Note that since writing this post I have added a tutorial with photographs. The tutorial consists of several parts and begins with an introductory post here. Be sure to check it out. It goes into much greater depth and the pictures should prove very helpful. –Larry
My thanks goes out to the folks over at the ToolCrib.com Blog for linking to this post. If you cam here from ToolCrib.com, please be sure also to check out the more detailed tutorial mentioned in the paragraph above.
When I first got the idea to build end-grain “butcher-block”Â cutting boards I knew I had to figure out a way to make them that didn’t involve cutting wood into a hundred or so cubes and gluing them all together. I knew from experience that keeping all those little blocks straight while gluing would be impossible. In addition, most glue doesn’t have enough open time to complete such an involved process.
My first thought was to visit The Oak, a great online forum for woodworkers and ask for advice. I did that, and got a couple of responses that set me on my way. Now that I have built quite a number of boards, I think I have enough insight to be able to share some worthwhile information. I am motivated to do this now because several readers have found their way here by searching for this sort of information, so I know there are others who will benefit.
How to Create a Basic Cutting Board
Crosscut a plank into sections about 35 inches in length.
Rip each 35-inch board into five or six strips depending on the width of the board.
Glue the strips back together to create a new board 35 inches long and about 12 inches wide.
Plane the wide board flat.
Square one end on the table saw.
Using a crosscut sled or other safe holding mechanism on the table saw, crosscut the wide board into strips as wide as you want the final board to be thick. For a board 1.5 inches thick, each of these strips should be cut 1.5 inches wide.
Turn each of the new strips on edge so that the end grain is visible on top.
Glue the strips together. Gluing in groups of not more than six strips at a time makes it easier to keep them aligned when clamping.
Wait for the glue to dry. For yellow (aliphatic resin) glue wait at least a couple of hours.
Glue the groups of six strips to one another to form the final full-size board.
Allow the glue to dry fully.
How to Decorate the Board
At this point you have a fully assembled cutting board. All that’s left is finishing touches, and you get to be creative. For most people the gluing process will result in a board that is not perfectly flat. This can be handled in several ways depending on your skill level and preferences. If you are skilled with a bench plane, you can manually plane the end grain surfaces flat. If you are so inclined, you can sand them flat with a belt sander, or if you’re patient, with a random-orbit sander. If you are impatient like me and the board is small enough in one dimension to fit into your surface planer, you can run it through that.
If you flatten the surface in the planer you will absolutely get significant tear-out on the trailing edge of the board. I repair this by re-squaring it on the table saw, or by sanding.
Once the board is flat you can use a router (I find the router table easiest) to decorate the edges. Round-over bits and 45-degree chamfers are two of my favorite edge treatments, but I have used beading bits and other shapes as well. Sometimes I rout both the top and bottom edges the same, and sometimes I treat them differently. Experiment on a block of scrap and do what you like best.
If the board is intended for cutting meats, you can also rout a small “ditch”Â around the top of the board to catch juices. I find that an edge guide and plunge router work well for this. If you choose that method it’s best to rout this before rounding the edges. Another way to rout the ditch is to use a plunge cut technique on a router table and guide the board along the fence. To do this safely and accurately you’ll need to be sure you mark starting and ending points on the fence since the bit will be out of sight under the board, and you’ll want to practice lowering scrap stock of the same wood species onto the spinning bit. Use extreme caution!
How to Finish the Board
All surfaces of the cutting board should now be sanded through progressively finer grits to at least 220 grit. I often go really nuts and sand beyond even that, sometimes ultimately finishing with 0000 steel wool.
If you want to sign the board on the bottom or side, now is the time to do that. Be mindful that whatever you use to sign it must not run when the board is oiled in the next step. Ink from a regular ballpoint pen works well, but liquid ink ballpoints do not, and pencil generally disappears..
The board needs mineral oil or mineral oil and paraffin to help it stand up to use prevent cracking. Mineral oil is used because it is completely non-toxic and does not go bad as other oils might. I don’t bother with the paraffin because I don’t know the proper ratio of wax to oil (I believe it was 90% oil and 10% wax, but I am not certain of that) and I get good results with oil alone. In addition I have found that few people actually re-treat the board, so what I do in the beginning matters little; plus I am impatient.
Flood the board with mineral oil on all surfaces. Let the oil sink into the wood until you’re tired of waiting and then flood it again; and wait again. When you’ve allowed the board to absorb all the oil it (or you) can stand, wipe off any oil remaining on the surface with a clean towel you don’t care about saving. Paper towels are perfectly fine for this, but you may need a goodly supply. After a while you will see more oil has come to the surface and needs to be blotted off. Repeat this process until the board stops seeping. In a day or so, the board will be dry enough to handle without leaving finger prints.
To make the board more stable and less noisy in the kitchen you may want to add rubber feet. I have used wooden toy wheels and attached them to the board with dowels glued into mortises drilled into the board bottom. To these little “legs”Â I have attached rubber feet by drilling a counter-sink with a forstner bit and then insetting the rubber feet secured with short brass screws.
In a future article (see the series beginning here) I’ll discuss how to modify this process to produce multiple boards and to make more sophisticated boards with several wood species. If you want to see end-grain cutting boards in their highest form, surf over to Al Ladd’s site. He makes the best I’ve ever seen.