Warm and accommodating, butcher block is an affordable countertop material with a lot going for it. Maintain it regularly and your butcher block will reward you by aging gracefully. But without proper upkeep, it can dull and crack. Is it the right material for you and your kitchen? Read our butcher block counter primer to find out.
Above: A butcher block countertop in a British Standard Cupboard Kitchen by Plain English.
What is butcher block?
Butcher block is made from straight cuts of wood glued together into thick slabs that provide a particularly sturdy and stable work surface in a kitchen, whether as a cutting board, tabletop, or counter.
Above: John Boos Blended North American Hard Rock Maple Butcher Block with edge-grain construction and finger jointed random length boards.
Are there different types of butcher block?
There are three basic construction styles of butcher block: edge grain, flat grain, and end grain:
Edge grain is the one most commonly used for counters because it's strong, stable, and less expensive than the others. It's made by placing long boards on their sides and joining them so that their long narrow edges form the surface. The boards can be continuous lengths of wood with no joints, or random length boards that are finger-jointed (as shown above).
Flat grain butcher block is constructed from boards that are laid flat, their full widths forming a surface with a streamlined look. Susceptible to marks when used for chopping and cutting, flat grain is less suitable for working kitchen counters than the others.
End grain construction is made from small rectangular blocks arranged so that the ends (with growth rings showing) are visible on the surface. The strongest and most expensive type of butcher block, it's great for surfaces dedicated to cutting, because it camouflages knife marks and is gentle on blade edges (they slide into the grain rather than against it).
Above: San Francisco architect Mark Reilly used end-grain butcher block counters in a kitchen in a turn of the century house in Palo Alto. "The countertop was originally Formica, but the client wanted a material that didn't clink when glass or serving wares were placed on it," Reilly says. "After exploring several options, we decided on end-grain butcher block because of its warmth, soft feel, and vintage-inspired look." Photograph by Mark Reilly. N.B. See how the architect created an open kitchen in a Victorian house in Remodelista Best Design Professional Space Winner: Mark Reilly.
Above L: End-grain butcher block. Above R: Flat-grain butcher block. Photographs via DeVos Wordworking.
What types of wood are used for butcher block?
Butcher block can be made from nearly any wood. Maple is one of the best and most popular for butcher block counters because it's hard and has a clear grain. Cherry and red oak offer rich color. Butcher block can also be crafted from bamboo (it works best with end-grain construction) and sustainably farmed exotics such as wenge and zebrawood.
Above: Flat-grain butcher block tops an island in a Seattle kitchen designed by Roy McMakin.
Does butcher block need to be sealed?
For kitchen counter applications, it's important to use unsealed, oil-finished wood. Sealed countertops are not meant to be used as food-prep work surfaces—they're not food or knife friendly. Mark Squire of Quality Kitchen Cabinets in San Francisco explains: "Using sealed wood defeats the purpose of butcher block, because it covers up the natural warm surface with plastic." Sealed butcher block does offer shine and can work well as a work desk or bar top in a kitchen that doesn't involve food. (And when needed for food prep, pair it with a cutting board.) Note that unsealed butcher block is not recommended immediately around a sink: Over time it will likely discolor and rot.
How do you best maintain butcher block?
At a minimum, butcher block countertops require oiling every six months to keep the wood protected. Different woods come with different finishing oil recommendations and it's best to follow the instructions of your installer. Depending on level of use, butcher block may also require more frequent oiling and conditioning to prevent the wood from cracking and looking dull. N.B.: Avoid using cooking oil to treat butcher block; it can damage the wood. Note that because butcher block is soft, it mars more than other materials—leading some people to use it for certain surfaces only, such as work islands. Just before oiling, you can lightly remove scratches, burns, and other surface damages with fine sandpaper, and your countertop will look like new.
Above: Christine wanted a warm material for her open kitchen, so she selected edge-grain countertops of solid oak treated with several coats of Danish oil for a hardwearing finish. For the full story, see Rehab Diary: Sleuthing for Space in My Kitchen. Photography by Kristin Perers for Remodelista.
Can butcher block be used as a cutting surface?
Yes, unsealed butcher block works well as a large stationary work surface and has been used this way for centuries (after all, it comes by its name honestly). That said, it's not as easy to clean a butcher block counter as it is a movable cutting board, which explains why many owners use cutting boards on top of butcher block. And, as mentioned, cutting on butcher block over time leaves marks and scratches—character defining to some, best avoided to others.
Above: In this kitchen by New York designer Robert Stilin, an edge-grain butcher block is used as the countertop on the island while white Carrara marble is used for the work surfaces by the sink.
What does butcher block cost?
Prices vary depending on the type of wood, the grain construction, and the thickness. In general, custom-made quality butcher block countertops range from $75 to $150 per square foot. In other words, good butcher block is more expensive than mid-range granite, but less expensive than top-of-the-line natural stone.
The good news is that several manufacturers offer off-the-shelf butcher block work tops in standard counter-depth sizes with variable lengths. If your setup allows, this is the affordable way to go. And the DIY-inclined can cut butcher block slabs to fit around appliances, corners, and other obstacles—not something you can pull off on your own with stone.
Above: In her cabin kitchen, Sarah Samuel of Smitten Studio installed Ikea's affordable edge-grain, oiled-beech Numerar Wood Countertop. Ikea now offers a similar Hammarp Beach Countertop, which comes in precut lengths.
Butcher Block Recap
- Butcher block counters add warmth and natural coloring.
- It's a soft material that's easy on glassware and dishes: No clatter when you put down a stack of plates.
- Wood mixes well with many other countertop materials, especially marble.
- If maintained properly, it's a long lasting and durable choice.
- Unlike laminate or solid-surface counters, wood countertops are repairable: Nicks and burns can be lightly sanded and the surface re-oiled.
- It develops a lovely patina over time.
- Wood has natural antibacterial and antimicrobial properties.
- Wood counters are not heat or stain resistant. Hot pans can't be set down on the counter without a pad or trivet.
- Wood can swell and shrink in conditions of extreme dryness or humidity, which may cause cracking.
- Excessive wetness makes the wood susceptible to rot and discoloration.
- It develops a patina over time (a detail that also falls in the Pro category; it's a matter of taste).
- Butcher block requires some maintenance.
Above: Italian kitchen designers Schiffini use end-grain butcher block at the end of a kitchen island.
Researching new countertops? Read 5 Questions to Ask When Choosing Your Kitchen Countertops. And for more on the subject, see the following Remodeling 101 posts:
This post is an update. It originally ran on November 19, 2013, as part of our Crowd Control issue.