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Butcherblock Countertops

The Beauty Of Wood, With A Practical Side

Butcherblock countertops are a breed of countertop all by themselves. They offer the aesthetic warmth that the look of wood provides while at the same time providing a versatile work surface in the kitchen. They bring a distinctive look that's appropriate in a kitchen that's hard at work or "dressed up" for entertaining.

Deciding whether it's the right choice for your kitchen takes an understanding of just what a butcherblock countertop is, how it's made and how you're going to use it. Read on to get more acquainted with them and find out if they're right for you.

What You Need To Know About Them

Although it's origin comes from the cutting surfaces that butchers used to process meat, today's butcherblock countertops have evolved to represent more than just a cutting surface.

Simply put, you can get butcherblock counters for the purpose of using them to cut and chop or, you can get them because you like the look but don't intend on putting them under the knife. As a result, how they're finished and maintained will vary according to how they'll be used.

But before we get further into that, let's take a look at the important things you should know about butcherblock countertops.

The Importance Of Grain Orientation

Butcherblock countertops are one form of wood countertops and one of the first things you should understand is the concept of grain orientation. This is important because there's a relationship between the countertop's longevity, durability and appearance and the how the wood's grain is positioned relative to the countertop's work surface.

Besides that fact, it's also good to know what grain orientation is all about because when you shop for these kinds of counters, you'll see plenty of references to this feature.

Butcherblock countertops are made using two distinct grain orientations - End Grain and Edge Grain.

edge grain butcherblock countertopEnd Grain Construction

End grain butcherblock counters are made from blocks of wood that are positioned so that the grain runs vertically, perpendicular to the work surface.

If you think of a log and picture that log standing on one of its ends you'll get the concept of vertical grain orientation.

End grain construction provides the best surface when using the countertop for cutting and chopping. This grain orientation is the strongest and it's the easiest on knives and cutting utensils. That's because the knife blade tends to "slide through" the wood fibers due to their vertical positioning rather than cutting across the fibers as it would with a flat grain wood and edge grain construction.

A visual analogy is to think about holding a bunch of raw (hard) spaghetti upright in your hand and passing a butter knife across the top of the bunch. The knife tends to separate the spaghetti strands (analogous to the wood fibers) rather than cutting them.

Edge Grain Butcherblock CountertopEdge Grain Orientation

Edge grain butcherblock countertops are characterized by long strips of wood laminated together with the long edge positioned along the length of the countertop. Here the "edge" of the wood strips form the work surface of the countertop.

Cuts made on an edge grain countertop will tend to leave more witness marks because you're cutting across the grain. That's not necessarily a bad thing it just means that an edge grain counter might show more wear and tear faster than an end grain surface. From an aesthetics point of view an edge grain countertop can make for a very beautiful and interesting visual part of the kitchen.

Decide On How You Intend To Use Them

How you plan on using your butcherblock counters is another important factor because that determines how the surface should be finished and the amount of ongoing maintenance you'll face.

If you want to use your countertops for cutting and chopping then they'll need to be finished with a food-safe mineral oil treatment and not a polyurethane or other type of synthetic finish. The mineral oil helps preserve the wood and also (along with good cleaning practices) helps protect it from harboring bacteria and other nasties. Cutting on a varnished or polyurethane coating will only cut through the finish exposing the wood below it to whatever's placed on the surface.

end grain butcherblock countertopsCherry End Grain Butcherblock Countertop
Photo Courtesy The Grothouse Lumber Company

Keep in mind that an oiled work surface will need to be cleaned often to remove food particles and re-oiled frequently, about every 4 to 6 weeks.

On the other hand if you simply like the look of butcherblock but don't intend cut or prepare food on it then you should choose a countertop with a protective non-permeable finish. This is especially important if you intend to have your countertop adjacent to your sink. Wood won't do well in the presence of water and a mineral oil finish won't provide the protection it needs.

In either case the countertop manufacturer will (or they should) have recommendations on the care and maintenance of the specific kind of butcherblock countertop you purchase.

Are Butcherblock Countertops Sanitary?

This is a question that typically comes up whether the subject is about butcherblock countertops or wood countertops in general. Because wood is naturally porous there is a belief that wood can harbor bacteria whereas other non-porous materials do not. There's also a contradictory school of thought that wood is naturally anti-bacterial.

