Butcher blocks have traditionally been made from pieces of maple or a similar hardwood bonded together to form a solid slab and have have become popular in modern kitchen designs.
Historically butcher blocks were used for cutting meats. The thick hard surfaces were ideal for the heavy blows of a meat cleaver down to the slicing action of a carving knife. Today most butcher blocks serve more of an aesthetic purpose in the modern kitchen.
Care and Maintenance
Butcher blocks should be finished regularly with a mineral oil and a beeswax coating to maintain their beauty and keep the wood from warping and cracking. Modern polyurethane and varnish finishes that are used on most furniture today should not be used on butcher blocks. These finishes are hard and sit on the surface. Cutting on the butcher block will break through this barrier and allow moisture into the wood.
Butcher blocks are made from natural wood and thus suffer from the effects of moisture. Too much moisture will cause the block to swell. Too little moisture can cause the wood to dry out and shrink causing cracks. These problems can be avoided by keeping standing water and moisture (such as liquids from meats) from sitting on the surface of the block. Simply wipe the block dry when you are done.
Dry air and this can cause the butcher block to loose moisture and dry out as well. Placement of the block near a washing machine or stove can also cause the block to dry out. Regular applications of mineral oil is the best way to ensure that your butcher block keeps from drying out. A top coat of beeswax finish not only helps to smooth the surface, it also helps to repel water.
When refinishing a butcher block, you may wish to sand the surface of the wood to remove old stains, scratches and marks. Sanding can also be used to remove a polyurethane or varnish finish that was applied by mistake. A random orbital sander is ideal for the sanding process. If the wood is in rough shape you may want to start with an 80 grit sandpaper. As you sand the block smoother and smoother, it is important to 'work through the grits'. This means that each time you sand you use finer and finer sandpaper. Each finer grade of sandpaper will remove the scratches left by the previous grade. An example of this is to start will an 80grit sandpaper, next use 120grit, then 240grit, and finally 400 grit. If your butcher block needs only modest sanding, you can start with the 240 grit and finish with the 400 grit. Depending on your desired finish, you might skip the 400 grit sanding.
When sanding out gouges and scratches, keep in mind that if you don't sand the top evenly you will end up with 'hills and valleys' in the top. If you concentrate your sanding on one scratch to get it out, you will end up with a valley. Antique butcher blocks probably already suffer from this and you should probably just consider them "character marks".
There are numerous oils available for butcher blocks, but avoid olive oil, vegetable oil, or other organic or food-based oils. These finishes can become rancid and sticky with regular application and time. It won't hurt the block but it will cause an odour and can impart a taste to food prepared on the surface. Mineral oil can be applied to the surface with a rag or sponge. It's very simple to apply and difficult to make a mistake. Simply wipe it on the surface and watch it soak in. When the wood won't take any more oil, you can wipe off the excess with a clean dry cloth. Don't worry about applying too much oil - more is better.
New or old butcher blocks that have become dry may need 5-10 coats. Once a block has become conditioned, regular applications of 1-2 coats on a monthly basis are recommended. A beeswax finish should then be applied for optimal performance.
Beeswax Top Coat
The beeswax topcoat is an optional addition to the re-finishing process but is well worth the time. The beeswax sits on the surface of the wood in contrast to the oil that soaks into the wood. As a result the beeswax fills in pores and gaps that thin oil can't bridge. This helps to keep moisture, bacteria, and other contaminants from getting into the wood surface.
Beeswax is an excellent natural moisture barrier. You can test this by splashing water onto the block and watching it bead up. If water sits on the surface for a long time it can cause the wax to turn white in colour. The finish will typically go back to normal when it dries out. You can also wipe on more finish at any time. Remember, with a butcher block it is important to keep the oil in the wood and the water out.
To apply the finish, simply wipe it on with a clean cloth. The beeswax is a soft paste that has a similar consistency to that of a shoe polish. Excess finish can be easily buffed off with the cloth. Once the finish has had some time to dry it can be buffed to a shine. The beeswax polish also helps to add a low-luster sheen to the wood's surface. Typically, only one or two coats are needed. The finish is safe for food contact and is actually edible! It can also be used on cutting boards and for kids toys and cribs.
Regular (monthly) applications of mineral oil followed by beeswax finish as described above should be used. Once the wood has been properly conditioned, the re-applications of these finishes will take far less time, effort and materials. The mineral oil can be applied over the beeswax finish.