Tuesday, June 19, 2012

How to Condition Butcher Block Countertops (With Laxatives?)

Though the pics below don't show it, our Ikea Numerar butcher block countertop has now been affixed to the base of the island. Read  this post for cost details and to learn how we cut and prepared the surface.

One thing about butcher block as a counter material - it needs some care and maintenance to stay looking its best. In a way it's as if the wood, though cut, is still living. It can expand and contract depending on moisture both in the air and on its surface. Leaving water or wet foods on butcher block can weaken it and cause it to warp, split, discolor, etc. We wouldn't want that to happen to our lovely, now would we?!

Oh, and before I go any further, let me say that much of the maintenance information I'm about to share also goes for other wood items in your kitchen, like cutting boards, knife handles, salad bowls, and wooden spoons. You might be able to get by without maintaining them, but proper conditioning of these items can improve their appearance and extend length of use.

Cutting Surface or Knives Off? 

A few methods of butcher block finishing and maintenance are available. The first consideration is whether you want to use your wood counter as a cutting surface (using knives on it to chop vegetables, cheese, and yes even meats if you follow proper cleaning protocols). Tyson and I had to debate our choice for a while. He loves the character and patina of a well-worn, well-used butcher block. His father's bakery has huge wood surfaces used for the kneading, cutting, and forming of dough. His dad Curtis even got a used piece of butcher block from one of his bakery equipment suppliers to use as the island top in the kitchen of his vacation home, which is a renovated farmhouse on the family ranch lands in a remote area on the Utah-Idaho border.

Well-used butcher block in the kitchen at the ranch (family vacation home)

Curtis's piece of wood has tons of character and really suits location and the hundred-year-old home. I think Tyson pictured us being able to have the same thing, but practical considerations got in the way. And by "practical considerations" I mean me and my wop-wop voice. (When I say "wop-wop", what you're supposed to hear is the Debbie Downer sound effect.)

See, I love the character of used butcher block, too. And yes, as our family's primary food-preparer I would love the ease of using the island top as a cutting surface. However, we do not intend to stay here in the townhouse long-term. (It's a 1320 square foot three bedroom place with no yard, and we are a family of five, so we're really outgrowing it.) Any bit of character our island developed would not be enjoyed by us for long, and might not really be appreciated by prospective buyers or renters. We decided it would be better to try to maintain a clean and pristine look to the island. Wow, that was a really long explanation of our thought process.

Conditioning a Butcher Block to be Used as a Cutting Surface

If you are going to use the butcher block as a cutting surface, you will want to maintain it by using an oil and/or wax penetrating finish. You will not want to use a film-forming or coating finish (lacquer, varnish, shellac, etc.) because the finish would be marred by cutting, leading to moisture damage, bacteria growth, appearance issues, and other yucky stuff.

Penetrating Finishes: Drying Oils and Non-Drying Oils

Penetrating finishes come in two types: drying oils and non-drying oils. The drying oil most popular for butcher block counters is pure tung oil. Tung oil, and other drying oils such as linseed oil, penetrate and harden the wood. They increase the wood's ability to repel water and resist scratches. One concern with these oils in a food prep setting is that they have the potential to cause allergic reactions in people who have nut allergies. If you decide to go this route, be sure you purchase pure tung oil, which you will have to buy online or through a local woodworking specialty store. The home improvement and hardware stores have various products called "tung oil finish", which include other ingredients that are not suitable for a food prep surface.

Non-drying oils also penetrate the wood, but do not harden. They include vegetable oils and mineral oils. Never use a vegetable oil such as olive oil, canola oil, or walnut oil on your counter. It will eventually go rancid and transfer a bad flavor to foods prepared on the counter. That leaves mineral oil, which can be used alone or in combination with waxes such as paraffin or beeswax. Many brands of mineral oil-based butcher block conditioner are available, such as Howard Butcher Block Conditioner. The primary component of most butcher block conditioners is food grade mineral oil, and the secondary ingredients are natural waxes. A less expensive option is to head to your drugstore's pharmacy aisle and find the laxatives. There you will find pure mineral oil for a couple of dollars for a large bottle. Keep reading for application instructions.

It is important to note that you most likely will not want to or be able to stain your countertops to a different finish color if you are planning to use them for cutting, unless you use a completely food-safe method of staining.

Finishing and/or Conditioning a Butcher Block NOT to be Used as a Cutting Surface

If you won't be using knives on your butcher block, as we decided, you have the option of choosing a film-forming or coating finish like lacquer, varnish, or shellac or a penetrating finish as described above.

