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butcher block-To oil or not to oil? That is the question.

January 14, 2007

I just got a Boos 24"x18" butcher block and LOVE it! Finally, I have some room. My question is, should I oil it? My understanding is that oiling helps protect and preserve the board, but inhibits wood's natural anti-bacterial properties, right? Appearance for me is secondary to functionality. So, if oiling is primarily for appearance, I probably wouldn't be inclined to do it. However, if it helps to prevent warping (the thing is over 2 inches thick, so hopefully this won't be an issue...) or some other unforeseen thing, than I would definitely take that into consideration. So, please weigh in on whether or not I should oil this board. If you do oil, what do you use? Thanks.

Comments (14)

  • gardenlad

    Oiling does more than make it look good; it's a basic maintainance need; particularly for wood that gets wet. Constant wetting/drying causes wood to dry out, warp, check, and craze.

    Oiling does not destroy the natural anti-bacterial properties either.

    While it's doubtful that a properly made butcher block will warp (has to do with how the grain is laid out), it is possible. And merely going thick, without realigning the grain, won't even minimize warping.

    So, my recommendation is, yes! Oil it, using food-grade mineral oil.

  • rdwright

    Thanks gardenlad, for your reply. I will get to oiling the board today.

  • suzyq3

    I strongly second gardenlad's advice. I should oil mine more often but tend to forget. When I do remember to oil my two bamboo boards, I use inexpensive mineral oil, which I'm pretty sure is the same as the fancy stuff sold specifically as wood oil. I oil one side, let it absorb, and then turn it over and oil the other side. I also make sure to do the edges.

    I am very careful about drying the boards as soon after they get wet as possible, for the reasons gardenlad gave.

  • gardenlad

    Suzy, not all mineral oil is considered food grade. Not that I'd be overly worried, I don't think there's anything about regular mineral oil that can hurt you. But the food-grade isn't all that expensive, considering how little of it you use at any one time.

    When I make a cutting board for someone I "cure" it with food grade mineral oil, and provide maintainance recommendations. If they pay attention (and, at what I charge for custom-desingned cutting boards, I would hope they'd pay attention), it only takes a couple of drops of oil each time it's used.

    I buy mine at a woodworkers supply shop, which is probably the most expensive way to go. Cost: Six bucks for 16 ounces. Counting my heavy use on new boards, a 16 oz bottle still lasts near on forever.

  • azzalea

    Buy your food-grade mineral oil at the supermarket or drug store. It's in the laxative section, but is the product you want. It runs about $3.50 for a large bottle that way.

    I like to use several applications on a new piece--up to 8-10 on the spoons I carve--to give them a wonderful finish. After that, the occasional re-application should keep the wood in good shape, as long as it's respectfully used.

  • gardenlad

    Good tip on mineral oil sourcing, Azzalea.

    On a new cutting board I usually use 3-4 applications. I suspect, though, that my boards are less absorbent than your spoons because they are burnished to a hard finish (I sometimes go down to as fine as #600 grit).

    Either way, it's the follow up that's important. Many people don't seem to understand that wood, even after it's been fashioned into something, remains a living, breathing thing that must be treated right. And an occasional reapplication of mineral oil is part of that treatment.

  • suzyq3

    Thanks, gardenlad, for the info. I bought my mineral oil in the laxative section of my market. It was much cheaper than the oil sold specifically for cutting boards.

  • gardenlad

    That'll do it, Suzyq. Now you just have to remember to use it. :>)

    The key is recognizing what "dry" means. Think of your hair. After your shower your hair is wet. Then the moisture drys off. Although "dry," healthy hair has a sheen to it. Poorly treated hair lacks that natural sheen, it looks dry, straw-like, and unhealthy.

    Same with a cutting board. Once the wood looses it's sheen, and starts looking dried out it needs conditioning, just like unhealthy hair. The conditioner we use for wood is the mineral oil.

    One nice thing, though, is that you can't over-condition wood. It will only absorb so-much oil. Any extra just sits on the surface, and you can wipe it up with a paper towel. So even if you oil your board after every use, you won't hurt anything.

  • DYH

    I have a mahogany butcher block island top that is 8ft x 3ft. I started out oiling it once a week for a few months. Then, I cut back to once a month. Now (1 year later) I just oil it about every 3 months or whenever it starts looking dry.

    I put the oil on the island with a soft cloth and let it rest for about 5 minutes. Then, I take another cloth and wipe off the excess. Make sure you do the edges, too.

  • mccall

    I looked for ages for mineral oil for my cutting boards and could never find it. Finally I did find it in a true value, tiny bottle for $6.50. then one day it struck me that "DUH" you use mineral oil as a laxitive too. went to grocery store and guess what there it was big bottle about $3.00.

    Scary side note here. I was at Home Depot one day in the paint section and a women was asking the clerk for mineral oil for her cutting board, and the young clerk took her to the MINERAL SPIRITS. Luckily the supervisor walked by just then and heard the word cutting board and said "that is NOT what you want, we don't carry mineral oil here."

  • Lorenza5064

    Chris, do you have any recommendations specific to bamboo tops? I am strongly considering bamboo as countertop material for an entire kitchen. Please advise.

  • bmcshop

    Do Not Oil Your Butcher Block.

    What I am talking about here is an end grain butcher block. I am not talking about wood kitchen counters, but a working tool. You cut and chop meat and vegetables on it.

    I do not mean to be unkind but wood is not a "living, breathing thing". It is dead. Living wood is commonly referred to as a tree.

    Your butcher block does not breathe. What it does do is expand and contract with changing humidity levels. You can think of wood as a bunch of soda straws. These fibers will get fatter and thinner as they gain and loose moisture but will not get longer (so much). The problem is that this gaining and losing of moisture can cause cracking, correctly called "checking". By the time you get your butcher block the wood has already been dried and glued together. If your butcher block checks after you bought it there is nothing you can do about it, it is responding to its environment. I do not want to get into the causes of checking but if you are trying to prevent it by impregnating it with oil please be advised that your efforts are not very effective. I would go so far as to say that oiling the wood, in order to prevent transmission of moisture is completely ineffective. For a thorough explanation of the subject you may want to read "Understanding Wood" by Bruce Hoadly. There is really no practical way to prevent the transmission of moisture in wood in your home, and therefore no reason to oil it.

    Personally, I think oiling a butcher block is a bad idea. While oiling does improve its appearance it also attracts dust and dirt. I regularly renew the surface of my butcher block by scraping, and every once in a while, by sanding with a 6" random orbit sander and 60 grit pad. Oiling makes it almost impossible to sand, as the oil will gum up the sandpaper.

    If you want to keep your butcher block in good shape, both functionally and cosmetically, you really need to buy and learn to use a cabinet scraper. Youtube is good for learning this. It is entirely possible to remove even severe stains with a scraper.

    I know this advice about oiling runs contrary to everything I have ever found online but if anyone can present a rebuttal I would like to hear it.

  • rgreen48

    I use walnut oil on mine. Works great, and no off-tastes or smells.

  • lilacinjust

    Yes, oil. Also, you don't need to soap it clean every time you use it. A good wipe will do (of course, no raw meat!).

    That reminds me- must rub some Mystery Oil on mine.

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