7 Things to Know Before Installing Butcher Block Countertops
Just because it's one of the most affordable options doesn't always mean it's the best choice. Weigh these key considerations before updating your entire kitchen with butcher block countertops so you can feel confident in your decision.
Butcher block, consisting of individual wooden strips fused together into a sleek slab, is a timeless and trendy material for kitchen countertops. But its warm tones and “country kitchen” vibes aside, there is a lot about the surface that homeowners don’t know—including real estimates on its cost and required maintenance. To find out if this material right for your kitchen, read through this comprehensive list of butcher block countertop pros and cons before committing to an installation.
PRO: Butcher block is one of the more affordable countertops.
Butcher block countertops will run you only $20 to $60 per square foot in materials. That beats the cost of most other popular options, including stainless steel ($20 to $150), glass ($25 to $100 per square foot), concrete ($25 to $75 per square foot), marble ($25 to $75 per square foot), and soapstone or limestone ($20 to $75 per square foot). You can save even more money by choosing a do-it-yourself installation over hiring pros to do the job, which would otherwise add $5 to $10 per square foot to the total cost. For handy homeowners, a DIY butcher block countertop installation isn’t tricky business, either: It entails cutting sheets of wood down to size with a circular saw, creating the necessary holes for sinks and other fixtures, then mounting the various segments over a cabinet with screws.
For context, let’s compare that to another trendy countertop material like quartz. Not only does this cost almost double in materials ($70 to $100 per square foot), but it’s generally not DIY-friendly—the countertop slab is too heavy for one person to lift, has to be cut with a wet saw, and can seriously damage surrounding surfaces in the home if dropped.– CON: It’s ultrasensitive to liquid.
You’ve likely been warned to keep wood out of the bathroom because of how it reacts to water. Wood can gather germs, grow mold, stain, or even warp in shape when exposed to moisture. To counteract these unwanted effects, you’ll need to seal your butcher block countertops immediately following installation and on a monthly basis afterward—one bit of maintenance more than non-porous countertop materials like glass, stainless steel, quartz, or ceramic tile take. Fortunately, all it takes is one to two coats of food-safe mineral oil or walnut oil applied with a soft cloth. These non-toxic sealants create barriers that keep spills collected on the surface and thus prevent water damage.
Every 10 years, or as needed when stains grow numerous, use sandpaper (start with 80- to 100-grit, then move up to 220-grit sandpaper as the surface smoothens) to sand away the old sealant. Re-oil the sanded surface to make it look like new.
PRO: You can keep it spic-and-span with mere household cleaners.
While soap can streak or spot shiny glass or stainless countertops and acid-based cleaners can erode quartz countertops, both are safe to use on a butcher block. In other words, cleanup is not rocket science! For everyday cleaning of butcher block countertops, scrape off food debris with a plastic spatula, then use a dish sponge saturated in a solution of two cups warm water and one teaspoon dish soap to wipe away the residue. Vinegar works great as a stand-in for soap and water, capable of both cleaning and disinfecting the countertop. Need to banish a stain? Sprinkle table salt over the stain, then gently rub it with half of a lemon to remove it.
CON: Butcher block countertops ding easily.
Being softer and more yielding than glass, granite, and stone, butcher block countertops are more vulnerable to scratches and dents. One way that homeowners prematurely wear their butcher block countertops is by using them as cutting boards. Despite the name “butcher block,” you’d do well to resist the urge to chop directly on its surface. Knife blades can cause uneven wear on certain regions of your countertop, so use a dedicated cutting board for cooking prep work, instead. If a wayward knife stroke dents the countertop, sand down the dent with a fine-grit sandpaper (220-grit or greater) and then apply mineral oil to the spot. You can use this same solution to remove burn marks on the countertop left by a hot pot.
PRO: You can have your pick of hardwood and grain.
Unlike uniform countertop materials like glass or stainless steel, butcher block allows you to customize the hue and pattern of your countertop through your choice of wood and wood grain. You can choose from a variety of hardwoods, each lending a distinct color and character to the countertops and your kitchen’s overall scheme. Teak and cherry wood confer a dark and dramatic effect; oak evokes a classic, colonial feel; and blonde bamboo is an excellent option for a modern (and sustainable) home.
You can further define the look of the space through your choice of wood grain, or the pattern visible on the surface of your butcher block countertop. The two primary types of grains are edge grain and end grain. the surface of edge grain butcher block resembles a series of long, lean strips like the sides of a 2×4. The surface of end grain butcher blocks looks like a checkerboard comprising the short ends of a 2×4.
CON: It expands or contracts as the temperature fluctuates.
As it does with water, wood swells or shrinks with changing temperatures. Homeowners can expect their butcher block countertops to expand by roughly one-eighth of an inch in summer and contract by the same amount in the winter. Now, if you don’t prepare for this by leaving enough room along the perimeter, the expansion could cause it to warp or crack.
The best way to create ventilation and wiggle room for your countertop is to install it over an open cabinet top (not over a solid underlayment) and leave one-eighth of an inch between the edges of the countertop and the walls if installing the countertop between two walls. If your cabinets have a solid top, mount furring strips above the cabinet top and then rest the countertop on top of the strips so that it has room to breathe.
PRO: It can last for a couple of decades.
Follow the above tips on installation, sealing, and cleaning your butcher block countertops, and the surface should last for 20 years or longer. This gives it a major advantage over laminate countertops (which typically last for only 10 to 15 years before an inevitable replacement) and puts it on par with the ever-durable granite countertops (which also last at least 20 years).
If these butcher block countertop pros and cons leave you thinking that wood isn’t the best fit for your future kitchen, consider installing one of these other countertop materials.