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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Countertops: Butcher Block

When I started designing kitchens in the early 1990's, 75% of the countertops we installed were laminate, with the remainder being stone (granite or marble) and solid surface (Corian, Karadon, etc.).

Today, the variety of countertop materials available to the homeowner has exploded. Many of my clients come to the showroom overwhelmed by material choices before they even come to the question of colour.

Over the next few weeks, I'm going to discuss many of these materials. I'll give you the manufacturer's side of the story, and then some experiential information from jobs I've done.

Today: butcher block.

Arguably one of the oldest countertop surfaces (next to that boulder Cro-Magnon man used to bash his fruit into bite-sized pieces) butcher block is the generic term used for wood work surfaces. They're typically made from strips of wood laminated together and treated with some finish to protect the wood (from food, bacteria, etc.) Almost any hardwood can be used, but the most common are maple, cherry and walnut.

You'll generally find butcher block in one of two different styles: end grain, and edge grain.

End grain looks like a checkerboard, with the grain running vertically in relation to the surface of the countertop. Advantages? the wood fibres will spread when a knife is pushed into them. This is easier on the butcher block (the wood fibres won't cut and become rough) and on the knife (not getting dull from cutting through wood fibres). For these reasons, end grain is the most common style of butcher block used for professional food related applications. If you've seen an old butcher block at your butcher's you'll most likely have seen end grain.

Another benefit is that end grain of wood very absorbent, so it can soak up lots of protectant (like mineral oil - my product of choice.) used to prevent bacteria from entering the wood. There is evidence that natural enzymes in the wood are really good at killing bacteria. This does not mean you don't need to clean and seal it. But it's nice to have as a backup.

Edge grain will look like a hardwood floor, with the grain of the wood running lengthwise. Most wood countertops are made this way because it's much less expensive than end grain. And because of the risk of ruining the surface of an edge-grain top by cutting on it, they're typically used for more aesthetic applications.

Because of the maintenance issues (discussed below) I almost always use butcher block as a feature material - something to bring a little bit of visual interest into a design. On the left is an island that features a raised eating bar made of cherry butcher block, stained to match the cabinets around the outside of the room. The butcher block in this case is treated with a clear lacquer (3 coats) and the client promises never to cut anything on it.

I mentioned cleaning earlier on. Maintenance is probably the biggest drawback of butcher block countertops. John Boos & Co, has a terrific list of maintenance procedures. Some items of note:
  • Periodically (once every several weeks, depending upon the use and household conditions), apply an even coat of mineral oil or Boos Mystery Oil to the work surface of your butcher block. Sponge on with a rag!
  • DO NOT allow moisture of any type to stand on the block for long periods of time. Don't let fresh, wet meats lay on the block longer than necessary. Brine, water and blood contain much moisture, which soaks into the wood, causing the block to expand, the wood to soften, and affects the strength, of the glued joints.
  • Use a good steel scraper or spatula several times a day, as necessary, to keep the cutting surface clean and sanitary. Do not use a steel brush on the cutting surface of your block.
  • DO NOT cut fish or fowl on the work surface of your butcher block, unless you have thoroughly followed the instructions in step #1...as the moisture barrier must be intact prior to cutting any type of fish, seafood, or fowl on the work surface of your butcher block. ALWAYS CLEAN THE BLOCK THOROUGHLY AFTER CUTTING FISH OR FOWL ON THE WORK SURFACE.
  • At the conclusion of a day's work preparing meat or food on your butcher block, scraping the block will remove 75% of the moisture. After scraping, immediately dry thoroughly with an absorbent towel. This assures an odourless, clean cutting surface for the next day, and prevents premature quick deterioration of the work surface.
Most clients lose interest around item 2 or 3, and decide for a smaller butcher block cutting board like the one pictured above, or opt for using wood in a non-food related area. Bottom line: if you plan on preparing food on your butcher block, be prepared to look after it.

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