Counter Measures

Hi everyone! First, I want to apologize if you’re not super interested in butcher block countertops. This post will probably be boring for you. But if you are thinking about ever installing butcher block in your own home, I have a whole lot of information you might be interested in. Come along on this countertop journey with me!

Raw butcher block

When we were first house hunting and thinking about the dream components of our new home, the kitchen obviously played a huge part. I always preferred the look of natural wood cabinets and never thought I’d want a white kitchen, but apparently after our previous house I was craving light, bright open space pretty intensely. When I started pinning inspiration photos, I saw a pretty strong trend. Many of the kitchens I liked had white cabinets with butcher block counters, and it was the combination of the two that flipped the switch for me. When you add butcher block and that heavy natural warmness that it brings to the table, white cabinets can really feel like a breath of fresh air. It’s that lovely Scandanavian modern look, which also pairs a lot of white and woods. Then, when we found this house, a mid-century modern ranch, the white/butcher block combo also felt classic and appropriate for the architecture. Then, of course, there’s the budget issue. We’ve created something like sixty square feet of counter space here, and we certainly didn’t budget for quartz! By comparison, the arrangement of butcher block pieces that we got from IKEA came to something around $13 a square foot, and that’s considering we used several of the biggest, most expensive pieces to make our peninsula work.

Taping off the cut area

Before getting started, I did a lot of research about butcher block and discovered a couple very helpful posts (here and here) that detailed the preparation and installation of, specifically, IKEA butcher block (even staining it if you want, which we didn’t, but still, cool). Both of these posts were super helpful and most importantly, made me feel comfortable going with butcher block even around a sink. A lot of people gave me skeptical looks about butcher block as a long-term surface, but these posts and their follow-up (as well as other research I did) made me feel like we could do it.

Dry fitting the countertops

One of the most important factors when installing butcher block is that you can treat it in one of two ways. If you want to use it as an actual cutting surface, like one giant cutting board (my grandparents have an island/table that acts this way in their kitchen), you can seal it with oil products (like food-safe mineral oil or spoon oil) and reapply every couple of months, like you would for a cutting board. IKEA even sells their own wood oil product for this purpose. However, if you plan to use it like regular countertop (i.e., do your cutting on cutting boards), and if it’s going to be around water (like next to a sink), it makes a lot of sense to go with a more permanent sealer. My research into this (aside from the two previously mentioned posts, IKEA fans is a particularly helpful site), and pretty much every single person out there that sealed the IKEA tops did so with the same product – Waterlox sealer. After asking around, we ended up purchasing it at the same place we bought the glue for our wood flooring, Galleher in Tempe. It’s pricey, because they can only ship the low VOC version to Arizona, but two quarts was all I needed. It’s also notably not FDA approved for cutting food on, but since that’s not its intended purpose I’m ok with that.

Waterlox

We went with the inch and a half thick oak Numerar butcher block from IKEA, because the color was similar to our floors and would contrast nicely with the cabinets. Once the kitchen cabinets were in, the installation process began. First, we cut the butcher block pieces to fit. Don did some of this when he was here, and Wayne and I finished up the remaining pieces on a separate weeknight. We cut each piece to length, notched the ones by the sink, and cut out the hole for the cooktop (side note: we also had to rout out the cooktop cabinet itself, because it’s only 28-1/2″ clear, and no 30″ cooktop, not even the ones IKEA makes, fits in it without it needing to be altered). We routed (I routed!) any cut edges on the outside faces, and then they were ready to be treated.

Sanding

I had read Waterlox’s countertop guide pretty thoroughly, and I followed their directions of sanding the wood with 150 grit sand paper to take any existing finish off. I just did this by hand as I had to do the countertops in two shifts (we don’t own that many saw horses) and there just wasn’t that much to do at a time. I used lint-free rag pads from Home Depot to apply the first, heavy coat of the sealer. I started with the underside of the countertops, which need to be sealed to prevent warping, and did two coats (letting them dry 24 hours in between) there before flipping them. Doing the underside first ensured that I wouldn’t mess up the tops by flipping them too quickly.

Sealing butcher block

Waterlox does not recommend sanding between the first and second coat (there’s a lengthy explanation in their guide), so I didn’t. However, I did sand between coats two through five on the top side, and it made a big difference in smoothness. They feel very soft, smooth, and pretty. For oak, they recommended four coats and I did five, just to be sure. Putting the sealer on with a rag or cloth gives a thinner finish than brushing it on, so I figured it was worth an extra layer.

Sealing butcher block

Below, you can see the sanded countertop. Per directions, I sanded lightly until the wood looked “milky”, and then wiped off the dust with a slightly damp lint-free rag.

Sanded countertop

You can see in this picture below a sanded counter piece (top) and an un-sanded piece (bottom).

