How to seal and finish butcher block countertops (FAQ 2022)

I’ve fielded many questions by email and in comment threads about my posts related to applying Waterlox to butcher block countertops.

Below are the questions I’m asked the most. To get you the best answers I did a deep dive into Waterlox’s website. I’ve also drawn on my own experience using Waterlox’s “ORIGINAL formula” product on my butcher block counters.

(This post may contain affiliate links. Check out our affiliate disclosure for more info.)

What is Waterlox? Is it a sealer? Or a finish coat?

Waterlox is a family-owned, US-based company established in 1910 – and woman-run since 2018!

They make a variety of small batch wood sealers and finishes including products with low VOCs that can be used on anything from wood floors to salad bowls. Their line includes pure tung oil, tung oil infused finishes, wood stains, poly finishes for wood, cleaning products, application products (brushes, pads), and accessories. 

The focus of this blog post is Waterlox’s flagship product, “ORIGINAL formula”, available in gloss, semi-gloss, and satin finishes. It both seals and finishes butcher block countertops when applied correctly.

“ORIGINAL formula” is a “resin-modified Tung Oil” and “90% of the resin portion of the formula is from renewable, natural resources.” (Source)

“The tung oil provides the best penetrating and drying qualities available while the resin allows the coatings to form a film that is both water-resistant and elastic – standing up to both foot traffic and common household spills.” (Source)

According to Waterlox, their “ORIGINAL formula” locks out water due to this combination of wood penetration and elastic film. This is why the product is a terrific base sealer, or a total solution for sealing and finishing butcher block counters or wood countertops made of any type of wood.

What can be confusing about this product is that it can be used to seal and/or to finish a wood surface:

  • Use it as just a seal coat in prep to finish with a different product.
  • Use it as just a finish coat that goes on over a different product that acts as the sealant.
  • Use it for both the sealing process and the finish coat.

I’ve only used it as both a sealer and a finish on my kitchen countertops and I have found it to be the best way to create a durable finish on wood counters.

The most important aspect of this product, the one that distinguishes it from natural oils like mineral oil or linseed oil, or polyurethane which esssentially acts as a layer of plastic, is that it forms an elastic film (not a plastic film) that resists water.

That film is important to consider. It’s why you can scratch and ding up your countertop coated with this stuff and the finish won’t peel or break down as water and cleaners and whatever else makes its way under the finish. Details about this are included in this post.

“ORIGINAL formula” is low maintenance (no rubbing on a maintenance coat every month or even once a year) and the finish lasts a long time. It’s been the best option for my butcherblock countertops for many years in my home and rental apartments whether I’m working with new wood or re-coating butcher block counter tops.

Is Waterlox “ORIGINAL formula” food safe?

Waterlox “ORIGINAL formula” is food safe once it’s cured, which takes 7 days.

I do a lot of research before I jump into projects and I’ve seen claims out there that food prep on a butcher block surface coated with Waterlox “ORIGINAL formula” isn’t safe.

Wrong.

Waterlox “ORIGINAL formula” is food safe after curing. When applied correctly to your butcher block countertop the cure time is 7 days.

Note: if you plan to use your butcher block as a cutting board Waterlox suggests: don’t use “ORIGINAL formula.

Waterlox shares information about the food safe, non-toxic aspects of its “ORIGINAL formula” all over its website such as in this project help guide. In this guide they write, “Waterlox interior products (when used correctly) will leave food-safe and non-toxic surfaces. These surfaces will be safe for food contact once cured….”

Where the “ORIGINAL formula” is concerned:

“Waterlox’s interior film-forming finish lines include ORIGINAL, H2OLOX, and URETHANE. All three will cure into waterproof films that are safe for food contact. For the ORIGINAL and H2OLOX finishes, it is recommended to allow at least 72 hours before any food or water contact, ideally 7 days before regular use.” (Source)

The drying and curing process has a lot of moving parts in the first week after completing your project and beyond. Waterlox shares the science behind all of it. See:

Will my butcher block countertop change color or darken if I use Waterlox?

If you take a stroll around Waterlox.com, you’ll see that the folks at Waterlox link “amber” with notions of “warmth” and “beauty”. That’s a good strategy since there’s no way around this color change. Why?

“The resin-modified tung oil products (ORIGINAL and H2OLOX) will warm the colors of the substrate due to the amber color of both the tung oil and the resins used. Think of it as very pale yellow stained glass being put over your wood.” (Sourcesee “Question 8: Do you prefer a Clear/Neutral or Warm/Amber Tone to your finish?”)

You’re countertop won’t turn as orange as an orange, but it will take on an amber tone.

I have confessed in other posts that I’m not crazy about the amber color. I use birch butcher block – a light blonde wood. As I coat it the color of the birch deepens to a more golden color and the wood grain definitely starts to pop.

The “very pale yellow” Waterlox describes is there when a project is newly finished. But my countertops darken to a more orange tone over time. It’s a gradual process that happens over weeks as the product truly dries and cures.

I do not have experience with wood stain and “ORIGINAL formula” and so cannot speak to how staining will change your results.

