How to Finish Butcher Block Countertop: Seal, Oil or Epoxy?

How to finish butcher block countertop & best durable wood finishes! Compare polyurethane sealer, epoxy, vs oil & wax with tips from our DIY kitchen remodel.

Here’s a story of mistake & redemption. You may remember our DIY kitchen remodel project and how we used natural oil and wax to finish our butcher block countertops

As much as we LOVE natural wood finishes and it has worked beautifully on many other projects such as our DIY vintage inspired pallet wood crates, it proves to be the wrong finish for our kitchen countertop, which we will explain why in a bit.

How to finish butcher block countertop & best durable wood finishes! Compare polyurethane sealer, epoxy, vs oil & wax with tips from our DIY kitchen remodel.

So we finally decided to seal our butcher block countertops with polyurethane a few months ago, and we are thrilled with the results! Wait till you see it! 🙂

Today we will share with you why the natural butcher block oil and wax didn’t work for us, which kind of polyurethane to use, and how to seal a wood countertop or table with polyurethane.

* Some resources in article are affiliate links. Full disclosure here .

Check out this quick video tutorial or skip to written tutorial below.

Why the natural butcher block countertop oil and wax finish didn’t work for us.

UPDATE: Some readers shared helpful tips with us that although polyurethane is much less maintenance, you should never cut on them. If you want to cut on the butcher bock, then use the wax/oil finish, not the polyurethane!

Many people like using natural wax and / or oil to finish their wood kitchen countertops, tables, vanity tops, etc.

Initially we followed the schedule of waxing our wood kitchen countertops monthly, and our new countertops looked shiny and pretty for the first year. But, life gets busy, and we started skipping the regular maintenance. Then our kitchen countertops started looking worse, and worse.

stained butcher block kitchen countertop needs refinishing

The butcher block oil and wax finish is water resistant, but still it would not protect our countertops from certain stains, heavy use and prolonged exposure to water, or marks from metal cans! ( See this DIY wood stain recipe to understand why metal cans can stain unsealed wood tables and countertops.)

Conclusion : we are super busy (and a bit lazy) and not good with lots of regular maintenance in a house, therefore the wax and oil finishes are just not the right choice for our heavily used kitchen!

polyurethane sealed  butcher block countertop with beautiful epoxy like smooth finish and glossy glow
Look at how much nicer our kitchen countertop looks now!

Materials and tools to seal butcher block countertop

Because we oiled and waxed our butcher block countertop, we used a metal scraper to clean the surface before sanding to prevent the wax and oil from clogging the sand paper.

use a metal scraper to clean the wood kitchen countertop surface

What is the difference between water based vs oil based polyurethane?

Polyurethane is among the most durable wood finishes for floors, countertops, and furniture. 

Water based polyurethane dries faster, doesn’t smell, and is easier to clean up. The finish look and feels like a transparent film.

Oil based polyurethane is more durable, and the finish has a richer glow, looks and feels like glass or epoxy. It takes longer to dry, and smells like turpentine for a few hours after you apply it.

We chose oil based polyurethane on our kitchen countertop and our DIY kitchen island because of the beautiful glow and better durability. 

Another consideration in our situation is that because our countertops have been oiled before( we will still try to remove the old finish as much as possible), the oil based polyurethane is more likely to have better adhesion. 

How to finish butcher block countertop or wood table with polyurethane

sand butcher block countertop

This section will focus on oil based polyurethane. First we used a metal scraper to clean the surface before sanding to prevent the previous wax and oil finish from clogging the sand paper. Skip this part if you have an unfinished countertop.

Next, sand any tough stains with 120 grit sand paper, and clean the wood surface with turpentine or paint thinner, and a damp microfiber towel or tack cloth, so it’s dust free.

wipe clean butcher block countertop in kitchen

Don’t shake the can like you would with paint, because this would create tiny bubbles in the finish. Use a wood stick to stir the polyurethane thoroughly before you start, and a good quality brush which will not shed bristles. 

 stir the polyurethane thoroughly

Dip the brush in the polyurethane and put a generous coat onto the wood surface. Overlap slightly as you go from one section to the next.

Try not to go over the area you already brushed, especially after a few minutes minutes. You can always sand any little imperfections later. 

dip the brush in the polyurethane and put a generous coat onto the wood kitchen countertop surface.

 Once the entire surface is covered, let the first coat dry for about 24 hours. It may dry faster, but it’s better to wait a little longer to make sure each coat is ready dry before adding the next coat.

The first coat can look a little blotchy when dried. Don’t worry, everything will look much better after the next two coats!

