Choosing The Best Polyurethane For Butcher Block

Butcher block! A staple in many kitchens, these sturdy work surfaces are more than just a pretty face. They’re practical, durable, and can last for years when treated right. But here’s the catch – the longevity of your butcher block largely depends on the finish you choose. And that’s where Polyurethane comes into play.

Butcher blocks are not just another kitchen accessory. They testify to your culinary adventures, bearing witness to the countless meals prepared on their surface. So, it’s only fair to give them the care they deserve, right? That’s why understanding the importance of a good finish, like Polyurethane, is crucial. It’s not just about making your butcher block look good – it’s about protecting it and extending its life. So, let’s dive in and explore the world of butcher blocks and polyurethane finishes.

Understanding Butcher Blocks

When we talk about butcher blocks, we’re referring to a particular style of assembled wood used primarily for kitchen countertops and chopping boards. Butcher blocks are typically made from straight pieces of wood, which are carefully glued together to create a sturdy surface.

The type of wood used can vary, but common choices include maple, oak, and cherry. Each type of wood brings its own set of characteristics to the table (pun intended!). For instance, maple is known for its hardness and durability, while cherry stands out with its rich color and smooth grain.

Butcher blocks are beloved for their versatility. Of course, they can be used as cutting surfaces, but they’re also popular choices for kitchen islands, countertops, and tables. Their warm, natural look adds a touch of rustic charm to any kitchen. But remember, like any other wooden surface, butcher blocks need proper care and protection, bringing us to finishes.

What is Polyurethane?

Polyurethane is a type of synthetic resin used in varnishes and seals. It’s a popular choice for wood finishes because of its durability and resistance to water, heat, and solvents. In other words, it’s tough stuff!

When applied to butcher blocks, Polyurethane creates a protective barrier that helps prevent damage from everyday kitchen mishaps. Think of it as a shield, guarding your butcher block against everything from water spills to knife scratches.

But Polyurethane doesn’t just offer protection. It also enhances the natural beauty of the wood, giving it a smooth, glossy finish that’s hard to resist. Plus, it’s available in various sheens, from matte to high gloss, so you can choose the look that best suits your kitchen.

Why Choose Polyurethane for Butcher Blocks?

So, why should you consider Polyurethane as your butcher block’s knight in shining armor? Well, the reasons are many.

First off, Polyurethane is incredibly durable. It forms a hard, protective layer on the surface of the wood, shielding it from the wear and tear of daily use. This means your butcher block is less likely to get scratched or dented – a big plus if you’re a keen cook!

Secondly, Polyurethane is resistant to water, heat, and many common household chemicals. This makes it a great choice for kitchen environments where spills and heat are part and parcel of daily life. Imagine not having to worry about water rings or heat marks on your beautiful butcher block – sounds good, right?

Lastly, Polyurethane enhances the natural beauty of the wood. It adds a lovely sheen to the surface, highlighting the wood’s grain and color. Whether you prefer a glossy or matte finish, Polyurethane can deliver.

Is it Advisable to Apply Polyurethane on a Butcher Block?

Now, you might be thinking, Polyurethane sounds great! Why wouldn’t I use it on my butcher block?” Well, while Polyurethane does offer many benefits, it’s important to consider a few things before you make your decision.

On the plus side, Polyurethane is durable, resistant to water and heat, and enhances the wood’s natural beauty. It’s also relatively easy to apply and clean, making it a practical choice for busy kitchens.

However, there are a few potential drawbacks to consider.

For one, polyurethane finishes are not always food-safe. You must choose a food-safe polyurethane if you’re using your butcher block as a cutting surface.

Secondly, Polyurethane is durable but can be prone to cracking or peeling over time, especially if the surface isn’t properly prepared before application. This means you’ll need to take the time to properly sand and clean your butcher block before applying the Polyurethane.

Lastly, polyurethane finishes can alter the feel of the wood. Some people love the smooth, glossy finish, while others prefer untreated wood’s natural, slightly rough feel.

Types of Polyurethane for Butcher Blocks

When it comes to choosing Polyurethane for your butcher block, you’ll find there are several types to consider. Let’s look at the three most common: food-safe Polyurethane, matte polyurethane, and water-based Polyurethane.

Food-Safe Polyurethane: As the name suggests, this type of Polyurethane is safe to use on surfaces that come into contact with food. It’s a great choice if you plan to use your butcher block as a cutting surface. However, remember that not all polyurethane products are food-safe, so always check the label.

