Butcherblock Countertop Finishing

Simple butcher-block counters are easy to finish on site with natural finishes. February 17, 2012

I am a contractor and typically source wood countertops as fully finished pieces, but the cost is starting to make me lose jobs. I can't seem to get consistent pricing with my local cabinetmaker and my little jobs are small potatoes for him.

I am considering buying a black walnut blank from a company called Craft Art in their Do-It-Yourself online store and doing the finish myself since there are no cutouts or even routed edges. I would love advice on these blanks and what finishing them is like. Though I have some familiarity with the Waterlox sealer and Waterlox satin finish they recommend, I've never used them for a countertop surface and am nervous about the application, food safety, and sheen level being too high for my client's particular taste.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor G:
Check customwoodcountertops.com out. They've done good work for me and seem to be fairly priced (for high-end work, that is). Do the DIY kits have any sort of warranty? Is it voided with a poor finish job?

I used Waterlox on a couple of tops I built and it worked fair at best. My finishing skills have greatly increased since then, so it might have been a combination of poor finishing skills and bad product. Anyway, you'll need to coat all sides equal amounts and I think Waterlox recommends 3-4 coats.

The biggest problem is the overnight drying time. Figuring that you can only do one side at a time, you'll need at least a week to apply the finish. This is hard to swallow compared to spray lacquers, etc.

The second biggest problem is application and finished smoothness. I was wiping it on and I don't think they recommend a spray application, so slow going. I also couldn't get it to lay down very nicely so the finish was a little rough - rough for guys that know better, but my customers never complained. Years later I read about buffing it and that would have helped, but the slow application time and outsourcing to guys that do this stuff for a living were enough for me to stop making my own tops.

From contributor D:
We had walnut tops in our house for years. All we ever used was linseed oil and turpentine and we had our sink mounted in it as well.

Click here for higher quality, full size image

Click here for higher quality, full size image

Click here for higher quality, full size image

From contributor R:
It will depend on how your customer will use the top, and what they want it to look like. Some would consider scratches, small stains, and some dents as character, with the more character the better. Others want it to look like new forever. I would use what the company recommends. You can wet sand in the Waterlox with 400 wet/dry paper if you keep it wet with plenty of material, then wipe clean. Discard those rags off the site so they don't spontaneously combust and burn down the job. Then add additional coats till they like the build. If you end up with too much gloss, 0000 steel wool will cut it back.

From the original questioner:
I checked out the recommended site - thanks! I am going to contact them to see what their "permanent finish" is. I was able to get the instructions from Craft Art really easily on how they recommend finishing and yes, they recommend a hand rub finish but say it can be sprayed.

Contributor D, thanks for those pics. They are really nice. Did the linseed oil leave water issues by the sink? The homeowners are concerned about that even though it won't have a sink. They plan on using it as a service piece for things like a wet bar, buffet service and occasional casual dining spot. I know they talked about using separate cutting boards, but seem to understand that it is wood at the end of the day and will get marks in it. I agree with you though, and have almost decided to go with what they recommend, which is Waterlox.

In the directions they recommend to homeowners, the dry times are long, but you only have to do one side and the actual billable work time is low. You guys seem to know your stuff. Would love if you wanted to check out their instructions and throw some feedback my way.

From contributor G:
You might double check the only doing one side thing. Wood movement theory/reality requires that you coat all sides an equal number of coats so they take-in/give-off moisture at the same rate. Otherwise, you run the risk of cupping and warping. This is pretty well documented on this site. Just look for cupped/warped tops and read along.

From contributor R:
The wet bar talk would scare me. Water and alcohol could spell disaster to a lot of finishes, unless of course that would be gin and tonic. Wait, that could spell disaster as well.

From contributor D:
The water beaded up beside the sink and we just wiped it up. We really did nothing special and the only thing we did not do was cut with a knife directly on the top. We had a walnut cutting board. You will have to treat all sides, otherwise the top will warp. Water never left spots. Every 6 months or so we would wipe the top down with 60% turpentine, 40% linseed oil. Smelled for a couple of days but I like the smell of turpentine. That really was it. If your client wants a perfect top for a long time, they will have to treat it with care unless it is coated with epoxy. We liked the natural feel of the wood and we are planning to have the same top in our new home.

From contributor C:
Walnut is a beautiful wood but not so good for food contact. It could be a concern for some with nut allergies and the dust can be an irritant. I wouldn’t cut directly on walnut for fear that a guest may be allergic and have a reaction.

I do not recommend a gloss finish on an open pore wood. I would go with an oil finish like a wiping poly. You can get a satin sheen version. Apply several light coats waiting overnight and after it dries for a day or two, rub it out with four odd steel wool and paste wax in order to level it out and remove any dust nibs. Looks great!