Before you apply the second coat, sand the first coat with 120 to 200 grit sand paper. A sanding pad is a great tool to have. Wipe off the dust with clean microfiber towel or tack cloth.

 sand the first coat  of polyurethane finish

Repeat the coating, drying, and sanding process. We applied a total of 3 coats. You won’t need to sand the final coat.

Some helpful tips when planning your projects: 

Oil based polyurethane takes 12 to 24 hours to dry between coats. It can take longer when the temperature is colder. 

how to use Oil based polyurethane to finish butcher block countertop

It is best to work on a dry and warm day when temperatures are 60+ Fahrenheit or higher, and keep good ventilation for a few hours after each coat to let the smell air out.

You will most likely need to apply 3 coats. The final coat needs to cure for 1-2days before light use, and 7 days before normal use. So it’s a good idea to plan ahead.

The smooth surface of sealed butcher block countertop feels like glass or epoxy.

We did half of our countertops, waited a few days, did the other half, then went on a trip and let everything cure. You get the idea!  🙂 If you make any mistakes such as creating bumps or bubbles, here‘s a good article on fixing common mistakes when using polyurethane.

Final verdict: Is polyurethane a good choice to finish butcher block kitchen countertops?

Now it’s been a few months since we sealed our butcher block kitchen countertops with oil based polyurethane, and we LOVE the results so much!!

modern farmhouse DIY IKEA kitchen remodel

The finish is super durable. It’s not SUPER shiny like glass once dried, but feels like glass or epoxy. The smooth surface is so easy to clean. No more stains from water or metal cans. And no maintenance needed!  (If you do want a super shiny surface, you can buff polyurethane to a glass like shine.)

I only wish we did this on day one! But, that’s how we learn in life – from our mistakes, right? 

Is oil-based polyurethane heat resistant?

Oil based polyurethane finish can typically withstand temperatures between -80°F to 200°F, or even higher temperatures. So we wouldn’t put hot dishes from the oven directly on the counter. We keep some trivets handy for really hot pots and pans. But a bowl of hot soup is not a problem.

I can honestly say that polyurethane is now one of my favorite wood finishes! I have also used water based polyurethane on some wood mirror frames and shelves, which I will share soon! 

6 Comments

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  1. Is the poly ok to cut on though? We use our huge butcher block island for food prep, which includes lots of duty as a cutting board.

  2. First, you can’t get REAL oil-based polyurethane in some states. It might say, “oil based” on the can but you better look again and do some research. If you live in a state where it’s banned, that “oil-based” label is actually a marketing work-around and not 100% accurate. It’s not real. For instance, you flat out cannnot buy real oil-based polyurethane in California. It is illegal to sell it. So anything labeled “oil-based” is actually a less effective product that will not last as long and exhibit more issues over time than what real oil-based polyurethane has. If you’re gonna go with oil-polyurethane, make sure to find a way to acquire the right stuff.

    Second, if you cover a food prep area with polyurethane, yes it is more durable than oil, but if someone cuts on that surface it can scrape bits of toxic polyurethane into your food. So DON’T EVER CUT ON TOP OF IT. Remember the paragraph above? Yeah, there’s a reason oil-based polyurethane is illegal in some states. It causes cancer. While the FDA does approve polyurethane to be used in kitchens once it’s FULLY CURED, the last thing you want to do is cut on it and chip some of that plastic into your food. If you have kids, make sure they understand to NEVER cut on the counter.

    And lastly, while polyurethane is much more durable and easier to maintain than oil/wax, the real benefit to a oil/wax surface is the ability to refinish it or fix issues easily should they pop up. With polyurethane you are literally dipping all the wood in plastic. So let’s say someone does accidentally set a hot pot on the counter and burns/stains the surface. With oil you can just sand that little spot down and refinish it! Fixed! With polyurethane, you have to strip ALLLLL the plastic off the ENTIRE counter and redo the whole slab. So while polyurethane requires less maintenance and upkeep while in use, there are hidden benefits to oil/wax when it comes to fixing small issues that pop up. It’s also easier to refinish your counter and bring new life into it later on.

  3. Thanks for this advice. A close look at the can shows you used Satin finish poly. What I would probably choose. As mentioned, smooth, but not so shiny as glass. For those wanting a super high gloss finish, the Gloss finish poly would give that without any need to buff. My question would be how well this finish stands up to hot pots. Thinking if you burn it, or it peels, it can always be sanded and re-coated.

    • hi Richard! i had the same question also about hot pots. i read that oil based polyurethane can typically withstand temperatures between -80°F to 200°F, some higher. so we wouldn’t put and hot dishes from the oven straight on the counter. but a bowl of hot soup is not a problem 🙂