Wood Countertops: Everything You Need To Know
You may recall my many mentions of how much I love using marble and natural quartzite counters in the kitchens that I design. However, if you’ve glanced at my project gallery, then you’ve likely noticed that I also like to work in wood countertops whenever possible. In fact, I see wood counters for the kitchen as an essential counter-balance to all of that beautiful stone.
That’s particularly true for large kitchens. If you have a lot of counters on your perimeter area, plus a large island - or even two islands, then that’s going to be a lot of cold, hard surfaces in one room. Breaking up all of that stone by introducing a single feature (or multiple) of wood will really warm up a kitchen and bring an organic and tactile material to your room that’s hard to beat.
When I’m meeting with clients for that initial design consultation, the subject of wood countertops frequently comes up in the conversation. Over time I have observed that most clients are very keen on the aesthetic appeal of wood counters. After all, wood counters bring a unique and bespoke character to the kitchen in a room that’s otherwise dominated by manufactured materials. Nowadays, with our engineered counters and our baked-on hard cabinet finishes, we expect our kitchens to be practically bulletproof! Wood counters are basically an antithesis to this philosophy. It’s a way to really “thumb your nose” at the world of engineered efficiency.
However, wood counters also have a few added benefits beyond their good looks. Over the years, clients have told me that they appreciate how much gentler it is for day to day living. They love the fact that it’s more forgiving to their dishes and glassware, and also that it absorbs sound, creating a more inviting space. From a kitchen designer’s perspective, I can tell you that it’s also a very handy material solution for unusually large islands. Often these large islands will exceed the size of most stone slabs (60” x 120”), leaving you in a situation where you must have ugly seams in your stone countertop. However, with wood, you’re really only limited in size to what you can fit through your front door.
However much clients love the look, reservations about the practicality of introducing this natural material into their kitchen can still give them pause. Clients understandably have all kinds of questions and concerns about the pros and cons of using wood counters in their hard-working kitchens. For some, they begin the conversation by stating that wood is a porous, germ-hiding, soft material that will never hold up in their kitchen. They are often quite surprised to learn a few things that conflict with their preconceived notions. So today, I thought it would be helpful to answer these questions about the durability and maintenance of using wood kitchen countertops. Hint…hint…it’s much more practical than you might think!
Basic Construction of Wood Countertops
There are two basic types of construction that you should be aware of when considering wood countertops. They each have a different purpose and I use both types in my projects.
END GRAIN. Think of this type of wood as your typical chopping block, because that’s its primary purpose. Individual staves of wood are oriented vertically and glued together to the requested size. Therefore, the surface is made up of the “ends” of these staves. The “ends” are the most forgiving for cutting, which is the critical distinction here between End Grain and Side Grain. Although some scratches and nicks do occur, the End Grain chopping block will still look great, even with heavy use.
SIDE GRAIN. This is a more decorative form of wood countertops but is still quite practical. With a Side Grain wood countertop, the long lengths of staves are oriented horizontally and glued together to form the length and width of countertop the client desires. The benefit to this type of countertop is mostly aesthetic as it looks dressier and more elegant than the End Grain type. Also, it can receive a decorative edge profile. In fact, with a good manufacturer, you can make just about any edge profile you like. The staves can also be doubled up to create a thicker top if larger profiles are desired. This type of wood top is NOT for cutting. While a very minor amount of careful cutting can be tolerated, scratches and deep cuts will show on a Side Grain top. On the flip side, however, a wood top can be sanded down to remove that type of damage. This is the type of construction that I will specify for a large, beautiful island countertop. I will also use this type of construction for perimeter counters or even as an accent top around a farmhouse sink.
Also, it’s worth noting that there are some additional variations on Side Grain countertops depending on how the boards are staggered, if at all. The individual staves can be alternated randomly, like a wood floor; they can be evenly staggered, like bricks, or the staves can be long and run the entire length of the top. I usually opt for the former (random placement), but the latter creates a more country feel - if that’s the desired effect.
Source: Heather Hungeling Design
Finished vs. Unfinished Wood Countertops
Many of the wood tops seen on the market today have a lacquer finish applied to them as a protectant. There are conflicting schools of thought on this, but the intention is to protect the wood from liquid that could cause the wood to swell; food particles that could lead to contaminated surfaces; and minor scratches. While I believe certain applications do call for this type of treatment, I generally stake my flag in the other camp. Admittedly, the wax or lacquer top coats do provide protection. However, they also remove much of what I believe is beautiful and practical about wood counters to begin with and consequently turn them into fine furniture.
