Jillian’s Island: The care and feeding of a butcher block top


We just recently delivered this sweet little piece to Jillian who lives in a studio loft.  It rolls into place to augment her food preparation space, then rolls into the corner to leave the room more spacious.  I am totally in love with her because while she is not a high income client, she so wanted a piece of our work that instead of going to Ikea, she saved her pennies till she could afford it… that’s devotion!  All this is true except that I changed her name to create a more provocative title… and really I’m just using the fact as an excuse to write about how to care for a butcher block counter top, and… well, actually… she’s a guy.
Anyway, hard rock maple is the traditional wood used for it’s durability and unreactivity to make butcher block, and so it is still the most popular species for any wooden counter surface, but differences in how it is treated vary greatly.  Basically, there are three different ways to finish a maple counter top, a high build table top finish, an oil finish that dries, and a non-drying oil finish.  The choice is dependent on how you intend to use it, and how much time you want to spend caring for it.
The table top finish could be Lacquer, polyurethane, or another finish that builds on the surface.   This type of finish is not suitable for food preparation.  While it can be quite durable for a bar or tabletop, the use of knives and equipment is a whole different level of abuse to a finished surface.  Not mention that you don’t want this material mixing with your food.  If your intention is to serve at, eat at, write on, or merely display on your counter, this type of finish is reasonable choice.  These finishes are typically applied with a sprayer by a finisher and he can recommend the best material for your piece.
If you are going to cut on your counter, you will want to use either an oil that dries or one that doesn’t.  To make this choice you must ask your self, how much do I intend to cut food directly on the counter.  For a heavily used chopping block, the non-drying oil is the best choice, and pure mineral oil is the age old, USDA approved, best option.  It is used regularly (perhaps as often as weekly) kind of like shoe polish.  After cleaning, rub it in and then wipe it off with a rag, creating a bit of a shine with a little elbow grease.  It keeps the wood from drying out, and can be used immediately after application.  The oils that dry are a more of a project, but used less often (perhaps a couple times a year).  The process is similar, but gloves should be worn, more ventilation is required, and the piece must be allowed to dry before using.  On a counter that is not cut on heavily, this may be the right choice.  It is more protective, more water resistant, and brings up a better sheen than mineral oil.  My favorite product for this is Osmo top oil.
When the counter gets a stain, it’s best to take the less is more approach, working from harmless to more aggressive.  Start with a wet sponge, then soap and water.  If still no luck try cleanser, and then a fine abrasive such as Scotch bright or Brillo pad.  The last resort if the stain is deep in the wood is a kitchen version of a traditional cabinet scraper.  Take a very sharp knife and hold the blade upright in two hands.  Now drag the sharp edge gently sideways in the direction of the grain.  It will remove a fine shaving of wood.  This techniques is very aggressive, and you can dig a big hole if you get carried away, so be gentle, and spread it out to keep the top flat.  When the stain is gone, apply your choice of oil.  Don’t ever cut on your counter with a serrated bread knife it will make big ugly grooves in the wood; use a loose cutting board.  If this happens, use the knife/scraper technique.
Jillian chose to use mineral oil… she’ such a practical guy.









One Response to “Jillian’s Island: The care and feeding of a butcher block top”

  1. william says:

    Good article. I’m an age old believer in mineral oil. My every day butcher block for 10 years look nearly as good as the day we put it in.

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