Here I'll show you how to stain and seal butcher block in 24 hours.
In this guide, I'm going to lay everything out on the table by sharing several common ways on how to stain and seal butcher block. I'll also shed some light on some drawbacks to those options. I'll let you decide what works best for you based on your situation and preferences, and then explain the route that I went and why.
It was a late Sunday afternoon when I haphazardly ordered two 4 ft. slabs of birch butcher block from Home Depot and thought, "Yeah, it's about time I start that project." (I blame the free shipping.)
Fast forward to the following Wednesday evening when the butcher block arrived and I tore into the box and removed the plastic wrap encasing it to make sure the specimen had endured the journey. The butcher block looked great, but I had a big problem. Underneath the plastic wrap lay an upside down piece of paper that read, "The butcher block MUST be sealed or finished on all surfaces within 48 HOURS of removing the shrink wrap." Crap.
I hadn't done any research on how to stain and seal butcher block, nor did I have any materials. And apparently, I had just exposed my new butcher block to humidity in the air that could lead to moisture absorption and warping. Not to mention settling dust that could impact the outcome of the stain and seal.
I immediately went to my local hardware store. From there, I spent a total of three late night and early morning sessions sanding, finishing, sanding, finishing, sanding, finishing.
What Makes a Finish Food Safe?
Note: My butcher block project uses pre-cut counters to make a writing desk, not kitchen countertops. However, I will still be exploring food-safe and natural methods.
First, before I list some of the most common methods on how to stain and seal butcher block, let's understand what makes a finish "food-safe."
Many finishes contain chemical additives or solvents that act as bonding agents, which become safe when the solvent has had enough time to evaporate or bond with oxygen molecules. Finishes must cure properly, which takes far longer than the drying time, in order to become food safe. In plain words, whatever can of finish or sealant it may be is not food safe straight from the can. It needs time to go through a chemical process, harden, cure and ventilate properly.
If your butcher block feels dry to the touch after recently applying a finish, that means the finish has dried. It does not mean the finish has cured. It is important to note the difference between drying and curing time. Drying time takes anywhere from around several hours to several days, whereas curing time can take several weeks to 30 days depending on factors such as humidity, ventilation, temperature, etc. This means that if you're in the middle of a DIY kitchen reno, you technically shouldn't prepare food on your countertops for this stretch of time. Yeah, that's a problem you don't hear talked of too often. Don't think you can rush the curing process by placing the item in the sunlight either, as some finishes such as Tung oil react adversely to sunlight.
Curing time also raises another problem I'll talk about later on in the article.
Most Common Food-Safe Butcher Block Finishes
Oil-based finishes are wiped onto the natural wood as-is, left to dry and cure, then re-applied regularly in order to maintain the appearance and prolong the lifetime of the wood. Oil finishes work by soaking into the wood; they do not seal or leave a coating, film, or shell on top of the wood. This method requires the most upkeep. Never use vegetable oil or olive oil as a wood finish, as these oils go rancid over time.
- MINERAL OIL, sometimes sold by brands and marketed as "butcher block finish". Mineral oil moisturizes and enhances wood with a clear and "natural" finish, but it doesn't actually seal it. Since mineral oil doesn't seal, you will have to re-apply coats of this oil every few weeks or once a month. Over time, the wood will "take" or absorb less, and you may only have to apply every other month or so. This option seems to be the most popular go-to. However, through a lot of digging, I found there are some pretty big drawbacks to consider.
It's worth it to note that there are articles out there that claim using a layer of beeswax over top of mineral oil may help the wood to "seal", but it remains unclear to me how this would effect the maintenance. Do you re-apply mineral oil or only beeswax? Wouldn't the mineral oils effects vanish over time and become just beeswax? Does the beeswax counteract the glossy finish of the mineral oil?
Disadvantages of Mineral Oil:
Mineral Oil is a byproduct of petroleum, which is a non-renewable resource. Crude oils go through a refining and purifying process to make a transparent, odorless oil that is related but not identical to petroleum jelly. I don't know about you, but that's not quite the minerals I have in mind.
