When I was talking about solid surface worktops the other day, I was saying that the thin layer, solid surfaces like Maia and Minerelle, were the only candidates for a good quality, mid-priced worktop. That's not true, though ... I was completely forgetting about solid timber worktops. I think that was probably because solid timber is a bit of a specialist material.
It's not that it's difficult to get hold of ... or that it's difficult to fit (a good kitchen fitter should be able to do a good job for you) ... or that it doesn't look beautiful when it's well cared for. It's that last caveat - being well cared for - that's the problem.
If you have timber worktops, then you need to give them a bit of TLC. In fact - when they're new - you have to give them quite a lot of TLC. Once you've got them in tip top condition, then they don't need a huge amount of maintenance ... but you'll have to give them a bit of attention regularly, throughout their life. If you're not the sort of person who is happy to do that (and you don't have a more patient and methodical partner to do it either) ... then I'd steer clear of solid timber worktops.
Having said that; wooden worktops do go very well with painted finish kitchens, especially those with a traditional style. This iroko worktop is in a kitchen I designed for a Derbyshire cottage:
And timber worktops can look very classy, without breaking the bank ... so, I thought I'd give timber worktops a more thorough look ... in three parts. This first part does what it says on the tin - sorry - what it says in the title. Part 2 will be about that dreaded maintenance ... looking after your timber worktops ... and Part 3 will look at environmental issues.
There are three types of timber worktop which would qualify as mid-priced ... more expensive than a standard laminate ... but still very reasonable. I've priced 40mm thick tops from internet suppliers - expect to pay a bit more (maybe even twice as much) if you buy them from a showroom. The prices are only approximate because the price per linear metre will vary a bit depending on the actual length of top that you buy:
Rubberwood from Second Nature
I don't think rubberwood is the most beautiful of timbers ... but it is probably the cheapest. It's also very environmentally friendly - since it's harvested from the rubber trees when their latex producing days are over and they would, otherwise, only be scrapped. You can find it for around £45 to £48 per linear metre (620 - 650mm deep ... all the prices I quote are for this depth of top) and it's a very dense, strong wood, so even though not the most beautiful, it is very suitable for worktops.
Rustic Beech from Second Nature
Rustic worktops are available in several timbers, including oak, but beech is cheaper. They're called rustic ... because the wood hasn't been carefully selected - like it would be for better quality worktops. You will get quite a bit of variation in colour and texture between strips and you will get a few knots creeping in ... but you shouldn't get real structural defects like splits or cracks. You can get rustic beech worktops for around £55 per linear metre. Be careful with beech, though, it has a bit of a reputation for moving and isn't the best wood to use in areas which will be subject to a lot of changes in humidity and temperature (like above a dishwasher and round the sink). Keep it very well oiled.
Bamboo from Second Nature
Bamboo, of course, isn't a real timber ... it's strictly speaking a grass and, after it's harvested, the stems grow back (so very environmentally friendly again). It's naturally water resistant, so might be a bit more forgiving if your oiling regime is a bit slack (but don't hold me to that!). It's very strong and stable ... but it is also very distinctive with a very stripey edge and quite fussy junctions on the surface. Have a good look at it before you buy. The online price is about £75 to £80 per linear metre ... and PWS, who supply Second Nature worktops, say that the bamboo used is definitely not the variety that the pandas eat!
Don't forget that delivery charges may have to be added to the prices above and that it will cost you slightly more to have timber worktops fitted and shaped than it would to have laminate worktops fitted.
Apart from the bamboo, the timber worktops shown above are all made from narrow staves (strips) of solid wood, finger jointed and glued together under pressure (the finger joints giving a much greater surface area for the glue and resulting in more stable joins). In mass produced boards, this is done by machine. This is a finger joint in a Second Nature oak worktop.
Staves 40mm wide are the most common but you will find anything from 20mm up to around 50mm ... they're often called blocked boards - or even butcher's block but I think that's a bit misleading because true butcher's blocks (for chopping on) are made from vertical end grain blocks of wood. Normal blocked worktops are made from strips of wood with horizontal grain and you shouldn't chop directly on them. Blocked timber is the cheapest way of making solid wood worktops because the wood used is from offcuts. Very large timber merchants often produce them ... they are big enough to afford the machinery and they, of course, have plenty of wood offcuts.
