Choosing the best material for your countertop — one that offers the perfect blend of beauty, durability, and function — is one of the most important design decisions you’ll make when you renovate your kitchen.
It’s also one of the toughest design decisions to make if you aren't familiar with your options, including the primary pros and cons of each. To help you get acquainted with your choices, we’ve started a regular blog series that explores the ins and outs of countertop materials, one by one.
After covering quartz (the design chameleon) and soapstone (the classic beauty), we’d like to turn our attention to a decidedly different countertop material: warm wood, also referred to as butcher block. Here’s what you should know.
Wood Countertop Basics
When it comes to countertop materials that exude warmth, natural beauty, and undeniable character, wood tops the list. A modest and charming alternative to sleek stone slabs, wood countertops are affordable, easy to clean, and long-lasting when maintained properly.
Traditional wood countertops are usually allocated to lower traffic uses, such as islands and peninsulas that double as eating areas. Butcher block countertops, which consist of strips of wood that are pressed and bonded together to form a slab, serve as proper work surfaces.
Endless style options
One of the best attributes of wood countertops is the vast array of style options and upgrades that are available. Basic style options include face grain, edge grain, and end grain; beyond that, they can be made with inlays, borders, stripes, and checkerboard patterns (you can even use a combination of wood species).
While hardwoods like maple and oak rank among the most popular countertop woods, they’re not the only species that can make a durable and beautiful work surface — teak, walnut, and Brazilian cherry are excellent countertop materials, too, as is eco-friendly bamboo.
With such wide-ranging aesthetic potential — including organic “live edge” detailing — wood countertops are just as suitable for modern kitchens as they are for traditional, farmhouse, or French country kitchens.
Pros and Cons of Wood
With its warm tones and uniquely individual character, well-maintained wood countertops improve with age and last for decades. Here are the main benefits and drawbacks of this stand-out choice:
Advantages of wood
- Relatively affordable: Solid wood and butcher block countertops are made to order using high-grade woods that have been dried and selected for long wear. Even with intricate custom details, they usually fall in the mid-price range (less expensive than natural stone, more costly than laminate).
- Easy to clean: You can keep wood countertops clean with simple household cleaners. Whereas acid-based cleaners can erode quartz countertops and soap can leave spots or streaks on glass or stainless-steel countertops, both are safe — and work well — to clean wood. Simply soak a sponge with soapy water (or diluted vinegar if you prefer) and wipe the surface clean. You can even get rid of stains with salt and lemon juice.
- Long-lasting with proper care: Solid wood and butcher block countertops age well and last as long as granite and other natural stone countertops, as long as they’re properly maintained. This means sealing them immediately after installation, and then resealing them on a monthly basis. Luckily, all it takes is one or two coats of walnut oil or another food-safe mineral oil to keep wood countertops sealed and prevent water damage.
- Can be eco-friendly: As mentioned, there are many “green” wood countertop options, ranging from sustainable bamboo (which is technically a renewable grass that’s used as wood) to domestic wood from responsibly managed forests and reclaimed wood from old homes and barns.
Downsides of wood
- Adverse to moisture: Wood and butcher block countertops are carefully finished with several coats of oil or sealer prior to installation, and for good reason — they’re ultra-sensitive to water and can be damaged (split, warped, or blackened) by moisture. While reapplying mineral oil every month can keep your countertop sealed and prevent water from seeping in, it’s still important to wipe up water right away (especially around the sink).
- Relatively soft surface: Wood is a fairly soft countertop material, meaning it’s more yielding than options like natural stone, quartz, and glass. While this inherent softness makes it more vulnerable to dings and scratches during everyday use, all is not lost — you can usually remove scratches, dings, and even minor burn marks with fine-grit sandpaper; just be sure to apply mineral oil to the spot afterward.
- Temperature-sensitive: Just as they do with water, wood countertops expand and contract in extreme temperature changes. You can expect your countertop to swell by about one-eighth of an inch in the heat and shrink by the same amount in the winter. This quality isn’t much of a concern if your countertop is properly installed by a pro.
The Bottom Line on Wood
Wood and butcher block countertops add an element of warmth and organic beauty that’s unparalleled in the world of countertops. With proper maintenance, they last for decades and get more beautiful with each passing year.
They may not be the best choice for your kitchen, however, if the members of your household aren’t very tidy in the kitchen; they’re also not an ideal option if you don’t want to re-seal your countertop every month to keep it in good condition.