It seems making cutting boards has become a rite of passage for most new woodworkers! After all, cutting boards are great projects to show off your newly acquired skills, and they make beautiful and practical gifts or items to sell. However, your choice of woods for the boards can affect their aesthetics and durability.
So, what are the best woods for cutting boards?
The best woods for cutting boards are hard, dense, and tight-grain hardwoods. Some of the best domestic and exotic hardwoods for cutting boards include:
- Hard Maple (may also be called Sugar Maple or Hard Rock Maple)
- Purpleheart (also called Amaranth)
- Yellowheart (also known as Pau Amarello)
- Bloodwood (also called Satine)
Characteristics of the best wood species for cutting boards
The woods listed above meet the criteria of being dense hardwoods with tight face grain. Because of their density and tight grain, they are more durable, less susceptible to water damage, and will not mar as easily from sharp knives.
These woods also just look really good, especially when paired together and finished with a food-safe oil or wax.
Let’s review the characteristics of the domestic hardwoods that are good choices for this type of project.
Hard maple is the most popular wood for cutting boards. While it doesn’t always have the visual appeal of some of the other species like cherry and walnut, it is very dense and hard.
Additionally, hard maple is an abundant species and is relatively inexpensive. Whether it’s an end-grain cutting board made entirely of maple or a face grain board with accents of colorful woods like cherry, walnut, or purpleheart, hard maple has earned its reputation as the go-to wood for cutting boards and butcher blocks.
Hard maple’s color ranges from white to a creamy off-white. Some hard maple boards contain bird’s eye figure, or its figure may be curly or even quilted. These figured varieties of maple are more expensive, but their appearances are worth the extra cost.
Because of its density, hard maple is a little more difficult to work with than soft maple or some other hardwoods, but sharp saw blades and router bits help avoid burning the wood during cuts.
The warm reddish-brown color and grain patterns of cherry make it an awesome choice for use in a cutting board. Cherry is easy to work, has a fine texture, and is strong. This wood is also abundant and usually easy to find.
Walnut is another very strong, durable hardwood that looks awesome as a cutting board main wood or accent species. The color may be deep chocolate brown and have purple streaks to dark reddish brown with dark brown stripes and lighter streaks. Walnut may not be as easy to find as cherry and is likely to cost a little more.
Exotic hardwoods that may be used for cutting boards
Let’s take a look at some of the exotic woods that are imported into the United States and that you may want to use.
There are several species of wood known as mahogany. The most readily available type you will find is Sapele Mahogany. This wood comes from Africa and is relatively expensive. Sapele’s heartwood is reddish brown with pale yellow to white sapwood.
Sapele is durable and glues well. The wood also has moderate to high resistance to decay. Although it is easy to work, glue and finish, sapele’s straight to interlocked and medium coarse grain is susceptible to tear-out.
Sapele can cause skin and respiratory irritation, so always wear proper respiratory protection when working with it.
Purpleheart (also called Amaranth)
True to its name, purpleheart really is purple in color. This wood makes a great accent wood. It is very strong and one of the less expensive exotic woods.
Purpleheart grain is typically straight, but it can be wavy or irregular in some boards. The wood is very durable and moisture resistant.
Purpleheart can be difficult to work with as it discharges a sticky resin if the wood is heated by dull tools or too high cutter speeds. This resin can clog up your blades and bits. The wood may also tear out during planing.
All of these issues, however, are made up for by the unique color that purpleheart can bring to your cutting boards and other projects.
Be aware that purpleheart wood can cause sensitivity leading to eye and skin irritation and may cause nausea.
Yellowheart (also known as Pau Amarello)
Just like purpleheart, yellowheart’s color lives up to its name, ranging from pale to golden yellow. The grain is straight, but some boards may contain wavy or interlocked grain.
Yellowheart wood has only a moderate durability to decay, but this shouldn’t be a problem for cutting boards as you are likely to use this wood only for accents such as stripes.
Yellowheart is easily worked with hand or machine tools (except for some difficulties presented by boards with interlocked grain), and it glues and finishes well. Yellowheart will polish to a very high luster.
Yellowheart can cause skin irritation in some people .
Bloodwood (also called Satine)
Bloodwood is very bright and vivid red in color and finishes to a beautiful lustrous surface. Bloodwood is very durable, but because it is very dense and brittle, it can splinter easily while being worked.
Use caution when working with bloodwood because it can cause skin irritation and nausea, among other effects.
Teak is a very strong and durable woods and has one of the highest resistance to moisture. That is why teak is often used on boats and ships for decking, rails, and trim.
Teak is very easy to work with but may quickly dull your saw blades and router bits as it contains a high level of silica.
Teak is naturally oily, which can cause issues with gluing and finishing. However, wiping the surface with a solvent before gluing will reduce the amount of oil on the wood’s surface.
Like some other exotic woods, teak can be a sensitizer and cause eye, skin, and respiratory irritation, pink eye, rashes, nausea, asthma-like symptoms, and vision issues.
