Redo: oiling our kitchen benchtops

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After several years, the iron in the water built up on our unsealed benchtops
After several years, the iron in the water built up on our unsealed benchtops

One of the eco-minded decisions we made when we created our environmentally-friendly kitchen was to leave a raw, unsealed surface on our benchtops.

The benchtops are made of kauri pine, a softwood local to Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. Its very fine grain makes it highly resistant to water, and the early settlers even used to make their whole sinks out of the wood (with no metal at all!).

The benches are very resistant to staining, and even beetroot spills faded away within a matter of days. A scrub with a pumice soap periodically would then remove any left-over marks.

The only issue was around the sink area. Here, the iron and minerals in the water would deposit themselves into the grain. The result was a dark, almost black coating around the sink. While it was perfectly hygienic, it was unsightly.

So we finally decided to oil the benchtops, after giving them a thorough sand. Ian Thomson, who constructed our glorious kitchen, was more than happy to help.

We when used Organoil Hard Burnishing Oil to seal the wood, which is food-grade, and only slightly darkens the colour.

The result is lovely, and will now remain lovely, even in the face of heavy use.

Our benchtops, after being given a protective oiling
Our benchtops, after being given a protective oiling

Pantry and cool cupboard in action

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Our new walk-in pantry, with hand-made kauri shelves

No kitchen should be without a walk-in pantry. We had a temporary pantry in our old extension, and this proved the benefits of storing stuff in shelves, rather than lost in the back of kitchen cupboards.

So a pantry was a key element of the new house design. It ended up behind the rammed earth wall, conveniently off the entrance to the kitchen. We asked Ian Thomson to make the shelves, which are a simple construction out of kauri (the same as the kitchen benches and floors).

The cool cupboard, with doors open

A key element of the pantry is the cool cupboard. This is an idea that I stole from somewhere, but I forget where now.

As shown in the diagram below, the cool cupboard works as follows:

  • cool air is drawn up from under the floor
  • this cools the cupboard, making it suitable for storing potatoes, eggs, drying herbs, etc
  • the air is then expelled out a chimney through the roof
  • the system is driven by the heat of the fridge, which is vented into the upper part of the cupboard
How the cool cupboard works

This is a win-win solution: the cupboard is much cooler without any active cooling or fans. And the fridge runs up to 30% more efficiently, due to the extra ventilation.

Inside the cool cupboard, showing the wire shelves with plenty of space for a big harvest

How much cooler is the cool cupboard? The results speak for themselves:

  • Kitchen –> 23°C
  • Pantry –> 21°C
  • Cool cupboard –> 12°C

That’s cooler than the ambient temperature outside, which is 18°C at the moment in our mild Sydney winter. Not bad!

More photos of our eco-kitchen

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Thanks for the positive feedback on our kitchen — we like it too! For those who want to see more, here are some further photos of the kitchen, providing a more complete view…

The main work area, with a gas stovetop, and a rangehood that exhausts sraight outside
Double sink and a view outside to the garden and neighbouring trees
Two ovens: a conventional electric oven (below) and a combined steam/conventional oven (above)
The breakfast bar, with three LED pendant lights
View into the kitchen, with the rammed earth wall on the right

Details on our eco-kitchen

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Key elements of our eco-kitchen (click to see larger version)

Our kitchen has ended up a little out of the ordinary. Starting from a clear focus on low chemical use and simple materials, we’ve made a few decisions that might be interesting.

The key points on our eco-kitchen:

  • We’ve completely avoided using melamine-covered particleboard (“whiteboard“), as this  emits huge amounts of volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), is considered industrial waste when the kitchen is taken apart, and can’t be recycled. This is truly nasty stuff.
  • Instead, we used an E0 FSC-certified birch eco-ply from Finland (of all places!). “E0” indicates the lowest level of VOC emissions, and this ply has every certification going. It’s also a truly beautiful material.
  • The inside of the cupboards are protected with shellac, a lot friendlier than many of the artificial sealants.
  • The benchtops are unsealed solid kauri, with experience in other kitchens showing that while they wear and mark over time, ongoing gentle cleaning keeps them looking beautiful.
  • The cupboard fronts are solid kauri, painted with low-VOC Haymes paints (no two-pac polyurethane coatings here!). In addition to being much better for the environment, the semi-gloss paint gives a much softer and warmer feel to the kitchen.
  • The walls and ceilings are also painted with low-VOC Haymes paints.
  • The floors are solid kauri floorboards, with a tung oil finish (no polyurethane finishes again).
  • LED lights are used throughout, including the downlights in the ceiling and the strip lighting under the upper cupboards.
  • The large servery window (which can be opened onto the deck) and the upper window behind the cooktop both bring in lots of natural light, reducing the need for artificial lighting.
  • The moving glass is double-glazed, while the fixed glass is triple glazed.
  • The fridge (brought from our old house) was purchased as the only 5-star efficient fridge at the time, slashing our electricity bills.
  • There is an under-floor vent beneath the fridge to draw in cool air (increasing efficiency by up to 20%), with a wall vent that goes into the pantry cool cupboard (more on this in a future post).
  • We chose a water and energy efficient Miele dishwasher, installed new as part of the fitout.
  • We have an on-bench compost bin, collecting scraps for the big compost bins and worm farms outside. There is also a recycling bin inside one of the cupboards.
  • There’s a walk-in pantry beside the kitchen, which is cool and dark (also to be covered in a future post).

We love the kitchen, and it’s both practical and beautiful (we think).

As it turned out, commercial kitchen companies couldn’t cope at all with our requirements. So we had it made by a local craftsman, Ian Thomson (see his website for more on this work).

While it isn’t a cheap option by any means, we’d highly recommend going down the route of a bespoke kitchen, as it gives the time and opportunity to really refine what will be delivered.