DIY Wood Countertops: Your Concise Guide
Wood countertops attract homeowners with the promise of a natural aesthetic. While similar to the desire for granite countertops among homeowners and remodelers alike, natural wood offers a much warmer and feeling in the kitchen when compared with many natural stone countertop options.
Wood is an uncommon choice for countertops, which can help your counter to stand out. Wood’s warmth isn’t in appearance alone. Wood countertops remain warm to the touch, making your kitchen an inviting gathering place. Wood also offers a quiet surface that dulls the sounds of cooking and clanking, so that your conversations take center stage in the kitchen.
About Wood Countertops
Cutting and Food Prep
Many homeowners install wood countertops because they allow you to cut food safely with your knives while doing meal prep. Wood is also a bread bakers dream when it comes to shaping dough. As long as you keep your knives sharp and choose a durable wood, working right on the wood surface will do minimal damage, and you can buff out marks with sanding and oiling.
It’s a Softer Material
No matter what sealant you use, nothing will make a wood countertop as strong as stone. This means that your wood will get scratches and dents through use. For those attracted to wood because of its natural characteristics, this could be a favorable part of weathering and aging, but someone who prefers their countertops to remain in pristine condition, should choose a natural stone or another surface.
On the plus side, wood’s relative softness allows the countertops to be more gentle on your dishware than stone materials (which are known culprits of chipping and breaking dishes).
It Requires Maintenance
Wood is a high maintenance material. To use it for cutting on, you will need to reapply its mineral oil monthly.
Maintenance for butcher block countertops might also require yearly sanding to clean the surface of dents and scratches, including pockets where bacteria and mold may grow in more humid climates. Increased oiling is necessary in drier climates as well to keep unsealed butcher block countertops from cracking.
Counters sealed with a clear coat require less maintenance but are also more difficult to refinish when it comes to dents and scratches.
Keeping it Sanitary
Poorly sealed wood can hold bacteria and mold. Butcher-block or no, you still won’t want to cut your chicken right on your countertop. However, with proper sealing, wooden countertops are perfectly hygienic. Some studies even show that wood has natural antibacterial properties.
Can Be Eco-Friendly
While sourcing reclaimed wood for your countertops might be more expensive, it does constitute recycling and an eco-friendly measure. Also, if it comes time to replace your counters again in the future, you can recycle the wood from your countertops as well.
Weakness to Water and Heat
You will need to pay attention to how your wood comes into contact with water. Sealants can keep water from seeping into the wood, but prolonged water damage can still cause problems.
Wood is also not fully heat resistant, meaning you will need to place hot pots and pans on trivets, especially anything over 400 degrees. Fortunately, many burn marks can be sanded away and reconditioned.
Expansion and Contraction
Wood countertops require ventilation throughout the kitchen area, since they will expand and contract with changes in temperature and humidity.
If you’re worried about your wood countertops moving, opt for installing thicker blocks as opposed to a panel counter. Blocks will be more stable in the long run.
What Does the Wood Grain Mean?
Wood has three sides:
- Face grain is the widest and most decorative.
- Edge grain is like the face grain, but it is more compressed and has fewer weak spots.
- End grain is the rough section at the end of the wood board.
When we talk about what grain to choose, we are actually talking about what side to make into the surface of the counter.
Edge grain fuses many pieces together with the edges exposed at the top, forming the surface.
Edge Grain is best for large installations. It is the most common, making it less expensive to source. It is also considered the most stable.
The best finish for edge grain wood is either mineral oil or sealant depending on whether you want to be able to cut on the surface of your counters or use cutting boards.
End grain fuses together the end pieces of the wood rails, often making a decorative checkerboard pattern.
End grain is considered to be more durable. The pricing on these is higher due to their increased wood and labor cost. While less stable, it is a good choice for a prep surface that will be in frequent use due to its durability.
The best finish for end grain blocks is mineral oil, so that you can use the surface to cut and work.
Face grain countertops are also called plank counters. These blocks are made from wide boards that lay flat when fused together.
While often less expensive because they require less wood and labor, many choose to make wood panel counters out of more expensive wood for its natural beauty, thus elevating the cost.
