Disclaimer: What follows is an IN DEPTH discussion about how to build your own version of our faux butcher block counter top. It goes into great detail about measuring, planning and designing, selecting wood, and different aspects of wood working. If you’re interested in completing a similar project, I encourage you to settle in and read on through. If not, please feel free to just browse through and look at the pretty pictures instead. We won’t be offended. 😉
A Step by Step Look at How We Did It
Today we discuss one of my faaaaavorite additions to the travel trailer: our faux butcher block breakfast bar / desktop. The project itself was actually fairly simple, but it required a lot of tools, and some knowledge of woodworking.
We designed the space with an “L” shaped counter top to take full advantage of the corner, which is under a bank of upper cabinets and basically useless for anything else. This increased the level of difficulty of the project, both in the construction of the box frame and in the application of the strips to the surface. Making a nice, straight counter space would be much more straightforward.
If this is something you’re thinking of tackling yourself, I’ve included a list of what you’ll need to get going. If you don’t have the tools, but you have a friend or family member who does (and knows how to use them safely), don’t be above bribery with sweets and goodies, trading of goods or services if you’re great at crafts or sewing or upholstering, etc. or even just taking them out to a nice dinner or paying them for their help.
Our construction process took us about a day and a half, from the measuring and cutting to nailing on the final pieces. You really only need the heavy equipment in the beginning, to cut the MDF and wood strips to size. After that, it’s literally all pin nails, glue, and the hand saw (and the miter saw if you have any angles. If you can help it though, don’t have any angles. Save yourself the extra heartache and stress, if it can be helped.)
Tools we used:
- Table Saw
- Miter Saw
- Circular Saw (if you can’t make your MDF cuts with a table saw)
- Nail Gun for building the torsion box (We used an 18 gauge, but whatever you have or can borrow will work)
- Pin Nailer (23 gauge nail gun) for applying your strips
- Hand Saw / Japanese Hand Saw
- Orbital Sander (optional)
- Tape Measure
- Carpenter’s Square
- Pencil for marking
- A flat staging space to do your construction
- Your mathematical skills, patience and creativity
Supplies we used:
- MDF (how much depends on the size of your countertop)
- 3/4 inch thick hardwood stock (aka 4/4 or four quarter stock) of your choice – thicker, if you want wider strips
- Wood Glue (We like Titebond III for this project.)
- Nails for your nail guns (1/2″ for your larger gun and 5/8″ for the pin nailer)
- mineral spirits
- 180 and 220 grit sandpaper for your orbital sander (optional)
- 180, 220, 320 and 1000 grit sand paper to hand sand with
To begin with, we measured out the size we wanted for our counter top. We could have just made the cabinet into a console with no overhang, but in our teeeeeeeny tiny space, we need every single piece of furniture to pull multiple duties, so we turned what could just have been storage into a combination storage – dining – work area. It also hides the wheel well. For the bar side, we decided on a total depth of 21″ with an overhang of approximately 9″ to allow for a narrow bench to be stored away underneath. We also accounted for a one inch overhang on the other edges to give the piece more of a counter top look. The total measurement of our top is 76.5″ on the long side by 41″ on the short side. The short side is 15″ deep.
Constructing the Torsion Box Base
Once we had all our measurements, we designed and built the torsion box that would be the framework for our entire counter. A torsion box is a totally flat, sturdy, lightweight surface – it weighs a tiny fraction of what a similarly sized piece of solid wood would weigh. It also does not bow or twist, which can be a serious problem with solid wood. The construction of a torsion box is basically a simple grid sandwiched between a top piece and a bottom piece of (in this case) MDF. Here is an exploded view of a sample torsion box that I totally
stole borrowed from BayAreaWoodWorkers.org to give you a better picture than I can paint with words. (Yeah, I saw your eyes glazing over.)
