Wood Countertops: What to Know Before You Buy

Woman chopping an onion on a wooden kitchen counter

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Real wood countertops are an old-world idea that has never really gone out of style. As homeowners pore over options in kitchen and bath design in the constantly changing world of materials and styles, the wood countertop remains a classic. The beautiful look and natural feel of wood are hard to beat with any other countertop material. Yet wood does have significant drawbacks, especially when used in the unforgiving environment of a kitchen. Here's an overview of what to expect when shopping for and living with wood countertops.

Styles and Species of Wood Countertops

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).

When you begin shopping, you'll begin to see the fine craftsmanship of myriad species that are made into wood countertops. Some of the best wood species to choose for a countertop include:

  • Bamboo (technically a grass but often treated as a wood)
  • Brazilian cherry
  • Maple
  • Oak
  • Teak
  • Walnut
  • Wenge

When choosing a species, talk to your supplier about the end goal for your wood countertop. The supplier can help you determine which species of wood will perform better in various applications, such as bars, butcher block food prep areas, or counters with mounted sinks.

Durability of Wood Countertops

Wood is forgiving and soft. When you drop a wine bottle on a granite countertop even from a few inches, it shatters. But with wood, fragile items are much safer. Because wood countertops are soft, they can easily scratch and potentially crack, especially if the wood is not well maintained. Luckily, if you do see a few minor scratches or cracks, wood can be sanded so these issues can be easily fixed.

Protecting Wood Countertops

Along with fixing minor scratches, wood countertops are relatively easy to maintain if they are protected with a finish. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends food-safe mineral oil, which is also odorless and colorless, as the finish of choice for butcher block tops if you are using the surface for cutting as well as food preparation. The drawback here is that mineral oil finishes need to be reapplied every month in order to maintain effectiveness. There are commercial food-safe tung oil finishes, some color-infused, that can be effective and only need to be reapplied about every six months.

If you treat your wood countertop as a table rather than a true counter for food prep, you can reduce the work of protecting the surface by using another type of finish. Other finishes, such as urethanes and lacquers, are not food-grade finishes.

Moisture and Wood Countertops

Moisture can damage wood countertops, especially around the sink area. If you are planning on installing a sink into the wood 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.

Stains and Wood Countertops

Wood countertops can stain. As with scratches, many stains on a wood countertop can be sanded out, but this will remove the wood finish, and some finishes are difficult to blend new with old (colorless 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 wiping dry any standing water and sanding out any discoloration that occurs. Frequent re-oiling will be necessary in this case.

Construction of Wood Countertops

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 less expensive solution but also one of the least preferred 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.

Eco-Friendly Wood Countertops

Wood countertops have a place in the green-building movement since it is an organic material. Also, many species that are used for counters are fully renewable and are often gathered from recycled sources. Though a tree was felled and hauled in the making of your wood countertop, that is the extent of its carbon footprint. By contrast, solid surface, laminate, and quartz countertops require significant amounts of energy for their manufacture.

Cost of Wood Countertops

Generally, you can expect wooden countertops to fall in the range of $60 to $100 per square foot, including installation. Tops made with unusual or imported woods, custom sizes, and intricate details can run up to $200 per square foot. These prices are for solid-wood materials. For a less expensive option, there are wood tops made with particleboard cores and hardwood veneers, such as those sold by retailers like IKEA.