A wood backsplash can add warmth and style to any kitchen. However, without proper care and maintenance, wood backsplashes are susceptible to water damage, stains, and other issues. Protecting your wood backsplash ensures it will maintain its beauty while withstanding the rigors of a busy kitchen. Follow these tips to keep your wood backsplash looking its best for years to come.
Choose the Right Finish
Selecting the proper finish is the first step in protecting a wood backsplash. The finish forms a protective barrier against moisture, stains, and scratches. Consider these common options:
Polyurethane is the most durable and moisture-resistant finish for a wood backsplash. It provides a thick plastic-like coating that protects against water and stains. Opt for oil-based polyurethane over water-based for maximum protection. Apply at least 3 coats.
Varnish provides slightly less protection than polyurethane but allows the natural wood grain to show through more. Use a high-quality marine spar varnish designed for humid environments. Apply multiple coats to seal the wood properly.
Tung oil penetrates deep into the wood pores to provide a flexible, water-repellent finish. It maintains the natural look of the wood while providing moderate protection from moisture and stains. Apply several thin coats of oil for best results.
Wax adds minimal protection for wood backsplashes but provides an attractive low-sheen finish. Use a paste wax containing carnauba for hardness and water resistance. Avoid wax for high-moisture areas like behind a sink.
Lacquer sprays on easily for a fast drying, glossy finish. But lacquer is susceptible to scratches and water damage over time. Use lacquer sparingly for low-use areas or topcoat it with polyurethane for added protection.
Apply a Sealer
In addition to a protective finish, use a sealer on your wood backsplash. Sealers provide an initial moisture barrier and prevent stains from penetrating the wood surface. Consider these popular sealer options:
Shellac creates a natural-looking seal made from resin secreted by the lac beetle. It blocks moisture, stains, and odors effectively. Apply a coat before your final finish for comprehensive protection.
Sanding sealers seal the wood while allowing absorbency for finishes like stain or lacquer. Use an oil-based sealer for moisture resistance. Sand lightly between coats to ensure proper adhesion.
Wood conditioners prepare new wood for finishes by regulating absorption. This prevents blotchy stain results and creates a uniform surface for topcoats. Use before painting or staining.
Seal Penetrations, Edges & Seams
Any areas where moisture could penetrate the wood must be carefully sealed. Pay special attention to:
- Penetrations – Seal around sinks, faucets, light fixtures, outlets, and any screws or nails with waterproof caulk.
- Edges – Seal all exposed edges thoroughly with caulk to prevent water from seeping behind the backsplash.
- Seams – Seal any seams between boards, around joints, and where the backsplash meets the wall or countertop.
Caulk with a flexible silicone designed for kitchen and bath areas. Check periodically for new gaps or cracks needing fresh caulk.
Limit Direct Water Exposure
Avoid pouring or splashing water directly onto your wood backsplash. Limit exposure to moisture as much as possible by:
- Using a water-repellent finish like polyurethane or varnish.
- Letting water roll off into the sink rather than onto the backsplash when possible.
- Quickly wiping up any spills or splatters on the backsplash.
- Using a splatter screen when cooking to reduce grease splatter.
- Running an exhaust fan or opening windows when cooking to reduce steam buildup.
Clean & Reapply Finish Regularly
Regular cleaning and reapplying protective finishes will keep your wood backsplash looking like new.
- Clean gently with a mild soap and soft cloth to remove grease and dirt. Avoid abrasive cleaners.
- Refresh the finish 1-2 times per year in high-use areas. Lightly sand and reapply polyurethane or preferred finish.
- Thoroughly re-finish the entire backsplash every 3-5 years as needed. Strip old finish if required before reapplying.
Avoid Moisture-Trapping Decor Behind
Take care not to trap moisture behind the wood backsplash. Avoid:
- Wallpaper or other moisture-sensitive materials. Stick with high-quality kitchen paint.
- Thick insulation that prevents airflow and moisture venting.
- Dense splash guards resting against the bottom edge. Opt for open designs.
Trapped moisture can cause warping, discoloration, and wood rot over time. Ensure proper ventilation behind the wood.
Control Humidity & Temperature
Keeping humidity and temperature in check will help prevent wood backsplash damage.
- Use exhaust fans, dehumidifiers or AC as needed to maintain 40-50% relative humidity.
- Avoid extreme temperature swings – keep indoor temperatures reasonably regulated.
- Check for condensation, wet spots or swelling to identify problem areas needing better climate control.
Protect Against UV Light
Exposure to direct sunlight can discolor, fade, or dry out wood over time. Limit UV exposure by:
- Using window treatments to block sunlight hitting the backsplash.
- Installing UV-filtering film on nearby windows.
- Placing plants or decor items strategically to block intense sunlight.
- Using a finish containing UV inhibitors, or apply UV-blocking clear coats.
Rotate decorative items periodically to allow even color changes from indirect sunlight.
Choose Durable, Resilient Woods
Selecting naturally moisture-resistant wood species can boost the lifespan of your backsplash. The best choices include:
- Teak – Dense, water-repellent, and resistant to wood movement.
- White oak – Strong and stable with natural tannins that resist moisture.