Matte Polyurethane: If you prefer a less shiny finish, matte Polyurethane might be the way to go. It offers the same protective benefits as other types of Polyurethane but with a more subdued sheen. This can be a great way to highlight the natural beauty of the wood without adding too much gloss.

Water-Based Polyurethane: This type of Polyurethane is known for its low odor and quick drying time. It’s also easier to clean up than oil-based Polyurethane, which can be a big plus if you do the application yourself. However, water-based Polyurethane may not be as durable as its oil-based counterpart, so it might not be the best choice for high-traffic areas.

Butcher Block Finish: Polyurethane or Oil?

Let’s tackle the age-old question: Polyurethane or oil for your butcher block finish? Both have their pros and cons, and the best choice largely depends on your specific needs and preferences.

Polyurethane: As we’ve discussed, Polyurethane is a durable, water-resistant finish that can protect your butcher block from scratches, spills, and heat. It’s available in a variety of sheens, from matte to high gloss, and can enhance the natural beauty of the wood. However, not all Polyurethane is food-safe, and it can alter the feel of the wood.

Oil: On the other hand, oil finishes, like mineral oil or tung oil, penetrate the wood, nourishing it and helping to prevent drying and cracking. They’re generally food-safe and can give the wood a warm, natural glow. However, oil finishes require more maintenance than Polyurethane. They need to be reapplied regularly to maintain their protective qualities, and they don’t offer the same level of resistance to water and heat.

Waterlox vs. Polyurethane for Butcher Block

When finishing your butcher block, both Waterlox and Polyurethane have their merits. Let’s compare these two popular options.

Waterlox: Waterlox is a type of tung oil-based finish penetrating deep into the wood, providing a durable, waterproof seal. It’s known for its rich, amber tone that enhances the natural beauty of the wood. Waterlox is also food-safe once cured, making it a good option for butcher blocks used for food preparation. However, it does require more maintenance than Polyurethane, needing reapplication every few years.

Polyurethane: As we’ve discussed, Polyurethane is a synthetic finish that forms a hard, protective layer on the surface of the wood. It’s highly durable and resistant to water, heat, and chemicals. Polyurethane is available in a range of sheens and can enhance the wood’s natural grain. However, not all Polyurethane is food-safe, so you’ll need to choose a product specifically designed for food contact if you plan to use your butcher block for chopping or food prep.

Polycrylic vs. Polyurethane for Butcher Block

Another comparison often made is between polycrylic and Polyurethane. Here’s how these two stack up.

Polycrylic: Polycrylic is a water-based protective finish often used on light-colored woods because it doesn’t yellow over time. It’s also low-odor and dries quickly. However, while polycrylic is durable, it’s not as tough as Polyurethane and may not hold up to heavy use or high temperatures.

Polyurethane: Polyurethane, on the other hand, is known for its superior durability and resistance to heat, water, and chemicals. It can be oil-based or water-based, with oil-based Polyurethane generally offering more durability but a longer drying time. Polyurethane can yellow over time, especially when exposed to sunlight, so it may not be the best choice for light-colored woods.

How to Apply Polyurethane to a Butcher Block

Applying Polyurethane to your butcher block can seem daunting, but you can do it yourself with the right tools and patience. Here’s a step-by-step guide:

Materials Needed:

  • Polyurethane (ensure it’s food-safe if you’ll be using the block for food prep)
  • Fine-grit sandpaper
  • A clean, lint-free cloth
  • A high-quality natural bristle brush

Step 1: Preparation
Start by sanding your butcher block with fine-grit sandpaper. This will smooth out any rough spots and help the Polyurethane adhere better. Wipe away any dust with a clean, dry cloth.

Step 2: Application
Mix your Polyurethane gently to mix it, but avoid shaking it as it can create bubbles. Using your brush, apply a thin, even layer of Polyurethane to the surface of the butcher block. Always brush in the direction of the wood grain.

Step 3: Drying
Allow the Polyurethane to dry completely. Depending on the product, this can take anywhere from a few hours to overnight. Be sure to keep the area well-ventilated during this time.

Step 4: Sanding
Once the first coat is dry, lightly sand the surface with your fine-grit sandpaper. This helps the next coat adhere better. Wipe away any dust with a clean cloth.