Can I use only “ORIGINAL formula” satin finish to coat my butcher block countertop?

Satin finish includes additives, Waterlox calls them “flatteners” or “flattening agents”, to make the stuff do what it does – supply a satin sheen and feel. That’s, in part, what makes the satin finish thicker. Thicker liquid equates with less penetration into the wood.

Putting on many coats of satin means you’re piling more and more flatteners onto your countertop. Here’s why this isn’t ideal:

These additives can inhibit the ability of the product to penetrate into the wood and will reduce the clarity. This will build your film away from the wood surface and less into the wood surface (very slight reduction in hardness) and each layer will “fill in” the coat underneath which tends to slightly raise the gloss with each coat. (Source)

Waterlox says you’ll still get “excellent protection” and that the difference between using the satin finish for every coat versus just the finish coat “will be relatively minor”.

But they also say, “the film will be thicker, will have less clarity, will be slightly higher in gloss and may even scratch easier over time.”

It’s good to know that I can use satin finish only. But I’m sticking with Waterlox’s suggested application process and only using satin finish on the final coat.

This has worked out great for my purposes, and I don’t want to even “slightly” change my results. I really don’t want my countertops to possibly scratch easily.

This “satin only?” question comes up because, when you apply the “ORIGINAL formula” as instructed, you typically use a small amount of the satin since it’s just one or two coats. Here’s an idea: Let’s learn how to store the stuff properly! For tips from Waterlox check out the “Storage of Waterlox” guide and their “Storage Solutions” page.

Should I seal the underside of the butcher block countertop?

There are three ways that water damage can happen to wood: 1) standing water – something is spilled on your butcherblock countertop and you don’t get to it quickly enough; 2) ambient moisture – example, humidity; and, 3) targeted moisture such as steam from a radiator or dishwasher.

In this guide, Waterlox provides insights into these different wood damaging situations. They suggest you “apply at least one coat of sealer on all surfaces when possible.” Also, “If your countertops are already installed, there is no major benefit to removing them just to put a coating on the underside.”

Now, about dishwashers. If your dishwasher came with a vapor barrier strip Waterlox suggests you use it. And more:

“It is not required to fully finish the underside of a countertop over a dishwasher, but there is no harm in doing so as long as you allow proper cure time (recommend 7 days) before sealing that surface off from any air flow. If possible, try to get one coat on the underside just to help regulate any humidity fluctuations.” (Source)

I have never sealed the bottom of any of the butcher block countertops and I haven’t encountered any issues.

I have a diffusion barrier in place. It’s been years since I installed a butcherblock countertop over my dishwasher. No warping has occurred.

Some factors to consider:

  • Environment: my countertops live in Chicago. We get hot, humid summers and use steam heat in the winters. You may have more humidity, and longer colder winters.
  • Type of countertop: all of my countertops are birch, and they are 1-1/2″ thick. A thinner countertop might be more prone to warping.
  • Installation: my countertops are installed solidly over cabinets. You might have a long stretch of unsupported countertop where sagging and warping could occur.

Should I seal the sides and any openings (sink and faucet holes) in my butcher block countertop?

Cutting holes in your countertop such as those you create for faucets and sinks will expose the end grain of the butcher block wood. End grain is highly absorbent and vulnerable to water damage. In their “Finishing End Grain” guide Waterlox illustrates this:

“End grain is cut across the [tree’s] growth rings; therefore, the straw-like nature of the wood fiber is still intact. Nature has designed these wood fibers to transport water efficiently and it can be extremely absorbent.” (Source)

If you are using “ORIGINAL formula” to seal and finish your countertop, you can use it to seal end grain wood (I explain how I do this below), but Waterlox cautions that this product may not be the most effective or efficient approach:

One of the concerns with the traditional Waterlox sealers is that they are very low in solid content and will penetrate deep into the wood. This is amplified on end grain and would take many, many coats of our ORIGINAL Sealer to saturate those end fibers. The key is to use higher solids products to plug up those straw-like fibers (like a poorly blended smoothie).” (Source)

They suggest using tung oil, urethane, epoxy, or a sanding sealer, and then layering over your final finish. Check out their in-depth project guide for full details.

I can attest that it will take many coats of the “ORIGINAL formula” to seal up end grain.

I coat all of the end grain areas – countertop ends, sink and faucet holes – just as I do the top and sides. With every coat that I apply I include a generous dousing on these areas.

After a few passes the “ORIGINAL formula” starts to build up a shine on the end grain and looks more solidly coated with each pass of the brush.

I replaced a faucet installed in the countertop in our kitchen about 2 years after sealing and finishing it. I feared seeing the worst when I removed the faucet, but all was well! Guess my “douse it!” approach works.

The only thing about using “ORIGINAL formula” on end grain is the large amount of the product you need to apply. This stuff ain’t cheap! So maybe weigh that out with your other options like those detailed in this Waterlox project guide.

How many coats of sealer/finish do I need to apply to my butcher block countertop?

For this answer I’m looking at Waterlox’s “ORIGINAL formula” application guide.

