DIY – Build your own butcher block countertops

Claire and I have recently been doing some renovating in the kitchen area, and thought about new countertops. New countertops are crazy expensive! There’s some thick cash for these things. I got to thinking about it a bit, and decided that maybe I could put together some butcher block countertops. I got to work on the internet, and came across some sites that I thought were instructive. Each offered some good tips and really got me started.  Big thanks to the writers of each.  Those sites can be found at:

Build a Traditional End Grain Up Butcher Block – Part I of II | Startwoodworking.com http://www.startwoodworking.com/plans/build-traditional-end-grain-butcher-block-part-i-ii

Fisherman’s Wife Furniture: DIY Butcher Block Countertops http://fishermanswifefurniture.blogspot.ca/2013/09/diy-butcher-block-countertops.html

Build a Butcher Block Tabletop | DoItYourself. https://www.doityourself.com/stry/build-a-butcher-block-table-top

Stuff you’ll need for this project if you’re relying on these instructions:

  1.  Home use table saw.  This one retails for 199 if it’s on a stand, or for $119 for one that does not have a stand.  It’s a must have if you’re going to do much in the way of woodworking.
  2. Home use planer.   A power planer is the electric version of device that looks like this:  .  The power version of this is much better.  You’ll be a lifetime and with less success trying to use the manual version.   The power one retails for about 119$ if you get one at Canadian Tire.  If it’s on sale you’ll get it for about 1/2 that amount.  They are a great tool for finishing work, and last well.
  3. Belt Sander.  These things are great!  Ever had belt sander races?   Plug two of them in, press the on switch and the lock switch (the lock switch keeps it going after you’ve let go of the power button) and set them down, they run like crazy!  Okay, enough fun, we’re not here to do belt sander races, let’s build some countertops.   Here’s what they look like:  These are a very handy workhorse to add to your stable.   If you’re trying to prepare a rough floor for laying hardwood, or trying to clear a lot of material, this is the thing.
  4. Multiple grades of sandpaper.  You can get this at Canadian Tire or at Homedepot.  You’ll want some 40 grit, 80 grit, 120 grit, and 220 grit paper.  This stuff, for the belt sander, retails for about 5.99 per pack of 5 belts.  One pack of each should be more than sufficient for you.
  5. Optional – Random orbit sander.  This is a bit of a different beast.  The random orbit aspect prevents predictable power sander deformities, and gives you a more refined product.   You can get one of these for about 50$ at Home Depot or Canadian Tire.    This one is optional, you’ll get a very nice finish without it, but if you want a step above and can afford the tool, it’s a good choice.  You’ll need sandpaper pads that fit it, which will be 5 inch round pads.   As you will only use this on the second last and last application you only need sandpaper pads in 120 and 220 grit for this one.
  6. Skil Saw aka circular saw – you will use this to cut off the ends of the counter to make it even when you’ve finished forming it.  Note that when you do this you’ll be cutting through lumber that is 2 inches thick for the depth of your counter, which is usually 24 inches deep.   It’s important that this be a very careful and complete cut, so use a corded skil saw.  Some cordless ones out there might do it, but corded never seem to run out of power at just the wrong moment.  These sell for about 60$ or so.
  7. Chop saw.  You’ll use this to cut the boards to length after you’ve ripped them.   This will only be cutting through a single board of 2 inches by 3/4 of an inch so you’re not asking a lot of this.  A chop saw will give you a very nice square cut each time.    These vary in price, and can get fairly expensive ($600 or so) if you go to a full mitre type saw.  Less expensive ones for basic projects are available.    
  8. Waterlox https://waterlox.com/  original sealer and waterlox satin finish.  This stuff is crazy expensive in Canada.    A pint container, by the time I pay shipping, costs more than 115$.   Yep, a gallon is around $400.  Ack!  Good grief, I can’t believe how expensive this stuff is.   However, based on the articles above, I concluded that it’s the right product for this job.  As I understand it, this product goes on and absorbs, and leaves very little in the way of oil on the surface, so that stuff you set down on the surface once it’s prepared does not suck up a bunch of oil.  It’s food safe. 
  9. Titebond III glue.  That’s like Titebond 3 but we have cute roman numbers.  This stuff is very high quality glue, food safe, and very solid.   It’s not all that pricey but you’re going to go through quite a lot of it.
  10. Clamps.   You’ll want a few of these, and the long ones will be needed for the counter as it gets wider.  You can get these at Canadian Tire on sale.   You’ll need a few.  I’d say a minimum of 4 of them, and that’s a bit lean.   

