Hi and welcome to The Vernacular Life Podcast, where we talk about anything and everything that might go on in our 1906 vernacular farmhouse.
I’m your host Paige and before I get started, I have to just tell you where I am, because we have a finished first floor, right? So you would think I could have my pick of places to film and record this podcast and it would all look super pretty because I have the bright colors and the pretty walls, but, but we have not capped our chimneys.
This is item number 8,476 on the to-do list. We know it needs to be done, we just haven’t done it yet. And so because of that, we have a family of birds living in the chimney in the dining room, and they are screaming at the top of their voices pretty much all the time. So while I was planning to film this and to do it all up properly, I have yelling birds and so that doesn’t work.
So instead I am sitting on the ground in the master bedroom, in a blanket fort built of chairs and the edge of the bed, recording this and hoping that the screaming birds don’t make their presence known. It’s way louder living here than you think and you don’t realize how loud it is until you have to sit down and record something.
But anyway, today we’re going to be talking about the kitchen and I love my kitchen. I was sitting in it this morning, thinking how much I truly adore that room. And we’re going to be talking about something very specific that came out of a question in my Instagram DMs and it has to do with countertops: what our countertops are, how we finished them, how I picked them to kind of make them look historic-ish and what historic countertops look like in old houses and old kitchens.
So we’ll start with a little bit of a history because as we’re doing this renovation, I’ve been trying to do it sympathetically, meaning I’ve been trying to look at original evidence and historic houses that haven’t been renovated to see what was done to them, and then try to replicate that in our own renovation.
So we made some mistakes, some things aren’t right, but we are trying to get as close as possible to what could have been done here when the house was built. So if you’ve been around on Instagram or on YouTube, you’ve probably seen that our kitchen doesn’t really have a lot of counter space in a traditional sense. It doesn’t have an island, it doesn’t have a peninsula. It doesn’t have all of these built-in cabinets. And that was intentional.
Before about 1900, kitchens were what’s called unfitted. That is an episode in itself but the short version is that an unfitted kitchen didn’t really have a whole lot of built-ins in it. There were maybe some stoves, a stove, probably one, probably not two, unless it was a big fancy house, a stove that might’ve been connected to a chimney so that had to stay in place, maybe a sink if you were really lucky that had some plumbing connections, but other than that, everything in the room was freestanding.
And if you think about it, that’s kind of how all the other rooms in our houses are, right, like for the most part, a bedroom has freestanding furniture, the living room has free standing furniture. It’s just recently starting in about the fifties kitchens started to be really fitted and have all of this built in cabinetry.
Well, in 1900, it wasn’t like that. So any work surface you had was free-standing and maybe attached to the piece of furniture or the appliance that was relevant. So when we talk about countertop materials in historic kitchens, we’re really talking about the materials that made up the different freestanding pieces in those kitchens.
For example, you would have a sink most likely. Now that might be a porcelain sink, it might be a stone sink, it might be a wooden sink. And a lot of them had drain boards on the side, and those drain boards could be used as counter space. So a kind of counter that could be in these historic kitchens would be porcelain, stone, wood, whatever the sink was made out of.
Then you have the stove, the old stoves, the coal-fired stoves, the wood-fired stoves, generally, when those were going, I would imagine they were pretty darn hot, so you wouldn’t really want to get near them or use them for any kind of counter surface but that would be another place that you could set things down, set pots down. So that material would be iron or porcelain.
More than likely, most of the work surfaces in these unfitted kitchens were wooden and they came in the form of tables. If you look at pictures of these historic kitchens, most of them have work tables in the middle. They have work tables around the side. Some of them have drop leaf tables, some of them have tables mounted on the wall that drop away. This was really where I think the work was done in these kitchens would be on these wooden tables.
A little bit later, starting maybe 1910, 1915, you do see Hoosier’s come about, which are kind of the four runner, I think to modern, upper and lower cabinets in that they had a large cabinet base with a work surface and then a shallower set of upper cabinets attached to them. Typically the work surface would be porcelain. I’ve seen them zinc, I’ve seen them wood.
