How to Use Butcher Block for Woodworking Projects – A New Yankee Workshop Guide

Butcher block countertops and cutting boards have become popular choices in kitchens today for their natural beauty, durability, and utility. With the right techniques and care, butcher block made from wood like maple or walnut can last a lifetime. This definitive guide from New Yankee Workshop will teach you everything you need to know about working with and caring for beautiful butcher block.

An Introduction to Using Butcher Block for Woodworking

Butcher block simply refers to a thick wooden slab used for chopping, cutting, and food preparation. Traditional butcher blocks were used by butchers to cut meat, hence the name. Today, they are popular as kitchen countertops and cutting boards.

The most common woods used for butcher block are hard maple and walnut. Other choices include cherry, oak, and teak. The wood is glued together in strips to form a solid slab. This end grain construction makes the surface durable and resistant to knife marks. The most common thickness is 1-1/4 inches to 2 inches.

Butcher block has long been valued in woodworking for its natural beauty and practical qualities:

Natural Aesthetics

The wood grains and colors add warmth and style to any kitchen. Butcher block pairs nicely with many design schemes from traditional to contemporary.


The end grain construction can withstand years of chopping and cutting. Proper care is needed, but butcher block can last a lifetime.


Butcher block provides the ideal surface for food preparation. It also makes an attractive countertop in kitchens and workspaces.

Ease of Maintenance

Basic maintenance involves regular oiling to protect and seal the wood. Sanding and re-oiling can rejuvenate the surface as needed over time.

In this guide, we’ll cover everything from choosing the lumber to sanding and finishing to construct your own butcher block countertops and cutting boards in the New Yankee Workshop style.

Selecting the Best Wood for Butcher Block

The first step is choosing the right wood. Here are the characteristics to look for:

Hardness: Harder woods stand up to heavy use. Maple, walnut, cherry, and oak are good choices. Their tight grain patterns resist knife marks. Avoid soft woods like pine.

Appearance: Pick a wood species and grain pattern that matches your desired aesthetics. Maple and walnut are most common.

Stability: The wood should have minimal expansion and contraction through humidity changes to avoid cracks.

Workability: Some specialty woods can be difficult to work with. Stick with common hardwoods that glue and finish well.

Budget: Expensive exotic woods, while beautiful, are not necessary. Save money with maple or walnut.

Here are some top wood choices for butcher block along with their properties:

Hard Maple: The classic butcher block wood. Dense, heavy, and durable. Maintains a light color that stains well. Easy to work with. An economical choice.

Black Walnut: Prized for its rich chocolate brown color with darker grain patterns. Slightly softer than maple. Stains nicely. Adds luxury for a higher price.

Cherry: A dense fruitwood with a reddish-brown hue. Works and finishes well but costs more than maple. Requires extra care to prevent stains.

Red Oak: Affordable option with good durability. Distinct graining. Can darken over time with exposure to light. Stains evenly.

Teak: A tropical hardwood ideal for outdoor butcher block. Dense, oily, and resistant to weather. Very expensive and rare.

Once you select your wood, carefully inspect each board for defects before purchasing. Avoid pieces with cracks, knots, and warping that could cause problems later.

Constructing Your Own Butcher Block

With quality lumber in hand, you’re ready to start constructing your butcher block slab. The main steps include preparing the wood, gluing the strips, clamping and smoothing the slab, and applying the finish.

Here is an overview of the process:

Step 1 – Mill the Wood

Cut your boards to uniform widths around 1-1/4″. Plane or sand to an equal thickness around 1″ if needed. Cut pieces to length.

Step 2 – Arrange the Strips

Lay out your strips in the desired pattern. Alternating the grain direction increases durability. Varying wood tones can create patterns.

Step 3 – Glue the Strips

Spread water-resistant glue evenly across the strips. Clamp them tightly together or use weights allowing glue to dry completely.

Step 4 – Trim Slab Edges

Once dried, trim excess glue and flatten the edges using a table saw or router.

Step 5 – Sand the Surface

Start with coarse 60-80 grit sandpaper to flatten. Finish sanding up to 220 grit for a smooth finish.

Step 6 – Finish the Wood

Apply food-safe mineral oil, beeswax, or varnish. Let dry fully before use. Add additional coats periodically.

Step 7 – Install the Butcher Block

For countertops, fasten securely to cabinetry. Use water-sealant on seams. Apply oil regularly during first several weeks.

Follow these tips for best results constructing your own butcher block:

  • Take time to arrange strips before gluing for desired patterns.
  • Use plenty of clamps and weight for maximum glue-to-wood contact.
  • Sand surfaces thoroughly and evenly to prevent dips or gaps.
  • Allow sufficient drying time between finish coats. At least 72 hours.
  • Drill oversized holes for any fasteners to accommodate wood movement.

Now let’s go through each step of the construction process in more detail.

