January 14, 2012

Wood Works Well on the Countertop

Locally produced, warm and forgiving, the only thing that may put off homeowners is the price


Hands down, granite is the most popular kitchen countertop material. But people looking for an alternative are rediscovering the beauty of wood.  The mirror finish on a granite countertop may be attractive and gives most kitchens a “wow” factor.  But not every cook wants the cold, hard look of polished stone. There are some homeowners who prefer the warmer look that we associate with more organic materials, such as wood.

The rise in awareness of native wood has, in part, been driven by consumers looking for an ecological, or green, alternative to granite.  Canada produces only about 20 per cent of our granite for home applications. Much of the granite we see in stores these days comes from countries such as Brazil, India and Italy, which export granite, marble and other varieties of stones to Canada.

While stone is a natural product, many people object to the consumption of fossil fuel needed to transport a very heavy product halfway around the world.  Hardwood, on the other hand, is grown and harvested much closer to home.  Some is grown in managed forests. Lumber from these trees carries the Forest Stewardship Council label, much as organic labels on produce. Wood is a renewable resource.  Some woods come from threatened species, or threatened rainforests, so you have to check product sources carefully.

“We’ve come full circle,” says Colin Gloeckler, general manager of Artistic Mouldings and Millwork in Victoria.  “Before granite became trendy — which was about 15 to 20 years ago — wood and laminates were the most common material in kitchens.”  One reason people ask for wood is because it is very forgiving. Because of wood’s elasticity, it is less hard on dropped items. The surface may dent but a piece of china or crystal knocked over on a wooden counter will, in all likelihood, survive.

If the surface is damaged — by stains, scratches or scorching — it can, in most cases, be easily repaired. The affected part can be sanded down and refinished. More heavily damaged pieces can have the parts removed and replacement wood glued back.  While damage can be fixed relatively easily, some homeowners might not be accustomed to the regular maintenance a wood countertop requires.

“People need to keep in mind the wood is still alive,” says Gloeckler, who has more than 30 years of millwork experience.  “Wood expands and contracts with the seasons and the changing humidity levels in a kitchen.”  He says people should carefully choose the finish on the wood depending on its use. If food is to be prepared on the surface, the wood needs to be treated with food-grade mineral oil, sometimes called butcher block oil. This oil needs to be reapplied periodically.

Most wood tops these days are for kitchen islands. But consumers considering wood countertops used around sinks should take extra care with standing water. As wood can absorb water, mould and mildew can develop, creating a potential health hazard.   Sealing the exposed edges around the sink cut-out is recommended to close the pores.  There are in excess of 30 species of domestic hardwoods, such as maple, American cherry, walnut, oak and alder. Customers and designers sometimes ask for more exotic woods, such as zebra wood, to make a bold statement.

“I’ll put wood up against granite any day,” says George Linger, president of the Finishing Store. “Like furniture, wood can last a lifetime. It’s greener and people will save money in the long run.”   While people will likely shop for wood for the way it can warm up a room, they certainly won’t be shopping for a bargain. A kitchen island milled in a domestic solid hardwood, such as eastern maple, can cost as much as granite. Exotic woods can cost up to four times more.  But it’s not the cost of the wood that holds back its popularity, say some.   “Sometimes it takes people to have the confidence to use wood,” says Linger.

“It’s up to designers to suggest using it. If they do, I am confident the product can satisfy their client’s needs.”

Victoria Times Colonist

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