Features

Wood Countertops 101: Part I

Understand the basics of specifying wood countertops
By Brad Baker
February 21, 2011

Suggest a butcher block, wood countertop or wood island to a homeowner and those born after 1940 may never have seen one, yet it used to be the cornerstone of the best homes. Today, wood countertops are making a comeback.

In Europe, which typically runs ahead of the U.S. in design trends, wood countertops are very popular. In Scandinavia alone, wood tops have better than 40 percent of the market share compared to the United States, where they hold about 7 percent currently. For kitchen and bath dealers, that figure alone represents a huge opportunity, provided they know the basic selling points of wood countertops.


CHOOSING A WOOD SPECIES

There are a number of wood species to choose from for a kitchen island or butcher block. Domestic and exotic wood species range in color from the palest beige to nearly black and everything in between. You can also choose from a broad range of thicknesses. For example, depending upon the construction style, a single piece of wood can be as thick as 6 in. There are also dozens of construction styles and edge profiles to choose from to complement the design styling of the kitchen.
Homeowners can choose from dozens of wood species and edge profile to make their wood countertop unique to their home and lifestyle. Photo: Craft-Art, Inc.


If you’re price shopping, start at domestic hardwoods. They will be the most affordable. Some popular choices are maple, hickory and oak. If you’re in the market for something a little exotic and are prepared to pay—on average—60 to 120 percent more, wood species, such as teak, zebrawood and wenge, work well as countertops.


CHOOSING A FINISH

In addition to wood species, you’ll want to make sure that the countertop is properly finished. Three types of wood finishes are available:

1. Polyurethane finish. Typically, polyurethane is sprayed on and can turn brittle over time. Once the film is damaged by something falling on it or denting it, moisture can get underneath, which can look unsightly. When the finish fails, the moisture lifts the finish off the wood. Some vendors still use variants of this today.

2. Natural oil finishes, such as mineral oil, walnut oil or other natural oils, do not harden or seal the wood, but protect it. When using this finish, homeowners must routinely (every three to four weeks) re-oil their wood top to maintain its functionality and beauty. The benefit of this matte finish is that homeowners can use the entire surface as a chopping block and any scratches can be easily sanded out by the homeowner with a sheet of sandpaper.

3. Penetrating tung oil finish is very durable. It is the finish that was used originally to seal ocean-going ships. Today, it dries fast and flexible, so the finish won’t chip or break off around the corners. Because it penetrates into the wood, moisture can’t get underneath the surface, which prevents water rings. It is highly durable, resists most household chemicals and is highly moisture-resistant. This mid-gloss satin finish is typically chosen by the homeowners who use a separate cutting board and do not use sharp objects on the countertop without surface protection.
A penetrating tung oil finish will give a wood island the look of fine furniture that is still durable, easy to clean and warms up any room. Photo: Studio KB


Most countertop scratches occur when a homeowner drags an unfinished ceramic plate, bowl or flower vase across the surface. Doing this will not only scratch wood, but may also scratch granite, slate, limestone and solid surface countertops. If scratching is a problem, consider a butcher block countertop or a distressed wood, which comes with a natural aged patina.

Likewise, the finish chosen will also have a lot to do with stain resistance. A penetrating tung oil finish will resist stains. Just wipe up stains or water as you would on any other surface.

Finally, any surface, whether it is wood, glass, tile or granite can retain bacteria. The real issue is whether homeowners disinfect their tops. No matter what surface you have, if you don’t disinfect it, bacteria will grow on it.


ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY CHOICES

If you’re concerned about the environment (and who isn’t these days?), there are a number of green options available. You can choose domestic wood from a managed forest; fast-growing woods, such as bamboo or Lyptus; recycled sugar maple; and reclaimed wood from old barns and homes that are being torn down. Taking the wood from homes, businesses, warehouses or barns that are to be torn down and giving it new life as a countertop is perhaps the greenest option going.

Interested in learning more about wood countertops? Check back for Part 2, which will discuss the different construction styles available.


—Brad Baker is director of sales for Craft-Art, Inc., a manufacturer of fine wood countertops and islands.
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