Whether upcycled or new, butcher blocks add a vintage touch to your kitchen. But some models are also designed to be both a piece of furniture and a cutting surface, and if you choose the right one, they're also better for your knives (and a breeze to keep clean).
We chatted with experts and sought out only the best brands to find the most beautiful, sustainable butcher blocks for your kitchen.
Buying Considerations for Kitchen Island Butcher Blocks
Butcher blocks can refer to one of two things: cutting boards or pieces of furniture.
Butcher block cutting boards are heavy-duty, sturdy wooden boards, usually made with end-grain wood. End-grain, as opposed to edge-grain, provides a surface that is both easier on your knives and more sanitary.
John Loftis of The BoardSMITH explains that you can imagine wood grain like a handful of straws: edge-grain means that the wood grain is running lengthwise, so when you cut into it, you end up creating scratches and grooves, as you would if you were cutting into the long side of straws: these scratches allow bacteria to thrive and contaminate your board. Edge-grain wood fibers run like straws standing up: the knife blade slides between the "straws," but they end up coming back together, undamaged. This is better for your knife, and it also allows bacteria to be wicked into the center of the board, where it dies.
Butcher blocks can also refer to vintage wooden kitchen islands or tables that look like old butcher tables. Some butcher block islands are made with this heavy-duty end-grain wood and some of which are not. Either one can be a beautiful, sustainable choice for your kitchen; just be aware that if you want to cut directly on your butcher block island, you'll want to be sure you're choosing the former rather than the latter.
When shopping for butcher blocks, particularly if you're buying a new piece of furniture rather than an upcycled one, it's also important to consider the type of wood being used. Richard Odea of Richard Rose Culinary notes that he prefers North American hardwoods for his butcher blocks.
"I know that they're readily available, and they are being harvested properly," he says.
It's also important to choose a wood that is of the right texture.
"You don't want something that's too hard, right?" explains Loftis. "If you cut directly onto a granite countertop or a glass cutting board, you're just gonna crush your knife. It'll go dull almost instantly. And you also don't want it to be too soft, like pine, or it'll just scratch up really easily."
Generally speaking, there are four major wood types that tick both boxes: walnut, cherry, ash, and maple. Other woods have unfortunate tradeoffs: mesquite, for example, is beautiful, but rarely sustainably sourced; bamboo is a sustainable choice, but it's much harder on your knives.
Editor’s Picks: 7 Butcher Blocks We Love
With these characteristics in mind, we've sought out the best butcher block islands out there. We've divided them into two sections: those that are made of end-grain wood and designed to be worked on directly (no extra cutting board required!) and those that make a beautiful, vintage addition to your kitchen but that need to be used in tandem with another cutting board to preserve their beauty.
Butcher Blocks for Chopping
These boards are made by cutting board professionals with end-grain butcher block tops suitable for slicing and dicing right on the surface.
1. John Boos Kitchen Island
John Boos has been a name to beat in butcher blocks for decades, and for good reason. Established in 1887, the company is one of the top producers of butcher block cutting boards and kitchen islands, with over 75 different models.
Boos produces a variety custom end-grain countertops and traditional butcher blocks, but one of our favorites is this combination of end-grain American cherry and a simple, white-painted base. This kitchen island (retail $ 2,269.00) offers a nice amount of storage in addition to its built-in ready-to-use cutting surface.
2. Lonestar Artisans Custom Kitchen Islands
Before Loftis began working with David Smith, the founder of the BoardSMITH, he principally worked making custom furniture. His two passions are combined with butcher block tables and islands, which he builds to order for any aesthetic.
"I've done them in walnut, cherry, and maple," Loftis explains. "Some with pull-out cutting boards, pull-out dovetailed drawers, rolling casters..."
Loftis takes the same care with his custom butcher blocks as with his end-grain cutting boards, each of which is made to order. Loftis is the ideal craftsman to seek out if you are on the lookout for a kitchen island or butcher block table specially designed to suit your kitchen.
3. Richard Rose Culinary Butcher Block Table
Richard Rose Culinary makes the cutting boards of choice for many Food Network stars, and the company also makes several beautiful butcher block tables. Ranging from $2,000 to $3,600, these tables are made with intricate designs from a combination of woods; we love the red oak and walnut butcher block table, which boasts a gorgeous play between light and dark wood grains and also includes storage space in the form of a deep drawer and storage rack below.
Vintage Butcher Block-Style Islands and Tables
While these butcher blocks aren't ideal for chopping, they do add beautiful charm to your kitchen.
4. Vintage Industrial 48 Drawer Butcher Block Table Kitchen Island
This vintage kitchen island ($3,824.99) is made with edge-grain wood, making it less than ideal as a cutting surface, but it's perfect as a table or island. With 48 drawers of four different depths, it's the ideal piece for cooks who don't have quite enough storage space. Measuring 70 1/4" long, 30 1/4" wide, and standing 32 1/4" from the ground, it's an imposing piece that could easily become the centerpiece of your kitchen.
5. Custom Jack-of-All-Trades
This one-of-a-kind hand-crafted piece ($995) combines the best of butcher block and wine rack. A 3-inch butcher block made from black walnut and maple is built into the framework of an antique vintage Singer sewing machine. A five-bottle wine rack and copper towel rack complete the ensemble.
6. Vintage Industrial Butcher Block Dining Table
This edge-grain butcher block table ($1,955) was reclaimed from a General Electric plant before being fully restored. This beautiful piece, complete with cast-iron legs, would make the perfect dining room table at 8 feet in length, 30" wide, and 31" tall.
7. Antique French Butcher Block Table
It's evident from one look at this end-grain butcher block table ($2,800) that it was well-loved and well-used by the 19th century French butcher who once owned it: the 24" by 40" by 30" fruitwood table's top has been warped with years of love and use, and it will add a lovely touch of character to your kitchen.
Taking Care of Your Butcher Blocks
Caring for butcher blocks requires a bit of work, but the result is a piece that you'll be able to hang onto for generations.
Most pros recommend three basic steps to caring for your butcher blocks: keep them as dry as possible, treat them with oil, and use a conditioning cream when needed.
According to Odea, the first step is linked to the fact that "wood is still naturally living."
"It expands and contracts, and eventually if it gets really soaked, the board will absorb all this water, and then as it dries out, that's where cracks happen," he says.
Instead of soaking your butcher block with water when you want to clean it, just wipe it down with a soapy sponge and then dry it with a towel: the natural quality of the wood fibers to wick bacteria down to the core means that you don't have to worry so much about contamination, according to Loftis, especially once the surface is dry.
Even if you're careful with water usage, your butcher block will eventually start to dry out; you'll want to use some sort of oil to return the right kind of moisture to the wood and keep it from cracking, splitting, and warping. Many manufacturers swear by mineral oil, but we love Caron & Doucet vegan cutting board oil, which is made with coconut oil and essential oils and devoid of petroleum byproducts.
Every once in awhile, you may also want to treat your butcher block with a conditioning cream, which will not only return moisture to the wood but will also have a water repellent effect, to keep your butcher block as good as new.
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