Q: I have an old butcher block and I can't decide whether I should use it as counter space or as a cutting board. Are there different ways of refinishing it for each use?

— Mary, Rineyville, Kentucky

A: Tom Silva replies: I have a butcher block in my house and they do make great countertops as well as cutting surfaces. You don't want to refinish your butcher block, just clean it and keep it clean, which should be done by simply scraping it. There's probably a special tool for it now, but it used to be that when butchers cleaned their butcher blocks, they would use a scraper made of a piece of steel with a wooden cap on it, which they'd sharpen on a stone to create an edge. Then all they would do is drag the edge across the block, scraping the surface and cleaning it.

The only thing you should ever treat the surface of a butcher block with is mineral oil. Anything else will cause more problems than it's worth, especially if you're going to use it to cut on. If you put a urethane on it, cutting on it will scratch and ruin the plastic. At that point you'd have a bigger problem: You'd have to sand off the urethane coating. So a wide, sharp, good-quality paint drag-scraper would be the best tool I can think of to use. And when you're doing that, you want to scrape it backwards toward you, rather than using a planing motion pushing forward. This will help you keep from splitting the ends of the butcher block.

Once it's clean, you may also want to sand it with a sanding block. Use coarse paper, maybe a 50-grit, to start with, and then end up with 100-grit. Finish by rubbing in a light application of good mineral oil.
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