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When you see old pictures of a general store or butcher shop there are usually several chopping or work areas, each one designated for a special purpose. The old butcher blocks were usually made of wood strips laminated into a square and stood up on end so that the grained ends faced upward. This made for a tough surface that could be scraped after each used and disinfected with salt. In the general store the counters were also made of wood which allowed the grocer to weigh the produce and wrap in in waxed paper.
In many a western movie you will notice the long, polished-wood bars of fancy saloons and once in a while the bartender would send a mug or glass sliding down the smooth surface. In some cases the wood was laminated but in most the heart of a hardwood tree made up the entire piece.
Wood is making a comeback and not just for trim. The wood flooring craze that began almost 20 years ago has migrated to other areas not usually associated with natural wood and one of these is the kitchen.
In many an old home the original kitchen floors were wooden planks, usually pine, These were kept clean by sprinkling wet saw dust on the surface and sweeping which would allow the complete dusting of the floor. Once or twice a year the floor would be oiled with linseed or tung oil to seal it from water and dirt.
Wood was never considered good flooring because the underside could be compromised with water or other liquids if there was a spill. If the material was oak this could lead to dark spotting. However, the new polyurethane finishes have elevated hardwood floors as a serious choice because it is now easy to maintain. Many people choose to hedge their bets against water damage by installing a ceramic tile or cushioned vinyl tile around the sink areas but careful sealing will prevent any leaks with wood floors. Engineered flooring products can employ a special waterproof glue can be used to seal the joints.
Cork is not really a wood but it is making big inroads into the kitchen market for many reasons. The first is that it is soft and easy on the feet which is in stark contrast to ceramic tile. In addition, another plus that is missing in tile is warmth. Without infloor radiant heating a porcelain and ceramic tile flooring is cold on the feet whereas cork will feel warm and comfortable even on cold mornings. As well, cork does not readily absorb water and, if finished properly, will provide a substantial moisture resistance even around the sink. Another reason for using cork is that is is a completely renewable resource as it is a bark that grows back on the host tree in around 10 years.
Another product that is not really wood is bamboo. Actually a tropical grass bamboo can grow back in three years. The product is usually available in engineered flooring and can be either glued down or snapped into place. The joints can be sealed with waterproof glue to prevent water damage around the sink areas.
Like the countertops of old wood is making a big comeback as a kitchen surface. In many instances the entire cabinet area is polished wood taking the place of such venerable counters as granite, marble, acrylic and engineered stone. In some kitchens the wooden counters are mixed with a butcher-block surface adorning the island or islands and walnut covering the rest of the area.
The laminate design of the butcher block makes cutting boards obsolete. There are basically 2 types:
Hardwood surfaces should not be finished with a urethane product because if the water gets underneath it there is no way for it to get out. This can happen if it gets chipped or cut. The best solution is to seal the raw wood with linseed or tung oil and this should be done twice a year.
Apron or farmer sinks are making a comeback and wood is one of the big surprises, especially teak. These sinks are usually waterproofed with an oil-based sealer. Vessel sinks with a urethane coating are great for bathrooms because there is no contact with hard objects such as you would get with a pot in a wooden kitchen sink.
The big point to made about wood is not to let water penetrate the fibers or the look will fade and its life will be cut short. But properly maintained wood is the show-piece of the home.