The tried and true tips supplied below are based on my experience applying a Waterlox finish to over a dozen butcher block countertops in my home and rental units.
I’ve done a lot of research on wood finishes. Having used the Waterlox finishing system many times I can testify that this unique blend of tung oil and resins is an excellent choice for new countertops, a kitchen island, re-finishing existing wood countertops, and other woodworking projects.
If this is your first time doing an application of Waterlox, this tip sheet details the main steps needed to create a durable surface that is water resistant and brings out the natural beauty of wood no matter what type of wood you’ve got.
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Tip #1: Take this fight outside
The Waterlox products I use to seal butcher block counters and woodworking projects are Waterlox original tung oil finishes. In particular, I use Waterlox “ORIGINAL formula” in semi-gloss (to seal and build up the finish) and the satin finish which I use as the final coat. I’ve found Waterlox original sealer creates a durable finish.
I apply all coats of Waterlox out in the garage. The stuff is natural – it’s a unique blend of resins and a tung-oil base – and it provides a water-resistant finish safe for food preparation once it cures, but it stinks!
You don’t want to be in a closed room with it for an extended period of time. If you have any say in the matter, Waterlox your butcher block countertops in Summer or Fall. The less humid and the more warm the air, the quicker your dry time.
Tip #2: Go cheap (brush) or go home
I only use one brush per coat of Waterlox. I don’t, for instance, wrap a brush in a plastic bag and then use it again to apply subsequent coats of sealer. I did that once and left behind glops of dried Waterlox.
I have also left behind bits of foam brush when I tried to use one twice. Why bother? For good results, just throw out the cheap brush and move on to a fresh new one.
Tip #3: Reuse, repurpose, recycle!
I start saving up containers as I approach Waterlox go-time so that I can pour out just enough Waterlox for one go-around on a countertop, and then I toss the container along with the brush.
By about the middle of the second countertop I was doing pitch perfect, no waste pours into single serving Chobani yogurt containers which are the perfect size for a 2” chip or foam brush.
If you have to re-use a container wipe it out thoroughly with a dry cloth when you are done with a coat. Probably best to use a clean glass container for this purpose.
If you allow the Waterlox to dry in the container, and then try to re-use the container, you are pretty much guaranteed to get glops of dried Waterlox in the next coat.
Tip #4: Crinkle crinkle little can
The quart-sized Waterlox Original Sealer comes in a rectangular can. It’s a good idea to crumple up the can as you go. This pushes air out of the can which would otherwise dry out the product.
Tip #5: (Don’t) get into the groove
In the beginning I poured out Waterlox in exactly the opposite way I’m suggesting here. It just made sense to me to pour from the “short” end of the can. Well, wrong.
Pour the Waterlox out of the can in the way shown in this photo (but take the cap off, of course) to keep the stuff from pooling on the top of the can, making the screw cap harder and harder to twist off as the layers of Waterlox dry in the cap grooves.
Tip #6: The disappearing first coat. Don’t panic!
As the folks at Waterlox state on their website, Waterlox penetrates deep into the pores of the wood to create an elastic finish that protects against water damage and offers a smooth finish.
The semi-gloss finish is very loose. It has a consistency closer to water than to, say, polyurethane. I suppose this depends on the grain of the wood of your butcher block counters, or the species of wood, but for both the Ikea and Menards wood countertops I worked with the stuff really soaked into the wood surface.
Don’t panic when your first coat pretty much disappears on you!
I lay down a thick first coat and by the time I make it to the end of the butcher block top I’m working on the surface looks like bare wood. Just let that first coat dry for 24 hours (if it’s hot and dry outside I will recoat in 12 hours), and then move on to the second coat.
I don’t bother sanding the first coat, I just move on to the next.
Tip #7: Like grains of sand stuck to a piece of paper
I lay my second coat on thick too. When that one dries you’ll start to see some shine. Exciting! After this coat dries you will need to sand.
Sanding between coats from here on out is absolutely the key to getting a super smooth finish across the entire surface of your wood counters.
You can use tack cloth for this step. I prefer using a damp, then dry, rag.
I don’t use paper towel because it can leave behind paper fibers – especially on the coats where there is little to no shine on the counter surface.
Now it’s ready to re-coat.
Tip #8: Do not touch (up)
For coats three, four, and sometimes five, of Waterlox I use a foam brush and it’s all
For coats three, four, and sometimes five, I use a foam brush and it’s all about building on the last Waterlox coats.
I look for dull areas and dry spots going into a new coat. You don’t want to try to touch up as you go. Waterlox will self-level if you put enough on.
If you steadily work your way to the other side of your countertop and then notice a dry spot somewhere it’s better to just let the entire coat dry, then give it a light sanding.
Then hold your foam brush at an angle and let the product collect in the tip of the foam brush. Push the tip into the middle of the dry spot and saturate it on your next go around.
Tip #9: Go gently into that final coat
FYI, the satin finish is a little thicker than the semi-gloss finish. I find that you have to work a little quicker with the Satin Finish. It just seems to set a little quicker.
Definitely do not touch up as you go (see Tip # 8).
That final coat is so satisfying to put down and when it dries it has a gorgeous feel to it. Your butcher block will look amazing. Really!
Tip #10: Wherefore art thou, 1.5″ butcher block?
Okay so this tip is about purchasing butcher block, not applying Waterlox. I’ve been asked about this tip several times so thought I’d just add it here.
Ikea stopped offering 1.5” thick countertops several years ago. If you prefer the thicker profile I’ve found quality butcher block at comparable prices at Menards and Floor and Decor. I believe you can order the thicker tops online at Home Depot and Lowes as well but you’ll have to wait for shipping.
Also, did you know that you can get butcher block through Amazon? Now you do!
BONUS: 2022 update
If you are still considering options such as mineral oil, linseed oil, or pure tung oil instead of Waterlox, you might like this post which details the pros and cons of using natural oils.
Check out our Waterlox FAQ to go in-depth on commonly encountered Waterlox problems and how to fix them plus info about cure time, color change, treating end wood grain, using Waterlox on a cutting board, cleaning products, and more.
Wondering how Waterlox stands up to normal use as well as abuse over the years? Check out this post that describes four years of living with Waterloxed countertops.
For even more project help the Waterlox website is a treasure trove of info and great instructions. Between the Waterlox project guides and Passionate Chump DIY butcher block posts you won’t need “good luck” to create a good quality finish on your butcher block tops.