Wood countertops are both beautiful and functional, neither of which has to be mutually exclusive either. They're warmer to the touch than stone and quartz and offer a richer look than solid surface or laminate.
Wood countertops actually offer a wide range of choices because you have the option of choosing the species of wood, the color and stain and the grain orientation. You can even choose to use reclaimed wood to bring some eco-concious choices into your kitchen design.
Wood counters aren't for everybody however and to know whether they're right for you requires that you think about just how you plan on using them.
Will they be a true work surface where you envision chopping and cutting food? Or do you see a wood countertop that's more of a focal point, an island or bar top centerpiece that shows off the highlights of the wood's rich grain and color? Maybe it's a combination of both.
Wood counters work well in all of these scenarios. The most important factor is deciding how you plan on using them and making choices that are consistent with those plans. Read on to learn more.
Wood countertops fall into two broad categories - we'll unofficially name them decorative and functional. A different way of saying this is that there are wood countertops made to be a true work surface and those that are meant for lighter duty.
If that's still too vague, functional wood countertops are intended to be used for food preparation, including cutting and chopping. True butcherblock countertops are usually meant for this type of work.
The more decorative wood counters are intended for use that doesn't involve any cutting or activity that might mar the surface. A kitchen island that serves as an alternate eating area or as a service station for entertaining is one example of the decorative wood countertop.
This distinction is important because it affects your choices on grain orientation (which we'll discuss in a bit), the right finish and the level of ongoing maintenance the countertop will need.
When shopping for wood countertops you'll come across the terms used to describe grain orientation pretty often. There are 3 basic ways the wood can be positioned to form a countertop surface:
Face grain orientation tends to be considered more decorative because it reveals more of the wood's grain. Wood planks are glued together with their wide surface positioned as the countertop surface.
Edge grain results from assembling the countertop surface with the edges of the boards (or 'staves' as they're sometimes referred to) in the upright position, forming the work surface of the countertop.
End grain countertops result from orienting the ends of the boards upwards so that these surfaces form the work surface of the countertop. This is traditionally how butcher block countertops and cutting boards are made.
So what's the difference among them and why choose one over the other?
Face grain wood countertops show off the wood's beauty and are a good choice for a decorative countertop. They also tend to be the softer variety of the three styles or grain orientation, meaning less dent resistant than edge or end grain.
Edge grain is typically more durable than face grain and is a better choice for use as a work surface than face grain countertops.
End grain wood countertops make a durable work surface, suitable for cutting operations and are easy on cutting utensils. This is because the cutting surface tends to "separate" the wood fibers rather than cut through them. It's analogous to holding a bunch of drinking straws upright in one hand and 'slicing' down through them with the side of your other hand. The straws tend to separate and move aside, similar to how the wood fibers in an end grain block respond.
To do that you need to know what the hardness is for various types of wood. The place to look is the Janka Hardness scale which defines the hardness of wood. The higher the Janka hardness number, the harder the wood.
For an example, consider pine, a relatively soft wood. Eastern white pine has a hardness of about 380 whereas northern red oak, a much harder wood than pine, has a Janka hardness value of 1290.
You can find Janka hardness test charts for various types of wood in many places around the web, such as this one at Wikipedia. The key to using the Janka chart is to gain an understanding of the relative hardness of one type of wood versus another.
These are the common types of wood countertop finishes you'll find:
Oil finishes and wax finishes will need to be renewed periodically to maintain the protection of the wood. Polyurethane and other similar coatings are meant to be permanent without the need for reapplication.
Wood countertops that are going to be used as a food preparation surface are finished with a food-safe oil like mineral oil or tung oil. Oiled surfaces provide some protection to the wood and keep it from drying out and warping or cracking. A wax and/or wax and oil combination offers the same benefits.
Mineral oil is one common food-safe oil that's used to treat wood countertops but it offers limited protection from water. A mineral oil surface will not protect a wood countertop from long term exposure or consistent wetness.
Tung oil is another type of oil treatment but with greater resistance to water and wetness. It's small molecular structure allows it to penetrate the wood and it's elastic properties allow it to "move" as wood naturally expands and contracts.
A polyurethane finish or similar coating is intended to be a permanent finish that don't require reapplication -- that is, unless it gets damaged by cutting instruments or suffers some other other form of damage. These types of finishes are typically used on the more decorative wood countertops that aren't used as a cutting or work surface. They're also considered to be more waterproof than oiled finishes.