Face grain is more likely to have soft spots in the grain, making it less durable than the others. Plank countertops are best for highlighting the natural beauty of the wood. These are also more likely to show scratching and denting.
Face grain is best for making a dining island or bar top and will be best protected with full sealing.
Wood Choices DIY Butcher Block Countertops
Here we wish to go into some of the more common wood choices for countertops. As a note, a wood’s Janka score is a measure of its hardness,
Janka Score: 900
Birch ($12 per square foot) is a light wood with a fine grain that will help to brighten a kitchen space. It is also very economical in its edge-grain form.
Janka Score: 1,000
Walnut ($60 per square foot) is a beautiful darker wood that will warm up any kitchen with its elegant black grain. Walnut makes an excellent accent piece on a kitchen island.
Janka Score: 2,350
For Mesquite’s ($151 per square foot) premium pricing you’re getting a wood so durable it will last as long as your home. Mesquite gives a rich reddish brown color that almost glows when polished.
Janka Score: 2,350
Cherry ($115 per square foot) is a very hard wood that offers a beautiful, understated grain and bright red-brown finish.
Janka Score: 1,380
Many wouldn’t call bamboo ($98 per square foot) wood since it’s technically a grass, but bamboo can make a beautiful countertop for someone looking for a different take from the traditional hardwoods.
Janka Score: 1,780
Rosewood ($200 per square foot) is a heavy, beautiful wood that offers a strong accent to tie together a kitchen theme or design.
Janka Score: 1,400
When it comes to butcher block countertops, maple ($40 per square foot) is classic. It’s strong, clean looking, and like a blank slate, it can inspire marvelous cooking feats.
Janka Score: 1,300
Oak ($12 per square foot) offers a lighter finish with lots of grain at a lower price point. This is an excellent choice for a kitchen that needs a focal point.
Oils allow your surface to be food safe for you to cut and do meal prep directly on. As the oil seeps into the wood block, it makes the wood resistant to heat, moisture, and even stains. That being said, oils will not give your wood counters a glassy shine.
- Mineral Oil – Mineral oil helps keep water out and natural moisture in to prevent cracking. It is also completely food safe and is the best sealer for those who will be cutting on the countertop. Mineral oil is not suitable for face grain countertops, because it will rise the grain, potentially creating an uneven surface.
- Tung Oil – Tung oil is a favorite among many homeowners since it cures to a hard protective finish. However, it is not suitable for those with nut allergies. Waterlox is a tung oil-based product commonly used to seal wood counters.
Oil-wax blends are made from mineral oil. Blends include beeswax or paraffin wax that made an excellent food-safe finish for cutting. The wax adds extra protection from moisture and seals the oil deeper into the wood.
Sealing your countertops with an oil-wax blend means less frequent sealing and finishing. This provides a good option for someone who is worried about the wood surrounding their sink.
DIY Oil-Wax Blend for Sealing Wood Slab Countertops
2 oz Beeswax
2 oz Mineral Oil
Soft Cleaning Rag
- Combine beeswax and mineral oil in a saucepan, and put on stove at low temperature.
- Stir as the beeswax melts and blends into the oil.
- Allow to cool slightly. Then use the soft rag to rub the mixture over the countertops.
This is a great mixture for filling in cracks and giving your countertops a strong seal that will last for about a year.
Clear coats fully seal your wood, making it unsuitable to use as a cutting space, while also fully protecting it from water, stains, and scratching. This is a great option for bar tops and tables, as well as for families with children.
Polyurethane takes away from the look and feel of natural wood. It is safe for food contact but isn’t as friendly to food preparation, and it is less easy to repair that wood with a more natural finish.
Stain or No Stain
Staining your wood makes it unusable as a cutting surface, and it must be fully sealed with a clear coat to be food-safe. Additionally, buying prestained wood can add about 5 to 10 percent to your wood cost.
However, a DIY wood staining job can make a less expensive wood species, such as birch or oak, look like a more expensive wood, such as walnut or cherry.
DIY Panel Wood Countertops
- Face grain wood boards about two inches thick of identical dimensions
- Biscuit joiner
- Wood glue
- Chip brush
How to Make Wide Plank Countertops
- Make sure that the sides of your wood pieces have straight, not beveled edges. If you can line the wood pieces up flat next to each other, and there are dips where the wood would join together, trim each side so that the pieces join to each other.