Now, the FDA does deem mineral oil food-safe and it does the job moisturizing butcher block. However, I don't always stand behind the FDA because of carcinogenic glyphosate in things like Cheerios and Quaker Oatmeal (sorry, those are food blog problems). My takeaway is that mineral oil may not be the option for you if you're looking for a natural, eco-friendly approach.
Mineral oil also has reports of leaving a slight oily residue behind, sometimes even weeks after being re-applied. You may find that you set a paper towel down or a piece of mail and find it sticking to your counters, or see a small oil blotch left behind on the paper.
How to Use Mineral Oil:
- Sand surface of butcher block until smooth and wipe off all dust with a rag.
- Apply mineral oil using a clean, soft cloth or brush. Rub or brush in an even layer across all sides of the butcher block. I didn't read anything specifically mentioning to rub in the direction of the grain of the wood, but I would recommend doing so as a rule of thumb.
- Allow mineral oil to soak into the butcher block for at least 20 minutes. Then, wipe the surface with a clean, dry cloth to remove any excess or pooling. Mineral oil can fill in pores on the wood's surface, so the extended length of time ensures that it has done so. You may apply a second and third coat if the wood still looks dry.
- After the final coat, buff the wood in small circular motions with another clean, dry cloth to help make it shine.
- Allow to cure 30 days in a controlled climate (room temperature, not too humid).
- TUNG OIL is a water-resistant extract from the Tung tree seed that is FDA approved and food safe once cured. Pure Tung oil enhances the natural color of the wood grain (the result often referred to as honey-colored) while providing a subtle sheen. If you're looking for a glossy finish, Tung oil is not for you. Dark Tung oil is also available for those seeking a slightly darker stain. However it does contain additives to make that possible, meaning while it is still food-safe, it is no longer pure. While you do still have to apply multiple coats (usually between 2-5) of Tung oil, it dries faster in comparison to other oils. This may also result in a drier final result, unlike mineral oil which can leave a slightly greasy residue on countertops. Tung oil needs to be re-applied regularly as well (every few weeks to every few months) to maintain the wood's appearance and prolong its life.
Waterlox, a food-safe and water-resistant mixture of Tung oil and resin, has been reported successful in some cases. Waterlox doesn't require the monthly maintenance that mineral oil does and is less greasy. There are different sheens to pick from that may change the color of butcher block to a more orange-y or yellow-y tone that is slightly less natural of an appearance, but may be just what some are looking for.
Drawbacks of Tung Oil:
One of the drawbacks of Tung oil is the curing time it takes to become food safe. It can take two to three days for the oil to harden, then a full cure can take 15-30 days. Also, you may need to wait 24 hours or more before applying coats, and remember this oil typically needs quite a few.
Also, keep in mind that Tung oil is extracted from the Tung tree seed, not a nut. However, there seems to be mixed accounts of people with tree allergies being allergic to it or not. Allergies are typically triggered from the proteins in a seed or nut, and Tung oil contains very little protein, making it unlikely to cause an allergic reaction. An example given by Waterlox is to think of it as people who are allergic to olives but don't experience any reaction to olive oil. It still may be safest to go with another option if anyone in your family or any potential guest is allergic to nuts.
- WALNUT OIL, as its name suggests, is the oil made from pressed walnuts. This finish is applied in the same fashion as both mineral oil and Tung oil, but needs to be re-applied even more frequently. It is not recommended for those that have a nut allergy. Please also consider guests that may come to your home. Walnut oil darkens the wood ever so slightly while still providing a natural finish and a rich sheen and depth. It is a slow drying oil that cures best at room temperature. Walnut oil is a little more expensive than both mineral and Tung oil, so upkeep is more costly over time. It typically runs about $20+ a bottle compared to the $10 or so mineral oil costs.
Do Oil Finishes Ever Really Truly Cure?
Now, I could be overthinking this. But, my mind couldn't stop asking this question while I was researching for this article.
If oil finishes become food safe only after they've cured, which takes 14-30 days on average, and you must re-apply oil finishes every few weeks, does the wood ever really become food safe?
I couldn't find an answer. I couldn't even find the question.