Step 5: Additional Coats
Repeat the application, drying, and sanding process for at least two more coats. Three coats of Polyurethane are generally recommended for best results.

Maintaining Your Butcher Block After Applying Polyurethane

Once you’ve applied Polyurethane to your butcher block, it’s important to maintain it properly to keep it looking its best. Here are some tips:

Cleaning: Clean your butcher block regularly with a mild soap and warm water. Avoid harsh chemicals or abrasive cleaners, which can damage the polyurethane finish.

Avoid Heat and Moisture: While Polyurethane is resistant to heat and water, it’s still a good idea to use trivets or pot holders under hot pans and to wipe up spills promptly.

Reapplication: The polyurethane finish on your butcher block may wear thin over time. When this happens, it’s time to reapply. Start by lightly sanding the surface, then apply a new coat of Polyurethane following the steps above.

General Maintenance: Avoid cutting directly on the polyurethane finish, as this can lead to scratches. Instead, use a cutting board. Also, keep your butcher block out of direct sunlight, as prolonged exposure can cause the Polyurethane to turn yellow.

Top-Rated Polyurethane for Butcher Block Countertops

Here are some top-rated products that are suitable for butcher block countertops:

  1. Mahoney’s Oil Wax Finish – 8oz: This food-safe finish is perfect for butcher blocks. It’s easy to apply and provides a durable finish that enhances the natural beauty of the wood.
  2. Epoxy Resin for Bar Tops, Tables, & Countertops: This epoxy resin provides a high-gloss finish that’s extremely durable and resistant to water, heat, and chemicals. It’s a great choice if you’re looking for a beautiful and tough finish.

While these products are highly rated, reading the product descriptions and reviews is important to ensure they meet your specific needs. Also, always follow the manufacturer’s instructions for best results.

What is the Optimal Finish for a Butcher Block?

Choosing the optimal finish for your butcher block depends on several factors. Here’s what you need to consider:

Usage: How you plan to use your butcher block will greatly influence the type of finish you choose. If you’re using it as a cutting surface, you’ll want a food-safe finish like mineral oil or a food-safe polyurethane. If it’s more for aesthetic purposes, like a countertop, you might opt for a more durable finish like Polyurethane or epoxy resin.

Maintenance: Some finishes require more upkeep than others. Oil finishes, for example, need to be reapplied regularly to maintain their protective qualities. On the other hand, Polyurethane is a more low-maintenance option, requiring reapplication only when it starts to wear thin.

Aesthetics: The finish you choose can affect the look of your butcher block. Oil finishes tend to bring out the natural beauty of the wood and give it a warm, rich glow. Polyurethane, on the other hand, can add a glossy sheen to the surface and highlight the wood’s grain.

Durability: If your butcher block will see heavy use, you’ll want a finish that can withstand wear and tear. Polyurethane and epoxy resin are highly durable and resistant to water, heat, and chemicals.

Applying Polyurethane to a Butcher Block

While I can’t provide images, I can describe what you might see at each step of the process:

Step 1: Preparation: Picture a clean, bare butcher block. You’re sanding it with fine-grit sandpaper, smoothing out any rough spots. The butcher block might look slightly lighter and feel smoother to the touch.

Step 2: Application: Now, imagine a can of Polyurethane and a high-quality natural bristle brush. You’re applying a thin, even layer of Polyurethane to the butcher block, brushing toward the wood grain. The wood might appear darker and shinier as you apply the Polyurethane.

Step 3: Drying: The butcher block is left to dry. It’s in a well-ventilated area, away from dust and debris. The Polyurethane is slowly hardening, creating a protective layer on the wood.

Step 4: Sanding: Lightly sand the surface with fine-grit sandpaper once dry. This roughens the Polyurethane enough to help the next coat adhere better. The surface might look a bit duller after sanding.

Step 5: Additional Coats: You repeat the application, drying, and sanding process for at least two more coats. Each coat adds to the durability and shine of the finish.


Choosing the right finish for your butcher block is crucial for its functionality and aesthetics. Polyurethane is popular due to its durability and water, heat, and chemical resistance. However, it’s important to consider factors such as usage, maintenance, aesthetics, and durability when choosing the optimal finish.

In the end, whether you choose Polyurethane, oil, or another finish, proper application, and maintenance ensure your butcher block remains a beautiful and functional part of your kitchen for many years.