If you're not looking for the cheapest, then you can look at boards with wider staves and you can look at a wider range of timbers. Some smaller timber merchants and some cabinetmakers make their own worktops and these are more likely to be wide stave, or planked, tops. If you choose a beautiful, rich wood like American black walnut and you have your bespoke timber tops templated and fitted - in a similar way to granite or solid surface worktops - then the total cost may well be considerably more than many granites. The end result could look stunning, though.
Norfolk Oak, in Sandringham, make their own timber worktops, sourcing all the raw wood from the USA and their Jamie Everett, writing on the web site, is obviously passionate about wood. I'll come back to some of his comments in Part 3 of my treatise but he warns against choosing cheap, narrow stave worktops made in China or Bulgaria because of quality - and quality control - issues. He mentions low grade timber, non-waterproof glue and little or no colour matching as well as timber which is kiln dried too fast. Needless to say Norfolk Oak only use furniture grade wood without knots, or sap wood, or large colour variations.
The oak worktops below, from Norfolk Oak, illustrate the differences in appearance between blocked, planked and full stave, planked worktops. The latter means that the wide staves run the full length of the top ... emphasising the grain patterns and looking the most like a hand-crafted, single solid piece of wood ... but it may also limit the lengths of top that can be made. The top picture is blocked oak ... but the staves are 55 to 85mm wide, so it looks different to the mass produced ones. You can also see how well matched the staves are, for colour of wood.
Norfolk Oak will sell worktop blanks ... for you, or your fitter, to cut and shape, or they will make you bespoke tops. Oak will cost around £110 per linear metre for the blocked, around £170 for the planked and about £260 for the full stave planked. Apart from oak they do American black walnut, in all three styles of top, and also full stave, planked maple and cherry. If you want to see a stunning worktop ... just have a look at this cherry:
You can get Second Nature or Barncrest blocked oak worktops for around £90 - £95 per linear metre, if you buy on-line. Second Nature also supply wide stave worktops in some of their timbers. Wide, full stave, rustic oak will cost you around £120 per linear metre. Blanks are, of course, available on-line but you can also get bespoke timber worktops, through Second Nature retailers.
Barncrest, based in Cornwall, are another company that are passionate about their wood although their perspective is a bit different. They use only European and African hardwoods and only 40mm staves, and they justify their choice (again, more about that in Part 3). They too will supply worktop blanks or will provide a bespoke service. Here is their blocked cherry worktop:
Another company providing very good quality timber worktops is Bordercraft, based in Herefordshire. They, like Norfolk Oak, source most of their timber from America but they do also use African iroko. I think they are still predominantly a trade supplier and they only make wide stave, bespoke worktops - no blanks for sale. They have an, as yet non-fuctional, on-line shop, though ... so maybe in the future.
International Decorative Surfaces (IDS), part of the Saint-Gobain Group, is a huge company supplying all sorts of panels, laminates, flooring and worktops, including the solid surfaces Encore and Staron. They supply the Tuscan range of solid timber worktops which you are likely to come across in some on-line stores. Tuscan worktops have the smallest staves of all at 20-28mm and you can buy Sapele, Teak and Wenge tops from them ... even though all are endangered species. IDS have an impressive environmental policy, though (... you'll have to wait for Part 3!). They also have 60mm thick tops in beech and oak, which would certainly be a style statement. Here's the oak - which will cost you around £197 per linear metre:
When comparing prices, do try to work out exactly what lengths of top you will need ... and perhaps compare the price with a bespoke service. Some suppliers are more flexible than others with the lengths they will sell you. Barncrest, for instance, will supply 1 metre lengths. It may not pay to go for a very cheap worktop, if you have to buy an extra 4 metres - just to get your last 500mm length.
In conclusion, then ... only choose solid wood worktops if you're prepared to look after them. If you do decide to go for wood, only choose reputable brand names like those mentioned here ... unless you're prepared to do a lot of interrogation and detective work about where the timber is sourced and how it is processed. If you're worried about how exactly to look after them ... then look out for Part 2 of this series of blogs on Timber Worktops. If you're worried about the environmental implications of using tropical hardwoods ... you'll have to wait for Part 3. I might even do a Part 4 ... on what is or isn't "walnut" and whether or not you should care.
If you feel a bit nervous about using wood around the hob and the sink in your kitchen, then mix your timber tops with something a bit more water resistant - like granite. This last picture shows one of my designs with granite around the little veg prep sink, next to a lovely thick, end grain blocked walnut top. It's not a brilliant picture (I took it myself) and doesn't do the walnut justice ... but it does illustrate the point.