The Ultimate Guide to Wood Kitchen Countertops

The Ultimate Guide to Wood Kitchen Countertops
July 3, 2019
wood kitchen countertops

There are more choices on the market for kitchen countertops today than ever before. Every few years, a new product gets introduced. A few end up having staying power, while most tend to vanish again as quickly as they arrived.

One of the oldest countertop materials, and with arguably the most staying power, is wood. Wood kitchen countertops have a long history, along with a beauty and versatility that mean that they’re still in general use today. Wood countertops are beautiful, durable, and available in a wide range of different styles. With the nearly universal appeal that wood has as a building material, it’s no wonder that wood countertops still make the list of top additions to a home.

Unlike wood flooring or paneling, however, wood countertops aren’t as straightforward as people would believe. A wood countertop is actually pieced together from multiple smaller pieces of wood. This is part of what brings a lot of the charm and beauty of a wood countertop, but it also makes for more choices for the homeowner to have to make. 

History of Wood Countertops

Wood countertops actually came about as cutting surfaces for butchers. This is where the term “butcher block” countertop comes from.

The first wood countertops were actually large tree stumps that had been cut smooth. They didn’t last long, however, and butchers needed to replace them frequently.

Eventually, it was discovered that taking sugar maple pieces and gluing them together to form a single surface created a denser, harder chopping block. Butchers were able to use the blocks longer, and cuts could even be sanded out.

The idea that a durable countertop could be formed out of wood using the same methods followed shortly thereafter. This led to the butcher block countertop that is still being used today, along with a variety of other styles of wood countertops.

Wood Countertop Styles

There are essentially three different methods to constructing a wood countertop. Each one gives the material different characteristics as well as a distinct look.

Edge grain

The first type uses pieces of wood positioned so that the long cut ends are visible at the top. The pieces of wood are roughly 1 to 2-inches in width, which gives a lot of grain, movement, and variation to the countertops, but because these are the cut ends, they also have a more distinct appearance than a single plank or piece of wood. This is the most common type of butcher block countertop.

End grain

The second type uses the short cut ends, which can make the countertop look a lot like a checkerboard. Sometimes the pieces of wood will be stained in alternating colors to further enhance this effect. By using the short-cut ends, you can get a stronger, more durable countertop, as well as a countertop of varying thicknesses.

Face Grain

The final style is the most decorative, and uses face planks of wood pieced together. These pieces of wood may be the same width or a variety of different widths, measuring from 2 to 8-inches wide. This allows the most grain variation and movement to show, and gives more choices for edge styles for the countertop. 

All three styles can be made of different wood species, finished with different stains, and can be shaped in different ways. 

Maintenance and Durability

The way that a countertop looks and the way that it functions are equally important to know. Most countertops used today have some type of maintenance involved, and wood is no different. 

If your wood countertop is unfinished, meaning that it has not been given a stain or protective finish, you will need to oil it monthly. The oil will penetrate the wood, and help keep it supple, while preventing some stains.

All wood countertops may absorb some liquids, even those that have been finished, so you need to keep an eye on the countertop, and wipe up spills as soon as you see them. You’ll want to stay aware of highly acidic spills in particular, as these may affect the glue that holds your countertop together. 

Like all wood, your wood countertop may swell and contract with humidity. Some wood species may also darken in color when exposed to sunlight and humidity. This is normal, and part of the beauty of having a wood countertop in your home. 

If your countertop becomes scratched, scraped, or even burned, these marks can be sanded out of the countertop, and a new finish can be applied to disguise the marks. While on the one hand, this does make wood countertops slightly higher in maintenance than some other materials, on the other, it also means that you can renew your countertop fairly easily, enabling it to last for many years. 

Colors and Wood Grains

Wood species each have their own characteristics, color, and grain patterns. This means that you have a lot of choices when it comes to choosing your wood countertop.

