Waste not want not: how a wooden kitchen bench top completes your sustainable life

Jul 15, 2019


Modern kitchens are a place where families and friends gather, kids do homework, food is prepped and feasts are dished up, so it's fair to say it's one of the most-used working spaces in your home.

When it comes to your benchtops, it goes without saying that they need to hold up against bumps, scratches and spills, but it also makes sense to choose a material that will make your kitchen feel warm and inviting.

Timber may not be the first material that springs to mind, due to its softness (making it more prone to denting and scratching) and concerns about its maintenance. But it's more durable than you may think, it's sustainable and there's no substitute for its warm tones and textural interest.

Whether you're building, renovating or revamping, here's why you should seriously consider a timber benchtop for your kitchen.

Why wood?

If you think of any design period, the material that has always stood the test of time is wood. Timber has a timeless feel and has held its own against other fleeting trends (physically too; it literally lasts centuries).

In 2019, there's been a shift toward using more natural, sustainable materials, and timber is having its day yet again – but this time with a conscience.

Niche and boutique manufacturers have long been heralding the benefits of responsibly sourced timber, and now even power players like Bunnings are making all the right moves to produce more products using renewable resources, too. Wood is the ultimate renewable, and using responsibly sourced wood means you are helping to protect the environment of our planet in more ways than one.

Trees absorb carbon dioxide, and store it as carbon in wood, but if a tree dies, decays or is burnt, the carbon dioxide is released back into the atmosphere, contributing to greenhouse gases.

Lowering your carbon footprint

However, about 50 per cent of the dry weight of wood is carbon, which stays locked in the wood, so when we use timber in our homes, we're helping to store carbon.

And of course, wood can be considered the ultimate renewable resource: when a tree is harvested today it is replanted, providing further carbon storage, oxygen generation and forest habitat. When that tree is used as a building material, the production process uses much less energy – known as embodied energy – than most other building materials.

Embodied carbon emissions in the construction sector account for over 23 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions in Australia, so it is increasingly important to consider wood products, which have a significantly lower carbon footprint.

People are shopping and eating more sustainably than ever before, and they're also beginning to make changes to the way they design their kitchens by opting for sustainably produced materials – and a benchtop, taking up a large surface area, is a good place to start.

Benchtop beauties

Depending on the look you want to achieve, there are many different types of natural timbers to choose from. Pale tones of Tasmanian oak or ash look right at home in Scandinavian-style kitchens, while the richer hues found in native eucalypts or jarrah work well in country or heritage homes.

Oak shines in almost any kitchen design and although it comes at a premium, it is incredibly hard-wearing and only gets better with age as it develops a beautiful golden patina.

Do your research

Talk to a knowledgeable specialist about all the different options available. Ask how the timber is produced, if it is sustainably and responsibly sourced, how durable it is, and what kind of maintenance it requires. You may also need to ask about thickness and whether certain timbers are suitable for your kitchen.

If you're unsure about a product's green credentials, you may want to check with Good Environmental Choice Australia, an independent, not-for-profit eco-labelling program (www.geca.org.au). Also, look for Responsible Wood (www.responsiblewood.org.au) or Forest Stewardship Council (www.fscaustralia.org) certification when you buy timber – it's a guarantee that it has been sourced in an environmentally responsible manner.

Waste not, want not

Of course, if you already have a timber benchtop, then the most economical and eco-friendly option is to revive, rather than replace. You can't deny the charm of aged timber with all its dings, dents and developed patina, but if you want to give a new lease on life, simply sand it back with an electric sander, remove any dust then apply your choice of finishes.

Remember too, if you can reach them, to seal all the surfaces of your benchtop, including the ends and underneath. This will help maintain the moisture content and stability of the timber. You'll need to leave it to dry for a day or two, so make sure you factor that in before you begin.

Show it some love

Some timber requires more maintenance than others, but a little care will keep it in good condition – and you can always sand it back if it doesn't (see above).

A few golden rules are:

  • Always make sure spills are cleaned up immediately, otherwise they may cause staining or water damage
  • Use heat mats or trivets for hot pans to prevent scorching
  • Use a chopping board to avoid scratching your benchtop
  • Check the seals and coating regularly to make sure they aren't wearing away

If you keep up with its maintenance, a timber benchtop will last for many years – and you can have a kitchen that looks good and feels good!

Now for your cupboard doors...

Why stop thinking about solid wood for your benchtop? Solid timber doors add a luxurious touch of class and unmatched aesthetic appeal to any kitchen. In terms of wear, because doors are a less demanding application than benchtops, you'll find there's a wider range of timbers to choose from. More colours are available too, as timber doors are easier to stain and maintain. Then, there are always timber floors to think about...