Butcher-block countertops add warmth and a large working space in a kitchen, but they require regular cleaning, conditioning and sealing with oil or wax every six months to keep them from cracking or looking dull and dismal. To protect butcher-block countertops, cut meat, poultry and fish atop a cutting board, not directly on the countertop for sanitary reasons. Apply sealants, such as polyurethane or varnishes, in areas near sinks with excessive water exposure, but only if you don't plan any food preparation in that area.
Butcher-Block Countertop Types
Butcher-block countertops involve the use of thick planks or strips of wood laminated or glued together and held together with pressure until the glue dries. With wood planks cut at random lengths and finger-jointed or long boards with no constructed joints, these countertops are made from end-grained wood, edge grain or flat grain. Edge-grain boards are set with the narrow edge up and the boards laminated together at their sides. Flat-grain countertops consist of boards that lay flat, glued side-to-side, while end-grain boards give a parquet look to butcher block with small end cuts glued together to form the countertop. The best countertops consist of end grain because of their strength and durability, with edge grain coming in second, and flat-grain countertops less suitable for working kitchens because of their susceptibility to cuts and marks.
New Countertop Conditioning
Clean new countertops with 1 quart of warm soapy water mixed with a tablespoon of vinegar, and rinse with clean, clear water to remove dust and debris. Wipe the entire surface dry. Once the countertop dries, condition and protect the wood by applying food-grade mineral, walnut or tung oil, butcher-block wax or beeswax, working in the direction of the grain. Do not use culinary oils, such as olive or vegetable oils, or boiled linseed oil, as these can damage the wood when they turn rancid with age and air exposure. For new countertops, repeat this treatment once a week for the first month to allow the oil or wax to work down into the wood, and then about once a month or as needed.
Areas to Seal
If you install butcher-block countertops near sinks and have a work area separate from the sink area, you can seal the butcher-block countertop near the sink with a varnish or seal coat to protect the wood. You can also do this for tabletops and bar tops. But, oftentimes, regular application of oils or waxes works just as well in these areas to bead water on the surface, as long as you remove standing water and oil regularly.
Cleaning and Sanitizing
Wipe up standing water on kitchen butcher-block countertops immediately, as it can damage or rot the wood with time. You can sanitize safely with a bleach or vinegar solution by using a solution composed of 1 tablespoon of your chosen ingredient to 1 quart of water. Do not use more bleach or vinegar, because these can dry out the glues and the wood surface too much and lead to cracks that grow bacteria.
Butcher-block countertops require regular cleaning and maintenance to keep them looking renewed. When you begin to notice cutting marks, small stained areas or other imperfections, lightly sand the surface of the countertop, and then sanitize it to remove dirt and debris. Reapply oil or wax, working it into the surface, and then letting it dry. Remove pools of standing oil by spreading the oil across the surface. Heat the oil in the microwave a bit to make it spread more easily, if needed.