If you've been reading our blog posts for the last few months there's no doubt you know how much we like our new butcher block counter tops from IKEA. The efforts that we put into modification of the edges, leveling the base cabinets, ensuring a nearly perfect fit, and finishing the corner in front of the sink were well worth it given the result.

Though we love how our counters look now that they're done, all shiny and new in the space, there's one thing we absolutely must keep in mind to ensure we like them long term, and that's the treatment and care we must give them. But what exactly does that mean?

By their nature, butcher block counter tops are not an "install and forget it" kind of surface. Actually, literally by nature (and by their history/namesake), they are quite the opposite. As a result, a litany of options for treating, sealing, staining, and protecting butcher block counters has popped up. It's big business and a multi-million dollar industry, so it's no surprise every company wants you to believe their product is far superior to the rest.

Before we get to actual treatment and finishing, it's important to recognize why a higher level of maintenance is necessary when caring for butcher block. First and foremost, they're wood. This is where I mean "literally by nature." As it exists in nature, trees are meant to absorb the elements around them. Trees are literally sponges, trying to suck in whatever comes in contact with them including water, sunlight, and CO2. When a tree (or trees) became our oak butcher block counter tops, their life may have ended (sorry tree), but their natural mission to absorb did not.


Photo form San Francisco's Muir Woods, in case you're wondering.

Now that it's installed in our house, as an untreated surface the butcher block is eager to absorb anything we lay on it, including water, vegetables, fats and oils, dirt, wine or whatever else happens to come in contact with it. Each item can contribute to the drying, aging, and cracking process they is inevitable in wood, as well as the possibility of contamination. So it becomes our mission to protect ourselves from an unsightly and unhealthy counter top by first protecting the counter top from the possible contaminants. But what should we use to protect it?

Butcher block, as their name implies, was made popular in butchers' shops. The meat cutting and prep areas were adorned with the heavy and solid wood blocks. They were installed untreated and put to use. As the butcher's would work on the blocks, the fats and grease from their work would saturate the work area, and the wood would absorb it like a sponge. Ultimately, the butcher block surface would become so saturated with the animal oils that it wouldn't and couldn't possibly absorb anything else. Water could no longer penetrate the surface and would simply bead up when applied. Cleaning products also do not get into the wood, instead just cleaning the essentially solid surface.


Photo Credit: EndlessDC.com

Taking the history of butcher block into consideration, the surface preparation and treatment for our butcher block should follow a similar approach, but should be accomplished in a more home friendly manner. (I don't think Wendy or I really feel like smearing meat all over our counters for 40 hours a week.)

We have several simple goals when it comes to treating our butcher block.

  1. It must be food safe.
  2. It must be easy and convenient, otherwise we won't do it.
  3. It must be low cost.

Given these simple goals, we did quite a bit of research and consistently came up with the same end result.

Mineral Oil

That's it, that's all. No special brands, no linseed oil infused items, nothing that boasts penetrating formulas or additives that cause hardening over time, no "mystery" ingredients, just food safe mineral oil.

Instead of mineral oil, if you want something that will dry and harden a bit as you continue applications, you can use walnut oil. 

The benefit of these oils is they're food safe and they won't go rancid. Vegetable oils will look and work fine at first, but will ultimately turn rancid. Other oils are not food safe and could be very unhealthy if they were to leach from your counters into the food you are preparing. Sticking with mineral or walnut oil is the best option as you condition your counters immediately after install.

The idea here is the oil's ability to be repeatedly applied to the surface, allowed to penetrate and be absorbed into the porous wood, and ultimately any excess can be wiped away. Each successive application recharges the surface of the counter top, making it resistant to absorbing anything you don't want to soak in.

Though we're using mineral oil thus far, we're considering a switch to walnut oil since it self-polymerizes and dries over time, where the mineral oil stays wet and is wiped off.

You're probably thinking, "Ok, that's great, mineral oil...then what? How do I apply it? How much? When? Just once, or how often?" We had those exact same questions, but I think we found a really great answer.

