The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Butcher Block Countertop considerations

MNBäcker's picture

Butcher Block Countertop considerations

So, I am looking at re-doing our kitchen island in a few weeks. Our kitchen has all laminate countertops, so my first instinct was to get the same laminate to match those countertops. The island is about 72 by 48 inches. After thinking a little bit more about it, I am now also considering butcher block (maple) for a nice contrast and REALLY nice work surface for my baking breads.

I guess my questions are:

those of you who have Maple butcher block, how easy is it to take care of it?

I'm thinking about getting mine "raw" and then installing it myself - what kind of finish would I have to apply?

Any other pointers you might want to mention?


Thank you in advance,



MichaelH's picture

I have done a lot of woodworking and have made chopping blocks, cutting boards and other similar pieces. A real wood island top would not be a choice for me. My island is about the size of yours and has a manufactured stone top. When I think of all the spills and tasks it has been subjected to I can assure you that wood would have been both impractical and a maintenance headache. I am sure some folks have wood countertops and are happy with them, but our island gets to many kinds of use other than bread making to make wood an option. 


Having said that, if you choose wood there are really only two types of finishes from which to choose. Film finishes such as paint, polyurethane, varnish, epoxy based, etc. sit on top of the wood and offer moisture and abrasion resitance and protection to the wood. They are not practical for food preparation surfaces because they wear, flake and chip, thus getting into the food. They do not hold up well to knives and scrapers. Contrary to popular belief, they are not toxic once they cure (with the exception of lead paint, which is no longer sold in the US). Still, no one wants to find a chip of paint or varnish in their food. Curing is not a drying process, it is more of an oxidation process that chemically changes the components, rendering chemicals that might be harmful in liquid form harmless when cured. Film finishes are the choice for most furniture. Replacing, repairing or refinishing a film finish usually requires that it first be removed physically by scraping or sanding, or with a strong solvent (which is usaually exremely toxic).


Oil finishes such as linseed oil, mineral oil (food grade) and tung oil are actually absorbed into the wood and never really cure. You can pour some mineral oil in a bowl and it will sit there in liquid form indefinitely.  They give a nice warm look to the wood, but offer little if any abrasion or moisture resistance to the wood. They are fine for breadboards that don't see a lot of moisture. Keep in mind that wood surfaces were used in kitchens historically because there were no alternatives. It is unlikely that you would see a wood surface in commercial kitchen, with the possible exception of a bakery. I made myself and endgrain  bread board that I often use for bread making that is about 2' x 3' and sits on top of the island counter when needed. It is rubbed down with a light coat of mineral oil occassionaly. Wood has a nice low friction surface that makes kneading and shaping a pleasant task, but it would not hold up well to ordinary kitchen use.

Another option that you might consider if you want the look of wood is a wood-look laminate. They used to be pretty cheesy looking but nowdays they are almost indistinguishable from the real thing. I have had laminate countertops in the past and always aprreciated their durability, ease of cleaning and low cost.


Good Luck.

pb9003's picture

I too am a woodworker and wholeheartedly agree that a maple countertop is not a particularly good choice for your island.  What I've done is to make a 23X30" board of maple (endgrain doesn't much matter for this purpose), put a lip on the front edge to hold it against the front edge of my stone countertops, and that's what I use when kneading/shaping/etc.  I've recently gotten a bit lazy sometimes and just use the granite countertop that's already there - not quite as good as the wood board, the flour flies around a bit more, but it is a very workable solution.  Of course, the ultimate would be a maple (or other hardwood) countertop that's used EXCLUSIVELY for breadmaking, but for most of us that just isn't a practicable idea.  I think even with the best of intentions (and no kids), mistakes are going to happen - a lot goes on in a home kitchen.  If you really want to go ahead with the hardwood countertop idea, you better also invest in a big, sturdy belt sander, some sort of dust collection system to contain the mess from sanding, consider pre-paying for a divorce (for when the realization hits that you cannot contain the dust from a belt sander), and a big handful of Xanax for the inevitable glass of grape juice that gets spilled, the beer that gets knocked over, the over-zealous filling of a cereal bowl with milk, or some such disaster.  :-)



flourgirl51's picture

The island in my kitchen has a maple butcher block top. It is really easy to care for. I keep it covered when I am not using it for bread as my DH loves to set his glasses of juice on it and it would stain if it came in contact with fruit juice. I love it and am glad that I added it to my kitchen design.

MichaelH's picture

I am sure you and others are happy with wood countertops, although I do not understand why for the reasons I discussed above. But I had not considered the possibility of covering it up for anything other than bread making. How inventive and convenient! With what do you cover it?

flourgirl51's picture

I use an oil cloth type of fabric that I purchased at a fabric store. It repels liquids and is very easy to wipe off. It was also inexpensive so I replace it about once a year. It has a non slip backing also. I roll all of my dough on this as the rest of my kitchen is done in granite which is much colder. For me, I feel that I like to keep the dough warmer so when I proof it for the second time it doesn't have to warm up again so the second rise is faster.

pmccool's picture

Maybe do one end in maple and the other portion in the material of your choice?  


ehanner's picture

I too am a woodworker/baker. Years ago I purchased a 6 foot by 32 inch chunk of  maple butcher block from Sensininch out East. I seem to remember the wood had been soaked in paraffin at the time of manufacturing. I have enjoyed my beautiful work space for over 25 years. It is a wonderful surface to knead and shape breads on. I rarely oil it with mineral oil which is the recommended application to keep it fresh. I like to spray Pam on the surface instead of using flour to prevent dough sticking. Works like a charm. The surface isn't bone dry so if you do spill something on it, clean up is easy.

The one problem I have had is that my visiting family has in the past decided it must be a cutting board since it's wood. I did have to sand lightly to remove a few cut lines. Otherwise, I use a steel and plastic scraper.

I should also mention that I have a similar size piece of white marble right next to the BB piece. Because it is cooler it's good for rolling dough. Marble and most other natural surfaces stain easily and can be hard to clean up. They also require a surface sealer that has a petroleum order.

One last thing. I do know a person who had BB counter tops through out the kitchen and they used them for cutting and salad and food preparation. Every few years they needed to be surfaced to flatten them again. They are not bakers.


MNBäcker's picture

Thanks, everybody - some good information here.

I used to work in a professional bakery back in Germany where we of course made all of our breads on butcher block counter. That's why I am thinking about it now. I realize it will be the "centerpiece" of our kitchen, so I do want it to look nice, but it doesn't have to be "perfect". I understood that I could sand out dings or scratches (which would probably have to be quite severe to make it worth the effort for me - I think they add character), and it's good to hear about the different finish types.

The island would mostly be used to bake on, prepare some food (with a cutting board underneath the food) and maybe sit at and eat a snack.

I guess the staining would be more of an issue for me than the scratches - but it sounds like a regular application of mineral oil would keep the surface from instantly absorbing liquids, such as maybe a few drops of red wine, or some milk?

Any other recommendations for or against?



charliez's picture

Great thread, thanks to the OP and all the responders.

 What do you guys think is the best height for the kneading "surface"?
Probably will depend on the height of the person, so maybe an anatomical
height (waist high)  recommendation would be better.

MNBäcker's picture



I have found that for kneading and shaping, the counter height should be right about where my elbows are.

HOWEVER, when I mix my dough in the 13 quart bowls, I have found that a slightly lower level is better, about 8 inches lower, or wrist-height. It gives me better leverage to incorporate everything (I mix rather large batches).