All woods have a rich, warm color to them, but they can range in grain and tone. For example, white oak has a gray undertone with a moderate grain pattern, while hickory has a creamy white color with a very dark, wild grain. Cherry has a very rich, warm color and a close grain, while pine has a lot of natural knot holes that can give the countertop an antique or rustic look. 

Wood can be contemporary, traditional, formal, or rustic depending on the grain and the finish. This lets it work well in nearly any kitchen or space. 

Design Ideas

Seeing is believing when it comes to determining the many ways that you can utilize a wood countertop. From rustic, reclaimed wood countertops that show marks of their previous use, to new cut wood countertops with a variety of wood types and stains, wood countertops can give your kitchen a variety of looks. These 9 design ideas can help give you a glimpse into the many possibilities for your home. 

1. Butcher Block Style

Butcher Block Style
1. Butcher Block Style

This island countertop is made from reclaimed heart pine - the hardest, and most instantly recognizable softwood. The countertop matches the color of the cabinets, giving the kitchen a subtle uniformity. The reclaimed pine has a soft finish that complements the rustic nature of the room. 

2. Contrasting Countertop

Contrasting Countertop
2. Contrasting Countertop

This island countertop is also made of reclaimed heart pine. Here, however, it’s given a very different look by contrasting beadboard cabinetry. This heart pine has a rich luster, along with a slightly rustic look that lets the knot holes show.

3. Smooth and Sleek

Smooth and Sleek countertop
3. Smooth and Sleek

Wood countertops don’t have to be rustic to be beautiful. This walnut countertop has a rich, dark finish that’s also been given a sleek edge with one rounded side. Against all the other light wood in the kitchen, the walnut stands out as a focal point.

4. Perimeter Countertop

Perimeter Countertop
4. Perimeter Countertop

While many people choose to use wood countertops on the kitchen island, they can also be used with great effect on the perimeter cabinetry as well. This look is particularly effective in Arts and Crafts and Craftsman style homes, as well as Farmhouse and Cottage styles. This antique elm countertop perfectly complements the yellow backsplash, brightening up the kitchen. 

5. Smooth Curves

Smooth Curves
5. Smooth Curves

One of the benefits of wood is the way that it can be cut, polished, and shaped to follow any curve. This reclaimed hickory countertop curves smoothly around one side, giving better accommodation to the user. The prominent grain of the wood helps complement the sleekness of the design, emphasizing the shape. 

6. Rustic Focal Point

Rustic Focal Point
6. Rustic Focal Point

This rustic kitchen uses an antique oak countertop to add some focus to the center of the room. The oak still shows the saw marks from its original use, adding interest and depth to the design, while contrasting to the more formal cabinetry. This countertop helps anchor and complete the kitchen design. 

7. Center Contrast

Center Contrast
7. Center Contrast

This kitchen features several unique and interesting design elements, such as the hand hewn antique wood beams. The countertop needs to hold its own, and tie together the various finishes in the room. The rich color of the wood picks up the darker colors in the room, while the sleek surface and smooth finish add a little contrast that balances the design. 

8. Light Contrast

Light Contrast
8. Light Contrast

This kitchen features a lot of dark wood and rich colors. A dark countertop would only overwhelm the room, so this antique oak countertop provides a much needed contrast. The lighter finish of the countertop helps it hold its own in a room full of wood finishes, but the color is unique to the area, which also lets it stand out. 

9. Antique Accent

Antique Accent
9. Antique Accent

Kitchens today don’t just feature a single countertop area and sink. Instead, they have different countertop materials and an additional bar or utility sinks for added function. This little utility sink nook has an antique pine countertop that helps create a cozy feeling. The patina of the wood matches the finish of the cabinet perfectly, while also complementing the small tile backsplash. 

Complete Your Kitchen with a Wood Countertop

Wood countertops are versatile, durable, and long lasting as well as beautiful. Wood countertops require only moderate maintenance, and can last for decades when cared for properly. Whether you choose something modern or rustic, there’s no denying that the beauty of a real wood countertop will enhance your kitchen design now and well into the future.