Here's a good rule of thumb to treating counter tops that we've been sticking to. After you install your counters, make sure you get everything sanded and looking the way you want, then start with your oil. Apply your oil:

  • Once per day for the first week.
  • Once per week for the first month.
  • Once per month for the life of the counters.

That's it, it's that simple.

UPDATE

In addition to plain old mineral oil we've started using Howard Butcher Block Conditioner, which is a mineral oil and beeswax combination. It's worked very well in the nearly two years we've been using it and it's something we're very glad we switched to. You can read more about it in our blog post on Howard Butcher Block Conditioner.

When you apply it, use a rag and pour a generous amount of oil directly on the counter. Then begin wiping the oil around the counter with your rag.

At first your rag will begin absorbing a lot of the oil until it becomes essentially saturated, then it will begin spreading it nicely over the surface of the counter. Remember, you're trying to reach this similar level of absorption with your counter as you quickly achieved with your rag.

After we applied the oil, we actually placed our rag in a plastic ziplock bag so we can use it each time we oil. This way you aren't wasting all of that oil that soaked into the rag.

After allowing the oil to sit and absorb for at least 8-10 hours (we apply the oil before going to sleep), wipe the surface clean with another rag. Each time you apply the oil, you'll notice less and less is actually absorbed. This tells you it's working.

When you oil, your counters will begin to take on a much richer, and much deeper color as the pores of the wood drink in the oil, replenishing the dried out fibers.

After the first week of oiling your counters, drop a bit of water on the surface and watch as it beads and doesn't immediately soak into the material. This shows you that what you've done is working.

Where Do You Buy It?

Well, you can buy it at a lot of different places. The links above show you a few options on Amazon.com, but it's available all over the place at specialty and non-specialty stores alike.

We actually purchased the first mineral oil we used from Walgreens. The funny thing about mineral oil is that it's a natural laxative, which means purchasing a large supply might result in a raised eyebrow or two from an indiscreet cashier. It's up to you of you feel the need to let the cashier know that you just have new butcher block counters. I suppose buying a large supply also means you'll always have what you need on hand in case you're ever in an...ahem...bind. (The 12 year old boy in me simply can't resist a good poop joke.)

We've also found the same items in our local Ace Hardware for a few dollars less than at Walgreen's (but not as cheap as Amazon). Maybe we could do all of our pharmacy shopping at Ace Hardware from now on?

No matter where you buy it, the most important item will be clearly marked somewhere on the label and will say something along the lines of "Food Safe" or "Safe for Ingestion".

What About Staining and Polyurethane?

When we were first starting to look into finishing the counters we initially thought we may want to stain them a darker color. Since we're familiar with the good old "stain and poly" approach to wood finishing that we've used on our floors and furniture, we started to look into that.

While the counters are absolutely wood, and can absolutely be stained and covered with urethane, the question is if it's the right thing to do given how we would be using the counters. Sure the polyurethane surface coverings state they are safe for food contact, but what happens if it flakes off and ends up in your food, is that okay? The answer, I'm really not sure. And rather than leaving it to chance, we opted to leave the counters in their natural state and simply apply oil. If you wanted to stain the wood, but not apply a polyurethane or shellac cover, that's not an advisable option. The stain itself could seep out of the counter and into your food, causing the taste to go south and possibly end up with very toxic food. Notice the can of stain has emergency instructions in the event the contents are swallowed.

I hope this blog post is helpful, informative, and will give you more confidence in how you might treat butcher block counters. We've done a lot of research, but by no means is this meant as a comprehensive guide to butcher blocks. After all, we're still learning as we go, and we're always looking for more information.

Do you have butcher block counters or do you know someone with counters? How have you gone about finishing and treating your counters? I know some people swear by products they tend to use, and I'd love to get the input from all of the different owners.  

Comments 46

Comments

Kelly
11/14/2012 at 12:48 PM
Thanks for the tips! I never knew that's why it was used by butchers, I just thought it was easier cutting surface than on a board. D'oh.

