Introduction: DIY Butcher Block Kitchen Island

Some friends of mine just moved into a new apartment and I wanted to make something for them as a housewarming present. Their new kitchen is small and they don't have much counter space for food prep, so I decided to make them a kitchen island. I looked around online for plans, but it quickly became pretty obvious that I'd have to design my own island because of the size restrictions for this island. Here's how I designed and built the island.

Step 1: Island Design

In order to fit comfortably in my friends' kitchen, the island top had to be 4 feet by 18 inches, so I based the design around those dimensions. I figured that a typical island height is around 36" and the island top overhang should be about 1" on all sides.

I figured that a butcher block top would be about 1" to 1.5" thick, so that would make the legs (shown in orange) between 34.5" - 35" long. The counter height isn't that critical, so I just made it 35" and stuck with that, regardless of the counter thickness. I purchased some 4x4s for the four legs, but at that size, the legs would make the counter top look puny, so I decided I'd have to cut them down to 2.5" x 2.5". Another aspect of the legs that I wanted to incorporate was to notch them so that the long shelf pieces would fit into them (you can see it in the picture to understand better). I started the notches at 2.5" and 17.5" from the bottom of the legs to keep the shelf heights about equal.

For the shelf supports (shown in pink), I made them 1.25" x 2.5" to match the sizing of the legs. All of these size adjustments led to me having to rip down 4x4s and 2x4s to a smaller cross-section, which was kind of a pain, but worth it for the final product to have the right proportions. Based on the overall dimensions that I talked about above, I made the 4 long pieces 46" long and the 4 shorter ones 11" long.

Finally, I decided that I needed a system to attach the island top, so I added some trim pieces, with cross supports that I could use to screw the top onto (shown in green). For the long trim pieces, I just cut down some 1x3s (actually 0.75" x 2.5"). The long pieces are 41" long and the short pieces are 11" long. The cross pieces that go under the island top are about 14.5" long. The size of these aren't critical at all since they're just there for attaching the top.

For the slats (shown in yellow), I made a little table of different slat widths with a 1/2" or 3/4" gap that I could keep consistent across each shelf and have the exact right dimensions to fit the shelf. I was able to figure out that 11 slats that are each 3.5" wide with 0.75" gaps between them were the perfect size to fit each shelf. Everything being a nice round number made it much easier to cut and space each slat to fit the shelves.

Step 2: Making the Island Top

Rather than trying to make the butcher block top from scratch, my friend had an old lab bench top that he wasn't using for anything, so he let me use it for this. As you can see from the photos, it was pretty beat up, so it still needed quite a bit of work. The original lab bench top was 6 feet long and 2 feet wide and I needed a 4 foot by 18" island top. I clamped a piece of wood to the butcher block as a straight edge and used a circular saw to cut the top down to size. After that, I used a random orbital sander to take off the existing surface finish and get rid of all of the discoloration and scratches on the surface. I also rounded all of the corners slightly by rolling the sander over each of the edges. A router would probably give you a more consistent corner, but I don't own one of those, so I worked with what I had. Doing all of this really helped to clean up the surface and it brought out the nice grain of the wood, as you can see in the pictures. To protect the surface, I applied some butcher block conditioner, which includes both mineral oil and some type of wax in order to prevent the top from drying out and cracking. This also had the effect of giving the top a nice rich color.

Step 3: Making the Legs

For the legs, I bought 4x4s, but they seemed way too big and clunky for the size of island I wanted to build, so I decided to make them a little smaller. I used my table saw to rip each leg to be 2.5" on each side, so each of the 4 legs were 2.5" x 2.5" x 35". After ripping them down, I had to sand down all of the sides to smooth out all of the cut marks and round the corners. I had also designed the legs to have notches for the long shelf supports, which are 2.5" x 1.25" in cross-section. To notch the legs, I first drew lines on the legs where I wanted the notches to be and I set the cut depth of my table saw to match the 1.25" thickness of the cross pieces. From here, I simply set the leg on the crosscut sled of my table saw and cut it over and over until I had taken out all of the material from the notch. It's a good idea to use a test piece to make sure your cut depth for the notches is right.

Step 4: Making the Shelf Supports

For the shelf supports, the process was similar to the legs. I ripped down 2x4s to 1.25" x 2.5" and cut them to length. For this step, I needed 4 long shelf supports that were 1.25" x 2.5" x 46" long and 4 short shelf supports that were 1.25" x 2.5" x 11" long. Again, I sanded all four sides and corners to make sure everything was smooth. For the long pieces, I fit them into the notches and screwed through the backs of the legs into the shelf supports and for the shorter ones, I attached them with pocket hole screws. Once you assemble these pieces with the legs, you can make sure your legs are level and not wobbly and adjust them before you go any further.

Step 5: Making the Trim Pieces

The trim pieces are much easier because they just have to be cut to length. There should be 4 pieces that are 1x3s (0.75" x 2.5", or you could use 1x4s, it doesn't really matter). Two of these pieces should be 41" long and two of them should be 11" long. With these, I made sure they were flush with the top of my leg pieces and aligned with the outer edges, as you can see in the pictures. After attaching those with pocket hole screws, I cut the cross pieces to fit in between. Their location doesn't really matter as long as they're flush with the top surface of the legs and trim pieces where the island top will sit.

Step 6: Attaching the Island Top

Butcher block tops can expand and contract with temperature and moisture, so when you attach them, you should allow the butcher block to have some space to be able to move around. To do this, I drilled 3/8" holes in the cross pieces (which is a much bigger through hole than my screws need) and then used a 1" washer on my screws so that they would have some room to move around.

Step 7: Making the Shelf Slats

For the shelf pieces, I had bought some 1x8 x 24" pieces from Home Depot for something like 36 cents each (when I saw how cheap they were, I bought out their entire stock). I was able to rip these to the right width and cut them to length so that each of these boards made 2 shelf slats. Each slat was 0.75" x 3.5" x 16" long and I needed 22 of them to cover both shelves. For each side, I needed to cut notches in the end slats to fit in around the legs. To do this, I just measured and marked 4 of the slats and cut them with a hand saw. I used a double-bladed pull saw (like this one), which made pretty nice cuts. Because I planned it out so that there was exactly a 0.75" gap between slats, I just used two small scrap pieces as spacers between slats and screwed them in one at a time.

Once this is done, your wood working is complete! The final step is to paint or stain the legs and shelf slats however you like. I'll be updating this once my finishing is complete, but in the meantime, please vote for me in the contests!

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