Step 1 – Milling and Preparing the Wood

Proper milling and wood preparation is crucial for durable, flat butcher block slabs. Here are some tips:

Choosing Edge Grain vs. End Grain

Edge grain boards are easier to construct. End grain is more durable for chopping. Decide based on your use.

Uniform Thickness and Width

Plane or sand boards to equal 1″ thickness. Rip wood strips to equal widths around 1-1/4″ for best results.

Cut Lengths Long

Leave wood lengths longer than finished size to allow for trimming. You can cut to final size after assembly.

Moisture Content

Let wood acclimate to your shop conditions first. Ideal moisture content is 6-8% for gluing boards without warping.

Surface Preparation

Sand wood smooth and square along all edges for tight seams when gluing. Scrape off any dirt or debris.

Grain Pattern and Color

Arrange your boards to create the look you want. Play with alternating direction or create color patterns.

Work Efficiently

Milling many boards by hand is labor intensive. Use a planer, jointer, table saw, and power sander to speed up the process.

Safety First

Follow safety procedures. Wear eye and ear protection. Use push blocks, jigs, and fences when working wood through power tools.

With straight, square, sanded, and arranged boards, you’re ready for assembly. This prep work is vital to create a flat, stable butcher block.

Step 2 – Choosing an Adhesive for Bonding

Selecting the right adhesive is important when gluing up wood boards for butcher block. Here are the best options:

Polyurethane Glue

Water-resistant polyurethane glues like Gorilla Glue expand to fill gaps. They bond well and clean up with water.


Two-part epoxies create a permanent, waterproof bond. They can be tricky to use and expensive.

Hide Glue

Traditional protein-based glues allow future disassembly with heat. Avoid if you want a permanent bond.

Cyanoacrylate Glue

Super glues like Loctite work well but may dry too quickly for large projects. Better for small repairs.

Woodworker’s Glue

Affordable yellow glues provide very strong bonds. Open time can be limited during assembly.

For most home projects, a good quality polyurethane or woodworker’s glue will provide the easiest, most reliable bond at a reasonable cost.

Always read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions closely for best results gluing up a butcher block slab. Do not rush the glue up process. Apply an even layer of adhesive across all joining surfaces and assemble quickly before glue starts to set.

Step 3 – Clamping and Bonding the Strips

Proper clamping technique ensures a strong bond when gluing up butcher block slabs. Here are some useful tips:

Apply Even Clamping Pressure

Use enough clamps to distribute force evenly across the slab. Place clamps side by side every 6-8 inches.

Use Cauls for Flatness

Cauls or boards placed on both sides can help squeeze joints tight and keep the top flat.

Allow Excess Glue Squeeze-Out

Too much glue is better than too little. Some squeeze-out ensures joints are filled. Wipe away excess before drying.

Check for Gaps

Inspect for gaps as you tighten clamps. Add more glue or cauls if needed to close seams.

Allow Proper Cure Time

Do not rush glue drying. Wait at least 8-12 hours before removing clamps or stressing joints.

Weigh Down the Slab

In addition to clamps, placing heavy weights helps press joints tight as glue dries.

Surface Preparation

Cover slab with wax paper or plastic wrap to prevent gluing boards to clamps or weights.

Safety First

Practice caution when tightening clamps, which can unexpectedly slip. Wear protective gloves.

With care and patience during glue up, you can achieve a perfectly sealed butcher block ready for final smoothing and finishing. Avoid the temptation to rush this critical assembly step.

Step 4 – Smoothing and Sanding the Block

Once your butcher block slab has cured fully with all joints tight and flat, the sanding process transforms the raw glued-up boards into a beautiful, silky-smooth surface:

Smoothing With Hand Planes

Flatten Slab

Use a jack, jointer, or fore plane to flatten the slab and remove any unevenness. Make diagonal passes.

Visible Glue Lines

Carefully pare down any dried glue lines using a standard or block plane. Work slowly.

Straightedge to Check Flatness

Use a straight metal ruler or wood beam to identify any remaining high or low spots.

Sand Out Plane Marks

Finish by hand-sanding the surface to erase any plane ridges and prepare for final sanding.

Sanding by Hand and Machine

Use Coarser Sandpaper First

Start with 60-80 grit to flatten further. Be aggressive but watch for dips. Mark low areas with pencil.

Work Through the Grits

Progressively sand with 100, 150 and up to 220 grit for a polished finish. Wipe surface clean between grits.

Random Orbital Sander

A power sander with 220 grit paper makes quick work of final smoothing. Move constantly to prevent dips.

Watch Your Fingers!

Take extra precaution to avoid touching a spinning sander. Never rush this step.

Detail Sand Corners and Edges

Use a hand-sanding block for hard-to-reach areas the power sander misses. Break sharp edges.

Dust Control

Use a shop vac near the sander to contain dust. Wear a safety mask to avoid inhaling particles.

Tack Cloth Between Grits

Wipe down the slab with a sticky rag to remove sanding debris before switching paper.