It really just depends on what kind of surface you have and what kind of Hoosier you have.
We have a visitor Baron has come into the fort. Are you allowed in here? Are you going to be a good kitty?
Okay, so if you were designing a new kitchen to look old, looking at how old kitchens used to look, isn’t necessarily going to give you a lot of information. So we’re going to have to look somewhere else to figure out what countertops might have looked like in these old houses. We can ask where in old houses were there countertops that are similar to how we think of countertops today.
And I think the answer is in old built-ins. Lots of old houses had butlers pantries, linen presses, built-in China cabinets and oftentimes at about waist height, there’s going to be some kind of counter. Now a lot of times, these are not really convenient for typical counter activities because they are shallow or they’re too short, or they’re kind of set into the wall, but that will give us a good indication of kind of what those countertop materials should be.
Now I mentioned earlier that we were trying to do a sympathetic renovation and what I think that means is that we are looking at what we need to do to the house, and we are saying, okay, if I was born in 1906 and I was familiar with 1906 house trends and kind of what’s going on, and I knew what this space needed and what it, how it had to function, what would I do?
And of course this is really just guesswork because we don’t live in 1906. I’ve never lived in 1906, as much as I would love to have been there. I don’t exactly know what they would have done but we can look at evidence and make our best guess, which is what I’ve tried to do in this house. Even though they may not have had counters like we think of, they did put counters in these built-ins. So we can follow that logically that maybe that’s what the counter would have looked like in a kitchen.
I think we can learn three things from these built-ins in terms of how to make countertops look more historic in newer kitchens and these are kind of three of the guiding principles that we followed in our own kitchen renovation. And the first one is that almost all of these countertops are wood.
I mean, they have either been painted or they were never painted and they were shellacked, but almost every one of these countertop spaces is made out of some kind of wood. I’m not saying that it couldn’t exist out of some other material, my brain seems to think that I’ve seen like zinc wrapped wood before or metal wrapped wood.
But if there were other materials, it was not a particularly common phenomenon. So I think saying that the countertops were wood and making the countertops out of wood is a pretty safe bet.
The second thing about these countertops is that even though they are wood, they’re not the same thickness as wood countertops that we think of today. The only thing I have in reference in my mind is like an Ikea countertop, like the old Ikea butcher block countertops, which if I recall correctly were like two inches thick and like very chunky and that’s the thing now these days is to have these countertops that are really chunky, that are really heavy and it just looks more expensive when you have a wider, thicker countertop.
There’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s the aesthetic you want knock yourself out. What we found when we did the countertops in the mudroom versus the countertops in the kitchen, is that the thinner, the countertop, the more historic it looks. So Brandon built cabinets in the mudroom when we did that renovation and we put a countertop on top of the lower cabinet, and that countertop is somewhere around an inch and a half. It might be an inch and a quarter, but I think it’s around an inch and a half.
And it’s not terrible, like he did a beautiful job. The wood is gorgeous, it’s this nice thick oak. I love the countertop functionally, like it’s very practical, but when you step back, it just looks a little bit wrong. Like, I don’t think anybody would come in and mistake it for being an actual old piece because the countertop is just too thick.
Compare that to how we did it in the kitchen. So the kitchen, we kind of have two kinds of countertops. We have the countertops, the left and the right of the sink. And then we have the countertop in the pantry. Now we intended to use red oak for all of it, because that’s what we had.
We had a bunch of planks, but then when you’re considering scrap losses and the wood we had is really knotty so we had to get rid of some, we ended up only being able to do the kitchen counters out of red oak and when we did those, we planed it down to, I think it’s just under an inch and it looks really good. It looks much more proportional, it looks much more historic.
For some reason, when I see those thick countertops in the mudroom, my eye just goes directly to it. But I feel like in the kitchen, it just looks a little bit softer and it definitely makes the kitchen feel a little bit older. Then we have the pantry countertop. And what’s interesting with that is that because we ran out of red oak, we had to find a different kind of wood.