I wanted to ask you about cleaning and prepping for the oil though. I oil all of my wooden cutting boards (I don't use the wooden ones for meat because) but before I do, I scrub them with lemon and salt. Someone told me or maybe I saw on TV that I should use bleach? What do you for cleaning?
Wendy
11/14/2012
Hi Kelly,

We didn't prep the natural wood before we began applying it. Since we sanded off the outer layer and had never prepared food on/used the surface, we went right into applying the mineral oil. Lemon and salt sounds like a good idea - I'll have to look into that. Currently to clean the counters on a regular basis, we wipe them down with a warm, soapy sponge and then wipe them clean with warm water and dry them with a dish towel. We don't prepare meat at home and do all of our food prep on a separate cutting mat, so that minizes the mess and need for cleanup too.
11/14/2012 at 1:24 PM
Tung oil is another natural food safe nut oil. It actually hardens, and requires less upkeep, but it's thick, expensive and takes a long time to dry (recommended wait 24-48 hours between coats). It's also an allergen for people allergic to nuts. I purchased some pure tung oil and am going to use it on a dining table I am working on. I will give a review once I'm done putting on the 10-12 coats...
Wendy
11/14/2012
Wow, sounds like you have your work cut out for you! Thanks for the tip on tung oil. It sounds like a good option and I like that it hardens.

Good luck with your table!
JC
11/15/2012 at 12:47 PM
Just a quick added FYI: unscented baby oil is also mineral oil. Sometimes you can find it cheaper as baby oil, but you can do price-checking.

I use mineral oil (rarely, but occasionally) in my 1840's whale oil lamps. Obviously whale oil isn't available today, so this is a very cheap and easy to find alternative. And since these lamps don't use chimneys, it needs to be an oil that is slow burning, odourless, and non-smoking (which rules out kerosene and vegetable oil). See a photo here (if you're curious): img.photobucket.com/albums/v473/sooth15/LiveJournal/WhaleOilSet02.jpg
11/15/2012 at 1:33 PM
Thanks for the guide! I had no idea I could buy mineral oil at the drugstore, lol. I will be doing this to our IKEA kitchen cart soon :-)
12/23/2012 at 8:10 AM
I agree about applying mineral oil on the wooden board, it gives the wood longer life and makes it it safe whenever we want to chop raw food on it.. Thank you the other tips, I learned a lot on what not to apply on the wood especially if it's your butcher block.
Clockridge
2/3/2013 at 10:01 PM
Question for you guys...I had been leaning towards using waterlox on my new butcher block island because my sink is in the island and I'm so nervous about water damage. How has yours held up with just the oil protecting and having your sink next to it? Thanks for replying!
Alex
2/4/2013
So far we've had no problems at all around our sink. Granted, we've only had it installed for about five months, but we're in good shape. I think the key for us is to keep the area around the sink dry after we've finished doing dishes. We just wipe it up and get rid of any standing water. You might also want to check out our followup post on this subject. www.oldtownhome.com/2013/1/11/Wax-On-Wax-Off---Butcher-Block-Oil-Treatment-Update/index.aspx We've added one other product to our treatment approach that adds a wax component. I actually just applied it again two days ago and noticed the water that rolled off of the sink and onto the wood just beaded up and sat there until I wiped it up. I know a lot of people use Waterlox, but for our preferences, we just didn't feel good about a product that required seven days before it could be called non-toxic. What happens if we're cutting and some of it gets in our food? We just didn't want to ingest that, and that was our primary reason for choosing to only use mineral oil/beeswax. Good luck and let us know how you go.
Alanda
2/27/2013 at 11:34 AM
How is your butcher block cut in the corner with the sink on top of it. My butcher block is on its way and we are grappling over where to put the sink. The best place would be in a corner just like yours is set up but we are confused about how to cut and join the wood to take a sink
Wendy
2/27/2013
Hi Alanda,

We actually have a tutorial on how we installed the corner sink. Details can be found here: www.oldtownhome.com/2012/9/11/Stick-a-Fork-in-Them-The-IKEA-Butcher-Block-Counters-are-Done/index.aspx

