dry afterwards. I have a lot of wood-finishing experience, but experience isn't as important as vigilance if you want to keep wood kitchen surfaces in good shape. If you really love your countertops, you may find it worth the effort.
posted by wryly at 11:16 AM on November 28, 2006

Go for tile. You can put hot plates on it and it won't stain. You can reliably seal the grout. Put in a butcher block also, and you have the best of both worlds.
posted by sholdens12 at 11:18 PM on November 28, 2006

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