With your slab sanded smooth, it’s almost ready for finishing. But first, trim and fit the butcher block if needed.

Step 5 – Cutting and Fitting the Block

For some projects like a bathroom vanity or kitchen countertop, you will need to cut your butcher block to size:

Allow an Overhang

Leave an extra 1-1/2″ overhang on all sides to allow for trimming during installation.

Cut Using a Circular Saw

Use a guide or straightedge to keep cuts straight. Make multiple lighter passes.

Trim Edges with a Router

A router with flush-trim bit cleanly trims excess overhang after fastening the top in place.

Smooth Edges Carefully

Sand cut edges thoroughly to round-over corners slightly and prevent splinters.

Cutouts for Sink or Cooktop

Use a jigsaw to cut any needed openings for sinks. Round inside corners with a rasp.

Seal Edges and Seams

Fill gaps with wood filler and apply flexible caulk. This prevents moisture damage.

Attach Securely

Glue and screw through oversized holes into cabinet framework or use table top fasteners.

Measure carefully when cutting to avoid costly mistakes. A perfectly sized and installed butcher block top completes your project beautifully.

Step 6 – Applying a Protective Finish

The right finish protects your butcher block while enhancing the wood grain’s natural beauty:

Food-Safe Oil

Mineral oil and walnut oil safely penetrate deep into the wood for protection. Reapply monthly.

Wax Finish

Apply beeswax over the oil to create a protective top coat. Buff to a sheen.

Water-Resistant Varnish

Polyurethane or epoxy varnish creates a durable surface barrier. Recoat every few years.

Avoid Harsh Products

Do not use commercial cleaners, bleach, vinegar, etc. which will damage the finish.

Sand Before Refinishing

Lightly sand worn surfaces before re-oiling or re-varnishing for maximum penetration.

Even Coat Application

Apply finishes carefully using a clean cloth or brush. Allow 2-3 days drying time between coats.

Safety Precautions

Work in a well-ventilated area. Avoid ignition sources. Wear gloves and eye protection.

Cure Time

Allow at least 2 weeks for finish to fully cure before heavy use. Keep damp cloths off the surface.

Butcher block is high-maintenance. Regular upkeep by oiling or re-varnishing will keep yours looking like new for decades.

Caring for and Maintaining Butcher Block Surfaces

To keep your butcher block looking great in your kitchen or workspace, consistent care is required:

Oil Frequently

Apply food-safe mineral oil once a month initially and whenever the surface looks dry. Let oil soak in overnight.

Use Cutting Boards

Always use cutting boards to protect the surface. Never cut directly on a countertop.

Wipe Up Spills

Clean messes right away to prevent stains. Scrub with mild soap and water. Rinse.

Avoid Harsh Chemicals

Do not use acidic products like vinegar or bleach which can damage finishes.

Re-sand Periodically

Lightly sanding helps remove residue buildup that oil cannot penetrate. Opens pores.

Re-oil After Sanding

Apply fresh oil immediately after sanding to seal the newly exposed wood surface.

Protect From Heat

Use trivets or hot pads. Avoid direct high heat exposure which leads to cracks.

Re-varnish if Needed

If oil no longer protects, consider applying new varnish. Sand first for adhesion.

Repair Damage Promptly

Fill dents, gouges and seams using tinted wood putty. Re-oil repair areas.

With proper care, you can enjoy the functionality and natural elegance of your homemade butcher block for a lifetime.

Frequently Asked Questions About Working With Butcher Block

Butcher block remains a popular choice today for both its practical uses and decorative look. Here are answers to common questions about selecting, constructing, and caring for butcher block in your home workshop:

What are the best wood species for butcher block?

The most popular choices are hard maple, walnut, cherry, and oak. Hard maple is the traditional butcher block wood for durability. Walnut adds luxury. Cherry and oak also perform well. Avoid soft woods like pine.

Is it okay to use different types of wood together?

Yes, you can create decorative patterns by alternating strips of maple, walnut, cherry etc. This adds visual interest. Make sure all woods are dried and milled to the same thickness.

How thick should my butcher block be?

A minimum of 1-1/4 inches is recommended, or up to 2 inches thick for heavy-use workspaces. Thinner woods risk warping. Maximum durability comes from thicker end grain construction.

What’s the best way to cut a butcher block precisely?

Use a circular saw with a straightedge guide to make long cuts. A router with a flush trim bit is ideal for trimming custom fitted pieces cleanly. Make multiple light passes when cutting.

Can I use butcher block outside?

Yes, outdoor butcher block is possible. Use a naturally weather-resistant tropical hardwood like teak. Apply a marine oil-based finish. Keep covered when not in use.

How often do I need to oil or refinish my butcher block?

Plan to apply a food-safe oil monthly at first, then as-needed to keep the wood from looking dry. Light sanding and re-oiling yearly helps maintain optimal protection. Refinish with new varnish every 3-5 years with heavy use.

Why does my butcher block have cracks and splits?

Wood shrinks and expands naturally