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.
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 our DIY 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.
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!
Materials and tools to seal butcher block countertop
- Oil based polyurethane: you will need 1 quart polyurethane to seal 300 square feet of countertop with 3 coats.
- The best type of brush for polyurethane is a good quality synthetic bristle brush.
- 120-200 grit sand paper or sanding pad, microfiber towel or tack cloth
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Epoxy vs polyurethane for countertops
Epoxy is another very popular countertop finish. It is more durable than polyurethane finishes, however, the application techniques are more complicated and best results can be tricky to achieve.
Epoxy comes in two parts: resin and hardener. You will need to mix the two parts accurately, and prepare no more than you’ll use in 30 minutes. The space must be well ventilated with a temperature between 70° and 85°. Always use eye protection and gloves when working with epoxy.
Stone Coat has DIY Epoxy kits and a good intro video tutorial you can check out above.
Epoxy can be colored with acrylic paint or other pigments. It can also be used over a painted surface, such as in this white marble countertop kit.
A common problem many people experience with epoxy is yellowing. Look for products that contain UV stabilizer and/or HALS (Hindered Amine Light Stabilizer), which offer more protection against epoxy yellowing due to UV exposure.
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!!
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!