 

With the information from the above sites in mind, I decided on maple as the wood to be used.  Claire and I went to Home Depot and found some maple.  Good grief!  That is some crazy expensive stuff!  It worked out to about $82 dollars for each 1″ x 8″ x 96″ board.  Now have in mind that these are finished boards, all four sides.  That’s not all that useful to me, because I plan to build 2 inch thick countertops.  That means that I’m not using the boards as they are by any means.  Instead I’m running each one over the table saw, and cutting them in two inch strips.  That would seem at first thought to be 4 strips from each board, but have in mind that a 1 x 8 x 96 board is in fact finished out to .75 thick by about 7.5 wide.  The length is actually correct, you get a full 96 inches on the board length.  Because of this, I get three boards of 2 inches thick out of each allegedly 8 inch wide board, and a small strip that I plan to use in a different project.

So tip number one that I found would be to go to a more diversified lumber supplier.  These were high end boards for Home Depot, obviously meant for a home wood worker that would be using them as a finished board.  Since I was not using them that way, I could probably have saved some money had I found a supplier that could bring them to me in an unfinished state.

Ripping the boards:  Get a blade that is meant for ripping.   A table saw will save you a ton of time and give you a more consistent product.  Mine has a 10 inch blade on it.   I set the cut for two inches and started ripping.  Initially I had a finishing blade on it, thinking that this would give a smoother cut to the wood.  Wrong wrong wrong idea!   The finishing blade is meant for across the grain cuts, not for ripping.  Using the finishing blade darn near lit the wood on fire.  It’s just the wrong way to use the tool.  Add on a ripping blade and away you go, that thing does a great job.  One person feeding it into the saw, the other person receiving the pieces as they go through, and you can rip a ton of wood in a very few minutes.

 

Lay the pieces down, end on so that they are two inches high.   As you reach the end of a row (the length of your counter), cut off the board, and use that piece as the start to your next row.Please note, and I hope there’s no confusion on this.   The goal is not to cut a bunch of boards to a length of 48 inches if that is the width of your counter.   Do not do this.  Instead cut the first board to 48 inches, and if the next board would then be 48 inches cut 8 inches off of it, and then take a new board and cut an 8 inch piece.  So row #1 is a 48 inch board, row #2 is a 40 inch board.  Now take a new board and chop 8 inches off of it, and add that 8 inches to the right hand end of row #2.  Row number #3 will start with the 8 inch piece that is left over, together with 40 inches of your board that you already cut.   Row #4 will be a single piece, being the one that you did an 8 inch cutoff from, and the remainder of that board will go into Row #5.   You’re not wanting pieces to all be the same length here, so every now and again chop off a piece a

bit differently, like 18 inches or so.  

Do not use pieces that are shorter than about 4 or 5 inches.  You’ll need some glue to attach them.  Do not glue as you go.  Wait until you’ve cut and fit enough for a few rows, maybe a counter 6 inches deep, and then get them laid out for you to glue and fit together.   Apply the titebond III glue, and fit together 6 inches of counter depth, and use clamps to hold it all together. 

Take care as best you can to get all the pieces at the same depth, this is where care in your table saw cutting can really show up.  It will be all but impossible to build to the exact length that your counter is.  Build the countertop about one inch longer than what you want so that you can trim off the ends.

Tip on applying the glue:  Run a generous bead the whole length of the wood, and then use your finger to spread it out a bit.  If you don’t do this, the glue runs straight down the wood, giving little coverage to the material above your bead.

Second tip on applying the glue:  Place parchment paper underneath your project.   This glue is really strong stuff, and if you have any that leaks out the bottom when you tighten up the clamps it can really stick your new countertop to whatever you’re using to build it on.   I initially used newspaper underneath and the paper was a mess to get off of the bottom of the countertop.  Parchment paper does not stick and peels off like magic.

Each application of the glue requires 24 hours to reach it’s maximum hold.  Note that we are talking about a two inch thick hardwood countertop here.  It gets heavy in a hurry.  Get help rolling it over.   Keep at this until you’ve built a countertop in the dimensions that you require.   Use a skil saw and cut off the ends very carefully, so that you have the perfect width.  This is why you’ve built it a bit long on both ends is to allow a nice even cut to be applied with the skil saw (circular saw).   Use a saw guide to get the best cut.  There’s more about a saw guide below.

