An exciting thing happened the day we went to buy our butcher block countertops – they were on sale! Marked down to $109 from $159, we hauled away two slabs (one for each side of our little galley kitchen) before they could tell us it was a mistake. And that – that price! – is one of the reasons why we decided to take a bit of a risk and go with butcher block in the garden apartment. To our Chicago friends, we picked ours up at the Menard’s on Clybourn Ave. They always have a full stock!
Even still, price was one of the least important factors on our list. We considered shopping for a stone slab, in the same way we did for our own kitchen counters. There were a few splurges that we’ve taken along the way (like hiring a team to demo and replace the tired, cracked tile), but there have certainly been some saves, too (like our IKEA vanity and tub reglazing). At one point, we tossed around the idea of butcher block, and the idea just … stuck. It’ll warm up the place!, we said. It gets better with age and wear, we agreed.
Is it a small gamble to put butcher block in a rental unit? Probably. But for the cool price of $225, it’s a risk we were willing to take. We don’t expect them to look pristine in 1 year, 2 years or even more, but just like our decision to use solid brass hardware, it’s a material that patinas well over time, and if push comes to shove, a good sanding can knock down problem areas in the future. We’ve always had a soft spot for a well-loved butcher block top, and the hope is that our future tenant will agree.
But! Perhaps the best part of a butcher block counter is the ability to DIY. We completed a much, much smaller version in our laundry room, and we still love how much character it brings to that tiny space. This job was larger, sure, but our process was similar, and the results are just as pretty, we think.
What we did:
We started on the stove wall first, since it would essentially be two simple cuts – one for each side of the range. We always measure in three places – back, middle and front (even if it is just a cabinet base, because you never know!). Measurements were recorded on the sink wall as well, and then we got to work with cuts!
Even with a fresh blade, a circular saw can cause little chips along the surface of the wood, so we always wrap our cut with blue tape first, which helps to minimize any burrs on the top of the butcher block. Then, it’s time to cut:
Our dry fit of all three sections was a success (hip, hip!), and I spent about 5 minutes per slab with 100 grit sandpaper, easing the rough edges and smoothing the cuts. I followed that up with 400 grit paper on the top, ensuring that the butcher block was smooth to the touch.
A quick side note along the sink wall: Our dishwasher will be placed up against the wall, so we whipped up a support for the countertop using scrap 2x4s at the top and bottom. The top 2×4 is a resting place for the counter (which was leveled to the same height as the cabinets), whereas the bottom scrap will give our future filler piece a place to adhere to.
Prepping our butcher block for the sink was the larger task of the day, but a bit of patience, pushing aside our nerves and a lot of sanding did the trick! We’ll be installing the NORRSJÖN stainless steel sink from IKEA, which doesn’t come with a template. Instead, we were instructed to outline the cabinet box on the underside of our countertop, turn the countertop upside down, and finally, trace the sink to its proper location. Our sink is an undermount, so we then used a scrap piece of 3/4″ wood to trace an inside line, which would be the exact size of our cutout:
To prep for our cut, Scott drilled pilot holes, 3/8″ in from all four corners, making sure it went all the way through to the ‘top’ of the counter. We turned the butcher block over so that we were looking at the top of the countertop, and all we could see were the fresh pilot holes. Using those holes as a guide, we then used a 3/4″ bit to create a rounded edge, mimicking the corners of the sink. By drilling from the top-down, we were able to get the cleanest edge on the exposed side of the butcher block:
We turned the countertop over again, so that we were back to looking at our outlines of the sink. Scott used a jigsaw and a steady hand to connect the dots, so to speak, while I held my breath the entire time! Once all four sides were cut, we flipped the butcher block (are you sensing a theme?) so that we were once again looking at the top. I might have panicked. At this point, it still looked a little rough, but Scott worked his magic and fine tuned the edges with the jigsaw, and I followed that up with a good dose of sanding on the orbital, starting with 50 grit paper and working my way up to 220 grit. I hand sanded the corners, until they were perfect, rounded edges!
Once we were happy with the sink cutout, we measured for the faucet opening, and we used a hole saw bit to make the opening.
Finally, it was time to condition, stain and seal! Here’s my process in a nutshell:
- I applied a heavy dose of wood conditioner using a 3″ brush.
- After 5 minutes, the wood will probably be slightly damp, but this is what I’m looking for. The more cool/damp to the touch, the less the wood will take the stain. Because I didn’t want too dark of a color, I wanted this. (And if you want a darker color, wait until the conditioner has dried more thoroughly!)
- Using an old rag, I applied 1 coat of Minwax Special Walnut stain on the top, sides and cut outs, and I even swiped a coat on the bottom, about 2″ in from the front edge of the counter.
- The next day, I used a natural bristle brush to liberally apply my first coat of Waterlox. I did this every day for 5 days, waiting 24 hours between coats, so that I would have 5 coats total.
- Tip: I used 400 grit sandpaper to lightly smooth the surface of the Waterlox before applying my next coat. This isn’t absolutely necessary, but I find it creates the most beautiful finish!
Waterlox actually absorbs into the wood, unlike a polyurethane or a shellac that sits on the surface. Because of this, the first two coats looked a little spotty as it began to drink up the liquid. By the third coat, the sheen began to even out, and by the fourth coat, I probably could have considered it ‘done.’ Even still, I added a fifth coat as my own personal insurance policy, ha!
I would describe the finish as a semi-gloss, but having used Waterlox in our laundry room, I can say that the sheen does knock down a teeny bit as it cures over the weeks and months. Of course, regular use will beat it up as well, but again, that’s all part of the charm, don’t you think?
Scott has been a busy bee working on the trim work and quarter round throughout the unit, and I’ve been following behind with spackle, caulk and sandpaper. This weekend, we’re hoping to complete the backsplash, and then we can start installing the sink, range hood and dishwasher! (And then it’s on to prepping the walls for paint, cabinet hardware, new outlets and, and … !)