Walnut butcher block kitchen island top showing bread being cut.

The way you use your countertop will tell you what sealer you'll need.

There are three main wood sealers that are used on J. Aaron wood countertops. When you hear or read something about a wood finish that can be referring to the sealer or the overall finish of the wood including things like color if a stain is used. For this conversation we'll consider the finish to be just the sealer.

The first step in choosing a finish is to decide what you want to do with your countertop. Is it going to be an area to chop on or a standard counter surface with some lite food prep but nothing involving a meat cleaver. Are you going to want a sink in the top? These will dictate which sealer is the better choice for your needs.

If you want to chop directly on the surface of a wood countertop then you're going to want to use a mineral oil finish or other 100% food safe oil like butcher block wax or walnut oil to name a few. This type of finish offers very little in the way of protection from stains and is only designed to feed the wood keeping it from drying out and cracking. The butcher block wax offers the most protection as it has paraffin wax in the mix and will repel some liquids for a short amount of time. Sinks can be used in a top with only a food safe finish (not highly recommended though) but water needs to be cleaned up as soon as possible and the oil needs to be maintained often to maximize its protective characteristics. Countertops without sinks will need re-oiled once every other month but tops with sinks should be re-oiled once a month. We recommend using Howard Brand Butchers Wax because it's easy to apply and smells great. On a side note all of the food safe oils are not good to use on plank style wood tops because they puff up the wood grain making the surface feel furry. Only use the oil sealers on edge grain butcher block tops to prevent this from becoming a problem.

Countertops which will not be used as chopping surfaces have two types of sealer options available. Penetrating sealers and topical sealers. A common penetrating sealer is tung-oil, though we use a product called Rubio Monocoat. It's a hand applied oil that has resins in it. As the oil soaks into the wood it takes the resins with it deep into the wood fibers . Unlike a mineral oil, Monocoat drys and the resins harden providing a water and stain resistant seal. Typical characteristics of this type of sealer are a saturated color of the wood and a very low sheen. Maintenance on a top sealed with Rubio Monocoat or tung-oil would include re-application once a year and cleaning with a mixture of one part vinegar and three parts water (also a great cleaner for the food safe oils).

Kitchen island top with farmhouse sink made from walnut butcher block.

A satin polyurethane adds a luster to a countertop rather like you'd find on fine furniture.

Topical sealers are things like polyurethane, lacquer, etc. Anything that sits on top of the wood essentially wrapping it in a protective coating. We use what's called 2K (two pack ) polyurethane which is very durable but a little harder to work with than some other topical sealers. This type of finish, as long as it's applied correctly and is a good product, will act as a durable stain and water proof sealer needing little to no upkeep beyond cleaning. It has a very nice sheen to it ranging from matte (which is higher than tung-oil and mineral oil), satin, semi-gloss and gloss. We've used them all here at J. Aaron and find satin to be the most popular. One note about all topical sealers is the higher the sheen level the more durable the surface is due to a higher solids content. This is getting a little technical so I'll leave it there for now. Down sides to using a topical sealer are repairs if the surface does get damaged. For scratch repairs we recommend using a wax pencil or touch up pen. They will enhance the scratch and you're top will start to look distressed, a look we charge extra for here at J. Aaron.

Sealer Comparison Chart

Sealer OptionsStain/Water ResistanceScratch ResistanceCertified Food SafeMaintenanceLookEase Of RepairCan Be Cut On"GREEN"
MonocoatVery GoodAs tough as the woodNo, but fine for food contactOnce a yearNatural look and feelEasyLight cutting is OKYes
2K PolyExcellentGoodNo, but fine for food contactNoneHas the look and feel of furnitureAdvancedNoNo
Mineral OilPoorAs tough as the woodYes2-3 times a yearNatural look and feelEasyYesYes