Cutting Through the Stains on the Butcher Block

(By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Jeanne Huber
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, May 25, 2006

Q The butcher block on our kitchen island is getting stained from foods and blackened from newspaper ink. What's the best way to clean and maintain it?

ATry window cleaner, suggests Steve Reichart, customer service manager for Bally Block Co., a Pennsylvania firm that makes butcher-block countertops. This type of cleaner typically includes ammonia, so it helps cut through oily residue, which includes newspaper ink and many types of food that might have spilled and weren't wiped away completely. (The use of undiluted ammonia is not advised.)

If this doesn't do the trick, Reichart recommends cutting a lemon in half and rubbing the cut surface over the wood. Lemon is acidic, so it works in the opposite way from ammonia, which is alkaline. The acid may lift stains caused by materials other than newspaper ink that have contributed to discoloring the wood.

If you still haven't achieved good results, switch chemical directions once again and brush on a solution of half household bleach and half water, Reichart says. Bleach can be particularly effective on butcher-block counters where water has collected and caused mildew to grow. Allow the bleach solution to sit for 15 minutes. If the wood looks better but not yet great, repeat the process. Then neutralize the bleach by rinsing the surface well with a solution of half vinegar and half water.

If none of this works, you will need to sand the wood down to a fresh surface. An island countertop, such as the one you have, is much easier to sand than one with areas that are difficult to reach, such as confined corners that butt up to a backsplash. If a sink or other appliance is installed in the island, consider removing it before you sand. Although this might seem like a lot of work, it's the only way to ensure an even result.

Start with 100-grit sandpaper. If you seem to be making little headway, switch to a more aggressive grit, probably around 80. Once you have exposed clean wood over the entire surface, sand again with at least two progressively finer grits. End with 400-grit. Although you can sand by hand, using sandpaper wrapped around a block of wood or a sanding block, a mechanized sander is faster and easier. Use a palm sander or a random-orbit sander; a belt sander might dig ruts into parts of the surface. To keep down dust, try holding a vacuum wand in one hand while you sand with the other.

Many countertop manufacturers recommend coating the fresh surface with mineral oil, a highly refined form of petroleum oil. Like the oil used in newspaper ink, it never truly dries, so it remains somewhat tacky -- and therefore attractive to grime -- indefinitely. To use it successfully on countertops, you need to oil them regularly. Each fresh coat mixes in with residue on the surface and makes it liquid enough so that much of the grime can be wiped away.

Reichart takes a different approach. He recommends treating the butcher-block surface with tung oil, which is made from seeds of the tung tree ( Aleurites fordii ). Tung oil is classified as a "drying oil," which means it combines chemically with oxygen in the air to dry into a tough, plastic-like finish. Linseed oil, pressed from flax seeds, also goes through this reaction but can develop a rancid smell as it dries (although this is more of an issue in confined spaces, such as cabinet interiors, than it is on countertops).

Buy pure or polymerized tung oil, not modified tung oil, which may contain other oils as well as driers made of heavy metals. The polymerized type has been put through a cooking process that begins the reaction with oxygen, so it dries more quickly than pure tung oil, a big advantage. But the trade-off is that polymerized tung oil generally contains hazardous solvents that make it easy to apply. They evaporate completely as the finish cures, so you don't have to worry about contaminating food you put on the countertop later. But you do need to protect yourself from these solvents while you are applying the material and waiting for it to cure. Open doors and windows, and wear nitrile or vinyl gloves (not latex, which disintegrates when in contact with this finish). Follow application instructions on the container.

If you've previously used a container of tung oil, be cautious about using the remains on your countertop. If the oil has become thick while in storage, it might gum up on the surface before you have a chance to wipe it off. Buy a fresh batch and work on small sections at a time.

Be careful with your newly resurfaced countertop, because tung oil takes about three weeks to cure fully. Wipe with a damp cloth or sponge at first. After that, feel free to use warm, soapy water on the cloth or sponge, particularly for sticky or oily spills. When grime is fresh, hand dishwashing soap is plenty strong enough to cut through the oils in newspaper ink as well as most of the other things you're likely to get on your countertop.

When you notice moisture getting through the finish and darkening the wood, it's time to apply another coat of tung oil.

At The Washington Post, color ink is based on soy oil, and black ink is based on a mixture of soy and petroleum oils. People who work around the presses generally use Ivory soap to wash the residue off their hands, according to pressman Joel Barefoot. When ink builds up on surfaces such as countertops, they use a degreaser known as Spray Nine ( ).

Subscribers who call about ink-residue issues are directed to Kevin Conner, The Post's quality assurance manager. He says he has never received a call asking about getting ink out of countertops. The No. 1 question: Is newspaper ink safe enough so that old papers can be used as mulch in gardens? The answer: Yes.

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