I love restored vintage cars, and every time I spot one am prone to uttering something like I’d make that car look hawt. Unfortunately, I am not exactly what you’d call an attentive driver. Highly prone to daydreaming at red lights, jumping a few curbs a month, forgetting to move to my exit lane until five seconds before passing it… I know, you hate me. The truth of the matter is that I am the worst candidate for a restored automobile. Can you imagine the repair bills?
Wood countertops are pure magic. I’ve done them all – Teak, Walnut, Butternut, reclaimed Chestnut and the ever-popular Hard Rock Maple. Every single one makes my heart pitter patter, so you might think I’d be installing them in every space I touch, but you’d be wrong. Some of my readers are the perfect candidates for a real wood top, and some would be far happier with faux wood tops (covered in this article, and not at all a bad solution), or just admiring from afar.
Many American consumers believe that wood countertops are not hygienic. (I blame an old FDA bulletin declaring plastic cutting boards safer than wood, which was later revoked due to exactly zero supporting research.) In 1993, the University of Wisconsin published the first real study, which found that wood cutting boards are far more effective at eliminating dangerous bacteria after being washed and air dried. Plastic cutting boards, especially the inexpensive ones we buy for our homes, are quickly scarred by knives, creating the perfect place for bacteria to hide during cleanup.
Though wood cutting boards are quite hygienic when properly cleaned, there are only two surfaces which are truly non-porous and easily disinfected: quartz composite (commonly sold under the names Silestone, Cambria and Caesarstone) and stainless steel. If you’re concerned with eliminating food-borne illness from your home (a reasonable concern given that our kitchens contain more bacteria than toilets), science tells us that nonporous surfaces are the cat’s meow.
Four Types of Wood Countertops
Wood countertops can be constructed a few different ways, depending on the look and features you’d most like.
Plank countertops are easily distinguished by their striped appearance. Imagine taking 2×4’s and stacking them up side-by-side. Plank tops’ durability is mostly a function of the species used: the harder and denser the species, the more difficult it becomes to dent or ding the surface. Because these countertops require large amounts of costly material and knowledgeable construction, this is easily the most expensive method… but like, wow.
Veneer tops, which are easily detected by their lack of joints or stripes, are a cost effective way to get the look and feel of wood tops. Imagine peeling a log like a carrot, giving you a long ribbon of wood. Thin and flexible, the shaving (or veneer) can be laid over a thicker substrate like plywood, then finished much like any other wood surface. Applying a real wood edge makes your top look and feel much like it was built from solid lumber. This method should only be used on surfaces which won’t see a lot of action. After all, its beauty is only skin deep.
Butcherblock countertops, easily detectable by their checkerboard appearance, are similar to plank tops, except these boards are tipped upright, so the finished surface is made up of the board’s end grain rather than its face or edge grain. The reason butchers and bakers love this construction technique is because end grain is self-healing, so you can chop on these tops to your heart’s content. Structurally they must be thicker and heavier than plank tops, which can make for awkward cutting boards, but dynamite countertops. I’d guess 95% of the butcherblock tops out there are made from Hard Rock Maple, but feel free to have fun and try another hard species. Walnut, for example, makes for gorgeous butcherblocks.
Just like I’m a terrible candidate for vintage automobiles, many homeowners are not a good match for a surface that will change with time and use. Let’s say you’re in that category of homeowners who simply hate imperfections in their work surfaces. There are, and don’t quit on me here, some plastic laminates (think Formica) on the market which can be used to create beautiful wood-look countertops. This is very cost effective, and with the advent of premium textures from lines like Wilsonart and Arborite, they can even feel more natural than the laminates of yesterday.
The secret to pulling off really great laminate countertops is applying a real wood edging, and staining that wood to match your laminate. I built a table exactly like this for Limoncello‘s anitpasta station five years ago. Even with all the use and abuse of a restaurant, it remains a beautiful tabletop five years in, warm and inviting but durable as all get out.
Understanding these construction methods will help you price and purchase a wood top that’s as well suited to your needs as it is beautiful. I’ve created this free Wood Countertop Handout, with a convenient comparison chart and steps you can take to get a free quote. Enjoy, readers!