Having travelled around the world looking for the right partner to make our worktops before eventually deciding the only way to get them made the way we wanted was to do it ourselves, I saw some pretty interesting things, particularly in China and Romania.
The first revelation was just how much difference there is between American White Oak and all of the other oaks, but the real fun started when I was looking at Walnut. For example;
Chinese oak grows in abundance in northern china and southern Siberia, but it is very much the poor relative of the European Oak, let alone North American Oak. A much smaller diameter tree than its American counterpart, it has a less attractive grain and many more natural defects; it really is the same in name only.
The timber is planked, and then instead of being air dried for a few months to let the process begin naturally, it is immediately kiln dried. The only key thing then seems to be achieving low moisture content as fast as possible. This super forced drying creates an unstable plank with internal moisture levels of 20 plus percent, and external levels of less than 4 percent.
The key trick at this point seems to be maximizing the yield of the planks by hiding all of the natural defects, like knots, shake, and not cutting away the sapwood. All they do is turn them over so they are on the reverse side – this means you could well have a knot which is only a millimetre under the top surface of the worktop which is still live, still moving, and could well split right open.
The cooked planks are then taken immediately to the factory, which is mostly on the same site, for manufacture. Some of the factories I have seen are amazing. Rough cut staves being individually cut for finger jointing by hand, then a few daubs of some odd looking glue applied randomly with a brush by a poor and highly disinterested elderly man, then banged together with a hammer. Then, whilst the finger joints are still wet, without having close sawn the edges to ensure a good fit, the long finger jointed lines are edge glued, again pretty randomly with a brush, before being put in to a giant press to try and stick it all together. Remarkably enough, once the press has squeezed this all together and the worktop has been sanded it doesn’t look so bad. Until, of course, bits literally start coming unglued a few days, weeks or months later. Whilst this is clearly an extreme example, you would be amazed how many of the factories are cutting some of these corners, particularly at the kiln drying and quality control level. Of course this was the extreme – or so I thought…
As for actual finished worktop horror stories, here are a few of what I’ve seen;
Whilst being shown an oak worktop, the factory manager picked up one end and the last three staves in his hand just came away. No one had actually put any glue on them.
I never look at the top worktops in a pile. In one factory, after getting the factory manager to reluctantly take off the top three, the next worktop was a revelation. Some of the staves in the middle appeared to have bits of plastic bag sticking out underneath. When I asked him what this was, he explained it was completely normal to use plastic bags between some of the smaller staves to produce a better fit.
More than a few times I’ve seen Oak worktops which have actually been a mixture of oak and elm. On more than one occasion, and in fact becoming more prevalent, I’ve been shown oak worktops which were actually ash.
There are a lot of fake walnut worktops around at the moment, which take two forms. The first are ‘Chinese walnut’ worktops. These genuinely are Chinese Walnut, but this is far removed from the beautiful American black walnut which they are being sold as. Much lighter in colour – a bit like a mildly stained oak, they are in fact also much lighter in weight, with a lower density, which makes them a lot less durable. Some factories do stain them to try and make them look like American black walnut; of course as soon as you cut in to them the truth is revealed. But no matter how well they stain them, nothing can compare to the real thing.
The second type of fake walnut worktop, which really is fake, is far more insidious. A softwood with a very light grain structure which, when stained, can look like poor grade American black walnut. The stain is not just applied to the surface, but is in fact pressured right the way through the wood, so even when you cut into it, it still has the same uniform dark appearance. The current trend seems to be to intersperse a few bits of real walnut with the fake walnut, particularly on the front edges, to give a better feel to the worktop. However the fact is 85 % of the worktop is simply a stained softwood which is incredibly soft – I can easily stick a finger nail in a couple of millimetres without even trying.
Some companies have started to introduce ‘African’ Walnut. There is no such thing as African Walnut. The tree they are referring to is a coniferous rain forest tree which produces berries which look like walnuts. Illegally logged and a major cause of rainforest deforestation along with Iroko, it is simply a crime to even consider.
Other horror stories include worktops with staves which are obviously still moving and splitting after being kiln dried far too fast, more worktops with live knots in than I care to remember, but best of all was a factory who’s product contained enough live woodworm to create an epidemic from one worktop alone. Quite normal, according to the factory manager!