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I’m not going to lie… wood cutting boards are my absolute favorite variety among the many different materials that are available.
Chopping into a nice, thick end-grain board with a high quality kitchen knife gives off a baritone ring like Dean Martin in a rendition of “Volare.” Perfection made into sound. The best wooden chopping boards are produced using at least three different construction methods, which we will outline here. The qualities of the available types should influence your purchase, as well as intended use use, and of course your budget.
TYPES OF WOODEN CUTTING BOARDS
These cutting surfaces are typically constructed Walnut Cutting boards simply by gluing boards together edge to edge, just like a wooden table top. You are able to identify these as each individual wood piece will be wider across the top of the surface of the butcher block.
If you looked at the board from the end, you will be able to see an arched or “cathedral” appearance on each board (the end grain). A face grain board is the cheapest to make and buy, but tends to have a very high degree of warping and splitting over time.
A face grain surface.
This warping effect is caused by the movement of wood as it releases and gains moisture. All wood has some movement due to its ability to soak up airborne water or shed into a drier atmosphere – this typically occurs in different rates in various portions of the board(s) due to the differing density of cellulose fibers that make up the composition of a tree.
If you ever moved from an extremely damp climate to an extremely dry climate, you can see this effect firsthand. And it is sometimes noticeable in various wooden furniture or objects in different seasons of the year.
Since a cutting board is in frequent contact with water and other liquids, it is more prone to warping than many other wooden items that are made using similar construction methods (i.e. most table tops).
There are, however, construction techniques that can minimize warping and cracking. The two methods commonly used today include gluing the panel up in an edge grain configuration or gluing the boards up with an end grain construction technique.
Moving up in quality and price, you’ll find edge grain boards. Similar to the construction of bowling lane flooring, this type has a series of boards that are glued up face to face, leaving thin, narrow bands running across the surface.
Normally thicker than the face grain varieties, these are much less prone to warping than their face-grained cousins, and are where I would want to start my search if I were on a budget. These are probably the sweet spot in the wooden cutting board category for price versus performance.
An older edge-grain cutting board showing signs of use and scratch marks.
Edge grain construction can make for very nice products, and other than scratch marks being more visible on these than on the end grain varieties, they make excellent cutting boards.
One additional benefit is that they do not have to be as thick as the end grain products to minimize chances of cracking or splitting.
This means that they may be made lighter, and thus they are easier to heft into a sink if you wish to do so. Also, most “butcher block” countertops are manufactured with this method (with some notable exceptions).
One of the better made wooden cutting boards out in the market for this type of block is from the John Boos Company.
These are made in the USA from American-grown maple and are very nice. They come in a variety of sizes and thicknesses to fit your countertops, so you can be assured that you can fit at least part of the board into your sink for easy cleaning. These are available via Amazon.
John Boos RA03 24 x 18 x 2 1/4-Inch Reversible Maple Cutting Board available at Amazon
Rubber cutting boards such as those from the Sani-Tuff brand are another option in this price range, and they may be a better fit for someone looking for a board that that they can run through the dishwasher.
The crème de la crème of cutting boards are the end grain variety, and these have the traditional “butcher block” appearance. The wood that comprises these examples is joined together so the end grain faces the work surface. The end grain can be thought of as the very end of a typical board, as is shown below.
End Grain vs. Edge Grain vs. Face Grain
The benefits of this type of arrangement are numerous. You can think of the end grain as similar to the bristles of a broom if you are looking directly at the bottom:
Slice down with a thin, solid object, such as a top-of-the line chef’s knife, and the bristles merely move aside and let the object pass in between. Remove the object and the bristles return to their original position. The end grain of a piece of wood functions remarkably similarly, and thus can “self-heal.”
Moreover, end grain construction does away with any worries you may have about splinters. Although uncommon with a properly constructed face or edge grain cutting board, it is possible to have a piece split off in these products. This is impossible with a butcher block type of board, as the direction of the wood fibers faces a completely different direction and thus is not prone to splintering.
A closeup of end grain with an oiled and finished surface
Furthermore, end grained constructed butcher blocks are normally thicker than any other kind of unit – meaning there is almost no chance of warping (although on a very rare occasion they can develop cracks), and creating a very stable platform with no chance of flexing.
The only downside to this design is that they are typically much more expensive than other models made from wood, and are often four to fifteen times as expensive as a face grain unit. This is due to the amount of labor required to construct these products. Since they contain many individual pieces of wood, they are generally assembled by hand either in a factory environment or as a “one off” example made by a skilled craftsman.
