A Butcher's Block Cutting Board / Kitchen Countertop is a very beautiful and if properly cared for, long-lasting kitchen work surface that will endure for generations.
Sanitary, Stylish, and Long-lasting Kitchen Countertops
A butcher's block kitchen tabletop is made from multiple strips of hardwoods bonded together, forming a working surface. Early Butcher's Blocks were constructed from the sawed end of a tree truck. Prone to splitting and breakage, these weaknesses would also allow for bacteria to thrive in the inaccessible crevices.
Bonding of hardwood strips to form a more stable surface was superior. Aligned either perpendicular (vertically) to the plane of the countertop is the best configuration. The alignment of the bonded wood strips can also be horizontal.
The perpendicular alignment is best because it faces the strongest aspect of the wood towards the actual working surface. Knife and cleaver marks occur less often, are less noticeable when they do occur and this alignment also helps prevent dulling of the knives.
Models that use horizontally-aligned strips of wood are generally less expensive and more prone to visible damage from use. When used as a meat-cutting surface, the Butcher's Block with horizontally-aligned strips of hardwood cause more frequent knife-sharpening.
Durability on Butcher's Block Kitchen Tables Begins with Hardwoods
Butcher's Blocks are made from selected dense hardwoods, free from defects such as knots and cavities. Choices such as Hard Maple (not to be confused with Sugar Maple, -a softwood) or Oak are the most commonly used for strength and durability.
Vintage Butcher's Block can be much thicker and heavier than just inches, a foot or more thick is not unheard of in some vintage examples.
Butcher's Blocks are actually quite sanitary despite the repeated exposure of blood and raw meat products. A butcher's block table's surface cleans quite effectively and the wood desiccates any bacteria that may remain even after washing and rinsing.
There was a dubious flirtation with plastic cutting boards and surfaces for meat-cutting in the 1980s in many grocery/meat stores in a perceived efforts to rid the potentially disease-laden wooden cutting surfaces. The idea was that plastic cutting boards, being inorganic, would wash cleaner and not allow bacteria to survive.
It has been discovered that inorganic surfaces with neutral pH such as plastic cutting actually allowed bacteria to survive longer, even after thoroughly dried, versus traditional hardwood. Many butcher shops and stores with meat-cutting departments have generally returned to using their reliable legacy hard wood Butcher's Block Table.
Cleaning & Restoring Butcher's Block Surfaces
Over time, knife marks, gouges and cleaver marks take their toll on even the best Butcher's Block and intense cleaning or even resurfacing is required. A Butcher's Block can be cleaned using a diluted chlorine solution and a stiff wire scrub brush. Rinsed clean and allowed to dry, this is often enough to return the Butcher's Block surface to a totally acceptable, sanitary and usable condition. Deep cuts and gouges however, may require physical resurfacing.
Resurfacing a Butcher's Block Cutting Board Table
Scraping with a flat tool such as a spatula will remove much accumulated soil and debris. If the alignment of the wood strips is vertical, a sander can be used to reach new wood. This causes a slight but non-harmful concavity to occur in the Butcher's Block. If the hardwood strips are horizontally-aligned, a planer can be used to more quickly take-down the surface to clean wood, followed by sanding and treating with oil.
This appears to be a restored vintage Butcher's Block attached to a more contemporary (albeit utilitarian) table support made of welded square tubular stock. Notice the gentle sloping working surface of this Butcher's Block. It is heavily worn from use and shows the telltale signs of necessary resurfacing. This Butcher's Block is likely quite old and obviously was much-used.
This only adds to the intrinsic value of the table.
If fats and residual meat byproducts embedded into the deeper cuts and defects of the wood, scrub clean thoroughly first using chlorine and a wire brush and allow for drying. Hot soapy water will help liberate fats and lipids, but do not soak or allow water to pool for long on the surface. This will cause swelling and potentially break the bonds of the laminated strips.
When completely dry (may take a day or two,) try the orbital sander again. If the sandpaper clogs-up too easily, you can try with either a courser grade of sandpaper to begin with and switch to a finer grit, or switch to a belt-sander which is faster and more effective still.
Antique Butcher's Block Chopping/Cutting Board: Best if Left Alone and Un-refinished?
Done properly, the concavity of resurfacing a genuine Butcher's Block is gentle and slopping. This incidental re-shaping of the surface is usually deemed to be a sign of venerable age and much use. It adds to the value of the item. This concavity of the genuine Butcher's Block table does not affect its usefulness. If anything, it only adds to it. the reshaped surface allows blood and liquids from butchering to move from the table to the floor, off the work surface. Clean-up is improved too and for the same reasons. Water is directed away from the surface, allowing it to dry faster.
Either way, a planed or sanded Butcher's Block will lose any old-age patina. If this is an antique or vintage Butcher's Block being cleaned mostly for display and not actual butchery usage, this may not necessarily be a desired outcome.
When the Butcher's Block is deep-cleaned and resurfaced, it must also be sealed with an inorganic protectant, such as oil. Using a clear mineral oil or a beeswax product made specifically for Butcher's Blocks and Butcher's Block countertops is mandated. Linseed oil is sometimes used too as it will not become rancid. Never use vegetable or olive oil to treat a newly refinished Butcher's Block surface as these oils will ferment, stink and become rancid over time. This can taint the flavor of food that comes into contact with the surface.
Appreciate and take good care of your Butcher's Block kitchen countertop surfaces.
A genuine Butcher's Block and Butcher's Block Countertop is a very beautiful, versatile and long-lasting surface that with a little proper care can last for generations to come.