Cleaning and sanding an old grimy butcher block

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Forum topic by John Harris posted 07-28-2013 08:53 PM 10407 views 2 times favorited 39 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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John Harris

59 posts in 3124 days

07-28-2013 08:53 PM

Topic tags/keywords: butcher block

I have a very specific question concerning a butcher block table top. I had the good fortune of receiving several butcher block table tops from an old cafeteria that was getting rid of them. I am mounting a smaller one (3’ x 4’ x 3”) on a kitchen island. The problem is this thing is so grimy/sticky/dirty I don’t know how to clean it. I scraped and cleaned the majority of it off so far. But it is still too grimy to sand. The paper gets bogged down with the grime. I tried a little degreaser (despite the common sense of using it on food prep areas) and it only went so far. I also tried white vinegar and that had only a mild improvement.

Any suggestions? I was considering power washing the darn thing? Or keep plugging away with lots of sandpaper?


39 replies so far

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Don W

18868 posts in 2648 days

#1 posted 07-28-2013 09:00 PM

Use a card scraper or scraper plane and there will be no need to sand. If you plan to get down past all the oil that’s soaked in, you may need to plane it first (i’d use a hand plane) and test it on an extra piece if you have one. It may be deeper than you think.

-- - Collecting is an investment in the past, and the future.

View redSLED's profile


790 posts in 1973 days

#2 posted 07-28-2013 09:09 PM

Lots of boiling hot water and scrub brush, let dry, repeat a few times?

-- Perfection is the difference between too much and not enough.

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John Harris

59 posts in 3124 days

#3 posted 07-28-2013 09:24 PM

Don W, that’s what I feel like. I tried the card scraper and the goo just keeps coming. In fact, I left the project for a while and came back to some of the grime was actually slightly oozing out from between the boards.

View Wally331's profile


350 posts in 2105 days

#4 posted 07-28-2013 09:32 PM

You could try going at it with a low angle block plane or jack plane, I have used one to flatten end grain cutting boards and it worked pretty well and removed material quickly. My other suggestion would be to make a router sled/flattening jig, there are some good examples if you search.

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John Harris

59 posts in 3124 days

#5 posted 07-28-2013 09:44 PM

I think I might be taking you guys down the wrong path. The table top is flat. It’s the grime/oil that I have to remove.

I don’t even know what to call it. It’s not liquid oil, not runny at all. It’s not a hard crust like years of dried food…that’s already off. It’s just a sticky grime that want off before I put a few nice coats of butcher block oil on top. It even discolors the wood a little.

Although as I’m writing this maybe taking of a thin layer of wood would get me down to nice material. Unless as Don W says, the grime goes deep???

View Makarov's profile


102 posts in 1886 days

#6 posted 07-28-2013 09:47 PM

I would try a heat gun. Warm it well then wipe it down then repeat. Or put it in a black plastic bag in the sun and let the sun heat it.

-- "Complexity is easy; Simplicity is difficult." Georgy Shragin Designer of ppsh41 sub machine gun

View jumbojack's profile


1678 posts in 2704 days

#7 posted 07-28-2013 10:11 PM

boiling water, heat guns, plastic bags…..hmm, I would be leary. The block IS glued together. Plane that baby down, you may have to go 1/4” maybe more. You have years of muck, be thankful you did not eat at that cafeteria. Does the block smell bad, like rancid?

-- Made in America, with American made tools....Shopsmith

View patcollins's profile


1687 posts in 2945 days

#8 posted 07-28-2013 10:36 PM

power washing isnt a bad idea, is it end grain or side grain?

Im curious to see it, could you post a picture?

View Charlie's profile


1100 posts in 2366 days

#9 posted 07-28-2013 10:48 PM

Not too much water. I’ve done what you’re doing. Get some lemons. Depending on how bad the top is, you might need a whole bag. Get some salt. Kosher salt is bigger grains and will last longer for what you’re going to do, but once it gets pretty clean, you can switch to table salt.

Cut lemons in half. Scrub the top with the lemons. The acidity helps cut the grease. This is more acid than vinegar. Let the lemons squish and the lemon peels become part of the process.
Add a handful of Kosher salt and keep scrubbing with the lemons and salt. On a 3×4 board, if you have half a dozen lemons involved at this point you’re about right. Add more salt. As the lemons break down and become pretty useless, wipe them away and keep going with the salt. When you either A.) get tired or B.) it’s starting to look much better…. wipe it all off. Give it a quick rinse with hot water and DRY IT immediately.

Do NOT soak the board with water. Lots of elbow grease to recover a block that came out of an institutional setting, but I’ve recovered several and they can be really fine. If it’s a tight-grained board, the grease and oil is not locked into it too badly.

If you want to go faster, you can spend some money to get Citrus Solvent. It’s made entirely from citrus and has no petroleum distillates in it at all. It is 98% citrus oil and 2% water. VERY safe, but not cheap. I only get mine from

Don’t get Citri-Solve or Citrus Solv… you need the real thing.

The only thing you do by applying heat is to thin the oil/grease and unless you have a plan for absorbing it once you’ve done that, it doesn’t really help you.

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Jim Jakosh

20904 posts in 3186 days

#10 posted 07-28-2013 11:00 PM

Are you sure you want to use it? Sounds like it could contain a lot of bacteria. You need to get to pure wood. Do you know someone who has a band mill that could cut about 1/4”- 1/2” off it if stood on its side

-- Jim Jakosh.....Practical Wood Products...........Learn something new every day!! Variety is the Spice of Life!!

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1678 posts in 2704 days

#11 posted 07-29-2013 05:13 PM

+1 Charlie.

-- Made in America, with American made tools....Shopsmith

View Dallas's profile


3599 posts in 2567 days

#12 posted 07-29-2013 05:55 PM

Jim, WI.U. did a study and found that bacteria will not survive on or in wood cutting boards.

-- Improvise.... Adapt...... Overcome!

View PurpLev's profile


8539 posts in 3729 days

#13 posted 07-29-2013 06:13 PM


or – sanding disk or wire wheel in an angle grinder (very messy though as it will throw all that grime all over the place – but much faster than any other sanding medium)

-- ㊍ When in doubt - There is no doubt - Go the safer route.

View papajon's profile


54 posts in 1892 days

#14 posted 07-29-2013 06:18 PM

I’m wondering how a hot iron with paper bag paper between the wood and iron would do. This is a method of soaking up wax. The paper would soak up the heated oils.

View Charlie's profile


1100 posts in 2366 days

#15 posted 07-29-2013 06:56 PM

When you apply heat, you only THIN the oils, but you also expand the wood’s cells and as they expand…. they PULL the oils IN. You don’t want to force the wood to lock in the oils. You’re trying to get them out. :)

And once you get the board clean…. YOU OIL IT! HAhahahhaa….. seems kinda fruitless, doesn’t it? :)

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