All you need to know about butcher block counters

September 21, 2016

I'm back today with some more details on the DIY desk I made in our new office/craft room upstairs. 

I got a bunch of questions about the butcher block so I figured this would be a good time to recap how to finish butcher and share how we've used it in our house.

Where do I get butcher block?  

I've purchased at two places. IKEA is the easiest and honestly the best quality I've found. I just don't always purchase from there because it's a four hour round trip. :) (Next year we'll have one here in Indy, yay!!) Also, IKEA used to have an island size and I get mixed info on whether or not they still carry it in the Numerar butcher block. 

I've also purchased from a local lumber store called Northwest Lumber. They are more expensive but are maple and come in much larger sizes. They will also cut them down (for a fee). I used their island size for our kitchen and they cut it down and refinished it with a food safe protective treatment. You can also ask for that finish to be sanded off and that's what I did this time. 

I shared all of the places you can find ready made butcher block you can take home today here!

Bottom line -- if you are not near one of the stores that carries butcher, do some searching for lumber companies near you. I bet you'll be able to find it! (But it will probably cost more.)

Sand and prep first! 

No matter what you plan to do with your butcher block, the first step is to sand it. Every piece I bring home I sand, even if it's been done already. You don't have to go crazy with it -- just a light sanding with a fine grit is fine. You just want to even out the wood for whatever finish you'll use. 

Be sure to wipe it down with a tack cloth or a wet rag -- if you use a wet cloth it will open up the wood  even more to accept stain. (Just be sure to get all areas or it may look different in spots when you stain.)

If you are going to STAIN, use a pre-stain conditioner first. This is a step I used to skip and I've now learned how important it is.

I never used it before because I thought it would slow the process down, and that's not true at all. It takes mere minutes to spread it on and you just leave it. You can stain immediately! It helps to even everything out and prevents blotchy spots. 

Stain or leave natural? 

There are a few options when it comes to finishing butcher block and those depend on your design preference. You can leave it natural and put a polyurethane on it (more on that in a minute), you can stain or you can enhance the natural wood with Tung oil: 

When I first installed butcher block I was concerned about using anything on it that wasn't food safe. I've since realized unless you are literally eating off of the countertop, you are OK to use a stain and poly. But I did love the natural look and it was a nice contrast to our dark floors. 

This is the Tung oil I use: 

Remember if you want a high gloss finish to pick accordingly. I share how to apply it here -- it's very easy! You just need a soft cloth to put it on.  

It really enhances the tones in the wood and protects it from liquids and most stains. Every year or so I would sand down the island and reapply the Tung oil, so there is a bit of upkeep with this. Here's how this finish looks with IKEA butcher block: 

Can you believe how different our kitchen looks? Here's our new countertop (and island) with the larger butcher from our local lumber yard: 

If you want a stained look, that's easy too. :) None of this is hard, it's just time consuming! I used dark walnut by Minwax on the large desk in the loft: 

I love this stain and it is the color I use most on projects around the house. It's a beautiful dark brown with no red undertones: 
Follow the instructions on the can for the application -- there are two things to keep in mind when staining. Keep a "wet edge"while applying, meaning don't walk away from your project in the process. Don't let the stain dry in sections and then start up another one. Make sure you have time to stain the entire piece at one time. 

Also, it is really important to let the stain dry and cure the recommended time in between coats. It will become gummy and won't dry well if you rush it. 

Protect your butcher block 

After your stain has dried you need to protect it, especially if you will using the piece. I don't always add a polyurethane coat -- like on our wood wall in the basement: 

We don't use this sink a ton and even when water has splashed on it it's been fine. But overall, especially for countertops of any kind, you'll need to add a few coats of poly. 

I use this fast-drying version and love it: 

This version speeds up the process a bit because you can reapply quicker.

I use cheap foam brushes to apply both stain and polyurethane. They allow for a smooth application and I can just toss them afterwards: 

Here's how the wood stain and poly looks on our kitchen shelves

If you don't add that protective coat they will be very hard to clean and will not be protected against liquids. Blocking liquid is the most important aspect of having butcher block in your kitchen. There are a few different options for countertops so if you are considering them near a sink be sure to research the best protective coating. 

The final step...and my trick!

So when I was finished with the desk in the craft room it still had a slightly rough texture that was bugging me. This is not typical -- usually it's super smooth. I think I must have jostled the poly around too much before I used it because it was just not the finish I was used to. 

I didn't want to use sandpaper on it because it can change the look of the wood and make it slightly cloudy. I could have tried steel wool but was nervous it would do the same. I remembered I trick I had heard about years ago and decided to try it out. 