To make the skins for our torsion box, we clamped together two 4×8 pieces of 1/4″ MDF and measured out and drew our shape onto the top piece. Using a circular saw, we cut through both clamped together sheets of MDF, making two identical skins, one for the top and one for the bottom. After cutting the skins, we test fit them to make sure everything was kosher. Side note: We used a circular saw to cut the skins because there was no way to cut the L shape on the table saw. If your counter is going to be straight, you could just cut two identical pieces on the table saw, in which case, you could skip the clamping and circular sawing parts.
Then, we cut strips from 1/2″ MDF to form the outside edges and inside framework that would be sandwiched between the skins. The formula for how wide to cut the strips is as follows: total thickness of finished counter top minus thickness of your decorative hardwood strips minus thickness of both MDF skins equals how wide your support pieces should be.
With our measurements, the formula looked like this: 1.5″ total thickness – 1/4″ (the combined thickness of our top and underside layers of 1/8″ walnut wood strips) – 1/2″ (the combined thickness of our two 1/4″ skins) = 3/4″ MDF support pieces.
Simplified, that is: 1.5″ – 1/4″ – 1/2″ = 3/4″ MDF support pieces.
You might be asking yourself, “Wait- how did you come up with that first measurement for the thickness of your counter top?” Well, I’ll tell you. We went with a 1.5″ total counter depth because it allowed us to cleanly face the front edges of the counter with two rows of our 3/4″ wide strips of walnut without having to make extra unnecessary cuts. Keep it simple where you can, folks.
Important Note: When you are measuring for your MDF support pieces, keep in mind that your strips will be turned onto their sides to form the framework, and not laid flat, which is what will keep the surface from bowing. So the width that you cut the strips to is actually their height.
Once all of our support pieces were cut to 3/4″ strips, we glued and nailed them in place, using the 18 gauge nail gun with 1/2″ nails. How many support strips you make depends entirely on you. Some people only do a few. We did a lot. It looked a little something like this:
Next, we ran a bead of glue over the top of every support and edge piece and placed the other skin on top, lining it up and nailing it in to each of the supports. Work very quickly at this point, or your glue will dry before you get the skin tacked down.
Helpful hint: Draw lines on the top skin of your torsion box where your cross supports will be when it is in place. Otherwise, nailing it down is, quite literally, just a shot in the dark.
Your (Totally Free) Crash Course in Wood Selection
Before all this goes down, you will have purchased both the MDF for the frame and the lumber that you want to use for the top. We used what they call 4/4 (four quarter) stock at the lumber yard. This just means that before the wood was milled down to its final thickness, it was 4/4 or 1″. The actual measurement of the wood is about 3/4″ thick. You can go with a thicker wood if you want wider strips, but it’s going to cost you. (Big time, if you go with an expensive wood.
There a TON of different woods you could go with, depending on the look you’re going for and your budget.
- Poplar is probably the cheapest you’ll find. It’s usually a pale wood that can have swaths of green, purple or black running through it. Someday, I WILL build a table with this. My husband thinks I’m crazy, but I think it would look soooooooo cool and contemporary. You could probably find pieces without black, green, or purple in it, you’ll just most likely have to dig through it the stacks to find it.
- Red Oak (warm gold with red grain) is pretty affordable, while White Oak (gold with black grain) is slightly more expensive.
- Maple runs around the same price as red oak and will give you a lighter, more consistent color.
- Walnut is on the more expensive end of the more commonly used woods
- Cherry is about the same cost as Walnut, and will give you a similar type of look, but in warm tones of gold and reddish-brown.
- There are also exotics you can consider if you want to go totally hog-wild, like Zebra Wood, Wenge, Ebony, Purple Heart, Teak, etc. but those are reeeeeeally going to cost you.
How much wood will I need?
How much wood you will need depends entirely on your project: specifically (A) how long you want your strips to be and (B) how thick you want your strips to be. Without your measurements, I can’t tell you exactly how much wood you would need for your project, but I can give you some pointers on how to figure it out yourself.
Start by measuring the space you need to cover. Take note of the length of the surface and the width. Consider if you are going around the edges and also if you plan to continue the strips underneath and add those numbers in. We chose to cover the underside up to where it met the cabinets for a clean look and feel.