And we had some leftover Douglas fir tongue and groove, beautiful tongue and groove. We used it on the walls in the mudroom, and we had enough left to do something with, but not an entire room. So we took a chance and we said, let’s plane down a couple of these boards, see what they look like and see if that would work for a kitchen countertop.
And so we planed them down, we joined them together and their final thickness is a little bit under three quarters of an inch. And to my eye, when you look at the kitchen countertops, which are about an inch, and then you look at the pantry countertops that are about three quarters of an inch, the pantry just looks so historic to me, it just looks, I just love it.
It looks correct, it looks kind of delicate like the old cabinets used to, it looks like a butler’s pantry, it just looks right to me and I think the reason is that three quarter inch thick countertop, it just looks so much more historic than these modern, chunky countertops. Neither is really correct. If you want the chunky butcher block, then knock yourself out.
Just if you’re going for something a little bit more historic, and it’s not quite looking right to you, the thickness of the countertop, may be the reason. The last rule that we followed had to do with the construction of the countertops. And I’m going to talk about this, but this is really Brandon’s territory. He’s significantly better at this and he’s the one who makes all of these things happen, I’m just relaying it after the fact.
So again, if we go back to that Ikea butcher block countertop, if I recall correctly, those are made up of a bunch of small pieces of wood, lots of little pieces laminated together. Some might be finger joined, I don’t exactly remember, but just lots of pieces put together and joined in kind of a wild array of patterns. And I know why they do this. It’s a manufacturing savings, right? Having a bunch of smaller pieces, instead of one large piece means that you can get more good pieces out of a piece of wood.
You can cut around knots and still have plenty of good wood. But I really think that is something that is a new phenomenon. The old countertops that I’ve seen were pieced together from maybe four or five wider planks of wood. This is more wasteful because you have to throw away whole pieces of wood that have knots in them, you can’t salvage any part of it. But because we are fabricating these on our own, it really made a huge difference to piece these countertops together in terms of making everything look old and historic.
The way that Brandon did it was essentially to plane down the top and bottom of each board, so everything was at the same perfectly correct thickness. And then he used a router with a joining bit, I believe and set it up so that he could take off each of the sides at a perfect right angle. So basically you have perfectly flat on top and bottom, and then you have a perfect right angle on the mating joints of all the pieces.
Then we used, what’s called a biscuit joiner to essentially put a pocket in each of those sides, which we could fill with a little wooden biscuit, which is an oval shaped piece of wood that just helps hold everything together, glued all together and that’s how he joined each of those pieces together. So when you look at the tops of our countertops, you don’t see all of these different pieces of wood you see four or five planks and to my eye that just really makes the counters look significantly more historic. It’s done in the way that they used to be done.
I’ve seen several built-ins that had countertops like that and it just looks correct to me. So once we have our counter tops kind of figured out, and once we decided we were going to do wood, we had to figure out how to seal it. And I looked at all sorts of sealers, but we ran into the issue in that these needed to be okay around food. I mean their countertops, I wasn’t trying to make them like cutting boards.
I didn’t need to be able to eat off of them, but if I drop a piece of chicken on it, I don’t want it to be like contaminated. So that pretty much rules out the polyurethane that we used on the floor. I know polyurethane is a big, oh no, that’s terrible. Why would you do that? We’ve done all the floors with polyurethane. I love how shiny it is. I love how easy it is to work with. I love how low maintenance it is, so I’m not complaining.
But that wasn’t going to work for the countertops, again because of the food issue. So we landed on a product called Waterlox. This is a very old product, it’s been around for a very long time and it is described as safe for food, but not necessarily food-safe. And that just means if you drop something on it, the product isn’t going to contaminate the food, but you don’t necessarily want to use it as a prep surface.
It was pretty much the highest rated product that I could find that people were using for their wooden countertops who wanted an actual sealer. There is also the school of thought that you can oil countertops or wax countertops. But I just, quite frankly, didn’t want the headache. I don’t want to have to baby my wooden countertops. I would rather just let them sit there and do their thing and reapply if I really, really need to. So that’s why we went against wax or anything like that.