Get your planer out and use it to smooth the surface.  You will have some boards that are sitting higher than others, and the only way to deal with this is to power plane the entire surface to get the high spots down to the spots of the low spots.  Strip this stuff away, take care not to create more mayhem then you must, but strip it off.  You will have a lot of wood shavings happening here.  The planer is the way to really speed this process, sanding will take about a million years without it.  Here’s a video to show you some of the planing.DSCF7490

After using the planer, switch to the belt sander at 40 or 50 grit paper.  Get that thing working, and sand with the grain of the wood.  You’re trying to remove the wounds that were left by the power planer.    Keep at it.  Once you think it’s looking pretty good switch to 80 grit and keep sanding with the grain.   Eventually  when you think you’re done switch to a 120 grit.

Sanding Tip:  As you’re sanding with the power sanders, lift it up from time to time and allow loose stuff to fall off the sanding belt or pad, and use  a broom to sweep off your countertop.   Sanding belts and pads do not work at their best when they have a bunch of material caught in them.

After long enough on that to have made a nice difference switch over to the random orbit sander, and run that for a while, firstly one 120 grit, and then finally on 220 grit.     You may wish to smooth the edges of your counter.  This will make it less prone to giving up slivers and such.  You can use your random orbit sander and an 80 grit paper to do this.  Be careful, you can peel a lot of material off in a hurry.

When it’s all beautiful, apply the Waterlox.   That will be two coats of the regular waterlox Sealer/Finish, and one coat of the Waterlox satin finish if you’ve chosen to go with that.  Note that if your counter is on top of a dishwasher, or around a sink, it’s a good idea to apply the sealer both to the top and bottom and of course the sides in any case.

That’s it, you’ve done it.  You’ve built your own butcher block countertop.

That built the shortest counter in our house, and was sort of a trial run.  The next task was to build the longer ones, which have an L shape to them, joining in a corner.   Do your measuring carefully here.  Mine was 94  inches from one flat end into my corner and 44 1/2 from the other flat end into the corner.   It’s a 90 degree corner where they meet.   I chose to built this as a single long countertop, then cut it at 45 degrees, and flip over one piece so that they would meet at a 90 degree angle.    You could cut them straight and join them as a 90 but I thought that would not give the finished look that I wanted.  If you’re joining them with a straight cut and fitting them at 90 the math is an easy one, add up the length of the long piece plug the short piece, and build a single countertop that long.   If you’re joining them with two 45 degree angles to create a 90, or some variation of that, then the length is the total of your longest edge flat to corner plus your shortest edge flat to joined corner. Build it about 1 inch longer than you will actually need to allow for trimming of the ends after you’re done.  That way you don’t have to obsess quite so much about making the ends line up as you build.

I built the long counter all as one piece.  Have in mind that this is a much longer counter than the first one that I built (over twice as long) and so I had to make some changes in construction.  In terms of the number of rows that I could add at any one time I found that about three layers was all that I could get attached before the glue set up.  I was working on warm days, about 25 degrees Celsius  and it takes very little time before the glue is so set that you have to pound it apart.

I built the long counter in two portions.  I would not build it this way again and you’ll see why!   I got about 10 rows of the full counter length attached to one another and then started another section and built it to full counter length, adding rows until I finished out at a total of 25 inches which was how deep I wanted this countertop to be.  The next step was to attach the two full length pieces.  This proved a bit more challenging than I had anticipated.   I had foolishly failed to dry fit the two blocks together.  Instead I applied the glue as I had in the past, slid them together, and put the clamps on.   Uh oh!   No matter how hard I applied the clamps the ends of the two blocks would not fit together.  They were close.  Really close.  But they were not together.   I had struggled like crazy trying to pull these pieces together, and the glue had set up, so I did what I could to pull them as close as possible, but was left with what I thought was a noticeable split at each end that was about 5 inches long and up to 1/8th of an inch wide.   I’m sure you can imagine the level of disappointment that this brought about.   These materials were very expensive, and I had by now invested a lot of hours in cutting and gluing them together, covering the blocks up each night in case of rain, getting them all unwrapped to do some more, working for a few minutes after 13 1/2 hour days at work.  I was so disappointed.   But wait!  It’s okay.   I came to learn that this things will happen, don’t panic, wood filler is your friend.

After building the whole countertop as described I trimmed one end to get everything perfectly aligned.   Then I used a carpenters square to draw out the angles that I wanted.   Don’t panic with this.  In most cases we are talking about a 45 degree angle.  That’s about as easy as it gets other than a straight 90.   With your kitchen measurements in mind measure from  your nicely trimmed end out to the very furthest corner that you need, and place a mark there.  Then use your carpenters square to mark that spot and draw out the 45 degree angle.  That’ll give you a line about 10 inches long that is of the correct angle.   Lay a square, or a level, something with a nice straight edge on it, and draw the rest of the line.   Use your circular saw/skil saw to cut the line.