It definitely wasn't the easiest project we've ever tackled, but it's well worth the time and effort!
Donna & John
5/24/2013 at 1:07 PM
We just had a friend make us a butcher block top for our portable dishwasher which we use as a island for food prep, rolling out dough, etc. It is made from rock maple barn boards which are about 80 years old. It is not end grain. Our friend advised us to oil it immediately (he just delivered it today) and keep oiling it until it is saturated because rock maple will split if it gets dry. We had read your article and decided on walnut oil instead of mineral mainly because it seems more "food friendly" and because you had said that it self-dries. However, before we commit to that, will the self drying aspect lead to more of a likelihood of splitting?
Any info you could give us would be greatly appreciated. We don't want to do the wrong thing and destroy this beautiful piece of work!
Thank you!
Donna & John
Alex
5/24/2013
Hrm, this is a hard one to answer. We've not used the Walnut oil, so I can't say for sure how it will act with the wood once it all dries. But we have been using the mineral oil/wax combo (covered here: www.oldtownhome.com/2013/1/11/Wax-On-Wax-Off---Butcher-Block-Oil-Treatment-Update/ ) routinely from the start and haven't had any issues. Your butcher block sounds pretty great! The main thing is that the mineral oil won't go rancid (like vegetable oil would), so it's okay if it doesn't totally dry.

I even just asked a few friends with butcher block counters, and they've not used walnut oil either, so I can't give you any definitive info on how it will interact with your antique wood. Sorry we can't be of more assistance.
Donna & John
5/25/2013 at 11:23 AM
Thanks so much for the quick response. I decided to google walnut oil used on cutting boards, utensils, etc. rather than just butcher blocks and found a lot more info - ours is 17 1/2" x 25" so could be considered a large cutting board. I found that the majority of people using walnut oil were very pleased with the results. The only real issue for some was the problem of nut allergies but that isn't a concern for us. We also like the idea that the walnut oil does not remain "wet". I guess we will just oil it often to keep the wood from drying out.
Thanks again! You've got a very informative and helpful site!
D & J
Wendy
5/27/2013
Thanks Donna and John! So glad to hear the walnut oil worked out well for you, and thanks for the compliments on our site. We really appreciate it!
Dave
6/9/2013 at 4:47 PM
I'm curious as to how "wet" the mineral oil leaves the countertop. We have a large butcher block island that is completely dried up and we use it for daily countertop use. Will the mineral oil soak into whatever we place on there i.e. mail, kids' homework etc?
Thanks
Dave
Alex
6/19/2013
The mineral oil definitely leaves the surface wet for a while, but after you wipe it off with a rag or towel it tends to dry completely after an hour or two. We've noticed that paper will absorb oil for a day or two after the oil is applied, but it stops after that.
Long Beach Home
6/9/2013 at 11:26 PM
I recently had a large cherry edge grain butcher block island installed in my kitchen (home was destroyed in Hurricane Sandy). It is finished with mineral oil and the top is rough and the edges are very smooth. I have tried sanding the top lightly, but it is still rough. I would love to have a rich, warm, satin look, which is smooth on top. I tried oiling with mineral oil, however, all my children's papers, homework, mail, now have oil stains. This is very frustrating since we use the island as our main dining area as well as for homework and general gathering. I have read a lot about Waterlox but it seems too involved for me to apply it myself , and then where will we eat while the BB "cures" for 30 days???? What about pure tung oil? Will this give me a shiny, smooth, and water resistant BB? Is it easy to apply? Will my BB be out of commission for a long time? And now I'm even more confused because I just read about walnut oil on your site for the first time. What do you mean 'that it dries'? Does it actually dry and not leave oil stains on papers? I really want a rich, elegant look and am obviously VERY confused the more research I do on this topic. PLEASE HELP ME! I haven't oiled the BB in the past 2 weeks because I really don't know how to proceed. Thanks for any advice you, or anyone else on this blog can give me.
Alex
6/19/2013
Check out this post for some additional products we're using now. www.oldtownhome.com/2013/1/11/Wax-On-Wax-Off---Butcher-Block-Oil-Treatment-Update/ It's worked really well so far.