As explained earlier, oil finishes need time to go through a chemical process of hardening, curing, and bonding with oxygen molecules to become food safe. Curing time takes anywhere from two weeks to 30 days, the latter usually being the most recommended. The wood is considered unsafe for food prep until the curing time is up. Keep in mind that it is not the wood that needs to cure, but the finish. Let's say you wait that 30 days, finally use your butcherblock for food prep, then have to re-apply an oil finish such as mineral oil after two weeks. Are your counters technically not safe again? If so, how long is it until they're safe for food prep? While the re-applied finish should dry within 6 hours or overnight, how long does is take to actually cure?
These are just questions I'd like to raise for your consideration, do with it what ye will. If you have any expertise on this area, please feel free to leave me a comment below.
One last concern about oil finishes I'd like to raise is:
Is the underside of a butcher block kitchen countertop susceptible to moisture and warping over time? Remember, it's likely that you won't be re-applying finish to the underside.
Now, I think it would likely take some years to see any bad come out of this, unless you live in a very humid area. However, it's worth considering since my butcher block came with a note saying to finish it on all surfaces within 48 hours of removing the shrink wrap.
I personally chose not to go with an oil finish because I wanted to be able to seal or encase, if you will, every side of the butcher block so that I wouldn't have to worry about air or moisture ever coming into direct contact with the wood itself.
Some waxes can be food safe and offer protection and sheen to wood. However, a drawback to waxes is they aren't completely waterproof.
- BEESWAX or beeswax polish is a natural, non toxic and food safe treatment used for wood furniture. It typically consists of a combination of beeswax and oil and produces a rich, natural shine. The way beeswax works is similar to oil finishes in that it absorbs into the pores and fibers of the wood, which nourishes the wood and prevents it from drying out. This means that, like oil finishes, beeswax also needs to be re-applied every month or so. Note that when beeswax polish becomes exposed to heat and sunlight, it starts to soften. This is a major problem if using beeswax polish for kitchen countertops. Beeswax also can become discolored or melted when heated up to around 185 F. If you happened to place a pot from the 350-400 F. oven on the countertops without an oven mitt, that could become a serious mess (and nightmare).
Beeswax comes in different types; yellow, white, and absolute. Yellow beeswax is unrefined and derived directly from the honeycomb. White beeswax is yellow beeswax that has gone through a filtering, purifying, and bleaching process. Absolute beeswax is yellow beeswax treated with alcohol and is typically used in cosmetics. Beeswax also comes in different forms, such as pellets, block, and paste. Beeswax paste is most commonly used for wood furniture, although block and pellets can be melted down in a water bath or double boiler and then applied.
How to Apply Wax:
- In a well-ventilated area, sand all surfaces of the wood with a fine grit sandpaper. Then, wipe all dust off with a clean microfiber cloth.
- If using pellets or block, melt beeswax slowly in a double boiler. Take care that water doesn't get into the wax mixture.
- Allow wax to cool down to a warm, room temperature as its easier to work with when not hot.
- Using another clean microfiber cloth, apply beeswax (whether paste or melted and cooled) to butcher block. Wipe in circular motions with the grain of the wood in an even, thin coat.
- Allow the beeswax to dry for about one to three hours before applying a second coat. You may need to melt pellet or block beeswax again. Drying time can be faster or longer depending on climate, wood type, etc.
- Allow to cure at room temperature for 12-24 hours.
- CARNAUBA WAX is the wax most commonly used for finishing wood furniture as well as car interiors. It's extracted from the carnauba palm and is then refined and bleached. Carnauba wax is food-safe and non toxic. It shares very similar properties to beeswax in that it produces a high gloss shine, but easily wears off. It's also susceptible to high heat and requires regular re-application. Carnauba wax comes in flakes and a paste and is applied similarly to the steps above for beeswax application.
Due to the disadvantages of waxes, it is best to use them not as a primary finish but as a compliment to other finishes. Waxes are best applied on top of oil finishes and shellac. However, since the wax is still the top coating, it is still susceptible to heat and rubbing off. One positive to waxes though is that they can cover up the appearance/fill in scratches of wood furniture. In my opinion, it's best to use wax polishes on maybe an old chair that's lying around that needs some love, not countertops.
