If you’re looking to stain or refinish butcher block countertops in the future, I hope this post helps you to avoid the mistakes we made. Here are our tips and just how we got the warm & cozy countertops we craved.
As many of you know, we refinished our butcher block countertops last month as part of our kitchen refresh. You can see the full reveal here. We’ve had them for almost 5 years now and at the start of the year we began to notice some wear. When we installed them we knew that they would need to be resealed every few years, so a little wear was not a surprise to us. We started this project thing it would be simple. Of course, we ran into some snags along the way and today I wanted to share what we learned and just how to refinish butcher block.
A Little Back Story
Our counter tops are from Ikea. They’re solid birch butcher block. We purchased them on clearance for $30 a slab, just before Ikea discontinued them. I decided to leave them unstained, in their natural state and sealed them Waterlox the first time. You can read our one year later post with more details here. Here’s a look at our counter tops just a year or so ago.
Flash forward to summer and you can see some of the wear that began to show up. Some light staining was noticeable on the island and around the sink area. Overall, not bad at all! I really do believe the Waterlox held up to expectation and did a great job.
For the last couple of years I knew that when the time came to reseal our counter tops that I wanted to sand them down to the bare wood and stain them with a warmer color. When we sealed them the first time I had read that the Waterlox would darken the counter tops a bit and could change the stain color if used on top of a stain. We opted to stick with the natural wood. Shortly after you could really see that the Waterlox did darken the counter tops a bit but it also gave them more of a yellow hue than I wanted.
This time we decided to do things a little differently.
- We sanded the butcher block down to bare wood. I started with 80 grit, followed by 120 and lastly 220. We used this orbital sander. It’s one of my favorite tools that has gotten tons of use. It did a great job with project. I used a Shop Vac and cotton cloth to clean the butcher block in-between each sanding and afterwards. Here’s what the countertops looked like once sanded.
2. I applied a wood conditioner on all of the countertops before I stained them. I’ve done a number of staining projects in the past and I’ve always noticed a difference in finished project when applying wood conditioner. It allows the wood grain to absorb the stain more evenly.
After trying several stain samples, I chose Provincial by Minwax. It’s a warm medium brown without the red tones. It’s one of my favorite stain colors. The sample butcher block took the stain beautifully and when I paired it with the new cabinet color and our marble back splash, it was perfection.
It was at the staining stage that our project took a turn. After staining over half the kitchen, I noticed that the countertops were looking darker and darker. I had removed all excess stain and made sure to apply a thin coat, using a brush. When we woke up the next morning they were even darker! What had happened? I had prepped the countertops just as I had the sample piece.
It looked horrible! They were far too dark and very blotchy. I was heartbroken. I had spent so much time and effort getting them to this point but I knew I couldn’t leave them like that. Two days later we sanded them down a second time. We sanded and sanded and sanded some more.
You can see in the photo below where the tiny grain had soaked up so much stain that even sanding multiply times with a belt sander didn’t completely remove it.
We sanded the best we could until we couldn’t take it anymore. I immediately started researching what could have happened. After searching Pinterest and reading blog post after blog post, I came up with nothing. It wasn’t until I found a reddit thread from someone who has in the same boat we were. Someone suggested using a sanding sealer after the wood conditioner and before staining.
Birch, pine and cherry often absorb more stain due to their larger grain. I knew this but I had no idea to what extent. Sanding sealer is a clear coat that locks out some of that grain and prevents it from soaking up too much stain. I had never used it until this project but I will be using it for any future projects. It worked like a charm!
That brings up to the third step.
3. After waiting the recommended time on your wood conditioner, apply sanding sealer in an even coat, using a brush.
4. Once the sanding sealer has dried, maybe an hour or so, apply your stain.
For this step, I used a rag a this time instead of a brush. I wanted to better control how much stain I was adding. I dipped the rag lightly in the stain and applied it onto the countertop going the direction of the grain. This is the countertop after one coat of stain.
This is the countertop after a second thin coat. I’d say it’s just right!
Finishing Butcher Block
There’s many different products you can use to finish your wooden countertops. There’s tung oil, Watco oil, Mineral oil or Waterlox. I personally do not like oils. I wanted something with less maintenance. Most oils have to be applied regularly. I considered Waterlox again but was worried it might effect the stain color and the thought of resealing 4 to 5 years later didn’t sound so great this time around.
We don’t ever cut directly on our countertops. We’ve always used cutting boards. For this reason, I went with a satin triple thick polyurethane. I read a number of articles, including one from This Old House and an older gentleman pointed out that most of our furniture is sealed with poly, including our kitchen tables. The fumes are not exactly great but once the space as aired out, and the poly have cured, you’re good to go. If you cut directly on your countertops I probably would go a different direction.
I applied three coats as recommended and allowed them to cure a full seven days before heavy use. I love the satin finish and that they’re essential maintenance free. After reading that one couple sealed their butcher block with poly over 10 years ago and it was still going strong, I knew that we had made the right choice for our family. They’re very easy to care for and look great. I use a mild soap and warm water or Mrs. Meyer’s multi-surface cleaner.
I’m so glad I stuck with it. They turned out just as I had hoped they would. It was more trying that I had expected but I learned a lot along the way.
All of the stains and previous ware were removed during the sanding process. The counter tops now look brand new. I just love a good reset!
If you’ve needed to refinish your butcher block and you haven’t been sure where to start, I hope this post helps. Sometimes it can be hard to find blog posts that cover failed DIY projects, but I have a feeling that we’re not the only ones who have had their butcher block turn out blotchy.
Are you thinking about installing butcher block? I say, go for it! We truly love our counter tops. I would install them over and over again. They add such a warmth to our kitchen and I love that as they get imperfections with use, they become more perfect. They simply tell a story.