If you search the internet for answers you'll find a variety of studies and articles on the subject, along with a host of opinions, but no definitive resolution of the matter.

end grain butcherblock countertopsPhoto Courtesy The Grothouse Lumber Company

To complicate things, all of the information that's out there deals with studies about wood cutting boards, not countertops, and how they compare to other surfaces, primarily plastic. Regardless of this fact however the conclusions have been carried over as being applicable to countertop surfaces as well.

Many sources that discuss the wood-vs-plastic debate point to a mid-1990s study performed by Dean O. Cliver, a researcher from the University of California-Davis. His study concluded that wood cutting boards fared better than plastic with respect to minimizing the exposure to harmful bacteria left over from food sources.

However those findings have been contradicted by others, namely this study by the Hospitality Institute of Technology and Management. It compared wood, plastic and stainless steel (the first two being cutting boards, the latter being the bottom of a stainless steel pan). That study combined several different tests that included the effect of several types of washing methods. The results favored stainless steel, followed by plastic and then wood.

end grain butcherblock countertopsPhoto Courtesy The Grothouse Lumber Company

While different pieces of data may be contradictory (wood is better, plastic is better, etc.) the common thread among them is that washing the surface has a large impact on reducing the exposure to food-borne bacteria. Simple detergent-and-water rinses or water combined with vinegar are shown in these studies to be effective at eliminating a large percentage of those bad microorganisms.

As far as the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) position, their statement in their fact sheet on cutting board use does allow for the use of a solid wood cutting board among other choices like plastic and acrylic. Probably most importantly however is the recommendation to clean the cutting boards in hot soapy water after each use.

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) advises that cutting boards and countertops be washed with hot soapy water after preparing food items on them. It also recommends periodically sanitizing these surfaces using a bleach solution. However you're best advised to check with the manufacturer of a butcherblock countertop for their recommended cleaning methods before using any particular cleaning solutions.

If you're intent for using a butcherblock countertop includes food preparation you'll need to decide for yourself whether it's a sanitary and safe surface based on the information that's available. However, also consider that you have a lot to do with how clean those surfaces can be and given that wood and butcherblock countertops have been used safely for decades if not longer, the odds are in your favor that they'll perform safely for you too.

edge grain butcherblock countertopsWalnut Edge Grain Butcherblock Countertop
Photo Courtesy The Grothouse Lumber Company

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Pros And Cons Of Butcherblock Countertops

As beautiful and practical as they might seem, butcherblock counters do have their plusses and minuses. Careful consideration of how they might impact your kitchen design will help you determine if they're a good option.

The Pros....

  • Warmer Feel..Aesthetically & Physically
    A lot of countertop options are, let's say, "very hard" surfaces. Stone, quartz, engineered stone and metal make great countertops too but they can also be cold and somewhat sterile looking. Butcherblock countertops offer a warmth to a kitchen that these other surfaces don't. They're also a bit more forgiving when a wine glass tips over. And last but not least, they're also warmer to the touch, as wood doesn't get frigid like stone or metal countertops can.
  • Butcherblock Makes A Good Cutting Surface
    It probably goes without saying but a well made butcherblock counter, particularly of end grain construction, makes a good cutting surface. Whether you're the next Iron Chef or a just a casual cook a butcherblock countertop makes for a convenient, useful and attractive tool in your kitchen.
  • It Has A Renewable Surface
    A well maintained functional countertop of this kind (one you cut and chop on) can last for decades. But when there are just too many cuts or stains on the top, you can easily renew the surface. All it takes is some sanding and the re-application of some mineral oil. Try that with granite or quartz.
  • Installation Is More DIY-Friendly Than Other Countertops
    You don't need special training to install butcherblock countertops like you do with solid surface counters. Some do-it-yourself skills are handy to have but these are the kinds of countertops that you can install yourself, making them attractive from a cost perspective since you don't have to pay for installation labor.
  • You Can Actually Make Them Yourself
    For the more uber DIY'ers among us, there's nothing stopping you from making your own butcherblock countertops. At the risk of simplifying what the professionals do so well, these counters are basically pieces of wood that are cut and laminated together. It obviously takes some woodworking skills and tools but there are procedures and DIY instructions out there to make these tops yourself.

...and the Cons...