The wood tops that I specify for my luxury projects are from Spekva. They are made to order in Denmark and shipped over via air-freight. Spekva has a long-standing reputation, a generous warranty, and ample distribution here in the U.S. While they do offer the option of applying a protective top coat, the vast majority of their wood tops are made to order with nothing more than a proprietary blend of oils to infuse the wood before shipping. My reasons for preferring these oiled wood countertops will become clear as you read the answers to questions that my clients frequently ask…
Questions Clients Ask:
ARE WOOD COUNTERS DIFFICULT TO MAINTAIN?
No. After receiving the wood top, the homeowner will need to apply a thin coat of the provided oil once or twice a week for about a month. Then for ongoing maintenance, use every 3-6 months as needed. How often the oil needs to be applied depends on how frequently it gets wet, the dryness of the climate, the amount of direct sun exposure, etc. But don’t let the oiling part scare you off - it’s no harder than wiping it down with a wet cloth. You don’t have to rub it in for hours! Just wipe down with the provided oil and applicator pad and let the wood top absorb the oil overnight. If you’ve over-applied, you can remove the excess the next morning. The wood top will absorb this oil and should never leave an oily residue that sits on top of the counter. This is a rewarding job, which makes it sort of fun to do. Over time, your efforts will pay off, and you will have a rich, lustrous wood top.
Extra Tip: Make sure you only use the Spekva brand of oil (additional bottles are easy to order and stocked in the U.S.). Not only is it necessary to protect the warranty on the product, but the oil is superior to others on the market. On a recent remodel project, my client was hesitant to do a wood top again because she had purchased a walnut top from a local provider in the past. She oiled it as the vendor stated, but she felt that her countertop always felt oily. Her children liked to sit at this wood countertop on her island to do their homework, but the top was so greasy that it soiled their papers. After providing her with a bottle of the Spekva oil, she was sold on making the change to a Spekva wood counter for her new kitchen. She’s been delighted with it and reports that there are no issues with a residue on her top.
WILL WOOD COUNTERS SHOW STAINS?
Not if adequately oiled as explained above. When saturated with the oil, the wood becomes almost impervious to water marks and stains. If you happen to let the top dry out too much and you get a water ring, it will go away in time and with the correction of oiling it again. Consider your own wood chopping board and the last time you cut something on it that stained - like blackberries or strawberries. Now I bet that you don’t oil that board very often, if at all (which is why it stained, to begin with). Regardless, you’ve undoubtedly noticed that the stains do tend to go away on their own over time, right? It works the same with a wood countertop. Keeping your top in good shape from the get-go will prevent 99% of problems from ever occurring, but even if they do, they can be corrected with a little TLC.
Source: Heather Hungeling Design | Woodhill Avenue Project
CAN I CUT ON A WOOD COUNTERTOP?
Yes and No. You can cut on an END GRAIN wood top (a.k.a. chopping block), but you should not cut on a SIDE GRAIN wood top, as it can show scratches and cuts. If you love the idea of using wood countertops in your kitchen, consider integrating both types of construction into your design.
Source: Heather Hungeling Design | Bay Estate Project
ARE WOOD COUNTERS SANITARY?
Yes! This question comes up a lot! Frankly, I think some people just don’t want to believe me. We’re just wired to feel a certain way about sanitary issues, and it’s difficult to change our ways…but wood tops can even be more sanitary than plastic! Here’s the part that people have a hard time believing…because of the fact that wood tops are made from organic living material, they have enzymatic properties which will actually break down bacteria. It is believed that wood will pull the bacteria down into its grain as part of the natural wicking process. After the moisture evaporates, the bacteria is killed off.
Conversely, If you have a plastic board, it will develop deep grooves and cut marks which can harbor bacteria. So you need to be extra thorough when cleaning plastic boards. Having said that, I still wouldn’t want to cut chicken, meat, or fish on my stationary wood countertop. I would reserve a separate portable chopping board (wood or plastic) for that task, but I certainly wouldn’t have any qualms about any other food coming into contact with my wood countertop.
To view more information about the safety of wood vs. plastic as it relates to bacterial contamination, check out this article from a renowned expert, Dean Cliver. He is a professor at the University of California and has conducted research on this specific topic.
Source: Heather Hungeling Design | Myrtle View Project
HOW DO WOOD COUNTERS HOLD UP AROUND WATER?
Since most people have a prep sink in their island, this is also an understandable question. While the answer, in part, depends on the species of wood, it also depends on how well you’ve maintained the top with oil. Sorry to repeat myself here, but a properly oiled top will repel most water with which it comes into contact. Assuming that you’re not letting your top get horribly dry, they do just fine around water. Some species of wood are particularly great around water, such as teak. I’ve also used a wood species called “Iroko,” which has very similar properties to teak. It’s actually been used in the boating industry due to it’s resiliency to water. This is an excellent choice to use around your main sink. I’ve used them as drain boards, complete with drain grooves, around farmhouse sinks in the past (see below).
