Poplar Butcherblock Countertops

Poplar Butcherblock Countertops

Butcherblock countertops are a popular alternative to laminate at the low end and marble or granite at the high end. They are made from a variety of hardwoods and you can buy them pre-made in standard and custom sizes. They aren’t cheap. My kitchen needed at least 10′ of countertop in the standard cabinet depth of 25″. I could order 1½” thick counters for about $600.00 – 2″ thick was over 800.00. The only way to afford butcherblock countertops for me was to build them myself.

You might have thought I misspelled “popular” in the title of this article. No, I didn’t. I meant Poplar, the type of wood. It’s a hardwood, a soft hardwood, but still a hardwood. It has character and best of all, it’s pretty reasonably priced. The big box home improvement stores carry a number of different sizes, but my local lumber yard has none in stock. Specialty lumber and millworks stores may have a larger variety. I found one such store in Reno, NV: Mastercraft Hardwood Lumber, Inc.

They had large slabs of Poplar. I bought a chunk that was about 2½” thick, 11′ long and another smaller piece. Slabs of wood are irregular shaped and have a very rough appearance, including saw marks, cavities and left-over bark. I figured there was more than enough to make my countertops and a smaller bartop for sit-down eating. My apartment is very small and the kitchen is actually just one part of the main room, including living room, office area and the kitchen. The kitchen is on a single wall at the far end of a 11×19′ room. It’s picture #1 in the slideshow below.

Because of my lung disease, I wouldn’t be able to do all the work in creating the countertops. But I had the plan for my tops, which would be a full 2″ thick, edge grain construction, with an undermount sink so the full thickness of the countertop would be featured. I took the Poplar slabs to a cabinet shop I was told about, Bye Craft Cabinet, in Sparks, Nevada. I was sent there by the previous owner, who chatted me up while we were both shopping in Lowe’s. He liked my Segway, we were both Vietnam vets and I asked him about what kind of materials I might use for butcherblock countertops. We talked for quite a while. I wish I could remember his name, but he was the very nice gentleman who steered me to Mastercraft and Bye Craft.

Apparently, he called the new owner of Bye Craft because the owner greeted me as if he knew me. I asked if I could get the wood cut into 2″ wide strips so that I could take them home and glue them together. When he measured and figured what we could get out of the slabs, the strips would have to be less than 2″ after sanding. He cut the slabs up so I would have the longest possible runs, then ran them through a planer to give the surfaces a finish that could be glued. When they finished, the long skinny sticks were each 1¾x2¼”.

The guys at the shop were very helpful. They bundled all the lumber together and wrapped it to protect it from sunlight. The sun can discolor Poplar pretty quickly, so care had to be taken. Mr. Bye suggested I glue just 5 or 6 cuts together (two 5s and one 6 would give me a glued up raw countertop 28″ wide) so they would fit in the planer for the next step. It was very fortunate that the sections could only be 5 or 6 boards wide. Squirting and then spreading the glue was pretty intense for me. All the boards had to be glued evenly and then laid into the bar clamps before the glue started to set up. This was challenging enough for the average person, but I had a serious lung deficiency to deal with.

I enlisted the help of my good friend and landlord, Will McClard. We got the first group of 5 boards glued, spread and clamped in just a few minutes (well, maybe it was a lot more than a few). I was beat after that and begged a break before doing the next one. When I was ready, Will was nowhere to be found. But a lady who power walks my street every day happened by. She’s always pleasant and has a kind word, so I asked if she could take a break to help me out. She did, but I’m not sure she was so glad she came by at that particular moment. After another long break, I found Will and he helped me with the last group. The next day, I was off to Bye Craft for the second planing.

The planing of each of the 3 groups had to be very precise. Afterwards, these groups were going to be glued together and brought back once more for sanding. Sanding with heavy grit paper was the only option here because the planer was not wide enough for all 16 boards at once. A planer can take of a lot of material in a short amount of time, but a sander would take many times longer to remove the same amount of wood. That’s why the planing this trip had to be precise and my gluing and clamping would need to be done very carefully so the amount of material to be removed during the sanding wouldn’t take very long.

Because of all the dust, I wasn’t able to get any pictures inside the shop of the planing and sanding. But I did sneak in there for a few minutes when the saw man was cutting the piece I would be using on my smallest cabinet. The owner caught me and sent me back outside, but he did pose for a picture for me. This was late in the afternoon, so he didn’t think I would have to cover the material to protect it from the sun, which was going down by the time I left. What a great bunch of people to do business with.

