Because wood is porous, counters must be kept clean and properly maintained. Wood can be particularly problematic around the sink and stove, where it is exposed to water, grease, and heat. As butcher block and other wood counters wear, often they can be easily refurbished with sanding and planing, and an application of lemon juice or diluted chlorine bleach can lighten stains. If they are not used as a cutting surface, wide-board counters can be clear finished; food-service-safe coatings, such as salad bowl finish, are an excellent choice.
Beginning in the late 19th century, ceramic tile was often used as a backsplash and sometimes as a countertop material valued for its durability, artful beauty, and affordability. Today’s choices include glazed tiles with a high-gloss surface and unglazed tiles, such as quarry tiles. The downside of tile was and is that it can crack, and the grout can get dirty or spall out. If glass or ceramic dishes fall on tile, it will often break. Some tiles are more vulnerable than others: Glazed tile scratches easily; quarry tile can soak up spills and moisture; and decorative tile may be too delicate to use for anything other than a backsplash. Most of the problems related to tile countertops are a result of improper bedding, so of all the traditional countertop materials, the installation of tile surfaces may be the trickiest. On the plus side, damaged tiles can be replaced individually instead of the entire counter needing to be redone.