  • Doesn't Play Well With Water
    A wood countertop isn't compatible with long term exposure to water unless it's properly protected. If you have a "working" kind of butcherblock countertop just preserved with oil, any standing water can stain the surface and jeopardize the glue joints that hold the pieces of wood together. That's not to say that it can't be properly protected; it just means that it's not going to be impervious to water like a solid surface countertop and needs to be protected.
  • More Easily Stained
    For those kinds of counters that aren't protected by a topcoat of polyurethane or the equivalent, they can be stained easily if the food or liquid isn't wiped up quickly enough.
  • Propensity For Expansion, Contraction & Warping
    A butcherblock countertop will expand and contract depending on the amount of moisture in the environment. This can be accommodated by good installation techniques and a well-fitting top. Warping is also a possibility, more so if the top is installed over a solid substrate like plywood or particle board (which it shouldn't). These attributes are manageable but they're something you don't have to worry about with other countertop materials.
  • Working Counters Require Ongoing Maintenance
    Working butcherblock countertops (those that are used for food preparation) need to be re-oiled on a fairly consistent basis. They also need to be cleaned effectively to prevent the development of bacteria. Other types of non-porous countertop surfaces don't require this level of maintenance.

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Where You Can Get Them

There are a variety of sources and different ways that you can get butcherblock countertops. You might be able to find them locally or, if you live on a remote mountaintop, there are sources that will fabricate them for you and ship them to your location.

  1. Buy Online - There are a number of companies that manufacture butcherblock countertops and sell them online and ship them to you. Some sources sell "off the shelf" pre-manufactured tops that are made in a number of different sizes. These same sources and others can also make custom countertops too.

  2. Make Them Yourself - This obviously takes skill and tooling but it is possible. You can find instructions on how to do this online such as this Extreme How-To article. Another option is to contract the services of a skilled carpenter, woodworker or furniture maker. With this scenario you'll need to determine who will be responsible for installing the countertops.

  3. Check Your Local Area - You can do this using the internet and searching for "butcherblock (or butcher block) countertops [your city]". You might find a local countertop fabricator or a woodworking/furniture shop that can provide what you're looking for. Or you can fill out the form below to find local countertop sources in your area (clicking on the "wood" button would probably be the best option for finding sources that offer butcherblock).

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Points To Consider Before Choosing

Hopefully by now you have an understanding of butcherblock countertops, the differences in construction and their pros and cons. Before making any final decision to buy here are some additional considerations to think about. They may help solidify your decision one way or the other.

  • Decide How You'll Use Them
    This was mentioned above but it's worth stating again: how you plan on using butcherblock countertops will determine the type of finish they should have along with the type and amount of maintenance they'll require.
  • Determine Who's Going To Install Them
    If you're going to install the countertops you'll want to pay close attention to the instructions provided by the manufacturer. Butcherblock countertops are a little different than other types of counters because you can buy them separate from a fabricator/installer. However because wood "moves" with humidity, there are specific requirements necessary to install butcherblock correctly so they'll ultimately perform without problems.
  • Remember The Maintenance
    Remember that butcherblock counters that you will cut and prepare food on will need frequent cleaning and oiling. If you're someone who just isn't up for this level of maintenance, consider getting "non-working" butcherblock countertops and use a separate cutting board for the food preparation. If you neglect the cutting board, you can just toss it out. That's harder to do (and more expensive) when you've neglected your countertops.
  • Mix & Match Finish Types
    If you like the idea of actually cutting on your butcherblock counters but also want your countertops to have that clean, unblemished look then go with both options. One idea is to designate one part of your countertop space, an island for example, as a 'working' butcherblock. The remaining countertops can be a finished butcherblock style.
  • Cost Varies With Wood Type & Other Options
    Butcherblock countertop costs vary based on the style, method of construction, type of wood used and whether they're custom made. The size of the countertop is also a cost driver. You can find very affordable butcherblock countertops but you can also purchase high-end custom made products for much higher prices too.

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Here's More Related Info That Might Be Helpful...

Wood Countertops - Wood is a beautiful alternative for a countertop with a ride range of choices available to you. However you'll need to understand that there's upkeep involved too. Find out more in this article on choosing wood countertops.

Choosing Kitchen Countertops - If you're not completely sure about the kind of kitchen countertop you want check out this article on the wide variety of countertop materials to choose from and their pros and cons.

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