Top 5 Best Polyurethanes for Butcher Block: Buyer’s Guide 2023

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Matt Stone

Choosing the right finish for your butcher block countertop can make a world of difference in both its appearance and functionality. Polyurethane stands out as a top choice for many homeowners, including us. Yet, as with any product, not all polyurethanes are created equal.

 Some excel in durability, while others shine in their eco-friendly properties. Whether you’re a seasoned DIYer or someone embarking on their first kitchen remodel, it’s essential to understand the nuances of the available options.

In our recent kitchen remodel, we looked into the options for polyurethane, researching and comparing the pros and cons of each. In this guide, we’ll share our findings, offering you a curated list of the best polyurethanes for your butcher block.

Our Top Picks For the Best Polyurethane for Butcher Block

Best Overall

General Finishes High Performance Water-Based Topcoat

Best overall for durability and ease of Use

Quick dry time between coats: 1-2 hours

Water-based formula for easy clean up

Apply with a high quality brush

Note: Ensure you’re using it in interior spaces. If your butcher block lives outside there are better options available.

Best Water-Based Alternative

Varathane Water-Based Ultimate Polyurethane

A strong contender for those looking for an alternative to General Finishes

Quick dry time between coats: 1-2 hours

Water-based formula for easy clean up

Durable finish

Note: Before committing to a water based poly, you may consider reading below about how they compare to their oil-based alternatives.

Best Oil-Based

General Finishes Arm-R-Seal Topcoat

Best for getting the advantages of Oil-Based Poly

High-quality urethane resin

Can be wiped on with a cloth or applied with a foam brush.

Note: Make sure to apply this in a well ventilated area.

Best One Coat Option

Minwax One Coat Polyurethane

Goes on extra thick for one-coat durability.

Time-saving option

Dries in two hours

Note: If you only apply one coat you will not have the benefit of sanding between coats. This can make it more difficult to get a smooth finish.

Best Low-VOC Option

Vermont Natural Coatings Poly Whey Furniture Finish

Suitable for both indoor and outdoor use

Uses non-toxic ingredients

Dries faster than its oil-based counterparts

Low Odor

Note: It is claimed to be as durable as the other options but I have not been able to verify this.

Why Polyurethane is Ideal for Butcher Block

When it comes to sealing and protecting butcher block countertops, not all finishes are made equal. Among the myriad options available, polyurethane has consistently proven to be a top contender. Here’s why:

  1. Superior Protection: At the core of its benefits, polyurethane offers a hard to beat protective barrier. It shields your butcher block from common kitchen mishaps, including spills, moisture, and even hot pans, ensuring the wood underneath remains pristine.
  2. Enhanced Beauty: Polyurethane also protects the natural grain and beauty of the wood. Depending on the type you choose, you can maintain the wood’s natural color or give it a slightly ambered tone. 
  3. Durability: With the right application and care, a polyurethane finish can last for years without needing reapplication. Compared to other finishes like mineral oil, which requires regular maintenance, polyurethane offers a more long-term solution.
  4. Versatility: Whether you prefer a glossy, semi-glossy, or matte finish, there’s a polyurethane out there that matches your preference. This versatility ensures that homeowners can achieve the exact look and feel they envision for their countertops. You can also stain the wood before applying the top coat for more customization. 
  5. Safe for Food Prep: Many polyurethanes are considered food-safe once fully cured. Of course, you should do your own research before deciding on a product.

How to Choose the Right Polyurethane for Your Butcher Block

There are several different options to choose from when it comes to polys. Making the right decision involves considering several factors. Here’s a guide to ensure you make an informed choice:

  1. Type of Polyurethane: Oil-based vs. Water-based:
    • Oil-based Polyurethane: Offers a slightly ambered finish, enriching the natural tones of the wood. It tends to be more durable and provides excellent water resistance. However, it can take longer to dry and has a stronger odor during application.
    • Water-based Polyurethane: Dries quickly, emits less odor, and retains the wood’s natural color without the amber tint. It’s also easier to clean up after. However, it may not be as resistant to heat and chemicals as oil-based variants.
  2. Drying Time:
    • If you’re looking to get your kitchen up and running swiftly, opt for a polyurethane with a quick drying time. However, remember that quicker drying times might come at the cost of easier workability.
  3. Appearance:
    • Consider whether you want a clear finish or one that adds an amber hue. This is especially crucial if you wish to retain the natural look of your butcher block.
  4. Ease of Application:
    • Some polyurethanes can be wiped on, while others are better brushed or sprayed. Your choice might depend on the tools you have at hand and your comfort level with each application method.
  5. Odor:
    • If you’re sensitive to strong smells, or if the kitchen area isn’t well-ventilated, you might prefer a low-odor, water-based polyurethane.
  6. Finish Look:
    • Do you prefer a glossy, reflective finish, or something more understated like semi-gloss or matte? Your desired aesthetic will guide your choice.
  7. VOC Content:
    • VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) can impact indoor air quality. If you’re eco-conscious or have sensitivities, opt for a product labeled as low-VOC or no-VOC.
  8. Durability:
    • Consider the level of use your countertop will see. If it’s a heavily-used surface, you’ll want a polyurethane known for its resistance to scratches, heat, and stains.

