Reader Question: Butcher Block Counters

THE BRYANT HOUSE Last week I went through the Bryant House kitchen remodel budget with you guys in response to a reader question.  This week I'm going to continue to answer Miyuki's question, but focus on our butcher block countertops.

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Here's a quick reminder on what she asked:

"My husband and I own a small home in LA, and looking to remodel our kitchen.  I love what you did on the Bryant house kitchen and I'm wondering if you can tell me about how much it ran you and in general, how do you budget for a kitchen remodel?

"We have a galley kitchen with very poor storage space.  Our cabinets are old, but I think we can salvage some of them so long as we can find a way to make the new ones match the old which is why I like what you did with the Bryant house.  Was it hard to make the cabinets somewhat match each other?

"And using butcher block is exactly what I want to do in ours too (my husband thinks I'm crazy).  Is Maple the standard wood you would go with, or would you suggest other wood qualities to consider?"

Well Miyuki, I love butcher block countertops!  I think of them as the DIY-preferred, budget-conscious countertop of choice for homeowners.  We installed them at our Bryant Houses and been very happy with the results. (We also installed them at our Wallingford House with a little less satisfactory results, mainly because we bought cheap butcher blocks from a big box store that didn't hold up great, but more on that later.)

There's a lot to consider when selecting the right butcher block so I called in a wood expert to give Miyuki some answers.

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Uncle Dougie (aka Doug Wirkkala of Hardwood Industries) is my brother-in-law and he's been working in his family hardwood business pretty much his whole life. He's our go-to wood guy and has helped us select butcher blocks, cutting boards, stair treads, and moldings with great results.

Uncle Dougie agreed to answer a few qustions to help Miyuki through the process of selecting a butcherblock (and persuading her husband wood is a good choice).  So read on for some great info on butcher blocks!

What species of wood would you recommend for someone looking for a beautiful and durable butcherblock countertop that is also budget-friendly? 

Maple is our most commonly sold butcher block.  It is priced well and performs well.  We offer it in two styles;  one we call “white” which is uniform in color made from all sapwood and the other we call “natural” which has more color variation due to a mix of sapwood and heartwood.  People seem to like some character in their wood because natural outsells the white.  

If Miyuki wants to use a local wood, are there any options native to the LA/California?

If you want something local, the best bet would be looking to Northern California / Southern Oregon.  You can get some Madrone, Claro Walnut or Western Maple that look cool and unique.  (Western Maple is also grown in Washington.)

What other butcher block properties should Miyuki think about?

Thickness:  The majority of butcher blocks we sell are 1-1/2” thick.  The thinner the butcher block, the cheaper they are, but you don’t want to go too thin as they can become unstable.  The other common sizes we run are 2-1/2” and 1-1/4” thick. 

Panel Type: There are two main types of butcher blocks: edge grain and end grain.  The look is drastically different between the two types, so it is worth thinking about.  Edge Grain is what most people think of when they think of butcher blocks, with the wood running horizontal along the length of the countertop (like at the Bryant House).  They are by far the more popular butcher block type and have great durability.  End Grain is less popular but definitely my favorite.  The wood runs vertical, so you literally see the end of the grain, often in a square pattern.  End grain costs more than edge grain (about double), but is more durable and will probably outlive its owner.  You often see thick end grain butcher blocks in chef’s kitchens because knives won’t dull as quickly on end grain butcher blocks.    

How should a homeowner prepare the butcher block for installation and use? And how should they maintain them? 

Butcher blocks are easy for homeowners to install and maintain themselves.  If you intend to cut directly on your butcher block, finishing is as follows: sand the butcher block with a 200/220 grit sandpaper until smooth, clean with a dry rag to remove sanding particles, then apply a butcher block oil product (a mixture of mineral oil and wax) with a clean towel.  The product I use at home is Howard Products Butcher Block Conditioner, which can be found at your local hardware store  When your butcher block countertop is new, you will need to repeat this weekly.  After four weeks or once you notice your butcher block stops soaking up the conditioner, you can maintain it monthly.  After a few months and once you get a feel for your particular butcher block, you can oil it as needed.

If you wish to seal your butcher block and never ever cut directly on the surface, you can use a standard conversion varnish.  I recommend calling in an expert at a local finish shop to do this work for you to ensure a perfectly smooth and lasting finish.  

Any ammunition for my reader in order to persuade her husband to use butcherblock countertops? 

In general, wood is an environmentally friendly renuable resource that sequesters carbon so you can feel good about the environmental impact of your purchase.  Our Maple butcher block countertops are grown, sawn, and manufactured in the United States.  The European Beech is grown in Germany and France where forestry practices are amongst the strictest in the world.  Even better we manufacture them from lumber to countertops in the Northwest.  Another great feature is they are easily cut and installed by the homeowner, which can be quite a cost savings.   

If money were no object, which butcherblock would you select for your own home?

For a US-grown wood, I'd choose Eastern Black Walnut in an end grain panel type.   It’s definitely an expensive option but absolutely beautiful!  For a more exotic look, I’d choose teak.  Teak is the best performing wood in the world, with natural oils and other properties that allow it to remain stable even when exposed to large humidity changes.  

Well there you have it, straight from the horse's mouth, which is actually Doug’s mouth, in this case.  Those are the major things to chew on when thinking about butcher block countertops.

So let's talk price.  Hardwood Industries sells butcher blocks for between $27 and $35 per square foot for basic options, which I'm sure is an average price for quality, custom hardwood distributers.  Yes, you can get them cheaper at Ikea, but they're not nearly as beautiful or durable.  We actually installed Ikea butcher block in our Wallingford House (due to time constraints) and have been disappointed with how soft they are ever since.  Common daily wear has left them looking pretty bad.  Like anything else, you get what you pay for in countertops - I won't use Ikea for butcher block again.

What about you guys?  Do you have butcher block countertops?  Would you ever put them in your kitchen?



p.s. What makes a man (or future man) happy.  Turns out it's got a lot to do with his mama.  I love this quote: "Happiness is love. Full stop."

p.p.s. Who knew creating a design plan was so fun! (p.s. I want to work in Emily's office!)

p.p.p.s. Peanuts in infancy are in (kinda)!  Is it just me or do food recommendations change like the tides?