- Cedar – Contains natural oils with anti-fungal properties.
- Redwood – Impervious to rotting and insects due to high tannin content.
- Ipe – Extremely dense and resistant. Requires no finish.
- Mahogany – Tight grain and natural oils repel water well.
Avoid more porous woods like pine that require extra sealing and easily swell from moisture.
Allow Space for Wood Movement
Since wood naturally expands and contracts with humidity changes, the backsplash design must accommodate movement.
- Allow a 1/8″ gap between boards for expansion.
- Use tongue and groove boards with floating installation method.
- Anchor boards only at the center of their width, not at edges.
- Fasten into studs, not just to the wall surface, for sturdy support.
- Use slotted holes in attachments to enable movement.
Proper spacing and flexible installation prevent buckling or cracking as the wood naturally swells and shrinks.
Handle Spills Promptly
Water and other spills can quickly damage wood backsplashes if not properly addressed. Follow these steps for handling spills:
- Blot excess liquid immediately with a clean cloth. Avoid scrubbing or spreading the spill.
- For oil-based spills, sprinkle corn starch or baking soda to absorb, then sweep away gently.
- For water-based spills, place paper towels or a weighted bag of rice on the area to draw out moisture.
- Once absorbed, clean the area with a wood-safe cleaner and soft cloth.
- Check for finish damage or changes in wood color. Refinish if needed.
Catching spills early is crucial to prevent stains, cracks, and other permanent damage to the wood.
Know When to Repair or Replace
With proper care, a wood backsplash can last for years. But over time, damage may require repairs:
- Isolated stains or finish wear can be sanded and refinished successfully.
- Light scratches can be smoothed out and blended with stain touch up pens.
- For deeper cracks or gouges, use colored wood putty for less noticeable repairs.
- Severely damaged or warped boards may need partial replacement. Designs with individual planks simplify this.
When damage becomes too extensive, a full backsplash replacement may be needed. Signs include widespread warping, rot, heavy staining, and loose boards.
Maintenance Tips for Different Wood Backsplash Types
The specific protective steps needed depend partly on your wood backsplash style. Follow these maintenance tips tailored to common wood backsplash designs:
Butcher Block Panels
Butcher block panels made of edge-glued boards require diligent sealing:
- Seal all edges thoroughly with multiple coats, including exposed front edges.
- Reseal sides/edges whenever you see bare wood or absorption of water.
- Be vigilant with cleaning and reoiling to prevent moisture penetration.
- Consider using boards designed with water-resistant wood species.
Shiplap or Tongue & Groove Planks
Maintaining shiplap or T&G plank backsplashes:
- Check for and reseal any gaps between boards as needed over time.
- Use spar urethane for maximum water resistance on seams.
- Select vertical grain boards that resist swelling better than flat/tangential grain.
- Allow proper spacing between planks for expansion and contraction.
Wood Tile Or Mosaic
Protecting small wood tile or mosaic backsplash designs:
- Use tiles made from durable wood species, or coat porous woods like birch.
- Seal tile edges thoroughly prior to installation.
- Use extra flexible caulk between tiles and surrounding surfaces.
- Limit moisture exposure and promptly clean spills to prevent seam damage.
- Plan to re-caulk joints periodically as needed over time.
Wood Planks With Metal
Combining wood with metal for backsplashes:
- Make sure metal edges don’t trap moisture against the wood. Leave a slight gap between materials.
- Use a resilient wood species like teak that withstands potential metal corrosion.
- Take care not to damage softer woods when cleaning metal.
- Check for finish wear around screws or bolts penetrating wood.
Distressed Or Whitewashed Wood
Caring for popular distressed and whitewashed wood looks:
- Maintain coating on whitewashed planks to avoid staining and water marks.
- Distressing exposes more surface area – protect with extra finish coats.
- Whitewashing can seal wood pores slightly – still apply water-resistant topcoats.
- Enhance weathered look over time through careful sanding versus water damage.
Cleaning Options for Wood Backsplashes
Regular cleaning is essential for both the appearance and longevity of a wood backsplash. Follow these safe, effective cleaning methods:
Mild Dish Soap
For routine cleaning, use a soft sponge or cloth with mild, unscented dish soap and warm water. Avoid scrubbing too aggressively. Rinse thoroughly and dry with a soft towel.
A baking soda paste gently lifts grease and dirt without damaging wood finishes. Sprinkle baking soda on the backsplash and rub with a damp sponge. Rinse thoroughly with clean water and dry.
Olive oil can lift stubborn grease and food stains from wood backsplashes. Apply a small amount to a soft cloth and rub gently. Let sit briefly, then wipe clean with a soapy cloth. Rinse and dry completely.
Mix equal parts white vinegar and warm water for a natural cleaning solution. Use a soft cloth to wipe the backsplash. Avoid leaving vinegar on too long before rinsing to prevent damaging finishes.
Select a gentle, no-rinse wood cleaner specifically designed for finished or sealed wood. Use sparingly and avoid abrasive cleansers. Read labels carefully and test in an inconspicuous spot first.