Sanding countertops

Five coats in, I let the pieces sit for another couple of days to “cure,” and then we moved them into the house. The first sections that I sealed were the ones around the sink, meaning that when they were done, we theoretically could install the sink, reverse osmosis system, dishwasher, and hook up the refrigerator ice maker (reality check: Kyle finishes his thesis in a week, so it will be done after that. Can’t wait to have a dishwasher!). Meanwhile, I’m sealing two more big pieces, which will be done this weekend.

But here’s what the counter in that first section of the kitchen looks like! The finished product is so soft and buttery, and the sealer definitely gives a nice even coloration to the butcher block. It’s slightly darker (and of course glossier) than when it was raw, and actually is a really nice match to the floors. Almost there…

Finished section!

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13 Comments

  1. Emily April 25th, 2012

    so cool! what will you be doing for a backsplash?

  2. Angela April 25th, 2012

    We’ll do tile (you know, when we get to it, which will probably be in like July at this rate 🙂 ). Heath Ceramics in SF has “seconds” of their tile, random quantities in random colors (http://www.heathceramics.com/home/pages/tile-build/designing-with-heath-tile/overstock-tile-1), and I’m hoping I can find something in a soft gray blue or green in their 2×6 size. Their tiles are SO pretty! And many are more matte than glossy, which I like.

  3. Kristen May 3rd, 2012

    Getting ready to do our island from Ikea this weekend. I read so much and am thankful I came accross your post. I’m in Mesa. How is it holding up in our dry AZ climate? This is our 2nd top. The first one warped because we removed from bag/box and had on our current island countertop for 3 days. So worried about warping. I want to keep the natural color too so I guess I can skip the Minwax pre-satin wood conditioner recommended on that Stillwater blog. Did you see that? I was thinking I was going to have to stain 1st and was looking to see if I could find a natural color stain. I see you just sanded and went onto the waterlox….correct? Did you have any luck at True Value with waterlox or did you have to go to that place (Galleher) in Tempe??? I only see the place in Phoenix.

  4. Angela May 4th, 2012

    Hi Kristin! Let me start at the beginning and try to answer all your questions. I did buy the Waterlox at Galleher, and even though on Waterlox’s website it says they’re commercial-only, they’re not (which I only knew because coincidentally, we had also bought our flooring adhesive from them). Their price is the same you’d pay ordering online from Waterlox directly, but they don’t keep a ton of it in stock so it’s probably worth a call to them to make sure they have it (if they don’t, they will special order it for you but it may take a couple days, so save yourself a trip). Also good to know, they make it in two finishes, satin and regular, but no one seems to keep the satin in stock and the guy at Mission Hardwood told me that there’s not much difference in the look. The two sections of ours that are done aren’t crazy glossy like I worried they would be, so I’d be fine going with the regular again. I skipped the wood pre-conditioner more because I forgot about it until I re-read that post, and then it was already too late. I don’t think it would hurt, but it didn’t seem to be necessary, so I think it’s up to you.
    The big topic: warping. Yes, we did have some trouble with it. Some significant, some not. We also took ours out of the bags and set them on the countertops for a few days, and then we cut them and let them sit with open cut sides for a while before I found time to purchase the sealer. Bad idea! I didn’t think anything of it, but the guy who had been doing some drywall for us told us that you’re not supposed to leave cut edges exposed (at least in the desert), or butcher block crack and warp. Which it totally did. So we had six total pieces, one warped horribly and two others warped slightly, cupping along the grain. The ones that just warped a little, we set them on the flat floor and set heavy stuff (like our sink, and cast iron pots) on them and they pretty much flattened out. Then when I sealed them, it seemed to finish the job, and they look fine now. When we screw them down (tomorrow!) they’ll be perfect. The big one was beyond help, but we called IKEA and told them about it warping and cracking and they are replacing it. The IKEA lady on the phone admitted that they had a batch that was not cured for a long-enough time because of the high demand. So I hope they let you return/replace yours and you didn’t have to buy new ones!
    Hope that helps! Feel free to ask any more questions you’d like!

  5. Kristen May 4th, 2012

    We had the warping with the first one. We had the 36″x72.” Ikea took it back and that was in mid-March. They just got stock back in yesterday so I headed right over to Ikea and got it. Heading to Galleler this am and then going to sand/condition today. I called Galleler. They have the satin and reg.? Is the satin supposed to be less glossy? Thank you so much for your tips. I would love to to bb throughout the kitchen but too intimidated. We will just have the large island. I am looking to do the remaining countertops in just laminant. Ugh… not my fav. but I think will be the most reasonable in price. Did you do research on other types of good value countertops? I want to spend less and $1k and we have quite a bit of space to still do. Good luck on your intall. Your kitchen looks great. We opted to repaint our cabinets using Annie Sloan. They were the ugly builder oak; the flesh tone.

