If you start with the premise that there is no such thing as a perfect kitchen countertop material, then wood - though seldom used - is as worthy a choice as any. And its return engagement is long overdue.
Think about it. Each kind of countertop material has shortcomings. Granite and marble are expensive to buy and install. Marble can be etched by the acids in wine, vinegar, ketchup and other food. Plastic laminate can scratch, chip and be scorched by hot pans. Faux-stone synthetics are prone to scratches and burns as well. Ceramic tile has grime-catching grout lines and is unforgiving toward wine glasses and china.
The fact is, wood is neither more nor less suitable for countertops than any other material. What probably accounts for its lack of popularity is that high-tech alternatives came along. Technology made it possible for granite and marble to be cut into thin slabs. Technology made it possible to produce inexpensive manmade plastic laminates and other synthetics. Technology also allowed ceramic tile to be mass-produced on an assembly line.
The truth is, wood was the kitchen countertop of choice for hundreds of years - back when there were no other choices. Many farmhouses built during the first 30 or 40 years of this century still have wooden countertops.
And if it’s still good enough for dining tables - which are subject to similar use and abuse - why isn’t it good enough for kitchen countertops?
In fact, it is. Alder, ash, basswood, beech, birch, cherry, hickory, maple, poplar, oak and walnut - the most popular hardwoods used for solid wood cabinets - are suitable for countertops. For that matter, a soft wood like pine or veneered plywood can work. Mahogany and teak are also good choices as long as they don’t come from endangered tropical rainforests.
Today’s tough, water-resistant sealers and finishes that have brought wood floors back into kitchens practically eliminate what may be the principal argument against wood countertops: moisture. If you can mop a wood floor, you can wipe a wood countertop.
Surface moisture is not really the problem anyway (after all, boats were made of wood for thousands of years and endured decades of sitting in the water). The problem is moisture that seeps into joints, causing wood to expand, contract, warp and, eventually, rot. Modern finishes and joinery techniques eliminate that problem.
The trend in kitchen design these days is to mix countertop materials, using ceramic, synthetic solid surfacing or laminate near the sink, granite or tile for around the range or cooktop and a slab of marble for a baking area. Wood can be used judiciously as well - on a peninsula, well away from water, or on an island used as a work surface only. By using trivets or inlaid ceramic or granite “hot pads” it can even be used around a cooktop.
Like laminate or solid surfacing, wood is prone to scratches and can be gouged by knives. But you should never chop or slice or dice directly on a countertop anyway; instead use a wooden or acrylic cutting board.
If you find wood countertops appealing, track down a competent and sympathetic cabinetmaker. Because countertops are typically 25 inches wide and boards far narrower, a countertop will have to be constructed of several boards, meticulously joined, planed and sanded to form a seamless surface. That requires the skills of a true craftsman.
The Hardwood Manufacturers Association helpline at (800) 373-WOOD can also provide information about woods, stains and finishes.
In the final analysis, the principal advantage of wood is its looks. It is a friendly, familiar, warm, organic material, which is why it remains far and away the most popular material for kitchen cabinets and household furniture. It can be finished with a clear sealer, stained a darker shade, whitewashed, tinted or even painted to suit your personal preferences.
To dismiss it out of hand simply because it has been eclipsed by other countertop materials is to miss an opportunity to cover a kitchen’s utilitarian nature with a gracious and civilized surface.
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