Woods to avoid for cutting boards
You want to avoid softwoods like pine, eastern red cedar, western cedar, fir, and redwood because they are less dense than hardwoods and so are more likely to be damaged by knife edges and water.
Other hardwoods like oak, ash, or poplar are not very good choices for cutting board materials.
Oak woods, both white oak and red oak, and ash are hard enough for cutting boards, but they have open grain. Open grain wood is problematic for use in cutting boards because the grain attracts and retains moisture.
While poplar is classified as a hardwood, it is too soft to be used in cutting boards and will quickly be marred by sharp knife edges.
Why build cutting boards?
Cutting boards are great woodworking projects for everyone from the newest beginner to seasoned woodworkers. While some designs are more tricky to build, basic cutting boards do not require a lot of skill or time to create. Cutting boards can be a great project to introduce your child or other newcomers to woodworking.
Another attractive point about cutting boards is that they do not require a lot of lumber to build. In fact, you may have enough off-cuts and scraps in your workshop to build several cutting boards. If you do have to buy lumber, your expense will be minimal compared to a lot of other woodworking projects.
What is the best finish for wood cutting boards?
The best finishes for cutting boards are food-safe and can be reapplied quickly and easily.
Examples of the best cutting board finishes are:
- Mineral oil
- Pure tung oil
- Walnut oil
- Carnauba wax
My favorite cutting board finish is several coats of mineral oil, followed by a final coat or two of a mineral oil-beeswax mixture. A coat of mineral oil should be reapplied after every several uses or when the board starts to look dry.
Mineral oil has no odor, color, or taste. It’s proven to be food-safe because it’s sold as a laxative that is ingested. In fact, I buy mineral oil for my cutting boards in the digestive health section of my drug store or grocery. Many commercial “butcher block oils” are made 100% of mineral oil, but are often much more expensive than labeled mineral oil. For example, I found a butcher block oil online for $9.75 for 8 ounces. On the same website, I could buy the same quantity of mineral oil for only $2.00.
Avoid using cooking oils such as corn oil, olive oil, canola oil, and sunflower oil as a finish on cutting boards because these oils can turn rancid and cause a bad odor and taste to be imparted to food cut on the board.
Also be aware that no finish will protect cutting boards from excess moisture, which is why they should never be submerged in water or ran through the dishwasher.
Can you make money selling cutting boards?
Many woodworkers make decent money selling cutting boards at crafts fairs, farmers’ markets, and online. Because they don’t take a lot of material and time to make, it is possible to get a great return on your investment!
Cutting boards make beautiful and useful gifts for family members, friends, and co-workers. They make especially thoughtful wedding and housewarming presents. If you’re fortunate enough to have access to a CNC machine or laser engraving, you can make even more money by personalizing the boards with family names, wedding or birth dates, or even family recipes.
Everyone who has a kitchen has a need for at least one cutting board. Whether it’s for chopping vegetables, dicing a grilled chicken breast for a salad, or slicing a hot loaf of bread, a cutting board is indispensable.
Are wood cutting boards sanitary?
I know why you would ask that question. You’re thinking about the bacteria that will invade scratches and cuts inflicted to the cutting board’s surface by sharp knives and are wondering if they will contaminate your next meal.
However, according to an article in Cooking Light magazine, a study conducted by University of California Davis professors suggests you shouldn’t worry about this if you properly clean your cutting board after each use.
How to Clean Wood Cutting Boards
It is very important that all cutting boards, whether wood or plastic, are cleaned thoroughly after each use and dried.
It may be possible to put bamboo cutting boards in a dishwasher, but you should not wash wood cutting boards in a dishwasher or submerge them in water. Doing so will most likely cause them to warp and even come apart.
You can manually clean a wood cutting board with a sponge, hot water, and dishwashing detergent. Just wash it with the soapy sponge, then quickly rinse it under hot, running water. Stand the board up to air dry.
You can sanitize cutting boards with a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented chlorine bleach and one gallon of water. Saturate the surface of the board with the bleach and water solution and allow it to sit for a few minutes. Rinse the solution off with clean water and allow the board to air dry or you can pat it dry with paper towels.
To remove stains or odors from wood cutting boards, use a half of a lemon to rub in baking soda or coarse kosher salt. The lemon will help to remove the odors from onions or garlic while the salt or baking soda will abrade away any stains. Just rinse the board after scrubbing it and let it air dry while standing up in a dish drainer rack.
As mentioned earlier, applying a coat of mineral oil or other food-safe finish after each cleaning will prolong the life of your cutting boards.
If you’re still concerned about bacteria from raw meat cross-contaminating vegetables or other food, consider using two cutting boards, one for produce and bread and a separate one for raw meat, poultry, and seafood. This will prevent any bacteria on the cutting board used for meat from contaminating food that requires no additional cooking. It also gives you the opportunity to make more cutting boards!