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Cutting boards: Investment, manufacture, and uses.

Cutting boards come in so many varieties, there are so many types to choose from. You can choose from face grain, edge grain, end grain, juice grooves, footed, and let's not get into the species of wood to select. So which one is the right one for you? That depends on what you are going to use it for as well as your cooking skill level. Are you the kind that chops like an ax when you cook? Are you a pro that will be doing repeated cuts and slices? Or are you just looking for something like a charcuterie board or a serving board for group gatherings? I am not going to go into things that I think are obvious like feet, or juice grooves as I think it's obvious those are personal preferences. So here's the bottom line there are three types of construction on a cutting board.

Here's how a quality cutting board is made starting from rough sawn lumber:

  1. Select the wood you want to use at a trusted hardwood store.

  2. Cut rough sawn lumber to 3-4 inches longer than the cutting board will be.

  3. Joint each board on one face and edge if you have a jointer wide enough if not move to a thickness planer.

  4. Plane with a thickness planer on the face that is still rough.

  5. Set table saw to cut the last edge off the board.

  6. Trim board widths to the desired width for desired visual appeal.

  7. Laminate all the boards together and clamp for at least an hour to ensure glue sets.

  8. Plane your cutting board to thickness.

  9. Sand all sides of the cutting board starting from 80 grit and work your way up to 220 grit.

  10. Raise grain by spraying with water letting it dry fully, then sand with 220 grit again.

  11. Finish cutting board, by first wiping on multiple coats of food-grade mineral oil until oil no longer absorbs into the board sometimes it takes 4-5 coats waiting 20-30 minutes in between. Then apply a board conditioner that is made with bees wax and food-grade mineral oil. I usually do 2-3 coats with at least 30 minutes between coats.

This whole process takes between 12-24 hours depending on the size and complexity of the cutting board. This process is the basic process for a face grain cutting board. An edge grain cutting board requires 2 extra steps. Whereas an end grain cutting board is the same but instead of 2 extra steps, you have to repeat steps 3-10. If you are making a specific pattern you may have to repeat those steps several times. This brings me to the next point that many people don't understand, pricing.

If you speak to a woodworker novice or seasoned veteran there is one question we dread hearing, "Why is a cutting board so expensive?" Every time you make a cut you lose a small amount of wood. Each type of cutting board ends up having a different waste percentage based on the number of cuts made. Each cut takes at least 1/8th of an inch of material from your project. Let's do some quick math, stay with me I promise this won't take long. An edge grain cutting board needs 64 cuts with the grain to make a 12"x18"x1.5" cutting board from 1" thick material. Losing between 1/16 per cut and 1/8 per cut instead of needing 12 pieces of wood to laminate together. You would need between 14 and 16 pieces of wood. So the worst-case scenario on this is you lose 25% of the wood you started with. This doesn't factor in mechanical error or technique error by the craftsman. This is just the loss from milling. It's also rather conservative because hardwood trees rarely grow straight. So it could be more if you have a batch of difficult boards. There have been times I have been really careful in milling; yet still have a small gap in the glue joint from snipe or an unsteady moment on the table saw. If this happens you can figure in losing 1/4" in width and 1/16" from thickness as that area has to be cut out and reglued. You have to be able to have a flat surface on the table saw for safety so it must be sent through the planer again. All these cuts add up. Not all this waste is passed onto the consumer but, the milling process is necessary for the cutting board to be functional. Also, all these cuts make for a stronger cutting board. Just like in plywood where the strength comes from perpendicular grains having multiple random grain patterns increases the strength immensely. Milling waste is just one factor in the price. Another factor is the availability of lumber, hardwoods grow slowly, milling takes time, and while you can buy hardwoods at the big box stores most artisans and craftsmen, and women buy from a hardwood dealer. There are significantly fewer of these than your local big box store. The supply chain is different and sometimes you have to drive a couple of hours to find what you are looking for. That's why in some places Black Walnut is super expensive and Maple is cheap. While in other areas it is the exact opposite. That's why cutting boards constructed of the same wood can vary so much in price. You might find that one guy who works 40 hours a week in construction who only does cutting boards as a hobby. He has a friend that gives him his Walnut and Cherry cut-offs from the mill he works at for free. He probably will not charge you the same as a full-time woodworker who doesn't have that connection. You also might find the craftsperson who only does commission work; will charge you more because they feel their skill level warrants it. Personally, I try to stay fair, I'm not the least expensive but I cover my costs and try to support my family doing what I love. The next point I'd like to cover is the differences between the performance of cutting boards.

Cutting boards are generally classified as Face Grain, Edge Grain, or End Grain. To understand the different boards let's take a moment to understand some terminology. The "Face" of the board is the widest part of the board. So, if you were looking at a 2x4 it would be the side that is 4 inches wide. An "edge" would be the 2-inch edge of the 2X4. An "end" would be looking at the end of the 2"X4". So it's all about geometry and manipulating the board to your need. An example of each type of cutting board is shown below in the order I am explaining them.

A Face Grain cutting board has the most visual grain pattern as each board has the face of the board exposed rather than the edge. It shows more knife marks than any other cutting board and generally has many fewer glue joints which makes them prone to warping, and cracking because the grain's inherent tendency to twist doesn't have the support to keep it from doing so.

An Edge grain cutting board has 2-3 times as many glue joints. Just like rope adding more strands, adding more wood pieces and glue joints adds more strength. It will not show as many knife marks as a face grain the grain is going to be much more narrow visually but still very attractive.

An End grain visually will be more based on color and combinations of color than grain pattern. The end of the board is used as the face of the board so the number of glue joints increases by 4-5 times as much as the edge grain sometimes even more. The more glue joints the better as it offers a grid of reinforcement. Knife marks will be much less likely to show and much less knife damage will occur. These are the cutting boards that professional Chefs use. They are very difficult to make and because of that, they cost the most when purchasing but on the plus side, they last 3-4 times longer than an edge grain or face grain providing they are cared for properly.

Cutting boards as a project at least to me are a way to get my OCD and artistic itches scratched. I can really immerse myself and challenge my skill level and it's a great way to master the fundamentals of woodworking. It takes time, patience, and technique, there are no "plans" to follow except for dimensions. You really only have an idea of what it will look like when it's complete. Yes, you know what each wood looks like but when it's all complete there's always an element of surprise. I don't want to drone on about details on how cutting boards are made but wanted to be sure that everyone interested in buying a cutting board understands at least the process so that when shopping for a cutting board they understand the value and the care each board requires. This post is much longer than my usual posts so I hope you enjoyed it but much like a cutting board I hope you found it was deeper than what it appeared.

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