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Q: I love the idea of a wood countertop in a kitchen, but with all the different types, finishes, and maintenance recommendations, how do I find one that’s right for me?
A:Interest in wood countertops is surging, and we have our suspicions as to why. While granite and other stones popular in recent years generally require little maintenance, they’re not exactly warm to the eye or the elbow. A wood countertop is cozier and more informal. Something about the material seems to encourage easy conversation as guests and family lean in, helping themselves to wine and nibbles from your prep area.
“I consider introducing wood countertops when a kitchen needs an element of casualness and relaxation and a warm feel. Wood is approachable,” says Summer Thornton of Summer Thornton Design. She especially likes reclaimed woods for their patina and character.
These days there are all kinds of options, including butcher block, salvaged wood, exotic species, and many different stains and sealers. Here’s a primer.
Chef Shelley Young, owner of The Chopping Block, maintains her Boos maple countertop with
regular cleaning and oiling and uses a separate board for actual chopping.
First, be clear in your mind about whether the area you’re setting up is specifically for cutting and chopping or for food preparation that doesn’t involve knives. Or maybe you want a furniture-like piece, more for beauty than kitchen rough-and-tumble. One caveat about wood countertops is that you need to be on the alert for people who aren’t sensitive to the differences and may start slicing bagels in the middle of your beautiful walnut countertop.
Cutting boards and chopping blocks exist for good reason: They get scratched and dinged and acquire a well-worn look from hard use so that your other surfaces do not. Make sure anyone in your kitchen with a knife in his or her hand understands where the approved-for-chopping area is.
Next, consider the two main options for wood countertop finishes. A sealed surface—sometimes called glazed or lacquered and often factory finished—is essentially water- proof and stain-proof and requires almost no maintenance. Whether the effect is accomplished with varnish, polyurethane, or another material, sealed countertops are not intended as workspaces, says Becky Hewing, sales manager for kitchen countertops at John Boos, a 125-year-old firm that has manufactured wood workstations for many local restaurants, including Blackbird. “If you’re going to slice and dice, you have to have an oil-finished block instead of a sealed block,” she says.
A natural oil finish is safe for direct knife work but requires cleaning and oiling on a regular basis. Chef Shelley Young, founder and owner of The Chopping Block, uses Boos butcher-block counters for preparing and serving food in her home kitchen but does her chopping on a separate board of the same material. She cleans the wood surfaces with a green scrubber sponge dipped in soap and water (removing stains with a capful of bleach per gallon of water) before putting on rubber gloves and working in mineral oil.
Unsealed wood counters can be sanded to eliminate gouges, burn marks, or serious stains, though sanding is not recommended, much less required, for general maintenance. The surface should be reoiled after sanding. Speaking of burns, never put hot pots and pans down on a wood surface; always use a trivet or hot pad, regardless of the finish.