But, you get what you pay for. Most of this type are heirloom quality, and may stay in your family for multiple generations – does it get any greener than that?
Catskill Craftsmen Super Slab with Finger Grooves
Once such example of end grain construction is the Catskill Craftsmen Super Slab pictured above – a very nicely made four-inch maple end grain block that’s available for a relatively low price and with very positive reviews at Amazon. Folks, I’m really impressed with this block for the asking price.
TYPE OF WOOD
The type of wood used to construct your butcher block can also have an impact on its appearance, cleanliness, and ability to help keep your kitchen knives in tip-top shape.
Cutting boards should be made from a closed grain hardwood. One that is not too hard and that comes from a tree which produces edible nuts, fruits, or syrup should be used– this helps to identify those woods that are safe for contact with your food, and do not contain toxins that can leach out.
The most common tree variety that has been in use for this purpose for the past several hundred years is hard maple. Other common and recommended woods include cherry and walnut. These are all closed grain hardwoods that aren’t too hard on your knives’ edges.
John Boos 14 x 14 x 3-Inch End Grain Chopping Block in Cherry available at Amazon
Open-grain woods such as oak and ash should be avoided, as they have many pores that can harbor bits and pieces of food, and that provide a good habitat for bacteria to flourish.
Other species that you should avoid are most tropical varieties – these often contain toxins that they produce in order to keep the plethora of insect and microbial life found in the warmer regions from eating their way into the tree’s flesh.
Another wood that is often used but should be avoided is teak. Although highly resistant to water and decay, teak is an extremely hard wood that also contains a lot of silica that can quickly wear down your expensive knives.
Woodworkers that handle a lot of teak generally go through a bunch of carbide blades trying to shape this material – you may consider what that does to the edge of your kitchen knives before adding a cutting board made of this material to your shopping list.
FEE, FI, FO, FEET
Some of the better cutting boards are available with feet, and these have their pluses and minuses depending on the thickness and weight of the board. With heavier examples that stay stationary on your countertops (i.e. you generally clean them in place), this allows you to get under them to wipe down the counter.
However, I don’t really recommend them for lighter and thinner products, as raising them up reduces friction between the board and your work surface, and could possibly allow them to slide around. Moreover, they can be difficult to deal with when you are buying a thinner unit that you would like to lift and carry to the sink.
John Boos Cutting Board with Feet, 12 x 12 x 1.5-Inch, Walnut available at Amazon
SHE’S GOT LEGS
Some of the most expensive and very best cutting boards have their own set of legs, and these are what most folks think of when they picture an old fashioned “chopping block.” These usually feature 10-16 inches of solid maple or cherry end grain, and weigh about the same amount as a small car. Needless to say, you aren’t going to lug one over to your sink for cleaning.
It really takes a special kitchen to house one of these battleships, and if you have the room, then by all means treat yourself. I actually have the same John Boos block pictured below that I scored off of Craigslist for $75. It now resides in our garage for mass home canning, BBQ, and fish fry type activities because I couldn’t make it work in our kitchen.
However, these behemoths are very nice, and if you can fit one in your space, then they are worth considering.
30 x 30-Inch BoosBlock AB Prep Table with Butcher Block Top available at Amazon
Cleaning for me normally involves a bout with the water hose (if it were in the kitchen I’d skip this step) and a spray of diluted vinegar or a diluted bleach mixture. Occasionally, I throw some food grade mineral oil on it and let it have a good soaking.
If I were to buy one new, I’d pick one with a different leg configuration (Boos offers a bunch of different versions) as mine has a touch of 1970s country – I don’t mind the 1970s (especially the music) and I don’t mind country, but when you put the two together in terms of décor, I’m not a huge fan.
My last piece of advice – If you need just one fantastic cutting board that you can use for the rest of your life and even pass down to the grandkids, I would suggest a three- or four-inch end grain product in whichever dimensions you require. If you look after it properly, it should last multiple generations.
Note: If you are considering an end grain cutting board, I really wouldn’t go with a 2-inch or thinner version, as there have been reports of them splitting if they were not cured properly (i.e. allowed to dry out after harvesting), or were moved from an extremely wet climate to an extremely dry one. It seems that the extra inch on a three-inch version makes all the difference in terms of strength. Please also be aware that there is an inherent risk of cracking and splitting with all solid wood products – this is an organic material with cell walls that was once a living organism, and is not inherently stable.