How to seal a butcher block countertop to protect it from stains, wear, and more

Protect your investment with these pro tips to keep your butcher block looking fresh and new

butcher block countertops in a small kitchen
(Image credit: Kaitlin Madden)

Nothing brings warmth into the home more than natural wood. And for the kitchen, that means a butcher block countertop. But as with any natural material, it’s important to care for it properly to preserve its beauty and prolong its life. So, let’s look at the different methods to seal and care for a butcher block counter and choose the right method for you.

What is a butcher block counter?

Historically, a butcher’s block was a piece of wood created by laminating small blocks of wood together, with the end-grain exposed on the surface. This method used leftover scraps of wood to create something more durable than a solid slab, which is prone to warping. The durability of the laminated construction made something that could withstand the constant use and moisture of a butcher’s shop.

Now, butcher block is making its way into our home kitchens. You can find it in small cutting boards, island tops, and full-length countertops. And, since many cabinet manufacturers now sell butcher block by the feet in home improvement stores, it’s easy to come by and affordable.

Do you have to seal butcher block?

Wood is a porous material subject to expanding and contracting when exposed to moisture and humidity. Sealing it protects it from that exposure as well as prevents staining and a build-up of bacteria. What you seal it with, depends on how you will use it.

The first question to ask when choosing a sealant, is “Will you cut food on it?” Modern butcher block products are constructed with the long-grain exposed. Cutting against the grain causes fibers to raise up, giving your countertop a fuzzy feeling. Woodworkers discourage cutting on a butcher block countertop for this reason. But, if you believe you may use the countertop as a cutting surface for food, you’ll need to use a food-grade sealant. If not, you have more options.

What types of sealants can you use on butcher block?

Basically, there are two types of sealants to use on butcher block countertops: oil and film finish. And, there are two types of oil sealants: evaporating and polymerizing. The best option for your kitchen depends on what you intend to do on the surface. Let’s look at the pros and cons of each.

Oil-based butcher block sealants

No matter which type of oil you choose to use, make sure it’s labeled safe for surfaces that come in contact with food. Also, some oils, like olive and vegetable oil, will go rancid. Avoid using them.

Evaporating oils—An evaporating oil evaporates so it requires more applications than a polymerizing oil. During the initial sealing process, you’ll need to apply many coats. Some woodworkers suggest a coat a day for a week, a coat a week for a month, then a coat a month for the first year. After that, twice a year, depending on the amount of use. Examples of evaporating oils include:

  • Mineral oil
  • Walnut oil
  • Coconut oil

Polymerizing oils—A polymerizing oil bonds with the wood, clogging the pores, and sealing them. They don’t require as many applications as an evaporating oil, are easier to maintain, and less likely to stain.

To effectively seal your butcher block with a polymerizing oil, follow this regimen:

  • Apply a coat of oil with a soft cloth.
  • Wait 15 minutes.
  • Buff it in.
  • Wait 24 hours and repeat two more times.

Examples of polymerizing oils include:

  • Tung oil
  • Food-grade linseed oil (Do not use boiled linseed oil. It is toxic.)
  • Jojoba oil
  • Grape seed oil

Suggested oil finishes for your butcher block

Film finishes for butcher block countertops

Film finishes like polyurethane, or resin-modified oils contain harmful VOCs which, when emitted as gasses, can have some adverse health effects. If you do opt for this type of protectant, always use a VOC-containing film finish in a well-ventilated area and wear personal protective equipment. If you want to use a film finish in your kitchen, most are considered non-toxic when fully cured. But, cutting on it and potentially ingesting bits of finish in your food, is concerning.

That said, there are some pros to choosing a film finish for your butcher block. Unlike filling the pores with oil which repels water, a film finish provides a protective, plastic-like coating which is better at preventing stains. With proper care, a film finish lasts longer and the product doesn’t have to be re-applied like oils.

To apply a film finish, always start by sanding the surface. Begin with 120-grit sandpaper and work up to 400-grit. Always sand with the grain of the wood, not forgetting the edges. Once it’s as smooth as glass, apply the finish following the manufacturer’s directions.

  • Waterlox Original Sealer Finish is a resin-modified tung oil/mineral spirits product that is food-safe and non-toxic when cured.
  • Zinsser Bulls Eye Shellac is easy to clean and cures to create a non-toxic finish.
  • Polyurethane gives your countertop a plastic-like coating that’s preferred for heavy water exposure like around sinks.

Other things to consider about sealing your butcher block

  • Choose one type of finish or the other. Mixing a film finish with oil creates a mess. And, if you want to refinish an older butcher block with a different type of finish, you will need to completely remove the old one.
  • Some products mix beeswax with oil. The wax helps the wood to repel water better than oil alone. These finishes are applied just like an oil finish.
  • Food-safe status isn’t reached until the product is totally cured, which takes about 30 days, on average. Just because the surface is dry doesn’t mean it’s ready for contact with food.
  • To prevent stains, always remove food waste promptly, wash the countertop with a hot soapy cloth, and towel dry.
Carol J. Alexander
Carol J. Alexander

Carol J. Alexander writes website copy, blog posts, and feature articles on home remodeling and construction topics from her home in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. In addition to Real Homes, notable clients include, This Old House, Family Handyman, and Florida Roofing magazine.