Waterlox vs Polyurethane Butcher Block: 6 Main Differences

Butcher blocks have increased in popularity over recent years as people have become more serious about home cooking. There are a number of benefits that come with using a butcher block over a regular chopping board.

It’s a thick wooden block made from strips of wood that have been glued together. The real key is that only the strongest and straightest pieces of wood are chosen, and they are placed with the edge grain facing up and can withstand a lot of cutting without taking any damage.

Not only that but the surface can be refinished and easily returned to an as-new look.

It’s recommended that you finish or ‘seal’ the surface with something to prevent it from drying out or staining. The woods used (most commonly maple) present a hostile environment for bacteria, so keeping the wood nice and healthy is a good idea.

Two of the most common sealant types for butcher blocks are Waterlox and Polyurethane.

The main difference between Waterlox and Polyurethane is that Waterlox is a more natural finish that uses tung oil (a common wood finish) that has been modified with resin to make it extra durable.

Whereas polyurethane is a synthetic plastic material, it’s also commonly used as a finish for things like guitars or furniture. It creates a tough surface over the top of the butcher block, protecting it from harm.

What is Waterlox?

As we mentioned, Waterlox is based on tung oil. This is one of the most popular wood finishes, as it has fantastic wood-penetrating properties and solid water resistance. It is a great way to keep the wood fresh, hydrated, and healthy.

But it’s not just raw tung oil, either. It’s been modified using resin to give it further protective qualities, as tung oil doesn’t protect from solid cutting blows.

Generally speaking, oils must be re-applied to a wood surface fairly often, particularly if scrubbed with soap due to having meat cut on them. But the resin helps build that long-lasting coat which means less work for you in the long run.

Waterlox is safe and doesn’t require prior sanding as the oil can naturally penetrate the wood surface pores. It also won’t chip, crack or wrinkle.

What is Polyurethane?

Unlike Waterlox’s more natural oil-based finish. Polyurethane is a plastic coating that creates a protective film over whatever it’s been applied to.

This plastic coating then dries hard, making it extremely tough. But, also quite brittle, which means it’s susceptible to chipping over time and may require frequent touch-ups.

Because it has no penetration value and essentially sits on top of the butcher block, it offers no protective qualities once it’s been breached. 

It also requires sanding beforehand, making polyurethane quite a labor-intensive finish to keep up with.

That said, multiple polyurethane products are available. Some are more flexible than others, meaning they are less prone to chipping – so take some time and shop for the right product before using it on your butcher block countertop.

What are the differences between Waterlox and Polyurethane?

Butcher blocks are already hardy pieces of kit to have in your kitchen. Their intrinsic design means they can withstand a ton of punishment without wearing it down. But picking the right finish for them is essential, not just in terms of protection, but you also have to be mindful of how much work is involved with upkeep.

So let’s go through all the differences between these two finishes so you can better understand how these two products compare and ultimately make an informed choice on which one works better for you.

1. The material type

While both of these materials do a great job of protecting a butcher block countertop, the fundamental ways in which they do it are quite different.

Waterlox is based on tung oil, a natural oil that works great on any wood countertop. It penetrates the pores of the wood to provide a hydrating protective surface over the wood.

It has to be built up in a few layers to take full effect, but once that’s done, it looks beautiful and is easy to upkeep. 

But Waterlox takes things a step further as it’s been modified with resin, giving other protective qualities to help keep the butcherblock countertops in good shape while also not chipping or warping.

Polyurethane works completely differently as it doesn’t penetrate the wood countertop. It instead creates a plastic protective barrier over the top of the wood. This barrier is extremely tough and is often used in a professional setting where the butcher block will see much use.

This surface is easier to clean as it’s smooth, and you are not scrubbing the wood pores directly.

2. The look

As much as we use butcher blocks from a functionality point of view, they are also a part of the kitchen decor, and the visual look a sealant provides may be a factor when deciding which one is best for you.

The wood used for a butcher block counter is most commonly maple due to its incredibly hard qualities. But this is often combined with something like cherry or red oak purely for visual flair.

When these woods are not correctly finished, they will dry out and develop this ‘ashy’ quality. They can also stain as there is nothing stopping food particulate from working their way deep into the pores of the wood that no amount of washing will get out.

When applied to wood, a Waterlox finish will deepen and add richness to the color of the wood, dramatically enhancing its visual appeal. It usually has a matte finish, although you can buy a unique gloss finish.

On the other hand, polyurethane can be purchased in a gloss or matte finish depending on your preference. But it doesn’t help to deepen the wood color as it doesn’t penetrate the wood. It just sits on top.

3. Durability

Both Waterlox original and polyurethane are perfectly adequate regarding the physical protection of the butcher block counter.

You need to be aware of how the finish holds up to long-term use.

Polyurethane creates a tough film over the top of the butcher block cutting board, but this is also brittle, meaning that once it cracks or chips a little, it will continue cracking at a rapid pace until it’s refinished.

This usually requires immediate patching to ensure the butcher block countertop is completely sealed.

Waterlox original, on the other hand, works itself into the pores of the wood, increasing the durability of what is already a tough wood. This means it won’t crack or chip the same way as polyurethane. But as the top finish wears, sometimes it’s a good idea to sand it back down and re-apply more coating to keep the finish fresh.

4. Safety

Both finish types are entirely safe. If the polyurethane, for example, were to chip and a little made its way into your food, don’t worry! It’s completely inert and safe for consumption.

This won’t happen with Waterlox as it’s worked into the wood’s pores and, therefore, can’t chip off. But just for peace of mind, Waterlox is also safe for human consumption.

5. Difficulty in application

When applying polyurethane to a butcher block counter top you need to be careful to ensure it’s correctly adhered to the block, and it needs to be sanded down beforehand. This same process must be repeated when retouching and restoring the finish.

Waterlox is easier to apply and doesn’t require sanding, but it does need to be built up in several layers. As the finish penetrates the wood, you must continue adding layers until the coating has built up sufficiently to reach the surface. But this provides incredibly strong and deep protection to the butcher block cutting board.

There is also no additional work to be done to re-coat a Waterlox original sealerfinish. You can re-apply it as needed.

6. Cost

Despite its numerous benefits over polyurethane, Waterlox original sealerfinish is the cheaper of the two products.

However, this price difference is pretty minimal. It would be best if you only looked at a few dollars difference between the two.

Waterlox vs. Polyurethane butcher block: Are they the same?

While both finishes do their jobs very well, there are some fundamental differences in how they protect and apply the finish and the amount of work involved in refinishing your butcher block.

  • Waterlox is a resin-modified tung oil that penetrates the wood and is built over layers to provide protection. At the same time, polyurethane is a hard and durable plastic layer applied to only the surface of the butcherblock countertops.
  • Waterlox enhances and deepens the visual look of the wood and generally has a matte finish. In contrast, polyurethane sits on top of the wood and more commonly has a gloss finish (although matte polyurethane is available if you prefer).
  • Both products are very durable. However, because polyurethane sits on top of the block as a film, it can crack or chip when damaged. Waterlox original sealerfinish is worked into the pores, so it doesn’t chip or crack.
  • They are both inert once dry and safe for human consumption. But because Waterlox doesn’t chip, it has a lower chance of ever getting into your food.
  • Waterlox is easy to apply and doesn’t require prior sanding. Polyurethane requires both sanding and care during application to ensure it properly adheres to the block.
  • Polyurethane is slightly more expensive than Waterlox, but not by much.
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