How to Stain and Seal Butcher Block with Film Finishes:
Unlike oil finishes which soak into wood, film finishes seal wood by creating a thin coating or "film" on the wood's surface. Film finishes can be sprayed or painted on and you can apply however many coats needed to create the desired color or glossiness. After the initial application of the finish, you won't need to re-apply these finishes again unless, over time, defects appear such as bubbling or cracking. In that case, you can sand the wood back down to its original state and re-apply the finish. As long as you keep the wood at room temperature and properly take care of it (wipe regularly, leave no standing water, etc.) you shouldn't have to do this for many years.
Note that with film finishes, there are several methods or processes to choose from. You can stain the wood any color you desire and then apply a clear film finish such as polyurethane. Or, you can use a film finish that has a tint/stain already in it, such as Amber shellac, so it acts as a two-in-one. Or, you can simply just use a clear film finish, no stain, to enhance the natural look of the wood.
- POLYURETHANE is probably the first thing most people think of when it comes to film finishes. Its known for its smooth, high gloss shine, scratch resistant protection, and long lasting durability. It's a very popular finish for hardwood floors. Both oil-based and water-based polyurethane exist, so it's important to note the differences between the two to help guide your decision.
Water-based (waterborne) polyurethane is newer and twice as expensive than its oil-based counterpart, but provides just as high of a quality and durable finish. The results are a clear, natural finish that enhances the look of the natural wood - it does not tint nearly as rich as oil-based poly. Water-based poly has low odor and emits low-to-no VOCs (volatile organic compounds, which are known to irritate the eyes, nose and throat).
It dries fast, typically within 2 hours, so you can apply several coats on the same day, or even finish your project if you start early enough. Water-based polys typically need four coats as compared to two or three for oil-based because they contain a smaller percentage of solids, which are what creates the protective finish. Water-based polys also clean up with water, making any spill clean-up a breeze. Note that it is normal for water-based finishes to appear milky straight from the can, but go on clear.
Oil-based polyurethane leaves a beautiful, amber finish. Since its made up out of 45-50% solids compared to water-based poly's 30-35%, it also provides a harder, more protective finish. It requires fewer coats than water-based poly, but it takes much longer to dry and has a strong odor. You can typically re-apply coats after every 5 hours. Then, it needs to cure at room temperature for 30 days to become food safe.
Uncured polyurethane is considered unsafe and can cause respiratory problems. While you aren't putting anyone at risk for using polyurethane in the manner its intended to be used, it is important that your project is in a well-ventilated space while it cures. I surely wouldn't sleep in the same room until then, either.
- SHELLAC comes from the resin secreted by the female Indian lac bug - I'm so sorry if this is the first time you're finding this out. Don't let that fact discourage you because shellac is a great natural option that, while definitely not vegan, is considered a renewable resource and the least toxic finish available. Shellac emits almost no VOCs while oil-based polyurethane emits high levels of VOCs. Shellac doesn't last quite as long as polyurethane, but is very simple to refresh by just applying another coat of shellac. You can also easily remove it by sanding.
Shellac is a common food-safe finish and is highly water resistant. However, it is less resistant to heat. Be cautious of leaving hot mugs or pans directly on the surface or it could leave some rings.
Fun fact: Did you know there is food-grade shellac? It's in the coating of some chocolate covered raisins and nuts. (Please don't eat the non-food grade shellac you buy at the hardware store though.)
Types of Shellac:
Liquid shellac comes in several finishes, such as Clear and Amber.
Clear enhances the natural appearance of the wood and leaves a clear, glossy finish. Amber shellac will tint the wood a yellowish, orangish honey tone while still leaving a natural, glossy appearance. The wood grain will still be visible with either option.
With the Amber shellac, you can control how saturated you want the stain to be by adding several coats. Adding more coats not only deepens the color, but also produces a glossier result.