The sanding operation they did was with 40, 60 and then 80 grit paper. It was up to me to do the rest with a belt sander and finish up with a palm sander. Wearing a face mask or respirator is very difficult for me, so my sanding was probably not as good as should have been done. But I did as well as I could, under the circumstances.

The next step was cutting the shape of the sink opening in a sheet of MDF. If you are using this article as a guide, I suggest you use particleboard instead. MDF is very soft and the pressure of the router bits I had to use to shape my sink opening caused some imperfect cuts. I traced the template that came with the sink onto the MDF and cut the hole out using my jigsaw and then sanded the edge very smooth. I transcribed the cutout onto the countertop and checked all my measurements until I was satisfied. I drilled a hole and then cut the sink opening out with the jigsaw, leaving approximately a half-inch of material on the hole.

The tricky part is getting the hole nearly perfect so there is very little sanding to do. The finished countertops were 2″ thick and there was no flush cut router bit that long (I was too impatient to special order). I had to use two different bits, the first guiding on the MDF cutout (Bosch Straight Trim Bit on Amazon), the second guiding on the first cut after flipping the countertop over (Bosch Flush Trim Bit on Amazon). Unfortunately, as I mentioned, the MDF was soft and the first cut was not perfect. I had to alter the template a little and the sink opening was slightly larger than I wanted. Still though, the opening was fine for the sink because there were options available for the amount of the sink edge exposure. I would have preferred less, but I still like the way it looks.

The cutout had to be sanded. I used my belt sander for the straight parts and a sanding roll fitted to my drill for the curves. I finished the sanding by hand with 220 grit paper, using a flexible block. The edges all around the countertop and the sink opening were all rounded over with another router bit (Bosch Roundover Bit on Amazon).

Next came finishing. Butcherblock countertops aren’t really meant to be used as cutting boards. You don’t use a knife on them. Some people will finish a butcherblock top with some kind of food-safe oil, but it’s something you will have to continue to maintain. I can’t always pick up my spills as quickly as I should, so I needed a finish that could withstand some spilled water, milk or whatever. Cleanup had to be quick and easy. I chose a wipe-on urethane finish. I lightly sanded the first coat, but not the second or third. The product was low VOC and water soluble with a satin finish (General Finishes Enduro at Rockler).

I used silicone to glue the countertops to all the cabinet verticals and added a screw through the cabinet’s corner braces into the bottom of the butcherblock. The bartop was also mounted in a special bracket and on a “leg” I fashioned from extra cabinet parts I bought to match the existing cabinets. I mounted the sink, did the plumbing and rewarded my efforts by brewing a pot of coffee, burning some toast and making my first mess on the new countertops. As of this article date, the countertops are about 3 years old and show no signs of wear. I do see one place where the glue may have skinned over before I got it clamped – it’s like a very thin line – but nobody notices it except for me, so I’m feeling like quite the craftsman.

The cost? Well, not counting the gas for those trips back and forth to Reno (80 miles one way) and the router bits that I have used on other projects too, I’d say about $300.00. If it were just the 10′ of countertop I used for the kitchen side, that would be a savings of about 500.00, but I also have a 2″ thick, 18×54″ bar-top. Saving money is just part of it though. I have a great deal of pride in being able to create something like this while sucking o2 through a hose in my nose. No doubt about it, the other foot just ain’t ready yet.

Jim McClain

Born 1949 and not dead yet.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Benjamin Spanjer

    Looks fantastic! I love poplar.

  2. herb

    Good write up. I have just started building edge grain and end grain cutting boards. I am fixing to build a counter top. and was researching lumber that i could easily find. poplar and pine are easy to come by.

  3. Dwayne

    How has it held up?

    1. Jim McClain

      After more than 7 years, I am still very happy with them. The area next to my stove shows the most wear and tear and needs to be sanded and refinished though. But the nice thing about butcher block countertops is they can be sanded and refinished quite a few times. And if they still make the same products originally used to finish them, only the damaged areas need to be refinished and blended into the old. I probably should have done it a year ago, but I live alone, don’t get much company (none since the pandemic stated), so it doesn’t bother me enough yet.

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