Wood Countertops Offer Warmth at a Cost

Woman chopping onion on kitchen counter
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Real wood countertops are an old-world idea that is back in vogue. And as homeowners pore over options in kitchen and bath design in the constantly changing world of styles, more and more are turning to unique, out-of-the-box ideas. Wood countertops also have a place in the green-building movement, since many kinds of wood are fully renewable and are often gathered from recycled sources. And, of course, the beautiful look and natural feel of wood are hard to beat with any other countertop material.

But obvious benefits aside, does wood even make sense in the kitchen?

Styles and Species of Wood Counters

One of the best aspects of wood countertops is the sheer number of options and style upgrades available. The basic style options include flat grain, end grain, and edge grain. Beyond that, wood countertops can be fabricated with inlays, checkerboard patterns, borders, and stripes (using a combination of wood species).

Shopping for custom wood countertops, you'll begin to appreciate what fine craftsmanship can do with the myriad species available. Some of the best wood species to choose include:

  • Wenge
  • Brazilian cherry
  • Bamboo (technically a woody grass)
  • Maple
  • Walnut
  • Oak
  • Teak

When choosing species, it's important to talk to the supplier about the end-goal for a wood countertop. Will it be a bar top or butcher block? Will there be a sink mounted underneath or on top? Some species perform better than others in various applications.

Five Things to Consider Before Buying Wood Countertops

When weighing the pros and cons of using wood in your kitchen, there are several potential drawbacks to be aware of.

  1. Splitting and cracking. Because wood is an organic material, it does split, warp, crack, burn, and discolor, given the right amount of abuse and neglect. If you have a wood door to the entrance of your home that looks weathered and split, it's simply due to neglect. Wood needs to be maintained, like anything, but it is arguably worth the timeless beauty it provides.
  1. Moisture. Wood and water don't mix. Since most wood countertops will be around moisture from food and from sinks, it's important to maintain the finish to protect the wood. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends mineral oil as the finish of choice for butcher block tops if you are using the surface as a butcher block; that is, for cutting as well as food preparation. Other finishes, such as urethanes and lacquers, aren't food-grade finishes.

    The drawback here is that mineral oil finishes need to be reapplied every month in order to maintain effectiveness. A possible solution to this problem is to treat your wood countertop as less of a cutting board and more of a tabletop. Or, you can join the love affair that thousands have with their wood countertops and oil them monthly. It all depends on your level of interest and time.
  2. Sinks. If you are planning on installing a sink into the countertop, it's crucial to finish it with a water-resistant finish. Otherwise, the wood could split, warp, or even blacken due to prolonged exposure to water.
  3. Stains. If any stains occur, they can be sanded out, but this will remove the wood finish, and some finishes are difficult to blend to the new with the old (oil is a notable exception). If you will use the top for a cutting surface and want to have an oiled top with a sink, be sure to stay on top of any standing water and sand out any discoloration that occurs. Frequent re-oiling will be necessary in this case.
  1. Joinery. When shopping for wood countertops, ask suppliers or fabricators how they join the wood strips together to form the tops. Finger-jointed tops are a cheap solution, but also one of the worst by industry standards. If you cut for a sink or fixtures into your finger-jointed top, you might expose the unsightly joints, and there is no way to hide them. Finger joints also don't last as long as the full-length strips that better-quality countertops have.

Cost of Wood Countertops

Generally, you can expect wooden countertops to fall in the range of $40 to $60 per square foot, including installation. Tops made with exotic woods and custom sizes and details can run up to $200 per square foot. These prices are for solid-wood materials. For a much less expensive option, there are wood tops made with particleboard cores and hardwood veneers (IKEA offers a line of these).