  6. Angela May 4th, 2012

    Good to know IKEA got stock back in as that’s a call I have to make too! The satin Waterlox is supposed to be less glossy, although Waterlox tells you to start with the regular either way. The guys here though said it doesn’t matter – just personal preference I think. They didn’t have the satin finish when I was in.
    Countertops are really tricky as far as trying to do anything on a budget. Cheap options are basically laminate or tile, and we didn’t want to do either. Eventually we may replace these with quartz, paper stone, or concrete years down the road, but those options aren’t budget-friendly so we’ll need a lot of time to save. It was important to us to have a natural and durable surface, so the butcher block works for that for now. Maybe someday we’ll be able to afford something else!

  7. Kristen May 8th, 2012

    We have just finished our 4th coat of Waterlox. No warping and the island looks amazing with the duck egg blue color on the cabinets against our antique white cabinets. Thrilled. I used a humidifier in the kitchen while we were working on the island the past few days. We are going to stick to the lam on the other countertops since they are budget friendly and will keep us in rage for the price of homes in this area. You blog gave me much confidence after much research. Thank you.

  8. Angela May 9th, 2012

    Hi Kristen, so glad it worked out and that you’re happy with it!

  9. Michelle November 9th, 2012

    Hi Kristen,
    Thanks for sharing your process! We’re installing bb in our kitchen and have had some help from someone who works where we bought the waterlox. He made the cuts and sealed it a few times, but there is some spotting on a few pieces so those may have to be completely redone. Anyhoo, the person helping us is a little flaky and I’m worried he may not come through. We need to join a few pieces and then anchor to the cabinets. I’m wondering if you did the install yourself and if you can give me any pointers? if not, can you recommend someone — reliable! – who might be able to help us? We’re in Tempe too! And we work at ASU and just had a baby boy — lots in common!
    Thanks!
    Michelle

  10. Angela November 12th, 2012

    Hi Michelle,
    Wow, it sounds like we do have a lot in common! My husband is faculty at the Design School and I teach there too sometimes as an adjunct. What school or department do you work in at ASU?

    As far as your butcher block, we did the installation ourselves and it’s not too bad except for the fact that those big pieces are HEAVY! You definitely need two or more people if you have big runs like we did. We used the provided L-brackets (you can see more pictures of that part of the process here) from IKEA, and we did have to shim them in a few places to keep them level (mostly because our cabinets themselves weren’t installed 100% level, but also there were some minor differences in the thickness of the butcher block). You can buy these little red plastic shims at most hardware stores, or use thin wood shims. We also had a long section (10′) where we had to put two pieces together (the longest they sell at IKEA is 8′ sections), and we used a doweling kit to drill holes in the ends and dowel that area together. I don’t think you need to do this if you are just butting them up in corners, we didn’t and they seem to be fine in those areas.

    Depending on what you mean by spotting on the pieces that the guy sealed for you, you might be able to just sand them and put another coat rather than redoing them completely. We put about 5 to 7 coats on each piece of our butcher block and sanded in between each coat and at the end, which fixed any drips or unevenness. Just make sure you use a light grit and sand with the grain. It’s all totally do-able, let me know how yours turns out!

  11. Carly December 5th, 2012

    Angela, this is an awesome resource!! I am in the middle of a kitchen remodel and half of our ikea butcher block countertop has been installed. We hired a well respected contractor in our area and his guys acted like I was nuts when I asked how soon before the install I should treat the countertops. Duh, they had to cut them. Well, now it’s half-way installed. Can I sand it down and treat it with waterlox after it’s been installed? I’m worried about the area around the sink and I’m not planning to cut directly on the countertop anyway.

  12. Angela December 5th, 2012

    Hi Carly,

    Oh man, don’t get me started on contractors! Obviously some are great but some, well… Anyway, I’m definitely no authority, but I think you could probably get by sanding and and waterloxing after install. Ideally, you would have wanted to get all the exposed edges, like where the cutouts are for the sink, and the undersides, but since that ship has sailed, I do think it’s probably better to have some protection than none. You’ll have to take care where there are joints or corners, if you have any, so as not to drip a whole lot of liquid down in the joints, as you won’t be able to easily wipe it out. You’ll probably also want to be careful around the edges and where it meets the sink, especially if there’s already caulk there. It just all might mean going a bit slower and putting on fairly thin coats. I’ll tell you though, it will feel so much nicer! I wasn’t expecting a texture difference, but the counters feel like butter now. Just a thought: you might want to look around and see if there are any posts people have done about re-sealing butcher block, like 5 or 10 years down the line (specifically with a sealant product, as opposed to beeswax or mineral oil). Mine have held up perfectly, but I could scratches and scuffs building up over years and doing another sanding and thin coat, and that would be similar to what you’re doing. Good luck, and let me know how it turns out!

  13. Carly December 16th, 2012

    Oh man, I’ve been waffling about what to do because it IS already installed and we have some unusual time constraints happening. I think for a first coat we’re going the tung oil route, because it’s supposed to be good for the wood, food safe, and we can always sand and refinish down the line. I ordered some 100% pure tung oil and will be applying it asap. I’ll keep you updated on what happens if we end up just doing waterlox down the road. I’ve also been hearing about Old Masters Exterior Oil Based Spar-Marine Varnish from Benjamin Moore…

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