Can I stain butcher block? How do I seal?

peonybushFebruary 13, 2012

We are in the middle of a complete kitchen renovation. In the pantry we have installed butcher block. This will be used for simple food prep (toaster oven will be here). I would like to stain it to match the island in the kitchen. Can I stain it and have it food safe? How do I seal this?

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i do not believe you can stain on it and have it be food safe, and i wood get the sealant. The companies that make the butcherblock usually offer 2 products a penetrating oil and or a sealant. Both can be used as a cutting board surface, however the sealant will show all the cuts and need to be refinished more often where as the penetrating oil just get rubbed in periodically

    Bookmark   February 14, 2012 at 10:15AM
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"i do not believe you can stain on it and have it be food safe, and i wood get the sealant."

Once cured most finishes are safe, but manufacturers are not about to go through the FDA gamut to have them declared 'food safe.'

Behlen salad bowl finish is 'food safe'

    Bookmark   February 14, 2012 at 10:31AM
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If you are not cutting on the surface, you can use a film-forming finish. Waterlox makes an excellent one. But any varnish would work.

Here is a link that might be useful: Folly of Food-Safe finishes.

    Bookmark   February 14, 2012 at 7:32PM
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On a related note, my husband and I started DIYing our butcher block countertops, but for various reasons are having a contractor finish the installation. I plan on sanding off the factory finish and coating with Waterlox, but do I need to wait for the pocket screws to be routed in? How about the enlarged screw holes (for movement in contraction or expansion)? I heard once that every surface should be coated to prevent warping, but I'm not sure if it meant installation holes, too. It would be nice if I could do the sanding and Waterlox now before turning the rest of the project over, but I'll wait if the router holes will need coated.

    Bookmark   February 19, 2012 at 1:55AM
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Why would you sand off a factory finish and then finish with Waterlox? You cannot possibly improve the protection over a factory finish.

Coating every surface makes no difference for warping.

BTW, have you ever sanded off a factory finish? Do you know what that entails? I experimented sanding 20-year-old lacquer off my cabinet doors, to see if it would be a viable alternative to stripping. I have a powerful variable-speed random-orbital sander, and with 100 grit and probably 20 minutes of time I didn't get all the finish off on tiny little door. I have stripped other doors, and that was MUCH quicker and easier, so that's what I'll keep doing. And, my old lacquer is a thin and weak coating compared to a new factory finish of the catalyzed stuff they are using nowadays.

    Bookmark   March 9, 2012 at 6:36PM
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"Coating every surface makes no difference for warping."

I beg to differ ... I bought a small chunk of butcherblock for stain and finish testing, and only stained and top-coated on one side.

That thing warped badly, and at its worst was cupped almost an inch. It slowly went back into shape over the next several months as the moisture equilibrated, but it was definitely warped.

The first thing I do with my new butcherblock countertops will be to seal the underside with one quick coat of Waterlox.

    Bookmark   March 10, 2012 at 4:40PM
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Any uncoated side of wood can absorb or give off moisture and cause warping.
I have never been able to get a butcher block end grain to accept stain.

    Bookmark   March 10, 2012 at 7:32PM
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The properties of warping of wood have been thoroughly studied and understood scientifically. Casual observations relating warping to finish (or lack thereof) are faulty.

My mother had a butcherblock portion of counter for over 30 years, never oiled or finished anywhere, that never warped. I've had boards that warped and others that didn't, some finished, some unfinished, some partly finished. It's not the finish.

Wood tabletops, countertops, decks, etc. are exposed to more water on the top than the bottom, causing the top to swell and try to expand. But the wood's thickness remains stable and prevents this. The cells of wood on the top of the board become compressed from their original cylindrical shape (like a soda straw) into an oval shape. As it dries out, the wood cells do not fully regain their original shape, so the top shrinks, pulling the board concave. This is called "compression shrinkage."

Therefore, finishing the bottom of a tabletop or countertop will not prevent warping. Warping will always be cupping of the top due to swelling from wetness of the top and subsequent compression shrinkage. If lack of finish on the bottom caused warping, you would see the tabletop bow, not cup -- but this never happens.

Or think about it another way: what liquid is going to soak into the bottom of your installed butcherblock counter, that a finish is going to block? It's not going to happen. And no finish blocks water vapor (from humidity in the air), only slows it a little bit, so this would make no difference in protection either.

So if you want a tabletop or countertop not to cup over time, there are two things to consider. The most important factor is the quality of wood making up the butcherblock: the size and shape of the wood cells, their density, how the wood was cut in relation to the growth rings, and how it was dried. Butcherblock made up of dense, old-growth, quartersawn boards slowly air dried is going to hold its shape (even when totally unfinished), while strips of young, low-density, plainsawn boards are going to warp easily. Second, keep the top as dry as possible. Don't let liquids soak into it, or use a water-resistant film finish if you expect liquid exposure. It's not the finish on the bottom, it's how dry you can keep the top, that helps prevent cupping.

    Bookmark   March 14, 2012 at 12:33PM
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