Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Choosing Wood For Cutting Boards

Every year it seems I make a cutting board or two as Christmas gifts.  And every year, I get several requests for more.  Maybe they use them for kindling, how would I know?? I like to finish them with pure tung oil, which can often take a month or more to cure.  So I start early - October is not done, and I have three cutting boards built with the first coat of tung oil in place.

When I make cutting boards, they are almost always end grain boards.  These can be outrageously expensive in the kitchen stores, and they can be more expensive to build than a regular board, but the cost can certainly be managed.  The big variable is thickness.  I made one last year for my wife that was 2 1/2" thick and 13" x 17" - that's a lot of board feet - and it weren't cheap, pardner.  Maple, Walnut and Goncola Alves.  It's so heavy my wife doesn't use it much. She's one that asked for another cutting board this year, by the way - but smaller.

Suggested rules for selecting cutting board woods are:  Hard.  Dense.  Tight Grain.  Small Pores.  No Oily Wood.  Low Toxicity.  No Splintering.  Easy to Work.  Available In Your Area.  That's where I start - then I do a bit of bending and sometimes outright break them.  But these are good rules......no, really, they are!!

But.....if you follow the rules, your wood selections can be somewhat limited.  The perfect wood for me is hard Maple.  If I could only pick one wood for cutting boards, it would be Maple.  But one wood is boring  (Note:  If you are going to use one wood, there are interesting things you can do with the grain in end-grain cutting boards, so all is not lost!).  Others that fit are Beech and Birch.  All kinda boring, really - we need contrast to these plain white woods, don't we?

Let's add some darker woods.  Cherry is probably the best, and also a favorite wood of mine to work.  Slightly softer, but I don't think it matters in end-grain boards.  Purpleheart is really hard and dense, not oily like other exotics and I have used it.  Great contrast with the white woods.  It's primary downside is it can splinter a bit, but I think it's controllable.  The other dark wood that is used a lot is Walnut, and I like it.  The only issue is the grain on walnut tends to be pretty open.  But I have used it for cutting boards and rolling pins, and people love the color and figure.  Especially Claro Walnut.

Other woods that I would like to try, but haven't, are Osage Orange, Pecan, Persimmon, Black Locust to name a few.  Domestic wood, but not really available unless you harvest your own or know a mill that handles them.

Exotics?  Pick your poison - literally (I'm being tough on them, but it it's a nice turn of phrase, isn't it?).  Lots of the exotics have some level of toxicity associated with them.  They are also very oily, which can compromise the glue joints.  Having mentioned these downsides, it wouldn't bother me a lot to use them in a cutting board. The only one I have used is Goncalo Alves (the red one in the pic above) and it looks great.  When using exotics, always clean the glue face with alcohol and/or mineral spirits to remove the oil, and do the glue-up immediately after.  Some use epoxy when gluing exotics, but I have always used Titebond 3 or Lee Valley's Cabinetmakers Glue.  Time will tell how the joints on mine hold up.

Some good resources on cutting boards are The Wood Whisperer and Cutting Board Designer Software.

And the fresh new ones, from Birch and Purpleheart, one coat of tung oil.  You can also see tracks from the lunchbox planer on them, they still need to be sanded.  Yes, I use the tailed planer on end grain, but I have a helical head, chamfer the board edges first, and take light cuts.

I'm a hand tool guy, but when I do cutting boards the tailed tools come out.  Speed and precision take precedence in this situation.  I use my bandsaw and lunchbox planer a lot, plus a LV bevel up jack hand plane to flatten one side before running them through the planer.  LV apron plane to chamfer the edges.  I have built them entirely with hand tools, but with this pattern it is difficult to achieve the precision you need for a nice checkerboard.

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