Don't be too worried about sanding, it shouldn't hurt anything. You can sand starting with a rougher grain and work your way up to 220 grit, that should smooth everything out.

After we oil, we let it sit for a few hours (soaking wet) then wipe it all down with a rag or towels to get all of the oil off of the surface. After that you just need to let it dry and you can set items on the counter without soaking up oil.
Kathleen
6/19/2013 at 12:07 PM
I have a question about the underside of the butcher block. I thought I would varathane the bottom because mine is on an island and has an overhang. I couldn't really imagine trying to oil that. Would that work? Then I could just regularly oil the top and sides.
Bill Jansen
9/22/2013 at 9:48 AM
I've really enjoyed your blog and find it extremely helpful as we plan our butcher block upgrade. I'm also wondering about how to treat the underside of the counters. Did you just leave the factory finish? Also, anyone with experience on the 1.5 inch beech countertops at ikea?
Susan Holmes
9/23/2013 at 9:20 AM
Also wondering about sealing/treating the underside of beech butcher block.
Joan Lindell
10/4/2013 at 6:28 PM
We have a new Ikea butcher block island. Has anyone heard of the product Behlen to seal it?
Ami
10/7/2013 at 11:23 AM
What about using bacon grease to seal the counters? I collect my bacon grease after cooking bacon and store it in the refrigerator. I'm not interested in using carcinogenic oils on my counter or oils that will spoil it or turn it yellow. Wouldn't bacon grease work well, just like the fats from the butchers' meats?
Ami
10/7/2013 at 11:47 AM
What about using bacon grease to seal the counters? I collect my bacon grease after cooking bacon and store it in the refrigerator. I'm not interested in using carcinogenic oils on my counter or oils that will spoil it or turn it yellow. Wouldn't bacon grease work well, just like the fats from the butchers' meats?
10/26/2013 at 12:09 PM

I'm so excited I found your blog! We just made a new island, breakfast table with a butcher block top from IKEA... I figured we had to do something to it, so I'm glad I did a little research.
I like the idea of using Walnut Oil, but if I start with mineral oil, I assume that I can switch to walnut oIl later if I don't like the way it absorbs? I'm so excited to start finishing it and I'll be sure to post all about it if you want to check it out ;)

Brian
11/8/2013 at 3:13 PM

Does one need to let walnut oil dry between coats? Also is it something that needs to be repeated as with mineral oil, i.e. daily for a week, weekly for a month...etc.

Thanks in advance.

Alex
12/17/2013

I'm not sure on the walnut oil, as we've not used it, but I would assume you let it sit for a while and then wipe off the excess. I do believe it needs to be repeated in the same manner.

Caleb Elfenbein
12/17/2013 at 8:39 AM

Greetings! This post has been a big help! Thank you. I do have one question for you -- I am assuming that you have a dishwasher somewhere under your butcher block table. Did you treat the underside of the counter to deal with heat/steam from dishwasher?

Thank you!

Alex
12/17/2013

We do have a dishwasher under the long length to the right of the sink. We didn't treat the underside and only added about 8" of foil tape (HVAC style tape) to the underside near the front edge of the dishwasher where the steam may impact it.

caleb
12/17/2013 at 9:40 AM

Interesting! I hadn't considered using something like foil tape. I will look into that! Thanks much for your advice.

Sandy Stell
12/22/2013 at 1:25 PM

If I use mineral oil on my countertops, can I change to walnut oil as you mentioned? or do I need to stick with the mineral oil? will walnut be darker?

just a few easy questions

thanks

Sandy Stell
12/22/2013 at 1:27 PM

If I have already used mineral oil on my countertops, can I change to walnut oil as mentioned? will the walnut oil be darker?

thanks

Kate
2/10/2014 at 3:49 PM

Thanks for sharing your research and experience. We just installed new butcher block kitchen counters and had no clue what to do.

