All About Wood Countertops
Visually rich and warm to the touch, these natural beauties are making a comeback. Here's how to determine if they'll work in your house
Call them the cure for the cold of common stainless steel. After being eclipsed by showy stones like granite and marble and maintenance-free engineered materials like quartz and solid surfacing, natural-wood countertops are enjoying a real revival. Constructed from pieces of hardwood laminated together with glue for strength and stability, they provide a warm, organic landing surface in a kitchen, one that is wonderfully forgiving, gentle on dishware, and able to absorb the noise of a busy household. Wood can also be revived if damaged; if it gets dinged, stained, or gouged, you can refinish it.
The majority of wood countertops are made from traditional butcher block, and while they may see some mild meal prep, they're rarely used for chopping these days. They're favored more for their looks. Less expensive woods often line the kitchen as a handsome, budget-friendly surface; pricier species top islands or breakfast bars, where they provide a welcome textural contrast or a furniture-like finish. The variety of woods available is impressive, from subtly grained maple to deep, rich walnut to dramatic mesquite to exotic iroko. Yes, wood is a good choice, but it does require some attention. This Old House's guide to buying, installing, and maintaining these countertops will ensure that the surface you select will look and perform beautifully for years.
Shown: A storage island puts thick edge-grain butcher block center stage.
Similar to shown: 2-inch edge-grain maple countertop, about $90 per square foot, uninstalled; glumber.com
Up until the 1880s, butchers worked on thick rounds of sycamore, which were prone to splitting. In the early 1900s, it was discovered that pieces of hard maple glued together in big blocks provided a stronger, more durable surface that better stood up to meatcutters' cleavers.
What do they cost?
From $12 to more than $200 per square foot, uninstalled, depending on species, thickness, construction, and finish; add 5 to 10 percent more for most factory finishes.
Do they hold up?
Properly installed and cared for, wood countertops can last as long as you live in your home. Factory finishes generally come with a warranty. It can range from one year to a lifetime—and may only cover glued-joint separation.
DIY or hire a pro?
A homeowner comfortable with cutting and matching can install them in a weekend (making sink and faucet cutouts may void any warranty). For a pro install, add $8 per square foot, minimum.
Where to buy?
Order from kitchen showrooms and custom retailers or shop at home centers and big-box stores.
They lend character and lasting good looks, but they also need some TLC. Weigh the facts before investing:
• They can be budget-friendly. A butcher-block counter made from birch or beech can cost little more than laminate and less than half the starter price for natural stone or engineered materials.
• They can be easy to install. DIYers can cut prefab butcher-block tops to fit around corners, sinks, and appliances much more easily than most stone. Finishing wood is even more straightforward.
• They're strong—and soft. Unlike with stone, there's no clatter when you set down a plate or a glass, and dropped dishes are less likely to break. Wood also quiets the whir of appliances, while stone will amplify such noise.
• They can be refinished. Knife scratches, deep gouges, even burn marks can be sanded out and a DIY finish restored to look brand-new.
• They're green. Most companies offer sustainably grown, Forest Stewardship Council-certified woods, including exotics. And while wood counters last for years, once worn out, they can be recycled.
Similar to shown: 1½-inch edge-grain teak; about $175 per sq. ft., uninstalled; devoswoodworking.com
They move. All wood expands and contracts with changes in atmospheric moisture, so there is the potential for these countertops to cup, warp, and gap if not properly constructed, installed, and maintained. The thicker the counter, the more stable it will be.
They require maintenance. Unfinished wood counters need monthly oiling. DIY clear-coated surfaces may require refinishing every five years or so. Factory-finished counters may never need recoating, but if they do, you'll pay to ship them, even under warranty.
They demand a watchful eye. Liquids can penetrate wood, causing stains, cracks, and joint separation—vinegar can actually dissolve glue—so spills, especially water around the sink, should be wiped up right away.