How to Stain and Seal Butcher Block with Polyurethane or Shellac:
- Sand all surfaces of the wood in preparation for the finish. Start by sanding with a medium 100 grit sandpaper and then go in with an extra fine grit of 220. Butcher block slabs usually come already pre-sanded at a 100 or 150 grit level, so you may only need to use an extra fine grit of 220. Be on the lookout for areas of the butcher block where the wood glue is exposed. You will want to sand this down because it will be visible as a white spot when you add the finish. There could also be pits or holes that you can fill in with wood filler and then sanded smooth. You may want to have an exhaust fan facing out a window for this step for proper ventilation. Some people even hook up a shop vacuum to suck up the wood dust as you sand. Or, you could wear shop goggles and a mask.
- Remove the dust. Use a shop vacuum to suck up the majority of the dust. Then, wipe all surfaces of the wood clean with a clean, dry microfiber or scratch resistant cloth. Replace the cloth with a new clean one as needed. You'll know it's good when you can run your hand across the surface and see no dust residue left behind on your hand.
- Seal. Use a paint stirrer to mix shellac or polyurethane. Tip: Do not shake polyurethane. It has a tendency to produce bubbles in the finish, and introducing air by shaking the can will make it worse. Use a natural bristle brush to "paint" the surface of the wood, brushing in the direction of the grain. Apply in an even layer, smoothing any drips before they have a chance to dry. Poly takes awhile to dry, but shellac dries very quickly, within minutes. If using shellac, you will have to work fast and smooth over mistakes quickly. It may be best to work in small areas at a time, while still brushing with the grain. Sometimes mistakes can be covered in the second coat of shellac, otherwise they will need to be sanded down completely to be removed. Be sure to overlap your strokes on the wood's surface for a smooth, even finish.
- Allow to dry as long as the recommended time on the back of the can.
- Sand with 220 fine grit in-between coats. Tip: You only need to sand very lightly and briefly, do not over-sand or you will take off some of the finish you just applied.
- Apply second coat.
- Repeat sanding and applying finish until you have reached your desired effect, and based off recommendations from the back of the can. If the surface isn't smooth enough to glide a hand over without it resisting after the last coat is applied, sand very briefly with 220 grit. Wipe dust off with a cloth, and then assess. It should be nice and smooth without having affected the finish.
How to Stain and Seal Butcher Block in 24 Hours? Ultimately, I chose to go with Amber Shellac.
Reasons I chose to use Amber Shellac:
- Natural, non-toxic, and food grade.
- Emits almost no VOCs into the air, unlike polyurethane. Especially important because I don't have a wood shop or garage to work in.
- Stains and seals the wood in one go. I wanted the honeyed look of the Amber Shellac versus the completely natural look of the Clear Shellac. Although, both would have turned out beautiful.
- Dries fast, in about one hour. I was able to apply a total of three coats within a single day.
- Does not require regular re-application or upkeep like oil and wax finishes. Shellac encases the wood, completely eliminating exposure to moisture and air.
- Inexpensive and super easy.
How to Stain and Seal Butcher Block in 24 Hours:
Materials I Used:
- 2 4ft slabs of Birch Butcherblock to make an L-shaped desk
- 1 Quart of Amber Shellac (Brand: Zinsser Bulls Eye Amber Shellac Finish & Sealer)
- A pair of sawhorses
- A painters tarp on the ground below the sawhorses
- 2-inch natural bristle brush specifically designed for wood finish
- 220-grit and 320-grit fine sandpaper
- Sandpaper tool/hand holder (Brand: 3M Sandblaster from ACE)
- Fan aimed at an open window for ventilation
- Protective eyewear and face mask during sanding and staining process for extra protection
To read about the process of how I applied the shellac, scroll up to the section, "How to Stain and Seal Butcher Block with Polyurethane or Shellac." I chose to apply a total of three coats to achieve the desired color and gloss.
Finished Desk (Update 11/22):
This spacious L-shaped desk has the addition of black metal hairpin legs and tie plates to support the inner corner section without a leg. As you can see, we have a lot left to do in our office in terms of décor and equipment. All in all, I'm super pleased with this spur-of-the-moment DIY project that cost less than $350. The desk is incredibly sturdy, made with materials that should last a lifetime, simple in design, and has ample desktop space for computer work, writing, drawing, etc.
Floating shelves are the next to-do. (And I'm thinking maybe some board & batten as well.)