I couldn't even believe how well it worked!: 

It was a paper bag! Can you believe it? Maybe you know of this awesome trick but I was so surprised with the results. I just used a little piece of the bag and it worked for the whole desk. You just rub it over the surface and it knocks down those tiny imperfections that make it feel rough. 

Isn't that awesome? I don't know how well it work work between coats but for a final touch it was perfect. It left the finish looking exactly the same -- no cloudiness at all. 

Here's a closer look at the finished product: 

They are easy to clean and look great!

Using an island countertop size allowed me to create a massive double-sided desk. We LOVE it: 

I'll link to a few more of my favorite butcher block projects below! Have you used them in your home or kitchen? I think adding them to an island is a perfect mix -- you don't have to worry about the area near the sink but you still get the warmth of the wood. 

See how I made and stained a farmhouse table here: 

I used a section of IKEA butcher block, cut straight down the middle, to make the counters for the DIY built ins

Butcher block was the perfect top to the DIY mud room bench

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  1. For our kitchen island, we had one made out of hickory, same as our floors. Our island is small so the top costs around $300. We are planning to route, stain poly in the next couple of weekends. I didn't want butcher block but boards and I wanted it thick. It's beautiful natural.

  2. Hi Sarah-- thanks for his post. Did you use polyurethane on the kitchen island too? We have a butcher block island from IKEA, but all we did to it was sand it and we oil it down like twice a year. I think polyurethane would help keep it looking better, but I'm weary of using that since it's in the kitchen. And while we don't eat off of the island, if food falls on it while chopping or prepping, we currently feel comfortable picking it up and putting it back on the plate. I appreciate your thoughts! Thanks, Letty.

    1. I have wondered about this too. One thing I thought of is dining tables are usually finished with poly or some kind of hard finish, and we eat food on/around those every day. I have even eaten food from the table (like crackers,etc) and eaten it. That makes me think it's OK as long as it's fully cured, and as long as you aren't chopping food on it.

  3. You forgot an alternative sealer that's even better than Polyurethane: Waterlox. That's what we used on our kitchen counters, and it's amazing. Just wanted to put out an alternative.

  4. I am planning on using butcher block in part of my kitchen. The one thing that has stopped me is that I want it where I prepare food. I am also a bread baker and knead my bread on the counter. Is there a sealant that is food safe? I was thinking of just doing a natural oil treatment or a wax. Any thoughts? I love the look.

    1. My parents have had butcher block countertops for 35 years and they are beautiful. I think you are smart to be concerned what you finish your countertops with. My dad was a fine furniture maker and did much research for the best finish for the butcher block. He to this day is firm about how important it is to use a product that is safe for the countertops. The only product that he has ever used and is willing to use is Salad bowl finish. I believe the brand he uses is General Finishes. I don't think it is worth the risk to use something that is not food safe. My mother has kneaded many a loaves of bread on her countertops. Hope that helps.

  5. Perfect timing as we just purchased 2 inch think rubberwood for our kitchen counters this past weekend. I want a satin finish and wonder if poly would make it too "shiney?"

  6. We have a butcher block kitchen table from IKEA. 12 years ago they sold a butcher block size table! It is large and my mother in law hates it but I love it!! It is showing some age so my plan is to sand it down and oil it.

  7. Wanted to chime in on the paper bag trick. I first learned about it years ago while taking a decorative painting class. I've used it countless times while painting furniture - between coats and after the final coat. Works beautifully and doesn't create dust like sanding.

  8. Hi Sarah- I have been reading your blog for a few years now and always enjoy your projects. I see in your loft you have desk chairs with wheels. Have you had any wear or marks on your hardwood from the wheels? This is something I avoid for fear the wheels will make grooves in the wood over time.

  9. Hmm.... not sure what happened to my comment BUT I was trying to say your projects are really impressive and helpful to read over since we will be doing a butcher block island when the time is right (read: the piggy bank is right) :-) In the meanwhile, we are doing cheap updates to keep ourselves satisfied and to make our place feel more like "us" - like drawing on tiles with a sharpie. :-)

  10. I have used paper bags for years. Always between coats and before/after poly. Works great and no dust. Just "gritty" enough to knock down the minor imperfections for a smooth finish, but not enough to remove any of the paint/poly. Just a tip though...don't use the printed side, especially with light/white paint. Also, be sure not to use the "glued together" parts (like the bottom or where the handles attach, if any). Those pieces can scratch the finish. If you have a bag that is heavily creased for some reason, just use an iron (no steam!) and press those areas out.

  11. Where did you get the dark handle pulls for your new loft/craft room desk?

  12. I was wondering if you are planning to do an entire project post on the desk (cabinets, end bookcase, and attaching the butcher block)?


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