- Cut slots with a biscuit cutter and insert biscuits. Use wood glue to join. Then clamp and join tight.
- Sand the surface until it is smooth and level.
- Now you can install the panel countertops as you would with the prefabricated butcher blocks below.
DIY Butcher Block Countertops
- Flexible kitchen and bath sealant
- Plywood for blocking or furring strips
- Drill with changeable bits
- Wood screws
- Fender washers
Measuring and Making a Template
Measure the tops of your base cabinets while factoring in your desired overhang. The standard overhang is around 1 to 1.5 inches. If you’re interested in creating a breakfast bar or area for stools, consider a twelve to sixteen-inch overhang.
Cardboard templates will help you be sure of your numbers as you strategize how you trim your wood blocks. If you are cutting your own butcher blocks, you will need to cut the wood according to this template using a circular saw and router.
Many manufacturers, however, allow you to send your template and measurements in with your order to cut it to size for you.
Be sure that your template includes dimensions, decorative edge profile, orientation, such as where the walls will be, and space cut out for the sink. It should also include the contours of the wall, including any pieces that will need to be cut out of the counter to make it fit, and don’t forget cutouts for the range, fridge or other appliances.
Installing Butcher Blocks
- Determine what kind of cabinets you have. Most cabinets have no tops and you will have to install blocking to provide support for your DIY wood countertops. If, however, you have solid-topped cabinets, meaning that the cabinets are covered without a counter, thin furring strips are necessary to raise the countertop slightly off the cabinetry and give it room for air circulation.
- Blocking Method:
- To install blocking, cut plywood to fit within the cabinet’s width. Drill in angled pilot holes about half-an-inch from the edges. These will go through the top of the blocking and emerge from the cut ends.
- Fit the blocking at the front of the cabinet, and use deck screws through the pilot holes to secure it.
- Furring Method:
- Make .25 in thick plywood long enough to fit two inches shorter than the depth of the cabinet. Lay the strips every sixteen inches across the cabinets, using kitchen and bath sealant as glue to stick them down.
- Blocking Method:
- Drill one hole per cabinet through the center of the blocking or through the solid cabinet up through the furrow.
- Before you begin sealing the butcher blocks to the cabinets, use your choice of finish to seal its underside and any areas that will be hard to reach once it is installed.
- From inside the cabinet, drill a screw with a fender washer through each of the holes into the butcher block. The screw must be shorter than the counter is thick. Tighten until the block is secured to the cabinets.
- Use your preferred finish on the top of the counter.
How to Install Around the Sink
When it comes to installing wood around your sink, it’s best to take precautions so that your wood doesn’t come into constant contact with water either from the faucet or used while soaking the sink.
Regardless of sink type, all exposed edges around the sink, including cutouts and undersides, must be sealed with an oil-wax blend.
To avoid the risk of moldy wood around the sink, many homeowners prefer to install stainless steel all the way around the sink. Another solution is an undermount sink, where the counter is a little higher than the sink. This would allow you to sweep all water quickly in the sink, and make it less likely for water to sit on the wood counter.
Mistakes to Avoid
- Don’t forget to seal the bottom of the counters.
- Give the countertop room for natural expansion to take place.
- Work soon after you receive your wood materials so that they don’t warp in storage.
- Do not use water-based top coats.
- Work cleanly without oily foods or oily cloths. If these get on the wood they will keep the sealant from working.
- When it comes to your countertops, avoid particleboard and wood veneer which easily peel and swell when hit by excess moisture.
- When you receive or buy your wood check it immediately for noticeable or large gaps in the glue holding the rails of the block together. Gaps are liable to open wider or become unglued as the wood expands and contracts.
- Do not use cooking or vegetable oil to coat and seal your wood. Organic oils such as these will eventually go rancid and spoil, so it’s best to use mineral oil.
Wood countertops offer many options for you to customize your counters for your lifestyle. Between the choices of wood, grain, and finish, a wood countertop offers an inviting and unique kitchen experience.