Refresh wood backsplashes sealed with tung oil or similar finishing oils by rubbing a thin coat of oil into the wood with a soft cloth. Wipe away excess after 5-10 minutes.
Avoid Harsh Chemicals
Prevent damaging your wood backsplash by avoiding:
- Harsh cleaners with acids, alkalis, or bleach
- Abrasive scrubbing pads or tools
- Excessive water or steam
- Oil and grease removers
- Turpentine or alcohol-based cleaners
Test any new cleaners on an out-of-sight spot first to check for possible damage to the wood or finish.
How to Repair Damage to a Wood Backsplash
Even with diligent care, wood backsplashes may experience minor damage over time. Here are some tips for repairs:
For light scratches:
- Gently sand with fine (220+ grit) sandpaper until the scratch is gone. Use a sanding block to smooth and blend edges.
- Clean area thoroughly then use a stain touch-up marker or pen that matches your finish to fill the scratch.
- Buff gently with extra fine (400+ grit) sandpaper for a seamless appearance. Add fresh topcoat.
For chips or gouges:
- Carefully sand out any splinters, rounded edges or damage. Avoid widening the affected area.
- Clean thoroughly then fill with a fast-drying wood filler, enough to just overflow slightly.
- Once dry, sand flush until smooth. Buff edges to blend with surrounding finish.
- Use stain pens and topcoat to blend repair color and lustre with surrounding wood.
For water stains/rings:
- Light stains can be sanded out and refinished – start with fine grit paper.
- For white rings, remove finish and sand stained area. Apply oxalic acid or vinegar, let sit briefly, then rinse.
- Once fully dry, refinish area to blend with surrounding wood. Stain touch up if needed.
For loose planks:
- Remove loose boards by backing out fasteners. Scrape away old caulk.
- Add weatherstrip behind board if gapping. Secure with new finish nails or reattach using old holes.
- Fill nail holes with colored wood filler. Reseal seams with new flexible caulk.
For swollen or warped boards:
- Remove fasteners and the warped boards. Inspect for mold or rot – discard if necessary.
- Sand warped boards flush and let acclimate to ideal humidity.
- Reinstall tightly but allow slight expansion gaps between boards.
With careful work and proper materials, most wood backsplash damage can be repaired attractively. But for extensive water damage or deterioration, full wood backsplash replacement may be best.
Tips for Installing a New Wood Backsplash
Installing a stunning new wood backsplash helps transform the look and feel of a kitchen. Follow these tips for optimal installation success:
Select Durable, Kiln-Dried Wood
Choose boards or panels made from kiln-dried woods with good dimensional stability such as red oak, hickory, or maple. Avoid porous woods prone to splitting. Opt for vertical grain if using solid boards.
Check for Moisture
Use a moisture meter to test wall moisture levels before installing. Do not install wood backsplash until walls read 12% moisture or less. Address any leakage or moisture sources first.
Prepare the Surface
The wall surface must be clean, smooth, and structurally sound for proper adhesion. Sand glossy areas, fill holes, and remove old adhesive or wallpaper. Prime very porous surfaces.
Allow Proper Acclimation
Let wood acclimate to your home’s temperature and humidity for 1-2 weeks prior to installation. Keep wood stored flat and away from direct sunlight or moisture during acclimation.
Use Adhesive Sparingly
Most wood backsplash materials use a thin spread of construction adhesive applied to the wall as the primary mounting method. Avoid using excess adhesive so it does not seep out.
Use provides backing support pieces, spacers, or shims during installation to prevent boards from shifting until adhesive cures fully. Remove any supports after 24 hours.
Seal All Edges
Seal every possible edge – even the bottom and upper edges of the backsplash installation – with a waterproof sealant. This prevents moisture from infiltrating the ends of boards.
Fill Gaps & Penetrations
Caulk all joints, seams, gaps, and areas around sink cutouts, light fixtures, outlets and plumbing penetrations using a flexible, waterproof kitchen & bath caulk.
Seek Professional Assistance
Consult an experienced contractor or carpenter for assistance installing more complex or intricate wood backsplash designs. Get professional guidance to ensure a long-lasting installation.
With proper planning, materials, and techniques, you can install an stunning wood backsplash as a focal point in your kitchen for years of beauty and enjoyable functionality.
Frequently Asked Questions
Below are some common questions about protecting and maintaining wood kitchen backsplashes:
How often should I reapply finish to my wood backsplash?
In high traffic areas, reapply polyurethane or other protective topcoat every 1-2 years. For light use areas, every 3-5 years is fine. Signs that reapplying is needed include dull or rough areas, water spotting, or minimal beading of water.
What’s the best way to clean grease splatter off a wood backsplash?
Use a mix of mild dish soap and warm water. Let it soak briefly then wipe gently with a soft cloth. Avoid abrasive scrubbing. For stubborn grease, apply a little baking soda and scrub gently with a damp sponge, then rinse.
My wood backsplash developed some mold. How do I remove it safely?
Mix 1 part bleach to 3 parts water. Use a sponge to apply the solution and let sit briefly. Scrub gently and rinse thoroughly. Allow to dry fully then reapply protective finish. Be sure to identify