The Waterlox is really easy to apply. You apply it with a brush and we ended up doing three coats on the red oak on both sides because wood naturally expands and contracts depending on the temperature and humidity and if you only do one side, you’re basically going to have unequal contraction and expansion as the temperature changes, you could have the underside swell a lot and the top not swell, which could make the whole thing bow really badly.
So I coated the top and the bottom before we actually screwed them in place, just to make sure that everything is kind of evenly coated and will react the same under weather. We did have to treat the pantry countertop a little bit different because that is a softwood. So there’s softwoods, and then there’s hardwoods and the water locks will give you directions for this, but the hardwoods, like the red oak, they only needed three coats and then it recommended that the softwoods like fir or pine get four coats.
So I did four coats in the pantry, three coats in the kitchen and so far I’ve been very, very pleased. It’s held up beautifully. It’s a little bit flexible, like the polyurethane is pretty firm when it finally cures, but the water lock seems to stay a little bit more flexible, so it really has held up great over the last two years that we’ve had it between the mud room and the kitchen.
We’ve gotten water on it, we’ve gotten chicken juice on it, we’ve spilled things on it and everything wipes up no problem, I haven’t had any issues with it. The only thing that I found out, because I was trying to take some very grimy sheets and make them whiter with OxiClean in the mudroom is that OxiClean did discolor the finish, which was very strange to see.
So I had the OxiClean in the sink, some of it’s splashed onto the countertop and those spots are permanently discolored. However, I consider that more of a me problem as opposed to a product problem, because I really should have been doing that in a bathtub, but we don’t have a bathtub yet. So I would say as long as you keep any super harsh chemicals away from it, it’s probably fine for everyday use.
The kitchen, the mudroom and the pantry, otherwise have all held up really beautifully, you can see pictures of each of them in the show notes. And I just love how historic they feel. They’re wonderful, they’re warm, they’re beautiful. They add really great color, I love seeing the wood tones and so if you’re looking for some kind of countertop and you think you could DIY it yourself, would absolutely 100% recommend wood counters with wide planks and covering them with water locks, we’ve been very happy.
So the last thing before I get out of my podcasting cave here is that I have a little bit of fancy mail. Now this is wonderful things that have been sent to my PO box by gloriously fancy people. And I just have to share them because they are so exciting. So this particular piece is from the lovely owner of Rowan and Ash Gift Shop.
I will leave her link in the show notes, and she had messaged me on Instagram that she found this thing and wondered if I wanted it. And, you know I love chickens. Like chickens are rapidly becoming an obsession. So, I couldn’t say no to this. And what it is, is a brass wall-mounted chicken head.
Now I have not really been an animal bust type person. I’m not really a statue person to begin with, but the opportunity to have a golden chicken mounted on my wall is one that I just simply could not pass up. So when it came in, it was a little bit of like a greenish, bright gold, not kind of the muted, more orangey, reddish golds that we have around here. So I hit it with just a little bit of a rub and buff, which toned it down a little bit and it is the most hysterical addition to my wall of fancy that I have ever seen.
Cause this wall, it started out as just a place for me to put all of my fancy gold things and then it grew into a collection of the most random, fancy, fabulous, gold things that I can find. And I can think of no better addition to that then a golden chicken head. It’s about the size of my fist, so it’s a pretty good size.
And I initially thought I was going to use it for like a purse hook or something, but now he just makes me laugh so much that he’s just going to sit on my wall and say hi to me as I walk by in the mornings. If you want to see a picture of my fancy, fabulous chicken friend, you can check out the show notes and see what he’s all about.
Thank you very much for sending that Rowan and Ash. I appreciate it more than you know, chickens and fancy gold, all wrapped into one, that is a recipe for Paige happiness. So this concludes the pilot episode of The Vernacular Life podcast, I hope you enjoyed it.
Don’t forget to check out the show notes to see any links or pictures or anything else that you might find interesting or relevant to this episode. Let me know what you thought as a review or as a DM or a comment on the blog.
Thank you so much for listening and I will see you next time. Bye.