According to the guide, if you are using a hard wood like oak, they recommend two coats plus your finish coat (which can be gloss, semi-gloss, or satin).

If you are using a softer wood (eg., pine, fir, cherry, walnut), they suggest you apply an additional – a third – coat before your finish coat (in case your finish coat is different from your sealer coats).

Check out “Where, When and in What Order to Finish Countertops” for more info on coating your countertop.

If your project ends with “ORIGINAL formula” satin finish, here’s one other useful reference from Waterlox: “Streaky Waterlox Original Satin Finish troubleshooting“.

As I’ve mentioned in this and related posts, I typically use birch butcher block countertops. Birch is a hardwood. I have never gotten away with putting down less than 5 coats of “ORIGINAL formula”.

One of my ten tips for perfect Waterlox spotlights “the disappearing first coat“. For me, the second coat barely shows up. The countertop shows a sheen at the third coat. The fourth coat is sometimes semi-glossy, and sometimes only starting to shine. Then I’ve got to make up my mind – one more round of semi-gloss or is it satin finish time? You start to get a feel for this after using the product a bit.

I recently was in touch with Waterlox customer support and we got to chatting in email. (Waterlox has stellar customer support. They are a resource! Don’t hesitate to ask a question!) I told them that I usually put down 4 or 5 coats of semi-gloss and 1 coat of satin finish.

They recommend putting down two coats of sealer and then two coats of satin finish.

Photo of a kitchen with four butcher block countertops in varying states of glossiness.
The countertop in the foreground was finished with satin finish about 2 years ago. The countertop on the left was finished with satin finish about 8 years ago. Quite a difference in sheen. (Time for a recoat!)

I’m going to try 2 coats next time I tackle a butcherblock countertop project because I’ve noticed that my satin finished countertops start getting glossy over the years. I believe that’s because we’re basically rubbing off the finish daily as we wipe down our countertops.

Waterlox says you can expect 7-10 years of service out of their products before it’s time to re-coat. (See this guide on expected finish lifespan.) Hoping 2 coats give me a more lasting satin finish.

How do I clean my butcher block countertops?

After your countertop has cured, Waterlox recommends you use Waterlox cleaning products, or solutions you can make yourself with vinegar or detergent. (But not dish detergent! See below!) They also suggest:

“Avoid ammonia-based or bleach-based cleaning products like Lysol®, Fantastik®, 409®, Windex® (ammonia and bleach-based products will soften the oil finish if used frequently).” (Source)

Don’t use dish detergent: Waterlox recommends using warm soapy water as a cleaner and you might immediately think, “I’ll grab some dish soap and a clean rag and get to work!” Pump your brakes, not your dish soap dispenser. Dish detergent is all wrong (see photo below):

“Dish detergents are designed to break down stubborn grease and other organic (food) stains. Waterlox products are essentially a VERY stubborn organic coating. Chronic use will start to break down the coating and may cause it to become sticky. (Source)

So, over the years, the finish on the countertop right behind our kitchen sink has eroded to the point where – as you can see in this photo – we’re down to just bare wood in a few spots.

Close-up photo of butcher block countertop with soap dispenser; countertop finish partially damaged by soap.
Turns out, our dish soap dispenser dripping soap onto our countertop for years is the culprit. Time to recoat! And time for a dish soap tray!

The area in question is where we have our dish soap dispenser! Now I know why the finish is in such bad shape! This countertop is due for a recoat, and I’ll add a dish soap tray to my project shopping list!

Waterlox offers two guides for cleaning wood finished with their products. Check out their countertop specific guide and the more in-depth finished surface care guide and you’ll clean butcher block countertops worry-free for years.

Where can I buy Waterlox “ORIGINAL formula”

I’ve always bought Waterlox “ORIGINAL sealer” from either the Waterlox store or Amazon.com. Buying online works great for me. Since I tend to plan for my Waterlox projects, I plan in time for deliveries.

When I’ve bought directly from the company the transaction was smooth and delivery was quick. Noting that I ordered samples from Waterlox near the end of the year and noticed that the company would be closed December 24-31 for the holidays. (I think that’s great!) Just FYI – you can purchase Waterlox from other online markets that ship all year long.

Check out Waterlox’s dealer locator app to find a brick and mortar store near you.

Beware of confusing labeling and off-color photos. Some call the stuff “sealer”, some “sealer/finish”, some “finish”, some “stain”, some show a green label, some blue. I just saw that someone labeled a quart as a pint. Confusion buster: if it looks like the quarts in the photo here, you’ve got the right stuff.

If you are buying online definitely shop around. “ORIGINAL formula” is a popular choice for getting a natural look on finished wood and so a lot of e-stores carry it.

I just looked at the price for a quart of “ORIGINAL formula” on Waterlox’s site: $27.05. At Amazon, the price for same is anywhere from $28.80 to $44.95. A Google search locates the product in a number of places with even more widely varying pricing.

If you are using the Interwebs to find your quart of “ORIGINAL sealer”, it’s a good idea stay frosty while you search! Good luck!

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