05-30-11 - Wood Counter Tops

Wood ("butcher block") counter tops are fucking retarded. Some problems you might not have thought of :

They burn if you put hot pans on them. So you have to have hot pads and shit on your counter top all the time. Under normal use, that's all fine or whatever, but say you have some minor kitchen fire, you have a pan on the oven that catches fire, you pull it out - you can't just put it on the counter top, or the counter top might catch fire too.

Water ruins them. Water is quite common in a kitchen. In particular, you can't use a dish rack because it's too likely to get water on the counters. If you're a real big moron, you'll extend your butcher block counter tops right up and all around the sink. So now you have a sink, which is wet, and a wood counter, which can't get wet. The inevitable result is warping all around the sink.

They dry out and have to be oiled regularly, like once a month. Basically they're a giant pain in the ass. The reason people get them is for looks, because they look like a cool old rustic kitchen, but they are not actually functional. The proper materials for kitchen counters are stone or ceramic (I'm not convinced about the modern plastics like Corian, but they might be allright, I dunno).

For god's sake if you do feel the need to use wood for your counter top (presumably because you're a moron who cares more about looking like the photos in Dwell than how things function), don't run it straight up to the sink, at least put something else around the sink, and the stove.

Using wood on your counter top is almost as retarded as using leather in your car interior, which is ruined by sun (hmm what comes through car windows?), water, and similarly needs to be oiled regularly or it gets stiff and cracks. Leather is cold in winter and hot in summer and is heavy and smelly and expensive. It's monstrously retarded. We have better fucking materials now!


brian said...

Maybe you just have poorly-finished butcher block?

I'd put butcher block in as all my countertops if I could. I've had it plenty in the past. It's awesome.

They don't catch fire. I put ultra-hot pans on them all the time and the worst I ever got was a darker brown imprint of the pan from some very slight scorching.

Even with a fresh finish on there, you can't really light them on fire that easily, any more than you can hold a match to a solid piece of hardwood and expect it to burst into flames.

Finishing them does take work. Oil is good for maintenance but to start them off right - and when they're particularly dry - I do 50/50 mineral oil and beeswax; melt them together, use a big cheap paintbrush to wipe it all on, and use a bowl-scraper to take off the excess when it dries.

After that you can pour a cup of water directly onto the counter and let it sit there. It'll bead up and just hang out on the counter.

I will happily trade the inconvenience of having to finish the counters well annually and oil the occasionally (which takes all of 5 minutes) for the ability to treat my entire work surface as a cutting board. It's such a huge win, it feels like running through open sunny fields. In my current place, having to use individual cutting boards is so lame, it's like having to painstakingly tiptoe through brambles.

cbloom said...

"Finishing them does take work. [..]"

Yeah, this is what I do once a month, and why I think it's fucking ridiculous, because it's a lot of work. I mineral oil the whole thing and let it soak in for a few hours. Wipe off the excess then melt beeswax and coat the whole thing.

(Real refinishing would involve sanding the top down and it's recommended that you do that every few years)

It's great for about two weeks after that, water just beads up, but then heat cycles and water exposure start to do their work and it's time to refinish again.

I think the heat cycles of the oven and the dishwasher might be the biggest problem.

I suppose the wood that mine's made of might not be very good. The builders here did cheap out on everything possible, so it would be normal for the wood to be sub-par.

I guess it's essentially a boat. If you actually used one of those water-tolerant woods like teak or some shit, then it would probably be fine. But those good woods are crazy expensive so you may as well just use stone which is better.

I don't want to have to worry about pouring some water on my counter top. The entire kitchen should be a water-tolerant environment. In fact I'd like a drain in the floor of the kitchen so I can just hose it down.

Of course you should have tile back-splashes on the walls as well.

"it's like having to painstakingly tiptoe through brambles."

See this is exactly how I feel about the wood countertop. You can't cut on it, because that cuts through the finish and allows water in and germs and mold to get in the wood. You have to clean it every time you use it if you want it to actually be a sanitary cutting surface. You can't spill water on it, or you better wipe it up right away. It's so fucking stressful and high maintenance.

Cutting boards are awesome because you can just treat them like crap and buy a new one once a year.

brian said...

But the point of a good wax / oil finish is it's self-sealing. You should be able to cut on it and it just fills itself in, essentially.

To be fair I have not had butcher block built-in where it had lots of crevices (the sink joining does sound kind of lame - Pahlka's house is butcher block but I'm pretty sure the way it joins to the sink is that the sink sits down 2" below countertop level and the wood kind of comes over it, if you see what I mean, which seems ideal to me.)

Since I haven't been able to put my own counters into my places (only house I owned had really nice granite counters and almost none of them anyway, so not worth replacing) I've always just gotten Ikea standalone kitchen units and put big slabs of Ikea butcher block on top of it (I think it's beech, not really a great wood, though they'll sell you oak for more.) Then since they do a total shit job of finishing it, I do the hardcore beeswax and oil, but since it's just a huge flat rectangle that doesn't join anything else, it's easy. Then after that it's super easy to clean, no crevices or whatever.

You're making me reconsider actually wanting full butcher block tops that join to sinks and backsplashes; I might just stick with the big standalone-island butcher block top that I chop things on.

Also the upside of that approach is it *is* a giant cutting board and if you really fuck it up you could just unscrew it, throw it out, and go get another from Ikea for another $100 or so. I've never had to do that, though, they hold up really well.

brian said...

Oh yeah and also I've seen research that says wood cutting surfaces have natural antibacterial properties where plastic ones don't, to where wood surfaces are actually very sanitary, even when all cut up, whereas plastic with lots of cuts is insanely unsanitary no matter how you try to clean it. Google says:


cbloom said...

Yeah, stand-alone butcher block I'm totally down with. It's not directly touching the sink or the stove which are the big problems. And if it gets fucked you can replace it.

It's butcher-block built into your counter that is the nightmare. Or even built into the counter is probably fine as long as you have a couple of feet of tile around the stove and sink.

(another problem spot that people might not think of is the dishwasher - you shouldn't have the dishwasher built into the counter below butcher block, because the dishwasher is constantly heat cycling and also releasing steam, which comes up into the wood from below and warps it).

cbloom said...

I may have been complaining a bit over-much in these posts.

old rants