15 June 2009

Swooning for Walnut

I have waxed poetic on this blog already about my anticipation for soapstone counters. Stone is not the only surface we are using for our counters, however -- there's also a few patches of Oregon Black Walnut, which is a locally sourced wood (as you might guess from the name).

My walnut pieces were installed today - three of them. They are GORGEOUS. I want to constantly caress the surface and bask in the beauty that is now known to be oiled walnut. Interestingly, and deliberately, my wood counters are three fairly different pieces, despite all being from the same wood species. Here's a bit about each one:

Exhibit A: End-grain cutting board
This end-grain piece above, is my favorite. It is so alluring in person -- while the photo is reasonably accurate, my photography skills cannot adequately convey the ethereal quality of this wood. Because this piece will be our primary prep surface, it is positioned on the island, directly across from our cooktop/hearth area. The end-grain construction provides the most durable wood surface for prep work. I can't wait to chop directly on it! I know, this strikes fear in most people's hearts. Yes, this type of direct usage will leave knife marks. I find a lovingly used kitchen to be comforting and appealing. (Of course, knowing me, I'll probably still be oh-so-careful for the first week of use.)

This block is fairly saturated with many coats of food-safe herbal oil; the oil not only protects the wood but also warms up the wood with golden tones. After each usage, we will wash it down with very diluted vinegar and water (and mild dishsoap if necessary); then just wipe it dry. The installer said it's not a big deal if I didn't really dry it every single time. In the first few months, I'll oil it with mineral oil every week or two, but after awhile I should be able to go 6-12 months between oilings.

I was a bit surprised when the installer (who uses end-grain blocks in his own kitchen, of course) breezily declared: "this block is pretty indestructible." I'm not scared of permanently installed butcherblock in my kitchen, but I wouldn't call it anywhere near "indestructible." He said I only need to avoid setting hot pots directly on it, so it doesn't burn the wood. Surprisingly, he further stated that if I accidentally put a hot pot on the wood, removing it right away would be enough to prevent a burn mark, since it was so very saturated with oil. I don't quite think I will be testing that theory. :)

With the butcherblock being 2.5" thick, it will be a higher surface than the surrounding soapstone counter, by about 1". This is approximately the same chopping height, if I were to take a butcherblock cutting board and lay it on the stone counter.

Exhibit B: plank-style counter
This next piece is plank wood. It is the counter surface of our red dish hutch. It has lots of variation and scar marks and knotty areas, which is what I requested. There is also an obvious seam down the length of the counter, however, that will be largely covered by the upper hutch cabinet, which rests directly on the counter. I could have gotten a seamless piece, by buying a larger slab of wood, however it would have generated a lot of waste and additional cost. Since 90% of the seam will be covered anyways, by the hutch, I went with the smaller slab of wood and accepted the seam.

This piece has so much character. I love, in particular, the swirly blond corner, and the two diagonal scar marks in the middle. The blond corner is especially highlighted by being next to a large window with natural daylight just pouring in. I had a really hard time getting a good picture of this counter. This was the best shot of over twenty attempts.

This counter will see a lot of low-level abuse as a landing surface for the dish hutch, so it is protected with a British product called "hardwax oil." It is definitely shinier than an herbal oil surface; it hardens when it dries and provides a very protective coat. It's a very "green" finish option commonly used on floors. Although it is shinier than oil, being a wax it is also significantly more matte than a typical poly type finish. I have never had this finish in my house, so I haven't lived with it before, but I did get a sample for testing purposes before I made my decision. I found that hardwax oil is definitely scratchable (with a purposeful effort) but in most cases the scratches and mars were easily rubbed or buffed out with a soft cloth. The deeper scars could be repaired with another layer of the hardwax finish. It will be interesting to live with this finish and see if it lives up to its popular reputation (popular here in Portland, at least). This is technically Not a foodsafe finish, but as the installer said "you'd never eat this stuff, but really, if you did, you'd be ok."

(Alongside the quickly-removed-hot-pot-that-doesn't-burn-wood theory, this is another dubious statement that I do not plan to actively challenge.)

Exhibit C: butcherblock cutting board/griddle cover
This last piece is a custom griddle cover. It was important to me that this piece be easily maneuvered, so it's very light in weight. It is only 3/4" thick with finger grooves on the sides that make it easy to lift and carry.

This griddle cover is contoured to drop directly into the profile of the griddle surface; it is held in place by the four sides of the griddle surface, whenever we might want to chop on it. This board is our secondary (or tertiary) prep area. We plan to use primarily the end-grain butcherblock on the island but since we often have two or even more cooks in the kitchen, I am sure this board will also see some cutting use.

In addition to being a supplementary chopping area, this griddle cover is largely cosmetic. It is definitely a minor step to reducing the industrial/commercial aspect of the griddle. Really, the cover's most important purpose is simply to hide the griddle surface. A well-seasoned and well-used griddle surface is pretty ugly, no matter how well you clean it. And if you clean it TOO well, then it's no longer seasoned! So, a griddle cover it is. :)

Since this also needed to be a food-safe surface, it is finished with herbal oil, like our end-grain piece on the island.

All of these pieces were purchased from and installed by the same vendor, a local and national leader in environmentally friendly wood and other surface options. I decided awhile ago that I would avoid naming any of my specific vendors/fabricators/contractors on this blog, at least during the actual project. That said, I have been extremely happy with this vendor experience and would be delighted to give anyone an off-blog recommendation for ecofriendly wood countertops. (Of course, if you are not local to Portland, then you'd incur shipping costs... which would not be very green of you, would it?)


Ace's Lady said...

OMG, Rachele. I LOVE LOVE LOVE the main prep surface! That wood is beautiful, no matter how you're using it, though.

Paul Anater said...

Wow Rachele, end grain walnut and soapstone in the same kitchen? Why can't I ever find clients who go along for that particular ride? Hah! I love, love, love your statement "I find a lovingly used kitchen to be comforting and appealing." My sentiments exactly, hence my love of marble and soapstone.

I've come to see that it's a kind of person, nearly a personality type who likes surfaces that tell the story of the people they feed. Some folks just can't handle any kind of wear. I guess that's OK too, but I'm happy to hear that you're another fan of loving wear.

Brava! This room's coming together beautifully.

the aug said...

it's good thing i have a protective cover on my keyboard 'cause i think i drooled. esp the end grain. i love how you addressed my yet-to-be-articulated thoughts about the slab seam. can't wait to admire and caress these pieces in person :)

Rachele said...

thanks everyone for the reciprocal excitement! Enthusiasm sure is contagious.

Paul, I never would have chosen this kitchen just a few years ago. For our lives now, however, I am thinking it will be perfect. All parents of young kids are concerned about durability, cleaning, wear and tear, etc. Most prefer the approach to make surface selections to keep the kitchen looking as close-to-new as possible. I decided to come from the other extreme, choosing surfaces that will look fine with the patina of use.

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