They're not fireproof. Wood and stove burners don't mix; check with your stove maker for required clearances. To prevent scorching, use trivets under hot pots.
The most common type of butcher block is made from boards placed on their sides and glued so that the narrower edge forms the surface. The strips may be continuous lengths with no joints, or random- length pieces that are finger-jointed.
Best for: Large areas, like a long kitchen counter or island top. Because wood only moves in one direction, across its width, edge-grain butcher block is more stable than other wood countertops. It can also be less pricey.
Blocks of edge-grain wood are turned on end to form a grid that's glued together. End-grain butcher block requires more wood and labor, so you'll pay about 40 percent more than for edge grain. Because it's also more prone to movement, end grain is often thicker, to counteract cupping and warping.
Best for: Cutting on, since end grain is easiest on knives and least likely to show blade marks. Now favored more for its checkerboard look than its functionality.
Also known as flat grain or plank grain, 4- to 12-inch-wide boards are laid flat and edge-glued, forming an almost seamless surface that highlights the natural patterns in the wood. This may expose soft areas in the grain, making these tops more likely to show scratches, dents, and dings.
Best for: Dining islands, table and bar tops, desks—wherever you want a fine-furniture appearance, not a workhorse.
These edge-grain samples showcase just 10 of the more than 40 hardwoods available today.
Price: $12 per sq. ft.
Maker: IKEA; sold only as a 1⅛-inch-thick prefab top.
Highlights: Neutral, light-colored wood with a fine grain.
* All prices are for 1½-inch-thick butcher block, uninstalled, except as noted.
Price: $151 per sq. ft.*
Maker: DeVos Custom Woodworking
Highlights: Hardest domestic wood. Mineral streaks add character to reddish-brown strips.
* All prices are for 1½-inch-thick butcher block, uninstalled, except as noted.
Wood is easily tooled, so it lends itself to intricate designs. Here are standard edge profiles as well as a few fancier variations.
This simple, classic profile (also called an eased edge) is slightly rounded. It goes with any style interior and makes sweeping up crumbs a breeze.
Sample edge profiles: DeVos Custom Woodworking
Also known as a beveled edge, this profile boasts a bold angle that works for contemporary as well as traditional kitchens.
A steeply rounded edge with a decorative ridge, typically 1/16 to ¼ inch high. An elegant, traditional look that requires a little more attention when cleaning.
An edge that curves in and then out, somewhat like an S. This version is topped with a fillet for added dimension.
The S-curve is reversed, and the steep arc lends a more formal look.
A single slice of wood, often with a live edge that follows the contours of the tree, is a sought-after look for a counter that doesn't see heavy use. But slabs' variable density and limited supply make them impractical in a kitchen. Search online for custom and specialty suppliers or find a local woodworker to source and install one.
Look for solid wood. Avoid particleboard or MDF with wood veneer, which can swell when exposed to moisture and limits sanding to fix stains or nicks.
Measure correctly. To get an accurate price, measure the tops of your base cabinets, then factor in the overhang you want; 1 to 1½ inches is typical. On an island, a 12- to 16-inch overhang allows for pulling up stools.
Inspect for gaps. Joints between strips or boards should be minuscule and consistent. If there are noticeable gaps, it's more likely they'll open up farther, becoming noticeably unglued.
A wood kitchen counter is incomplete without a food-safe protective coating on all sides and edges.
For a matte look and a food-safe surface you can cut on, use FDA-approved mineral oil. It seeps in to make wood moisture-, heat-, and stain-resistant. Or try a nonpetroleum-based walnut oil or a "curing oil," such as pure tung oil, that hardens to form an imperceptible film that will wear but won't peel.
Made from mineral oil and beeswax or paraffin wax, this finish formula adds another layer of protection against moisture and helps seal the oil into the wood. Apply liberally with a clean cloth in the direction of the wood grain, let sit for 20 minutes, remove excess, and buff to a satiny finish.