Another type of permanent finish that takes tung oil one step further is called Waterlox. It's a surface finish that combines resins with tung oil to form a hybrid type of surface finish that the company says is waterproof. The resins provide the protection against moisture and the tung oil penetrates the wood giving it added protection. Some fabricators sell wood countertops with a Waterlox finish. You can also purchase it separately and apply it yourself.
Photo Courtesy Of Texas Woodworks
One more important distinction relative to surface finish is that wood countertops that are used as work surfaces with temporary oil finishes are renewable. If this type of countertop gets too scratched up or damaged, you can sand the surface and re-oil it for a virtually new looking countertop. The decorative countertops sealed with polyurethane coatings usually require a strip and recoat of the finish to repair any damage which isn't as easy as reapplying an oil finish.Taking care of a wood countertop will obviously depend on the type of wood, its finish and how the countertop is used. You won't want to leave standing water on your countertop for very long, particularly with oiled (non-permanent) finishes. If the countertop does border a sink, you'll want to make sure that it's adequately protected and maintained to avoid long term damage.
Regardless of what choice you make relative to a wood countertop, the best advice is to follow the recommendations of the countertop's fabricator for care and maintenance. They'll have the knowledge of what it takes to keep the countertop looking good based on the wood and type of finish used.
As with any product there are plusses and minuses to consider. Wood countertops are no different. But if you've been hesitant to consider them in the past there is reason to take a closer look. Most of the drawbacks can be overcome through careful consideration of how you intend on using them and/or a little bit of care and maintenance.
Offers a warmer surface than tile or stone
Is a renewable surface depending on the style of wood countertop
Presents interesting visual detail either through the choice of wood species and/or the use of contrasting wood types and stain colors (i.e. checkerboard butcher block, etc.)
Provides a good work surface for the preparation of food and is easier on cutlery than stone countertops
Choices for green countertops are available through wood from certified and sustainable and/or reclaimed sources.
Working surfaces require periodic reapplication of the protective treatment such as mineral oil
Susceptible to water damage if not adequately protected
Will dent, scrape and chip more easily than other surfaces like stone, tile or laminate
Excessive exposure (such as spills not quickly wiped up) to vinegar can damage and loosen the adhesives that hold the wood boards together
You can also compare the pros and cons of other countertop choices to get a feel for how a wood countertop stacks up against other materials.
Choosing a wood countertop is more than just picking a grain orientation. That would be too boring. There are lots of options that are available to help you make the right choice for your kitchen style.
Other options include:
You also have the option to choose reclaimed wood. Like reclaimed wood flooring, countertops are also made with wood recycled from old structures and other similar sources that are no longer needed. Instead of heading for a landfill, the wood is used for countertops and flooring.
Photo Courtesy Of Texas Woodworks
Maker of wood countertops are fairly prevalent, from larger producers that ship virtually anywhere to local countertop shops. The decision on where to go really depends on your budget and how you want to do business.
If you buy from a non-local source you'll need to provide them with detailed measurements and plans for your countertop surface. The benefit of buying locally is that the countertop maker will typically come and take the necessary measurements in your home. You're also dealing face to face with the fabricator which tends to be more convenient if any questions or issues arise.
If you'd like to find a local source for a wood or other type of countertop in your area use the widget below. Click the appropriate buttons, add your zip code and click "Next". The form will change so you can add your contact information. Qualified local countertop sources will contact you at your convenience to talk more about your project and provide free estimates. Any and all estimates are provided at no obligation.
For non-local fabricators that cater to remote ordering/shipping, click here to go to the wood countertop sources page. There you'll find a list of fabricators, large and small, that produce a wide variety of wood countertops. Highlights of what each maker has to offer is also included along with their website address.
Butcherblock Countertops - How to choose butcherblock countertops.
Engineered Stone Countertops - Learn about other types of engineered stone countertops in addition to quartz.
Stone Countertops - Granite, soapstone and others.
Laminate Countertops - There's still a lot to like about them such as durability and low cost.
Solid Surface Countertops - For a seamless look there's no match for solid surface counters.
Metal Countertops - Stainless steel, copper or pewter.
Composite & Recycled Countertops - Whether recycled paper or glass these countertops are eco-friendly.
Choosing Kitchen Countertops - Find out what choices you have and their pros and cons.
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