Coating Finishes (For a More Furniture-Like Appearance)

I would advise you to research the application, appearance, upkeep, and food-safety aspects of these more furniture-like finishes to find the right choice for your application. Some are not food safe, and some have stringent application requirements, requiring many coats and long drying/curing times. The primary choice for many who install butcher block countertops is Waterlox, especially if the butcher block is a "wet" counter (surrounds the sink and rests above the dishwasher). It provides a water-repellant surface, resists stains from foods, can be used on stained wood, and is food safe when properly applied and fully cured. Here is a good blog post that details staining a Numerar countertop and sealing it with Waterlox: Butcherblock Countertops at A Creative Beginning. Waterlox is not available in most local stores, and most likely will need to be purchased online.

I strongly considered using Waterlox for our counter, because I know how hard my boys are on things, how often they spill, etc. And frankly, I know myself well and know that I am not always on top of immediately cleaning up after them. However, Waterlox needs several applications with long drying times, and we wanted to start using our counters right away. Since Waterlox can be applied over penetrating finishes with proper precautions, we decided to start with a simple penetrating finish first and try it for a while. If we decide we need the added protection we can go through the Waterlox application process in the future.

Applying Mineral Oil to Butcher Block as a Penetrating Finish

The section above about drying oils and non-drying oils for cutting surfaces also applies to surfaces that won't be used for cutting, so review that for information on tung oil vs. mineral oil. We decided to start with mineral oil because we could acquire it immediately. Tung oil can be applied over it later if we decide to go that way, as long as waxes have not also been applied. If waxes have been applied, the surface would need to be stripped before proceeding to tung oil or Waterlox.

So, just run down to your grocery or drug store, find the laxatives, and pick up a big bottle of pure mineral oil. People drink this stuff, so it is definitely food-safe for a kitchen counter! Do not use baby oil. Though it is also a mineral oil, it includes perfumes and other non-food-safe ingredients. Also remember not to use vegetable oils because they will go rancid. Pure mineral oil is your best bet, and you can find it super cheap in the laxative aisle!

At night after everyone else goes to bed, apply the mineral oil liberally to your counter and spread it around evenly with your hands, a paper towel, or a rag. Let it soak in overnight. In the morning, wipe up any excess.  When you first start conditioning your counters you may want to apply the mineral oil a few times, waiting a few days in between. After that, just watch your wood for signs of dryness, and reapply the oil when necessary (probably every few weeks). For more protection to your wood and to lengthen the time between conditioning, you can melt beeswax or paraffin in a double boiler with your mineral oil, let the mixture set a little, then rub it into your butcher block. This will enhance the wood's ability to resist water. Just remember that once wax is on the surface it must be stripped before you can switch to other finishing methods like tung oil or Waterlox.

My Results and Thoughts So Far

The day after our first application of mineral oil my toddler spilled a glass of water on the counter. This raised the grain again, so we sanded again before reapplying mineral oil. After the second application the same thing happened again (sensing a pattern here). Again, we sanded and reapplied the oil. This time the grain is not raising as much with moisture, but still is raised (different strips of wood to different degrees). This would not be the case as much with tung oil, and definitely not with Waterlox. Adding beeswax might also help. We are trying to decide whether to live with the not-smooth surface or move on to other conditioning methods. At first I thought the raised grain would bother me a lot, but it doesn't really. We'll just keep playing it by ear.

I'll do a later post about proper cleaning and stain-removal from butcher block.

Whew! That was long! Any questions? What's your dream countertop material? I would love to have a mix of Calacatta marble and butcher block counters. What's more important to you, looks or easy maintenance? I guess in this case I chose looks, because butcher block takes more maintenance than the laminate counter we replaced.


  1. Hi, I found this post trying to see if anyone was using Method's "wood for good" cleaner on a Numerar countertop. Just wanted to comment that Tung oil isn't safe for folks with tree nut allergies (rules it out at our house). We're just buying our Numerar now, and plan to do a beeswax/mineral oil finish. Your island looks great!

    1. Hi Kimberly, thanks for visiting! You're right about the tung oil/allergy connection, of course, and I did mention it here in my post

      "...The drying oil most popular for butcher block counters is pure tung oil. Tung oil, and other drying oils such as linseed oil, penetrate and harden the wood. They increase the wood's ability to repel water and resist scratches. One concern with these oils in a food prep setting is that they have the potential to cause allergic reactions in people who have nut allergies..."

      Even if people in your family don't have the allergy, you never know when you'll have a visitor who does. It's a valid reason to stay away from tung oil. Let me know how your numerar turns out!

      BTW, regarding cleaning, I've just been using water mainly, with a tiny bit of soap when needed. Also a spray bottle of very diluted bleach in water for sanitizing or stain removal.

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