Pure tung oil is a good choice for a food safe wood finish for your butcher block countertop or kitchen island. It’s easy to apply, nontoxic and leaves a beautiful matte finish that fits into almost any home style.
There’s something special about wood butcher block countertops.
In most kitchens, there are a lot of cool and hard surfaces – granite/stone/concrete, tile, stainless steel. But wood brings in a warm and inviting look that just feels right – and it can truly work with almost any style of kitchen.
We’ve installed butcher block countertops and islands into three of our own kitchens, so I’m considering myself pretty knowledgable on the subject. I love it in our current white and wood custom kitchen. I love it in the tiny barn apartment. And I’ll always love it in our first IKEA kitchen.
And I know you love it, too. Because I get more comments and questions and emails every week about butcher block countertops than anything else.
Once you have your butcher block countertop, you’ll need to make the decision about what type of finish to use for your countertops. There are lots of options and everyone has opinions. I’ve used several different finishes and have done an ungodly amount of research.
The bottom line: there are a lot of things that go into the choice of butcher block finish.
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Why we chose pure tung oil to finish butcher block countertops
Spoiler: We love it. We love it in every application. And I especially love it on the walnut island top. Here’s why:
- It’s easy to apply – way simpler than anything other products we’ve used.
- It’s food safe wood finish – important for a kitchen.
- It’s practically fool-proof. There’s not tons of equipment or supplies needed.
- It looks great – the oil doesn’t change the finish of the wood – it’s a rich, matte finish that can darken the wood a bit.
- It’s easy to touch up over time, which makes it a huge winner in our book.
Why choose a food safe wood finish for butcher block countertops
Here’s the truth – not every finish is food safe. Even if it’s being marketed to consumers for kitchen countertops. But in my opinion, it’s pretty important.
Even if you aren’t planning to use the surface for food prep or as a chopping block, it’s a kitchen. So finding a finish that will be safe for food is just common sense.
Note: In our past kitchens, we used Waterlox. It is a resin-based tung oil finished (not pure tung oil) and is also a food safe wood finish when dried and fully cured. We still recommend it for some applications – especially around sinks and water sources where it seems to hold up a bit better to standing water. But we prefer pure tung oil for the finish and the ease of finishing and reapplication. And that’s why I’m focusing on just pure tung oil here.
What to look for when buying pure tung oil for butcher block
There are a lot of products that market themselves as tung oil – but not all are created equal.
A lot of the “tung oil finishes” you’ll find at the hardware store aren’t pure tung oil. In fact, lots of companies use tung oil as a bit of generic term – as in any finish that includes some tung oil or even has a similar finish. Many are filled with mystery ingredients. But when I’m talking about tung oil here, I’m talking about pure, 100 percent tung oil.
Look at the ingredients. Tung oil is pressed oil from the nut of the tung tree and boiled. (Thanks, Wikipedia.)
As I mentioned, we chose Real Milk Paint Pure Tung Oil and have been happy with it – but I know there are other options. Just look at the ingredients and be sure you are getting what you expect – pure tung oil as a food safe wood finish.
And if you want lots more information about tung oil, check out this detailed overview from Canadian Woodworking. I especially like the comparison between tung oil and linseed oil. (Seriously, don’t use linseed oil.)
The two downsides to using a pure tung oil finish
There are a few reasons you may not love using pure tung oil – so I figured it’s worth mentioning them here.
The first is maintenance. You will have to oil your surface regularly. In our case, it seems to be needed around 4 months. It’s so simple to reapply the oil that it really isn’t a huge deal for us – and it is a really easy way to refresh and beautify the wood with little to no work. This time around, we waited too long and basically did the full coat of oil again. It looks like new.
The other downside is that it takes time before it’s fully cured to be used as a work surface. Some people seem to believe that oiling your countertops means your countertops will be oily forever. That’s not the case. In our experience, it takes about a week to be fully cured.
Tung oil is classified as a “drying oil,” which solidifies by a chemical process that requires oxygen from the air. This makes the oil get a harder, little by little, but it takes time.
The good news is that once it’s cured, it doesn’t feel oily, nor will you get any oil residue on papers or items. The downside is that it’s not immediately cured, and you’ll need to give it a few days to be totally ready for action.
How to apply pure tung oil to your existing butcher block countertop or island
The best part about applying pure tung oil is that anyone can do it.
You can do it without risking a huge DIY malfunction. You can do it without evacuating your children due to the fumes. You can touch it up easily at any time.
And in our experience, with each time you touch up the oil, the finish gets better and smoother, richer and deeper. Last weekend, we oiled the surface again and I figured it would be a good opportunity to share the process. (Pssst: It’s so easy.)
1 Begin by mixing half Pure Tung Oil with half Citrus Solvent – this ensures that the oil penetrates the wood. (I love the smell of the solvent, it’s like a room full of oranges and is the most lovely smell in all the land.)
2 If needed, sand the butcher block surface for an even appearance. In our case, the top of the countertop had lots of marks and dullness, so I gave it a sanding all over – focusing on the areas that were especially dinged and scratched up. This basically means we were starting from scratch.
3 Wipe everything clean and let it dry completely.
4. Apply the 50/50 mixture with a clean cloth (or sock) and allow it to soak into the wood. (The time it takes will vary depending on the wood.)
5. After it soaks into the wood, use a soft cloth and rub/buff the top to get soft.
6. Repeat this process until the oil no longer soaks in the wood – you are ensuring your oil has soaked into all dry spots.
7. Continue until the full countertop is uniformly wet/glossy, which means the wood has soaked in all the oil it will. Now, you’ll wipe all the excess oil off the surface with a clean cloth. You do want to be sure that you remove any pooling or extra oily/wet areas. It took three coats for us for this update. (It’s recommended to do a second day of oiling on your first time.)
8. For about a week, you’ll want to wipe up any pooling on the countertops. And then you need to buff the surface every day for about a week to develop a nice sheen. It can take up to a month to fully cure, and we found that it takes about a week before you can use it regularly. (If something does get left on it, it will easily buff out before it’s cured. No big deal.)
We went from this dinged and scratched up butcher block.
To a beautiful, smooth surface. It’s so pretty, you guys.
And the best part? When it gets dinged up again (because it’s the most used counter space in the whole kitchen), I know it will look better than new again.
For a maintenance coat, you can simply apply 2 parts citrus solvent to 1 part pure tung oil, and apply a thin coat with a towel. I’m planning to do this more frequently to maintain the appearance.
Want more? Check out more tips and steps to finish your butcher block countertop with pure tung oil.
While we were oiling the top, I also added several coats of oil to the antique car siding around the island. This will help protect it a bit. It looks lovely.
So, I’m becoming a bit of a convert. Would I choose to use pure tung oil again on this walnut butcher block again?
Absolutely. It’s a perfect way to provide a great looking, food safe wood finish to the countertops for daily (sometimes hourly) use.
I think butcher block is special in any home. But this application may be my favorite.
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