How to recreate historic countertops in your kitchen renovation using new (or new-ish) materials.
We have been renovating our 1906 farmhouse for the past four years. My whole goal with this house is to renovate it sympathetically. That means I have tried to find original evidence and well-preserved historic houses to guide the changes we make. One of the areas that required a lot of study was our kitchen renovation.
Want to learn even more about historic countertops? Check out this episode of The Vernacular Life Podcast!
Naturally, that kitchen renovation took a lot of research – especially in the area of historic countertops. Let’s start with a bit of history.
The Unfitted Kitchen Countertops
Before the 1900s, most kitchens were “unfitted.” An unfitted kitchen does not have built-in cabinets or islands. Everything is freestanding or…well…unfitted.
Typically, you’d find a stove (perhaps two, if the house was very fancy) that required a stovepipe or a chimney. You’d find a sink, assuming the house had interior plumbing.
But other than those two major items, nearly everything else was free-standing furniture. And that makes sense, right? All the other rooms in our houses are filled with free-standing furniture. Why not the kitchen too?
Because there aren’t really “counters” in historic kitchens the way we think of them today, we have to be a little creative when analyzing historic countertop materials. We’re really talking about the materials that made up the different freestanding pieces in unfitted kitchens.
For example, the kitchen would have a sink made of porcelain, stone, or even wood. Most sinks had drainboards, and those drainboards could be used as counter space in a pinch.
The stove, whether wood- or coal-fired, may have had a flat surface that could be used as a “countertop.” Though it was probably too hot to use for anything other than as a space to set down a pot or pan briefly.
Neither the stove nor the sink helps us much when it comes to countertop material. We need to turn to the free-standing workspaces that made up the center of the room. These surfaces were almost always wooden in the form of tables.
Other Historic Countertop Examples
If you look at pictures of historic kitchens, most of them have work tables in the middle or around the sides of the room. Some tables had drop leaves, some mounted to the wall, and some just sat in the middle of the room happily ready to be used.
It’s a bit of a stretch to say “tables are counters” in historic kitchens. But there is one more place we can look to for inspiration.
Many old houses had butler’s pantries, linen presses, and even built-in China cabinets. And often, at about waist height, there’s going to be some kind of counter.
Now, these cabinets are clearly not convenient for typical “countertop activities” like chopping vegetables and serving food. They are too short, too shallow, and awkwardly tucked into the wall.
However, it gives us a good indication of what those countertop materials should be. And I see wood!
Another (more freestanding example) starts around 1905 with the invention of the Hoosier. Hoosiers cabinets have a large base topped by a work surface and shallower cabinet. To my eye, this looks like another forerunner of the modern upper/lower cabinet design.
With all of this evidence gathered, what are the takeaways that we can actually use to build historic countertops in a new kitchen?
Building Our Historic Countertops
After all the research, pictures, references, and ideas, I came up with three general rules to follow when trying to make your counters more historic.
- Rule #1: Use Wood
- Rule #2: Watch the Thickness
- Rule #3: Use Multiple Planks
Rule #1: Historic Wooden Countertops
What I learned from my research into unfitted kitchens, hoosiers, built-ins, and everything else is that our best choice for material would probably be wood. Almost every countertop-like space I saw used wood as the construction material.
Wood just looks best in my mind. In addition, you’ll want to choose a nice, beautiful wood for your countertop material. In this kitchen, we used both red oak and historic Douglas fir pine. Both turned out absolutely gorgeous.
Rule #2: Choose Your Countertop Thickness Wisely
Though you may have seen a modern wooden countertop (think, Ikea’s uber-famous butcher block), historic countertops are not the same thickness as wood countertops that we think of today.
Almost every historic countertop I found was between 3/4″ and 1″ thick. That is so thin! Typically modern countertops are so thick because it adds a luxurious feel to the kitchen. But if you’re going for historic, slim that down a bit!
Our kitchen countertops are red oak planed down to about 7/8″. The pantry countertops are Douglas fir planed to 3/4″. I find that the thinner counters look so much more proportional and so much more historic.
So if you’re going for something a little bit more historic, and things are not quite looking right to you, the thickness of the countertop could be the reason.
Rule #3: Use a multi-plank construction method
The last rule that we followed had to do with the construction of the countertops.
Historic counters tended to be made of multiple planks of wood. This creates an absolutely stunning surface, so why not do it that way anymore? Put simply, efficiency. Modern butcher block counters contain many small pieces of wood laminated together. Therefore manufacturers can use more of the wood with less waste.
When you look at the tops of our countertops, you see just four or five wide planks. To my eye, that just really makes the counters look significantly more historic.
The care and keeping of historic wood countertops
One last thing to consider is how to finish your countertops so they can stand up to being in a working space like a kitchen or a pantry.
I looked at all sorts of sealers to find one that would be safe to use around food. While I didn’t plan to use my countertops as a cutting board or to place food directly on the counter, I did want them to be safe to be near food. That ruled out the polyurethane that we used on the floor.
Ultimately, we landed on a product called Waterlox. This is a very old product that has been around since about 1910.
Waterlox is “safe for food”, but not necessarily food-safe. 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.
These aren’t going to be cutting boards, so that sounds good to me!
How to Apply Waterlox
The Waterlox is really easy to apply with a brush prior to installation and gives directions for how to seal both hard and softwoods. We applied three coats on the red oak in the kitchen and four coats on the fir in the pantry, on both the top and bottom of the countertop surface.
So far I’ve been very, very pleased. The Waterlox is a little bit flexible after it cures, and it really has held up beautifully over the last two years.
Our Historic Countertops
Our countertops have withstood a lot of wear and tear in our kitchen, pantry, and mudroom. Everyday spills wipe up no problem and I haven’t had any issues with it.
(I did find that OxiClean did discolor the finish of our mudroom countertops, so take care to keep harsh chemicals away from your counters.)
After several years with these counters, I wouldn’t change a thing! I think they’re gorgeous, timeless, and completely fitting to the era of our home.
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