Highland Woodworking Wood News Online, No. 158, October 2018Welcome to Highland Woodworking - Fine Tools & Education Learn more about Highland Woodworking View our current woodworking classes and seminars Woodworking articles and solutions Subscribe to Wood News
The Down to Earth Woodworker
By Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

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Wooden Countertops – The Next Big Thing!

As we move into what I call "high woodworking season" it is not uncommon to be thinking about all the little projects we want to tackle this winter, but also to perhaps be planning the one big project we need or want to do. In my case, this winter's major project will be wooden countertops to replace the ancient and weary-looking tiled tops the former owner put in the kitchen. Tiled tops can be, and probably once were, stylish, but those grout lines are havens for germs. Yuck! And in my modernized cottage style home, the once-fashionable tan-ish, brown-ish, gold-ish, icky color of the tile is sorely out of place.

Figure 5 - Keeping those grout lines clean is a never-ending task and I am never truly
sure they are hygienic. This tile has got to go!
Wood countertops are the coming rage, by the way. If you want to be on the cutting edge of kitchen fashion, this is it. Another couple of years and countertops made from wood will be a prerequisite for the six hundred "do-over" shows on TV and no "flipper" will be able to sell a house without them. Yep, these are the shifting vagaries of fashion… granite is out, wood is "in."

There are a lot of reasons wood is becoming fashionable for countertops. Wood is warm and cozy. Stone is cold and clinical. Wood deadens sound better and is therefore quieter. Wood is softer than stone or manufactured stone, and there is a pretty good chance that a dropped wine glass or coffee mug on a wooden countertop might not even break.

For many people, wood is less "manufactured" looking than granite or marble and way less "fabricated" or "fake" looking than composite stone materials. And if you weigh the overall carbon output costs of mining, cutting, and polishing stone, wood is way more environmentally friendly on a net-net basis.

There are, of course, some drawbacks to wooden countertops. Wood can and does move, so proper drying and seasoning of the wood is important and allowances for movement must be designed into the layout. Due to wood's ability to absorb moisture, the type and application of finish is critical, the type and placement of a sink is important, certain cleaners should be avoided, and wiping up spills quickly is paramount. Also, the mounting of a wooden countertop must be done correctly, and this includes allowing for some air circulation under the counter as well as on top. Unless fabricated carefully and installed properly, a wooden countertop can warp or crack.

Wood can also be marred by a hot pot or an errant knife, so the use of trivets or pads for cooking utensils is recommended. All those cutting boards you have made over the years will be indispensable. The good news, though… a damaged wood countertop is easily repaired.

Virtually any type of wood can be used for a countertop. The construction can be of laminated strips, much like a cutting board or butcher block, or it can be made of edge-glued boards showing the faces of an attractive species. Wood countertops can be built "in situ," meaning built-in-place, or they can be built in the shop and installed much like conventional stone or composite tops. Because wood weighs less than stone, it is possible for a person to do the entire job alone, without help.

Like many of the projects I tackle around my own house, nothing is simple and one thing inevitably leads to, or must be preceded by, multiple other things. Before building the countertops, I need to build one additional base cabinet assembly. This cabinet will be attached to existing cabinets and fill a smallish blank wall area originally used for a refrigerator. In the new base cabinet, I want to install a built-in wine cooler and perhaps leave room for some additional storage in the form of a cabinet with door or perhaps three drawers. I decided, based on prior experience, to order the wine cooler unit ahead of time so that I have the exact dimensions and am not dependent on the manufacturer's specifications… I got burned that way, once.

As far as wood choice for my countertops, I have narrowed the choice down to two. But before finalizing the decision, I've also got to figure out what to do about backsplashes and the section of walls between upper and lower cabinets. Subway tile has been in style now for a couple of years, it is easy to install, and there are hundreds of choices in stores. This plethora of choices may be the best reason of all to consider something other than tile. It seems that when something comes into style, at first almost no one has it in stock, then as it grows in popularity, more and more stores have it, then just as it is about to peak and fall out of style-favor, everyone has it in stock and there are hundreds of varieties… that's where we are now. I would definitely rather be on the front end of a trend.

Envisioning the project steps, it would seem that making an exact-fit template of the countertops would be a good idea. So far I have not found one perfectly square corner in my house, and I have no reason to suspect that any corner in my kitchen will be any different. I could make a template from a stiff poster-board type of material. A trip to the art supply store may reveal a solution.

This is not a project that may lend itself well to video, and clearly not everyone in our reading audience is of a mind to build wooden countertops for their kitchens, but certain steps within the project might be interesting and useful for woodworkers, so my next series of videos will be in a slightly different format. Rather than taking a project through from design doodles to finished project, I intend to highlight just certain steps that might assist other woodworkers in wholly unrelated projects. For now, though, the last episode of the five-part Cedar Garden Potting Bench series is up and available for viewing. I hope you enjoy it.

Thanks for reading… see you next month!

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Steven Johnson is retired from an almost 30-year career selling medical equipment and supplies, and now enjoys improving his shop, his skills, and his designs on a full time basis (although he says home improvement projects and furniture building have been hobbies for most of his adult life). Steven can be reached directly via email at sjohnson@downtoearthwoodworking.com

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