How to Care for a Butcher Block Counter

April 28, 2016

The butcher block that sits in my kitchen is my most beloved piece of furniture and handiest kitchen tool. It's where I keep my Kitchenaid mixer and marble board, at the ready for pie crusts, and prepare dinner every night. It's also my makeshift dining table—where friends gather and where my boyfriend and I sit to catch up after work, with a cocktail and a snack.

But it's also a mess.

My butcher block and the tiny kitchen it sits in Photo by Leslie Stephens

In the year since I purchased my butcher block, its oak has been stained by wine rings, burnt by pans, and dug into by knives. And while I diligently wipe it down every night, until recently that's where my "butcher block care" began and ended. Over time, as the nicks and spots amassed, I convinced myself of their charm.

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That is, until—at the urging of Food52's Design Editor, Amanda—I finally researched and discovered how simple it is to get rid of this "charm."

Before: Full of charm, but maybe a little too much charm? Notice its discoloring. (And is that wine stain from Thanksgiving? Yes. Yes, it is.)

There are three primary steps in butcher block care: Washing off residue, sanding, and oiling it down. The entire process takes about 15 minutes from start to finish, plus time for the oil to dry, and at the end you'll have a like-new butcher block. So really, there's no reason not too—unless you really are charmed by the dings. Here's how to do it:

Step 1: sponge and water

Step 1: Clean off residue

Use the rough side of a damp sponge to wipe off any food residue, then rinse the sponge and add mild dish soap or a white vinegar solution it it. Wipe the surface down again, then use a damp, clean cloth to wipe away any soap and allow the wood to air-dry completely.

Step 2: Sand the surface

Once the wood is completely dry, it's time to sand the surface. This process will scrape the top layer off the top of the wood to remove any stains and smooth it out. To do this, you'll need sandpaper (I used 220 and 320 grain) and a sandpaper holder—you can either spring for a palm sander, which will set you back about $50, but I just used a less-expensive plastic holder, which I found worked great.

Pay no attention to my cat (far right). This is about showing the proper sanding technique, going *with* the grain.

Start with the rougher grain of sandpaper (in my case, 220) and attach it to your sanding tool. This rough grit will help buff out deeper divots in the wood. You may want a rougher grain if you have particularly deep cuts in your wood.

Stand so that you're facing the same direction as the grain to give yourself leverage, then sand back and forth, with the grain. With stains, you may have to go back and forth a few more times to strip away the stained wood, but stop when the wood is smooth to the touch and most of the stains are rubbed out. This took me about 5 minutes for the entire block. Depending on how rough your wood is, you may have to swap out your piece of sand paper for a fresh piece, as the wood will rub its grit down.

Next, repeat the same process with the smoother grain (I used 320) to polish the wood. Wipe away any dust with a damp cloth.

Step 3: Oil the wood

Left: Putting on the oil. Right: After wiping the oil around (so shiny and beautiful!)

The final—and most satisfying—step of the process is oiling the wood. Use a food-grade oil like mineral oil or beeswax (I used this Butcher Block Conditioner) and pour it all over the wood—be generous. (Here are some more tips on the best oils and techniques to use.)

Wipe it around with the cloth so that it covers the wood evenly, then allow it to sit for several hours. Once the wood has had time to soak it all up, wipe off any excess oil with a cloth.

The best view of these two helping me make dinner #east5a

A photo posted by @lesliesteph on

By the time it soaks in the oil, your butcher will look so shiny and new you'll forget all about its years' worth of "charm."

How do you care for your butcher block? Tell us in the comments below!

Photos by Jonah Ollman, guest appearances by Meesh

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Fork V. April 28, 2016
Thanks for the tips - soon to be starting a kitchen renovation and a butcher block is on the list to add. Also, the last picture with the cat - hahaha, love it!!
Elaine April 28, 2016
I melt about 2oz of beeswax into a cup of mineral or castor oil and, while it's still warm, spread a thin layer over my butcher block and cutting boards. A small amount goes a long way, and it's by far the best conditioner/water repellent I've ever used.
Smaug April 28, 2016
Sanding a flat wood surface is a pretty perilous process- it's extremely difficult to do without changing the shape. Makers of tabletops generally use large (and very expensive)stationary machines with belts 2' wide and more. Palm sanders are a particular problem, particularly if they have soft pads- those difficult spots that you give extra attention become slight depressions where moisture and gook will collect (all of this on a very small scale- at first), necessitating more extra care next time around etc. etc. The type of top shown is not a true butcher block, which is constructed with the end grain showing; this allows knife wounds to heal, but does not lend itself to decorative finishes- or sanding. The surface shown, actually a simple (if thick) jointed tabletop, should be treated as either a working surface or not- there's really no good way to maintain a surface finish on a cutting board.