Sleek granite and sharp stainless. It looks all luxe and modern—and maybe just a little bit, you know, cold. So what to do if you want more warmth in the heart of the home? Cozy things up with rich-looking butcher block. Not only are its well-oiled tones welcoming, it’s easy to install, as This Old House senior technical editor Mark Powers shows on the following pages. Just order it to size, and then fasten it down. In hours you can turn a chilly steel-and-stone room into a charming cook’s corner.
Shown: Walnut Edge Grain from The Grothouse Lumber Company, about $90 per square foot; glumber.com
Butcher Block Countertop Overview
Butcher block is merely slices of wood glued together into inches-thick slabs—a particularly sturdy and stable work surface in a kitchen. However, if you plan to put food on your butcher block, make sure to choose a product that has a nontoxic finish.
Installing a butcher block starts with ordering one to fit your space. Many manufacturers will measure and install a butcher block for you, but you can save on labor by making your own template out of a semirigid material, such as cardboard, and sending it to the factory. The manufacturer will then ship the butcher block directly to you for installation.
If there are any bumps or curves in the walls against the counters, you will need to scribe the template to fit them. Be sure to include any overhang you want the butcher block to have—as little as 1½ inches for a standard countertop or up to a foot for a seating counter—and keep it consistent and parallel to the front of the cabinets as you scribe. Then, before sending off the template, mark it up with information that’s helpful to the manufacturer, including orientation, measurements, and decorative edge profile.
With proper installation, butcher block lasts many years. First, it needs a sturdy surface on which to rest. On most cabinets, which have no tops, that means installing blocking to provide support. On solid-topped cabinets, you can just add thin furring strips to raise the top enough for air to circulate underneath.
In either scenario, you should affix the butcher block to the cabinets using a flexible kitchen and bath sealant. But you must also screw it down securely while still accounting for the natural expansion and contraction of the wood. The best way to do that is to make an enlarged hole around the screw where it passes through the cabinet. That way, as humidity and temperature change, the top can shift slightly in any direction without getting ruined by cracks or splits.
How to Install Butcher Block Countertops
1. Make a Cardboard Template
- Measure the depth of the cabinets. Add to that measurement the amount of overhang you want on your counter.
- Using a utility knife, cut two strips of cardboard about 3 inches wide and as long as your total countertop depth. Make sure the two short ends of the strip are straight and parallel to each other.
2. Tape the Template in Place
- Adjust a combination square to the depth of the counter overhang. Use it to adjust the strip of cardboard so it overhangs the cabinets by the correct amount while pushed against the side wall. Don’t worry if the strip isn’t square to the side wall; it’s more important that it’s parallel to the cabinet front.
- Tape the strip in place.
3. Scribe the Template
- Open a compass so its legs match the widest gap between the cardboard strip and the side wall. Run the tip of the compass along the wall, with the pencil on the cardboard, to transfer the contours of the wall to the strip.
- Using a utility knife, cut the cardboard along the scribe line. Push the strip back tight against the wall, using the combination square to verify the overhang depth. Retape the strip in place. Make a second strip in the same manner for the opposite side of the counter.
- Cut a longer strip to fit along the back wall, and scribe it if necessary. Tape it in place between the two sides. Create another long piece with a perfectly straight edge to act as the front of the template. Double-check that the countertop overhang stays consistent between the edge of this piece and the cabinet fronts as you tape it down.
Tip: For larger countertops with sinks or ranges, tape down strips to outline where the rough openings for the necessary cutouts should go.
4. Assemble the Template
- Tape more strips of cardboard along any seams between cabinets to show where they fall. Mark which face is the top of the template and indicate front, back, and sides. Also note on the template which edges should be shaped in a profile and which will be straight cuts.
- Once all the pieces are taped in place, mark all the joints between strips with reference lines that run across the seam of the adjoining pieces. Using a hot glue gun, carefully secure each intersection, making sure to realign the reference marks.
- When the glue is dry, untape the template, then carefully fold it up and send it to the manufacturer with your butcher-block order.
Tip: Mark centerlines on the width and length of any sink or range cutouts, and write their factory measurements directly on the template. Also send along manufacturers’ product spec sheets (available online).
5. Prepare the Cabinets
If you’re working with open-topped cabinets, you’ll need to install blocking so there’s something to screw the butcher block to.
- Using a handsaw, cut plywood or 1x scrap to fit tightly within the width of the cabinet.
- Using a drill/driver fitted with a ⅛-inch bit, drill angled pilot holes, about ½-inch away from the edges, that go through the top of the blocking and out the cut ends. Fit the blocking in place at the front of the cabinet. Secure it to the cabinet with 1½-inch deck screws through the pilot holes.
If your cabinets have solid tops, it’s best to glue down furring strips in order to create an air space beneath the countertop and prevent it from cupping in situations where humidity swings are an issue.
- Using a handsaw, cut strips of ¼-inch plywood to fit 2 inches shorter than the depth of the cabinets. Lay these strips every 16 inches across the cabinet tops, sticking each down with a bead of kitchen and bath sealant.
Tip: To make an angled pilot hole in the blocking, first drill a little starter hole straight down, then pull the bit out and reposition it at an angle in the hole.
6. Attach the Butcher Block
- Using a drill/driver fitted with a ½-inch paddle bit, drill through the center of the blocking or through the solid cabinet top at one furring strip. Create one hole like this on each cabinet.
Tip: When making the holes in the cabinets, keep the bit from blowing out the wood around the hole by clamping a scrap block of wood against the cabinet top.
7. Tighten Down the Block
- From inside the cabinet, drive a deck screw fitted with a fender washer up through each hole, into the butcher block. (Make sure the screw is shorter than the counter is thick.)
- Tighten the screw until it just pulls the block snug to the cabinet. These screw “clamps” will allow the countertop to slightly move and prevent the butcher block from separating, cracking or splitting as the wood expands with humidity.
8. Oil the Surface
- Using a lint-free rag, liberally apply mineral oil to the top of the butcher block. Allow the oil to soak into the wood for a few minutes, then wipe off the excess. Oil the block once a month.
Tip: If oil buildup occurs, use a putty knife to lightly scrape away the excess, and reapply a thin coat.