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As I mentioned on Facebook and in a previous post (inquisitive readers keep me on my busy toes), I have a specific method for treating my new walnut countertops. So, after a second coat of the stuff and answering a few more questions, I thought a post dedicated exclusively to the the topic would be helpful in case you’re considering butcher block countertops of your own. For the record, this is NOT stained Ikea butcher block — they are walnut counters that I purchased from Lumber Liquidators (now called LL flooring) and cut them down… and they turned out even better!
Why I didn’t go with Ikea butcher block
Originally, I was planning on going with Ikea butcher block for my counters and staining them to a darker color to fit my design plan (Ikea counters came in beech and birch, which if I left them in their natural color, would be too light for my liking). Regular wood stain by itself is not food safe, so after researching my options, it appeared that the only way to both fit my design concept and protect my food from possible contamination would be to use a protective coating over the stain color like Waterlox. As a second precaution, I don’t want to actually prepare food on the surface itself, but would use a cutting board or something similar. This second step wasn’t really an inconvenience; I have always used cutting boards and hadn’t really considered using the counter surface itself for cutting (I like character in wood as much as the next gal, but I can imagine the cuts and gouges would be too much for me over time). I read tons of reviews on Waterlox, and was fairly confident that things would work out as long as I kept re-treating the counter every year (I’d also heard that this product lightens the stain color by about a shade and has some slight “ambering” aka yellowing, just in case you were thinking of trying this yourself).
Choosing walnut butcher block
That whole plan changed when I had to find a last-minute alternative to the Ikea butcher block. But in my panicked sourcing challenge, I wound up with a blessing in disguise: instead of beech or birch, my new countertops would be made of walnut. In its natural state, this particular species of wood was already a friend of Darth Vader (on the dark side). I wouldn’t have to stain it to make it darker – I could keep it au naturele and get the color I wanted. That meant that instead of having a limited list of products to then make the counter food-safe, I could use a product as simple as mineral oil — which would protect my counters from water and normal use, but still keep the counters safe around food prep. Again, I wouldn’t be actually cutting things directly onto the counter (I still use a cutting board), but I wouldn’t have to concern myself with the possible contamination issue either. Right on.
How to Treat Butcher Block Counters
The mineral oil secret
There are a number of “butcher block” oil products out there (with varying price tags), so I did a little bit of online research again to see if I really needed these versus a regular bottle of food-safe mineral oil from the grocery store, which is so cheap you can easily buy it by the gallon without breaking the bank. What I found was this: if the ingredients in the bottle consist ONLY of mineral oil, it’s a complete waste of money to buy the stuff exclusively labeled for butcher block, whether it’s called “salad bowl finish” or “cutting board oil” or any other labeling. All of it is perfectly acceptable as long as it says it’s food-grade or specified for human consumption (sometimes it’s labeled to treat constipation). You can find it in the laxative aisle in the grocery/drug store, making it more convenient to find and cheaper because it’s not packaged and targeted for treating butcher block (these kind of specialized packaging tricks happen all the time; it’s just smart marketing, really). Winner, winner.
Mineral Oil + Beeswax
There is another product that combines both oil and beeswax made for butcher block. This product not only conditions the wood & protects it from water (the oil), but also fills in any small scratches and dings in the surface of the wood to gradually build up and protect it even more (the wax). Even though the costs are considerably different for these two products ($9 bucks versus around $2 for a coat of mineral oil alone), I decided to give it a try. A $7 experiment isn’t too bad overall.
After sanding the wood down with higher and higher grits (the wood was in good condition to begin with, so I started with 180 fine-grit sandpaper and then moved up to 220 and 320) and wiping down with a tack cloth, I was ready for the first glimpse at (part of) my new kitchen. Two coats of the beeswax/mineral oil mixture later, here are the results:
You know I’m a fan of re-using old t-shirts in various applications, and my countertops were no different.
Butcher block before and after
A simple application of wipe on, let soak (overnight), wipe off with another (dry) cloth. And repeat. Before:
I absolutely LOVE the variation in the wood.
Just a few more treatments before I’ll feel comfortable with normal use. Then, I’ll retreat every few months or so whenever the wood starts to lose its color and feels drier, or if I notice water soaking in. The walnut feels rich and not at all thirsty (which is a tremendous relief). I’ll test it out after one more treatment to see how water is beading up around the sink, and I’ll be good to go. I know it’s going to require a little more care than, say, a laminate countertop, but for this kitchen, I think it’s a perfect fit.
Cleaning butcher block counter tops
As for cleaning, there are a number of products recommended as possible options and a pretty standard method:
How to clean butcher block
- Sweep up food residue and scrape crumbs into the sink with a clean dish towel
- Spray down the counter with a mixture of hot water and mild dish soap, or the tried-and-true DIY cleanser mix of diluting white vinegar in water and essential oil (for fragrance, such as lavender or tea tree oil or lemon)
To remove darker wood stains
One thing to note about wood counters that’s worth repeating: it does not stay pristine, and you kind of have to accept that as part of the “thing” about wood countertops. Over time, some parts of the wood may naturally darken, or a water spot might form that is harder to get out than others. There are methods to treating this, such as a sprinkle of coarse salt on half of a lemon and scrubbing to help lighten the area. The lemon juice will help to kill germs and prevent bacteria as well as treating the visual imperfections.
I’m also planning on testing some non-toxic products like this disinfectant spray and this wood cleaner to get rid of food residue and keep the surface as food safe as possible. I’ve read that any type of cleaning method is generally expected to strip the wood of the oils and wax that I’ve applied, so after cleaning, I will reapply a coat of oil/wax afterward.
And oh, yeah — ignore the nasty walls. I’ll get to the details on that disgusting mess later (surprise, surprise – it has to do with living in a house that had these kinds of builders and this kind of a previous homeowner). We’re just talking about good wood here.
And of course, my inability not to giggle at that comment.
UDPATE #2: I’ve gotten a lot of questions about how moisture interacts with the oil/wax mixture and how the counter is holding up. It’s been a few years, and they still look gorgeous! Since it’s wood, you should expect that butcher block will change a little over time, have a few color differences (such as some spots getting darker), etc. But for me, that’s just the charm and character of having a wood counter. I’m still using the Howard butcher block conditioner, and you can see the color change and see how I take care of water spots in this post update about the sink.