If you’re using 4/4 stock, your strips will measure approximately 3/4″ wide. If you’re running your strips lengthwise, you’ll want to measure the surface from front to back (for example, our bar area is 21″ deep). Then take that number and divide it by 3/4″ or .75 to get an estimate of how many rows of strips you will need. For us, that equalled about 28 rows. Then take the measurement for the long side (for the sake of example, we’ll use 60″) So you need 28 rows that are a total of 60″ long. If you’re using 10″ strips, then you need roughly 6 strips per row. 28 x 6 = 168 strips for the top. Follow the same process for the edges and underside (if you are covering it). For this example, let’s just say you need 200 strips total.
Every time you make a cut with the saw, you sacrifice some of your wood. The blade on our saw cuts away 1/8″ for every single cut that we make. That has to figure into your calculations. So, if you want 1/8″ strips, it will actually cost you 1/4″ in wood. Wood at the lumber yard comes in all different widths. Say you find a piece of wood that is 6″ wide and 42″ long. To figure out how many strips you are likely to get out of this strip, divide with width, which is 6 inches by 1/4″ or .25 (which is how much wood you need to make one 1/8″ strip). You will get 24. Your (hypothetical) plan is to use 10″ strips. Assuming the entire piece is squared off and useable (it mostly likely won’t be, but to heck with it), that means you’ll be able to cut four 10″ long sections that will give you approximately 24 strips each. That’s a grand total of 96 strips you can get out of this piece of wood.
If you remember, you need a total of 200 strips, so you’ll need to grab a few more pieces and repeat the process.Of course, these are only sample numbers, but hopefully, you get the picture. I would recommend buying a little more than you think you need. It’s better to over buy than to under buy, it saves you from having to make another impromptu trip to the lumber yard.
Money Saving Tips
Be sure to ask for short stock, if they have it. Short stock is usually about 4 feet long or less, and it costs a lot less than long stock, and you don’t need long stock for this project. Again, you may have to do more digging to find what you’re looking for, but the savings is worth it. We chose to go with Walnut because we have a huuuuge crush on it, and love the look of all the different tones of the wood together.
To throw another wrench in the works, you can also consider use stain or tinted wax when you finish the top, which allows you to use a less expensive wood and still get a similar look… or you can even paint it. I can picture a white paint job looking very farmhouse chic. Or you could paint and then add a tinted wax to give it an antiqued look… the options are endless!
Adding a light cool toned wax or stain to red oak will make it look more like white oak.
Supposedly, you can stain Poplar to look like Walnut. I think what they mean when they say this, is that you can make Poplar a similar color to Walnut. This is not the same thing as “looking like Walnut.” They are liars.
You could also use salvaged lumber or lumber than you might have laying around. It will probably require more milling, but you could get some really cool results. This technique can be used to create a wide variety of looks. Thinking about all of the different options makes me want to build more and more and more countertops! (Too bad/luckily I’m currently out of horizontal spaces to remodel… maybe the bathroom eventually?)
Cutting the Wood Strips
This is the last bit you really need wood working know-how for (or at least someone with wood working know-how). First, we cross cut the lumber into pieces that were the length we wanted our strips to be. In this case, it was 8 inches. Then (VERY CAREFULLY, because this can be kind of dangerous) we (and by we, I mean my husband) cut those pieces into strips along the grain. Our strips were 1/8″ thick. Depending on the blade clearance on your saw, yours might have to be thicker, or you may just want to use thicker strips. When sawing very thin strips of wood, you should ALWAYS use a push stick, NOT your fingers.
Done successfully, you will end up with a pile of strips that looks something like this:
Applying the Wooden Strips
Now comes the easiest (if somewhat more tedious) part. To apply the strips to the torsion box surface, you just need a bottle of wood glue, a pin nailer (.23 gauge nail gun), and a hand saw for cutting off the extra long edges. I like to begin by selecting which pieces I would like to place in the row I am currently working on. I lay them out to make sure I like the look, and then slide them out the way to run a bead of glue down the row where I will be placing them. Don’t think too hard about this part- random is good.