Urethane, acrylic, or resin-curing-oil finishes provide superior protection against water, stains, and wear and are food-safe once fully cured. But reviving a worn or damaged top means stripping it and refinishing. Proprietary finishes offered by some companies cannot be matched but may never need recoating.
Adding a stain can enhance the color and grain of a wood countertop, but you'll pay 5 to 10 percent more than you would for the same species in its natural state. You can get a pricey look for less, however, by choosing an inexpensive, light-colored species (such as beech) and staining it a rich color (like walnut). To DIY, sand off any finish and use a lint-free cotton cloth or natural-bristle brush to apply the stain, then wipe off the excess. When dry, add a food-safe clear coat. But never use stained butcher block as a cutting surface.
Pro tip: "To get a uniform look with stain, apply a prestain wood conditioner with a brush or cloth first. It temporarily fills in the grain, so the color will be absorbed more evenly." —Dan Vos, owner, DeVos Custom Woodworking, Dripping Springs, TX
For a water-resistant barrier, all cutouts, edges, and surfaces must be treated with your choice of finish to seal out moisture. "Undermount sinks are ideal with wood countertops," says Paul Grothouse, owner, The Grothouse Lumber Company. Cutouts that extend slightly beyond the sink lip and over the bowl prevent standing water from saturating the edge, making the counter easier to maintain. Drop-in sinks work best with clear-coated or factory-finished countertops along with a flexible sealant beneath the rim to protect the wood. Avoid marine varnish; while water resistant, this high-VOC finish is not food safe.
Use cardboard templates to trim prefab tops to size with a circular saw and a router, or send templates to a manufacturer; many will cut and ship slabs for free (cutouts and curves cost extra). On open-top base cabinets, fill with plywood fastening strips every foot; for solid-top cabinets, create air space with thin furring strips to allow moisture to escape. Center holes in the strips and drive a screw fitted with a fender washer up through each hole, into the countertop.
Find the full step-by-step at How to Install a Butcher-Block Countertop.
Wipe down the surface daily with a damp cloth and a small amount of dish soap; follow with a clean, damp cloth. To de-germ, spritz with a solution of 1 part white vinegar to 4 parts water; let sit for 10 minutes, then wipe away. Avoid harsh cleansers with ammonia or bleach, which can eat away the finish and raise the grain.
Rub on a colored paraffin-wax stick, such as FastCap Softwax (fastcap.com), in a shade that matches the wood. Remove excess with a plastic scraper and buff with a cloth. To remove deeper cuts and burns, begin with a coarse sandpaper, step up to finer grits, and finish with a very fine grit; reapply oil or an oil-wax blend to finish.
With its rich color and fancy edge profile, this glossy island top looks at home with a marble backsplash and copper range.
Similar to shown: 2-inch iroko, about $153 per sq. ft.; jaaronwoodcountertops.com
Crafted from varied species, this unique counter celebrates wood's natural beauty.
Similar to shown: 2-inch end-grain cherry, maple, and mahogany butcher block, about $250 per sq. ft.; brookscustom.com
Bamboo gives light-colored cabinets and bright accents updated flair.
Shown: 1½-inch caramelized parquet prefab island top, about $26 per sq. ft., and ¾-inch vertical-grain prefab-panel tabletop, about $17 per sq. ft.; teragren.com
Simple, sturdy cabinetry in rich, earthy colors calls for a warm, neutral-colored wood island top.
Similar to shown: 1½-inch edge-grain beech, about $78 per sq. ft.; Heirloom Wood Countertops; homedepot.com
Tight grain and a robust reddish hue make a cherry counter and backsplash a focal point in a space washed with white.
Similar to shown: 1½-inch edge-grain American cherry prefab work top, about $300; lumberliquidators.com
Salvaged fir floor joists repurposed as a plank-grain top add character to a space that blends industrial and old-world elements.
Similar to shown: 2½-inch reclaimed fir, about $60 per sq. ft.; windfalllumber.com