Application Tips for Polyurethane on Butcher Block

Applying polyurethane to your butcher block can greatly enhance its durability and appearance, but the final result is influenced by the method of application. Here are some practical tips to ensure a smooth and long-lasting finish:

  1. Surface Preparation:
    • Clean: Ensure the butcher block is free from grease, oil, and dirt. Use a mild detergent if necessary, followed by a thorough rinse with water.
    • Sand: Sand the surface with fine-grit sandpaper (around 220 grit) to smooth any rough areas. Always sand in the direction of the grain.
    • Dust off: After sanding, wipe the surface with a damp cloth to remove any residual sawdust that can be trapped under the finish.
  2. Choose the Right Brush:
    • For oil-based polyurethane, natural bristle brushes are best. For water-based, opt for synthetic bristle brushes. They should be clean and free of loose bristles. I would avoid getting an inexpensive brush and would opt for a mid-range option. Some products can be applied with a cloth or foam brush.
  3. Thin Coats are Key:
    • Apply thin coats rather than a thick single layer. This allows the polyurethane to dry faster, reduces the risk of drips, and ensures a smoother finish. Typically, 2-3 coats are recommended but more can be used.
  4. Watch for Drips:
    • Check the edges and corners of the butcher block for drips or pooling. Smooth out any irregularities immediately to prevent a bumpy finish.
  5. Drying Time:
    • Be patient. Allow the polyurethane to dry fully between coats. This might vary between products, so always check the manufacturer’s recommendations.
  6. Light Sanding Between Coats:
    • After the first coat has dried, lightly sand the surface with a very fine sandpaper (around 320-grit) to ensure the next layer adheres well. Remove any resulting dust with a soft cloth.
  7. Safety First:
    • Work in a well-ventilated area to avoid inhaling fumes, especially when using oil-based polyurethanes.
    • Wear gloves to protect your hands, and safety goggles if there’s a risk of splashes.
  8. Final Cure Time:
    • While polyurethane might feel dry to the touch within hours, it can take days or even weeks to fully cure. Refer to the product’s instructions for guidance on when the butcher block will be ready for regular use.
  9. Clean Up:
    • If you’ve used water-based polyurethane, brushes and tools can be cleaned with soap and water. For oil-based, you’ll need mineral spirits or paint thinner.
  10. Maintenance:
  • Once your butcher block is sealed with polyurethane, clean it with a mild soap and water solution. Avoid abrasive pads which can scratch the surface.

FAQs on Polyurethane for Butcher Block

  1. What is the best polyurethane for butcher block countertops?
    • The best polyurethane for butcher block largely depends on your specific needs, such as drying time, finish look, and VOC content. Our top recommendation is the General Finishes High Performance Water Based Topcoat due to its durability, quick drying time, and quality finish.
  2. How often should I reapply polyurethane on a butcher block?
    • Typically, for heavily used butcher block countertops, reapplying polyurethane every 1-2 years can help maintain its protective properties. However, if the countertop sees lighter use, you might only need to reapply every 3-5 years.
  3. Is it safe to use polyurethane on food-preparation surfaces?
    • Yes, once fully cured, most polyurethanes are considered food-safe for butcher block countertops. As always, do your own research if you are concerned about the safety of a product.
  4. Oil-based vs. water-based polyurethane: Which is better for butcher blocks?
    • Both oil-based and water-based polyurethanes offer protection. Oil-based variants tend to give a warmer, amber tone and might be more durable against scratches. In contrast, water-based ones dry faster, have lower VOCs, and retain the wood’s natural color.
  5. Can I use a matte finish polyurethane on my butcher block?
    • Absolutely! Polyurethane comes in various finishes, including glossy, semi-glossy, and matte. The choice of finish is purely aesthetic, so pick what matches your kitchen’s style.
  6. Why does my newly applied polyurethane appear streaky or bubbly?
    • Streaks or bubbles can occur due to improper application, using a wrong brush, or not ensuring the butcher block’s surface was clean and dust-free before application. To avoid this, always prepare the surface well and follow application instructions meticulously.
  7. How does polyurethane compare to other finishes like mineral oil or wax?
    • While mineral oil and wax provide a natural finish and are easy to reapply, they might require more frequent maintenance. Polyurethane, on the other hand, offers a long-lasting, protective barrier against moisture and stains, reducing the need for regular upkeep.

Summing it Up

Choosing the right finish for your butcher block is more than just a design choice; it’s about ensuring durability, longevity, and safety in your kitchen. As we’ve explored, polyurethane emerges as a reliable contender, offering unparalleled protection against common kitchen mishaps, from spills to knife nicks.

Our journey to find the best polyurethane for butcher block was inspired by real-life needs, backed by research and hands-on experience. The options we’ve recommended stand out, not just on paper, but in practical, everyday kitchen scenarios. 

Whether you’re swayed by the robustness of an oil-based finish, the eco-friendliness of a low-VOC choice, or the swift drying time of water-based alternatives, there’s a perfect polyurethane out there tailored for your butcher block needs.

While products and brands may evolve, the essence remains the same: a butcher block protected by high-quality polyurethane not only looks splendid but also serves as a reliable workspace for years to come. So, as you embark on your kitchen journey, remember to prioritize quality, safety, and, of course, aesthetics. After all, a well-sealed butcher block is both a visual treat and a testament to your commitment to quality.

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Author: Matt Stone
Matt has worked as a professional painter for over 10 years. This includes much experience with all types of wood stains. He loves to write about wood stains to help others make good choices to protect their homes and make them beautiful.

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