Lets talk about how to actually cut the line.   This is a two inch thick chunk of hardwood.   You’re asking your circular saw to do a lot of work here and you’re on expensive materials.   Get a new blade.   Don’t use the one that’s been on the saw for a thousand plywood cuts building the chicken coop.  This is not the chicken coop.  As well, I’d recommend using a circular saw guide for this as a really straight cut is important.  In fact if you don’t use one you’re really not giving much credit to the work that you’ve done so far, and the cost of the materials.  A circular saw guide is an essential part of quality building.  You don’t buy these, you build them, but they don’t take long to make and they last forever.  Tuck them away in your shed.  Here’s a couple of links, but if you google circular saw guide there are lots more:

From the Family Handy Man site, how to build a circular saw guide

From the Popular Mechanics web site ( and how great is Popular Mechanics!) here’s another description of how to build a circular saw guide

Once you’re made your cut you have a couple more to do.   The first is cutting out the hole for the kitchen sink.  There are a ton of YouTube videos out there for how to do this and I’m not trying to re-invent the wheel with this post.   Google “how do I cut out the hole for my kitchen sink” and you’ll have a ton of advice.   One caution that I can offer with this is on the matter of the sink appliance holes.  Top mount sinks:   A lot of top mount kitchen sinks have some holes in them for the faucet/soap dispenser/etc.   It’s better if you drill through the countertop for these holes, rather than cutting out the entire slab based on the diameter less 1 inch of the entire sink.  Many faucets have some weight to them, and when mounted on only the sink, without additional supporting material underneath, they are floppy.  Floppy means poor quality, or I feel that way when I encounter it anyway.   If you cut out the actual sink part only, so that the surrounding edges and appliance holes have good support, your sink will feel a lot better and your appliances like faucet etc will also feel better.   Choose a hole drill bit that fits the hole, drop the sink into your cut out, mark the holes and then use the hole drill to do the holes.

By now you have two big chunks of wood.  In my case one has a sink hole cut out in it, with three holes along the top for the sink appliances.  Have in mind that you may be flipping one piece over to make a 90 instead of two 45’s.   Start finishing what are to be the finished surfaces in the manner that I’ve described above.   Power planer, belt sander, random orbit sander.    You don’t need to finish both sides by any stretch, though I would recommend using the power planer to take off anything crazy on the non-finished side just to avoid problems laying the countertop.

Now measure out your short piece.   Measure again.  Be absolutely positive and measure again.  Then cut off the flat end of your short piece.   You’re trimming it to make it nice and straight.  Use your awesome saw guide that you built yesterday.

Now that you have two countertops that are ready to go in terms of measurements and cut outs it’s time to start finishing.  Pull out the sander again, and give everything a nice once over to get the edges that you’ve created nice and pretty.   Start applying the waterlox as I’ve described above.

Might I insert a comment about waterlox here?  Of course I can, it’s my blog!  That’s great!   Waterlox is an amazing product.   I’d use this stuff again to be sure.  BUT….  It’s hella expensive in Canada.  Almost $400 dollars a gallon.  Yes, four hundred dollars a gallon.  It’s pricey in the states, but not like this.   A little goes a long way, I used two quarts, (about two litres) one being a sealer/finisher and one being a finisher, and the cost was better than $200 dollars for those two cans.   This stuff is a lot like varathane, but instead of sitting on top it is absorbed.   An amazing product, water when spilled sits like a bead on top.    Paper when you set it on it does not get oily.   But we have to find some way to get around this cost issue, because at that price per gallon I feel like I’m buying drugs.  It’s crazy way too expensive in Canada.

Once you’re got your pieces finished place them on the counter, and secure them.   You should have a pretty good fit where they connect.   You can use a bit of wood filler to fill in that joint, and then do some light sanding, and re-apply the waterlox as described above.    If there are any spots that you’re unhappy with, where the boards did not fit really tightly, you can also apply wood filler there as well.

That’s it.  There were my counters.  They’re beautiful.   It’s a tough project in terms of time commitments but the end result is pretty great.

 

 

Other sites that provided information before and after this post include:

Installing butcher block countertops

A review of butcher block countertops two years in

My butcher block countertops two years in

 

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