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An Eye On Design:

February 27, 2014

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Counter Top Makeover: Refinishing Butcher Block

January 19, 2015

Sometimes all it takes to revitalize a space is one change, rather than a complete overhaul. In the case of this kitchen, all it took was a trip to the hardware store, some elbow grease, a few days, and a little patience.

I'm not going to sugar coat it, it wasn't the easier project I've ever worked on... and that's saying a lot. I've laid both brick and flagstone... and neither got to me as much as some aspects of this project. Probably not exactly what you want to here at the beginning of a "how-to" post, but my experience with this especially challenging butcher block counter tops, will help to ease the pains of your next refinishing project. And the end result will be totally worth every minute.



At first glance, you might not see anything wrong with the former state of these counter tops... maybe just a little uneven in color here and there. But upon closer inspection you'll find discolorations, staining, cup rings, and even in some locations a waxy buildup due to an over use of butcher block conditioner. These counter tops were a mess.


Coming into the project it was clear to me that the counter tops needed to be able to not just look more visually appealing, but considering the state they've found themselves in more functional and durable as well.


A quick note on butcher block and wooden counter top care: DO NOT, I repeat DO NOT use bleach on butcher block and/or wooden counter tops! The discoloration in the wood that you see in the photographs above was due to the improper care and cleaning of these counter tops. This bleached and dried out the wood, and caused the over use of butcher block conditioner to compensate the damage; which in turn led to the waxy buildups I found under the appliances. I informed the owners of this 'wood care no-no' and they promised not to do it ever again (nor let their cleaning lady).


So lets get started!


What you'll need:

  • Electric Sander

  • Sand Paper: medium #150/#180 grit and fine #220/#320 grit paper (Note: You'll need enough of the finest grit sand papers #220 and #320 for Steps 3 and 5.)

  • Pre-Stain Wood Conditioner

  • Stain + Poly - in the color of your choice

  • Staining Brushes, Staining Sponges

  • Cloth Towels and Cleaning Sponges, and

  • Wood Safe Cleanser

Step One: Clearing Counter Tops

Surely a given, though still an important step. Clearing the counter tops of all appliances, containers, dishes, and the like, makes way for the project to come.

It was at this point in the project that I discovered the waxy buildup that existed underneath both the microwave, toaster oven, food processor, and even the paper towel roll holder. This is an unusual problem I would have to address in a slightly different way than originally anticipated. Regardless Step Two remains the same.

Step Two: Clean, Clean, Clean

Next step in the process is to clean, clean, clean.... More than wiping down, it's important to clean the wood, removing all 'gunk' and debris from the counter tops' surface before sanding. Using wood safe cleaner, water, sponges, and rags, clean the surface as well as possible.


After I completed this step I had to add in a secondary step to Step Two to address the waxy buildup using TSP, a course sponge, and tons and tons of 'elbow grease' (aka applied pressure). At one point I had to bring in a wide plastic scraper/puddy knife to help get off all the waxy conditioner. (However, unless you have experience in refurbishing wood, as I do, I wouldn't recommend using the scraper, unless you are confident in your ability to not score or damage the wood.) Honestly, this unforeseen obstacle added on a couple of addition hours of extra work, which under 'normal' circumstances, would have only taken about 10-15minutes tops. 

After the counter tops were clean they already looked so much better, and more even in color.

Step Three: Sanding

When sanding wood of any kind, it is important to remember to work in the direction of the grain. Start with the heaviest sand paper grit #150, then after all surfaces are even in both color and texture, switch to #180, #220, and finally #320, ending on the finest grit paper to smooth out the surface. On areas with staining, this takes a little more time and application in order to work the wood past the stained surface. When doing this also remember to work the entirety of the area to ensure you're sanding the counter tops evenly, so that you don't end up with any overworked areas or 'dips'.


After all the sanding is complete remove all dust particles thoroughly with a damp cloth. It is very important that ALL sanding dust is cleaned off before you move on to the next few steps.

Step Four: Conditioning The Wood



The purpose of conditioning is simple. To saturate the wood in such a way that the stain + poly takes to the surface evenly. This keeps your work from looking patchy and allows you to use less coats of stain overall to get the job done. Using a staining sponge, apply an even coat of wood conditioner liberally to the clean counter tops, moving in a straight line of shallow circles going with the grain of the wood. Allow the conditioner to seep into the wood for apx. 5 minutes, then using a clean cloth to wipe off excess conditioner. Then, allow it to settle for at least 30 minutes before proceeding. After this step the butcher block already looks so much healthier, as you can see in the picture below.


Be careful that you don't confuse wood conditioner intended for use before staining, with wood conditioner intended for food prep use of cutting boards and unsealed woods. They ARE NOT the same thing. Just make sure to check the labels of all products before hitting the check out line at your local home improvement store. 

Step Five: Staining! Finally!!

So here we are at the moment of truth, STAINING the counter tops!


To stain these counter tops I used Varathane Stain + Poly in Traditional Cherry Semi-Gloss. Choose a color that works for your space, but semi-gloss is the perfect finish for a surface that's going to need regular wiping or get wet. Another thing to note is that I chose to use a two in one product, rather than separate stain and poly, both are necessary for refinishing, however the two-in-one will save you a few extra days of labor. I will say however that if you want to allow the natural color of your wood to shine through, using a clear poly is fine.

Staining, in an of itself, is a 3 Step process... 5-7 if you desire additional coats or a deeper looking finish. The key is to Stain, Sand, and Stain. The first coat is essentially a 'primer' coat. This coat allows the counter tops to take on the color, but isn't general enough to truly protect the surface or give you the desired color shown on the stain container. After allowing that first coat to dry for an hour, then lightly hand sand the surface with #220 grit sand paper. Wipe off the dust thoroughly, then apply the next coat. For subsequent coats, use the #320 paper after each hour of drying, clean off all dust before repeating the process. By sanding in between each coat you're allow the stain to properly adhere to the previous one, which will protect against scratching, chipping and other damage. After you apply the final coat allow it to dry for at least 24hrs before bringing anything back into the kitchen, and use the surfaces lightly for 48hrs, to allow stain to set.


After First Coat:

Sanding In Between Coats:

Painting for beginner or a refresher: After opening the can, stir the stain thoroughly before use. DO NOT shake the can in an attempt to save time... this will result in bubbles. Bubbles in stain and paint are bad. We don't want bubbles.

Then load your brush by dipping into the stain, removing excess from the tip using the inner part of the can's lip. Paint the stain on in long, even strokes across the entirely of the surface. Pick up the brush and start the next line of stain from the same side you began, creating a slight overlap as you repeat the motion further down on the unpainted surface and continue until you've covered it all with even coats. 


Even if you are tempted, DO NOT put a second coat on at this time. You MUST allow the stain to dry before you do so or dire consequences will result... or you know, you'll have to fix the mistakes that will occur and add on additional days of work needlessly.... just don't do it, okay?? And remember that the stain will look different dry and after subsequent coats. 


Final Touches: For this project my final touches were painting along the walls that previously have old stain on them, and touching up the white trim around the door frames and original kitchen cabinets in the corners. I also wiped down the cabinet doors, swept, and mopped the floors. As far as cleaning the brushes and sponges went I simply used warm soap and water to clean them and my hands.



As you can see, the counter tops turned out amazing! The kitchen looks soo much better! The cabinets and walls look brighter, and the overall kitchen has a much fresher look. Proving that sometime all a space needs is one change to create big change! Not every project has to be drastic to be effective. What you may also notice is that I styled the kitchen slightly differently from what was originally on the counter tops. Less is more. And less going on top of the counter tops opens up the space beautifully.





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