Take the pieces you selected and move them back into place on top of the bead of glue you laid, making sure the edges are lined up with the edge of your surface. THIS IS IMPORTANT! All your other rows will be lined up using this row as a guide, so make sure it’s straight. Once the pieces are in their places, go back and put two nails in each piece- one near each end of the strip. Remember to work carefully, but quickly once your glue is down- wood glue dries fast! (You can also glue and nail each piece one at a time, until you’re more comfortable with the process.)
Continue to work in a brick laying fashion from the front to the back of your surface. Working from front to back instead of side to side allows you to lay the pieces more evenly and easily. Make sure to vary your starting points. If you space them out evenly, you’re going to end up with a funky tile look. Essentially, you want to apply the same logic that you would use when laying a plank style floor.
As you go, you will most likely end up with pieces of wood sticking over both edges. VERY CAREFULLY, you can take a sharp hand saw, and saw the edges flush. Once the edges are all cleaned up, you can go around and apply the edge pieces around the countertop. I would recommend doing these one at a time, since they’re likely to slide around a bit once you put the glue on.
Important Note: Be careful not to use too much glue. Any glue you splooge out of corners or wipe across your surface is going to have to be scraped and sanded off. Yuck! If you do make a glue mess, just let it alone to dry. Don’t try to wipe it off. Leaving it allows it to be more visible.
Once you’ve finished, allow the glue to dry and do a quick wipe down with a rag soaked in mineral spirits. This will help you to pin point any glue that needs to be scraped off. Once you’ve scraped away all the gook, give the entire piece a good once over with the orbital sander, using 180 grit sandpaper. Don’t over sand it- you want to keep the texture of the wood planks. That’s one of the things that makes this piece so cool.
At this point, we wiped it down again, checking for any hidden glue spots we might have missed, and then sanded again with the orbital with 220 grit paper, and once more with the 220 by hand, following the direction as the grain. The goal here is to clean up all the glue messes and knock down the sharp edges of all the pieces, not to sand it down to a totally flat surface. If you don’t have access to an orbital sander, you can do all of the sanding by hand, it’ll just take a lot longer. If you do sand by hand, remember to ALWAYS go with the grain of the wood.
At this point, we also used 180 grit sandpaper and carefully softened all of the sharp corners and edges of the countertop so as to avoid bloodshed when running into it in our small space. 🙂
Once all your yuckies are gone, and the mineral spirits have evaporated, you can put on your first layer of finish. We used General Finishes Arm-R-Seal Oil Based finish in Satin.
We applied four thick coats of the finish, sanding by hand with 320 grit between the first three coats, and 1000 grit between the third and fourth coats. Each coat took about 6-8 hours to dry, so the finishing part lasted about 2-3 days.
Once the counter had dried fully, we were able to bring it into the trailer and test it out. If you’ve ever remodeled in a travel trailer, you know that nothing is square. Like, at all. We had to do a little creative sanding on the back edge to make sure it fit under our slightly crooked window, but other than that, it went in nice and easy. We attached the counter top to the cabinets, screwing up from underneath through cross supports in the top of the cabinets, and VOILA! Our beeeeeautiful counter top is now a part of our every day lives.
That cabinet has since been outfitted with doors and custom drawers (all made from scratch by Mr. B himself). There is now a Dickinson Marine Stove installed over the right hand side of the cabinet. We also have plans in the near future to add an narrow cubby for wood storage in the open section to the left of the dry goods cabinet, as well as a custom made bench that will slide out of the way, under the counter top.
This project was inspired by a conference table project done by Jimmy Diresta for MAKE. You can find a time lapse video of his project here. There are sections that don’t necessarily apply to this specific project (from 3 minutes to 3:27 mark), but the video is really cool to watch and it does a really great job illustrating the project in a short amount of time, for those of you who are interested.