Q: We recently bought a 15-year-old home and are making some modifications to the kitchen, updating appliances and counter tops. There is a center island that has a butcher block surface, 4 feet by 6 feet. I want to retain this, but the wood is stained and scratched from general wear. I recall reading something in your column in the past concerning restoration of a butcher block counter. Can you provide me with this information?
A: Assuming that wood has never been varnished, your first step is to thoroughly clean the surface with a fine grade of bronze wool and mineral spirits to remove general dirt and grime. Try using a solution of diluted chlorine bleach on major stains, letting it remain on the surface a minute or two. Wash thoroughly to remove all of the bleach from the wood and let dry.
If staining remains, sand the entire surface with a fine grade of sandpaper. Use a sanding block or an electric sander. A thorough surface sanding should remove surface scratches as well.
Be careful to sand evenly and avoid creating indentations that will cause water and other liquids to puddle on the board and create even greater problems.
If the chlorine bleach and sanding fail to remove dark stains, a stronger bleach solution recommended for wood is an oxalic acid solution, made up of one ounce oxalic acid mixed with one quart of water. Pour acid into water, never the reverse. Wear rubber gloves and protective clothing; take care not to splash the solution on the surrounding area.
Apply this solution to the stained areas and allow to set for one hour, then rinse with clean water. Deep stains may require a second application. The bleaching process may raise the grain of the wood somewhat, so a final light sanding may be required.
Once the stains have been removed and the surface has been sanded smooth, the final step is to apply a sealer. I would recommend one of the commercial nontoxic finishes that are safe for food contact. This would be similar to tung oil, but nontoxic. Unlike vegetable oil or mineral oil, often recommended for butcher block, this type of product will seal the wood without leaving an oily surface that tends to collect dirt. Two applications may be required. Follow manufacturer's directions on drying times between applications.
Use lemon oil, which will penetrate the wood and sealer without leaving an oily residue, after the tung oil treatment. To maintain the finish, clean the board after each use with soap and hot water, rinse with clear water and dry completely.
Stains can be treated with lemon juice and the board can be scrubbed with a nylon scouring pad. Reapply lemon oil periodically to maintain the surface. If the wood becomes stained again, a light sanding and new application of the finishing oil will restore the finish.
Look for nontoxic tung oil at a wood-craft supplier if you are unable to locate it at a home center or hardwood store. Contact Leichtung Workshops, a firm specializing in woodcrafts and products, 4944 Commerce Parkway, Cleveland, Ohio 44128; phone: 1-800-321-6840, if you are unable to find this product in your area.
If the wood surface has already been varnished, you will have to use a varnish stripper as the first step in this restoration project.
Another note of caution: Although the steps outlined here call for the use of water in solutions and for rinsing, do not let an excessive amount of water stand on the wood surface for any period of time. Water penetrating the wood can cause swelling, warping and other damage.
Send e-mail to email@example.com or write to Here's How, Copley News Service, P.O. Box 120190, San Diego, Calif. 92112-0190. Only questions of general interest can be answered in the column.