Carole O
3/5/2014 at 6:23 PM

I have a maple Boos butcher block. Previosly we treated with one part parafin (melted) and two parts mineral oil leaving overnight per instructed. Can the mixture be reused again? Is there a better way to treat this block?
Thanks

Sue
4/3/2014 at 12:21 PM

Thanks for your experience and insite. We have butcher block counters on our sail boat that are in desperate need of work. I believe they were finished with urethane by the previous owner. While doing research for your own project did you come across any information about treating with mineral/walnut oil in a marine environment? This would be our preferred treatment method however not sure if it would be sufficient to protect the wood in a marine environment. Would appreciate your comments. Thank you.

Chris
5/30/2014 at 9:19 AM

I would stick with the walnut oil; mineral oil is a petroleum-based byproduct (most often the distillation of petroleum to produce gasoline). According to research (WHO), it is not suspected of being carcinogenic but there is not enough info. to confirm it is harmless.

6/24/2014 at 2:27 AM

Hello,
thank you for sharing your experience. How many time do you have to apply mineral oil?

carina
6/26/2014 at 9:14 AM

We purchased beautiful butcher block counter tops from IKEA about two months ago....we were so excited to install them in our redo kitchen, they looked great until.....anything and everything that hits them leaves a stain (I have two young kids!) we have done about 4-5 treatments with mineral oil and it didnt seem to help with the staining! Di you have any advice? we are planning on sanding down the surface and starting over. It has been a huge disappointment for us and we want to figure out a way to make them beautiful again! thanks, carina

MJ
8/27/2014 at 9:11 AM

We too got the butcher block from IKEA. We love it. We started out with doing the oil and then switched over to the IKEA brand behanla. (sanding in between of course) We did multiple coats. I loved the way it looked but I found out quickly that it wasn't for me. It was going to soak up what ever was on it. I know that I won't follow up behind it that closely. Since I'm not cutting my food directly on the BB we decided to go with a very light stain and then did a water base matte finsh poly (by rust oleum). I love it!!!! I too did a lot of research and was getting discouraged until I had read that unles you were using the BB like a butcher does and not cutting or preparing food directly on the counter top you could go by way of a poly. It works for me. again you can't beat the BB from IKEA it is beautiful and affordable.

April
6/26/2014 at 1:29 PM

I did a ton of research before intalling my butcherblock countertops, and your blog was the one that convinced me not to stain and seal and just use oil. I switched between the marketed butcherblock oil and walnut oil and it came out a beautiful warm color. I prefer the walnut because it has a nice smell as well! For those of you having problems with staining and marks...just apply more oil. I live in dry climate with a heater that is aimed right towards the counters, so I had to apply a LOT over the winter. Just keep at it and now I only apply once a month.

Charlene
6/29/2014 at 9:40 AM

As you are applying the mineral oil each time, the wood is soaking the oil like a sponge.

My question is, does the oil leak or absorb into the cabinets that the countertops sit on?

Denise
8/1/2014 at 12:03 PM

Thanks for the great info. I am a PA real estate agent with absolutely delightful first-time buyers who admitted to being seduced by a "flip" with a renovated kitchen w/ glass subway tile backsplash & butcher block countertops. I am sending them to your site so they get this good info. I understand their attraction because the BB countertops do look great.

Denise
8/1/2014 at 12:04 PM

Thanks for the great info. I am a PA real estate agent with absolutely delightful first-time buyers who admitted to being seduced by a "flip" with a renovated kitchen w/ glass subway tile backsplash & butcher block countertops. I am sending them to your site so they get this good info. I understand their attraction because the BB countertops do look great.

Melisa
9/11/2014 at 9:37 PM

I have read thru some of your posts and I am having the same problem a lot of people have noted with the "oil stains" left on paper we have used four different products including the Howards butcher block conditioner and with every product we are having the same problem with the oil stains you said that within a few days that goes away I haven't had that happen yet with any of these products any ideas? We are getting very frustrated with our new countertops

Lizzie
9/18/2014 at 2:22 PM

Maybe it's hiding in a blog post someplace, or didn't apply to you, but I'm wondering how you mitigated seams in the wood pieces -- we want to do a butcher top, but will need to use two pieces for the size of our countertop. Any thoughts on how to minimize gaps in obvious areas? Thanks, Lizzie

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