CAN I PUT A HOT PAN ON A WOOD COUNTERTOP?
No, not directly. Since it is wood, you could end up with burn marks on your beautiful countertop. However, Spekva has a nifty solution to this if you’re considering using wood directly around your cooking area. They offer metal bars which partially sit into grooves cut into the wood. The metal bars sit just slightly above the surface of the wood, allowing you to place a hot skillet on them without directly contacting the wood.
Source: Spekva / Crown Custom Imports
Wood Species for Countertops
This is not an exhaustive list of wood species available, but these are my favorites that I return to over and over again.
Iroko - Often referred to as African Teak. It is not actually related to teak, but it is a very durable wood in general and especially great for use around water. It is a photo-sensitive wood, meaning that it will arrive as a yellowish-brown worktop and will age to a slightly reddish-brown within a few months of being exposed to light. If oiled and cared for, it develops the most beautiful sheen and color. While offering many of the same benefits as teak, it is a more economical choice. This was the wood species sourced for the original Clive Christian kitchen. I use it a lot in my kitchen designs.
Walnut - A hard, durable brown wood species with slightly less reddish tones than Iroko. A beautiful companion countertop to walnut floors or walnut cabinetry.
Wenge - A very dark, chocolate brown wood species. The only species listed here that has a harder JANKA rating than Iroko. It is a wood species imbued with natural oils, which provides it with some built-in protection.
Teak - A classic material for kitchen countertops. It is a golden brown wood species with some greyish tones. It is also a naturally oily wood.
Oak - While not a common choice for wood countertops, if you’re using cerused/limed oak cabinetry, your best option may be oak. A hard, durable wood with a distinct wood grain. When I’ve used this in the past, it was the rare instance that I specified the worktop to have a protective top-coat. In its natural state, it is not the best choice around water. Also, if left unprotected, certain metal objects may leave rings on the surface.
Source: Heather Hungeling Design | Madison Street Project
How Much Do They Cost?
As you can imagine, there are a number of factors that significantly influence the range of pricing per square foot for wood countertops. The particular wood species, the type of construction (Side Grain vs. End Grain), the edge profile, the thickness of the material, as well as how much edging you need per square foot all impact the cost. As I mentioned before, a Side Grain top can be built up beyond the thickness of a single stave to create a thicker looking top, which will accommodate a larger edge profile. For instance, in the image above, the Wenge top was over 3-1/2” thick. This required multiple staves to be stacked on top of each other, which, as you can imagine, has a substantial impact on the cost. Likewise, a butcher block top that is 6” thick is quite a bit more expensive than one that is 4” thick. Having said all of that, here are a few price examples that should be helpful.
End Grain Chopping Block, 48”long x 25”wide x 4” high. $4,100
Side Grain Wood Island Top, 96” long x 48” wide x 1-9/16” high (edge profile on all 4 sides; no cut-outs for sinks/appliances) $6,700
End Grain Chopping Block, 48” long x 25”wide x 4” high. $6,300
Side Grain Wood Island Top, 96” long x 484” wide x 1-9/16” high (edge profile on all 4 sides; no cut-outs for sinks/appliances) $9,100
End Grain Chopping Block, 48” long x 25”wide x 4” high. $8,200
Side Grain Wood Island Top, 96” long x 484” wide x 1-9/16” high (edge profile on all 4 sides; no cut-outs for sinks/appliances) $10,800
(All prices provided are examples only and represent approximate pricing at the time of this blog post. They do not reflect additional details, such as sink or appliance cut-outs, or specialty edge profiles, etc. Please feel free to contact me with any specific questions or pricing requests for your project.)
Who Shouldn’t Buy Wood Countertops?
In the interest of being balanced with the information that I’m providing, I think it’s worth noting that there are some folks for whom wood countertops would not be a good fit. For instance, if you’ve got young children who want to sit at the kitchen island and do their craft projects (glitter glue anyone?), or if you envision using your island to do a lot of baking (rolling out dough), then you may wish to consider an island with stone counters. You can then flank each end of the island with a wood chopping block. That way you still get the beauty and warmth of the wood, while having a smooth, slab surface to work on. In addition, I would add to that list anyone married to a spouse who’s a rule-breaker…you know…the person who’s going to cut on a Side Grain wood top even though you’ve told them they shouldn’t.
I hope you’ve found this guide helpful! I know there are some other generalized articles out there, but I’ve tried to fill in the blanks here for you as much as possible. It also might help to know that I’ve done many, many wood tops for clients and I’ve gone back to visit these projects years later and found that the tops still look amazing. I can also tell you that these clients remain very enthusiastic about their wood countertops! I’ve never had anyone regret it!