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GOOD GREEN KITCHENS
The Ultimate Resource for Creating a Beautiful, Healthy, Eco-Friendly Kitchen

By Jennifer Roberts. Photography by Emily Hagopian.
Gibbs Smith, 2006

 

COUNTERTOP MATERIALS

This section addresses the environmental pros and cons of the most popular countertop and backsplash materials. But there are plenty of other options, so don’t hesitate to be creative and make your kitchen your own. When evaluating products, favor those with eco-friendly attributes, especially ones that have relatively benign environmental impacts during harvesting, extraction, and manufacturing; are hardwearing; don’t offgas VOC’s or require maintenance with noxious chemicals; and can be refinished, reused, or recycled.


Butcher Block, Wood, and Bamboo

Easy on the eye and warm to the touch, wood has been a favored counter surface for ages. But with the staggering number of countertop materials on the market these days, wood isn’t nearly as common as it once was, and the look of wood counters doesn’t appeal to everyone. The no-frills persona of a scarred and stained butcher block may be out of place in more formal kitchens. That said, a counter of lustrous, richly hued hardwood could be right at home in the most elegant of kitchens.

An FSC-certified or salvaged wood counter probably comes closest to the dream green countertop I described earlier. Wood is a renewable resource. Wood-countertop manufacturing requires minimal processing. Often, wooden work surfaces are fabricated locally by the woodworkers or do-it-yourselfers. Wood counters are resilient and can be refinished easily. At the end of their life as counters, the wood can potentially be reused or recycled.

Environmentally preferable wood counters are made from FSC-certified or salvaged wood. FSC certification provides assurance that the wood came from a sustainable forestry operation. Salvaged sources run the gamut from old wood counters rescued from another kitchen to timbers reclaimed from a dismantled building to storm-felled trees from your neighborhood that might otherwise have been burned for firewood or chipped for mulch.

Don’t buy counters made with tropical hardwoods unless they have the FSC seal of approval. Keep in mind that while the manufacturer or retailer may have FSC certification, the products they sell are not necessarily all certified; this is an important point to clarify before making a purchase.

Some wood counters have such a finely finished and sealed surface that you wouldn’t dream of putting a knife to them. Others are utilitarian butcher blocks that practically beg for the cleaver. While dense maple is the most common butcher-block material, a wide variety of hardwoods make suitable cutting surfaces. Even softwoods such as pine can be used, but be prepared for more scratches and dents and periodic refinishing.

Solid wood counters not intended as cutting surfaces are often finished with a plastic polyurethane-type sealant. This finish may be factory applied or applied in your home after the counters are installed; if applied in your kitchen, insist on a water-based, low

The main work surfaces are durable, recyclable stainless steel. The rich-hued floor is FSC-certified solid Brazilian cherry from EcoTimber. The refridgerator and dishwasher are Energy Star approved. The skylight's deep well provides diffuse daylight and minimizes glare.
This bar top is a slab of salvaged black acacia.
VOC product to protect air quality. For a true butcher block intended for use as a cutting surface, forgo the polyurethane and apply an oil to provide resistance to heat, stains, and moisture; use mineral oil, tung oil, or linseed oil, not food-grade oil that might go rancid. Reapply the oil periodically to protect the wood.

Prices for wood counters range from low to expensive, depending on the species, thickness, edge detailing, and other factors. Wood counters are relatively easy to work with and install. They can be installed directly on cabinets without underlayment, which reduces resource use. Also they can be mechanically fastened rather than glued down, which makes refinishing, remodeling, and even deconstruction easier in the future.

Wood countertops do come with some caveats. While some people install wood counters around their sinks, it’s generally not recommended in areas where there’s likely to be standing water; if exposed to excessive moisture, the wood may warp or rot. Wood counters installed over a dishwasher should have a moisture barrier on their underside.