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Dec 9, 2008 11:02 PM

Can you just use lumber for a "custom" cutting board?

Except for proteins, for which I use and will continue to use dishwasher-able plastic boards, I prefer wood. But the manufactured wood boards I have aren't doing it for me. (And they're from leading makers.)

I want to know, if I went to a local millworker or lumber yard, could they just cut me a single piece of maple of the size and thickness I want? Is lumber like that treated with chemicals that would make it food-unsafe? I just want a big slab of maple that I can coat with a bunch of coats of mineral oil. What about maple they use for counters?

And...any other woods I should think about? Is maple best for knife edges?

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  1. Unless the wood has been treated for preservation (pressure treated) it should be fine as far as chemicals go. Most hardwood planks (maple, oak, etc.) would not be pressure treated, so this should not be an issue.

    The bigger problem is warpage and splitting. The best cutting boards and surfaces are laminated or butcher blocked to insure that they will last a long time without cupping and bowing. A relatively thin plank (even up to 2" thick) will be prone to warpage.

    Have you searched this board for cutting board threads? There have been numerous discussions, some of them are specifically about natural wood boards. Here is one recent one that went over this. One person mentions having an end-grain maple board:

    I have had my Boos board for over a decade - no warpage at all - it gets daily usage and weekly (or so) mineral oiling. Here's the Boos site:

    1. You can go to your local lumber yard and pick up some stock for a solid board. However I doubt that you will find the width you are looking for. Then you will have to purchase the entire length, have it cut to size and then surfaced. All of the extra labor will add up quickly. Even with oiling the slab will split, warp, crack and bend. That is just the organic nature of wood. Now you can start to understand why the manufacturers laminate their boards.

      One major manufacturer goes so far as to infuse under pressure additional resins and hardners into their boards before shipment. That is supposed to make then last longer. I fear it just makes their boards harder on the knife edges as another contributor here can attest to.

      The worst things to use are stone, glass or corian boards. You might as well cut on your concrete driveway. The best include any wood with a Janka hardness rating of 1600 or less. This includes hard maple, cherry and walnut. The rule of thumb for choosing a wood is from any tree with running sap or with edible nuts. The only exception IMHO is oak. The grain is far to open for effective cleaning. Bamboo is harder yet and with the additional resins and glues they use, bamboo boards are quite hard and tough on edges.

      Hope this helps.


      1 Reply
      1. re: BoardSMITH

        Steady Habits- if you haven't looked at David's site yet, he is THE go-to guy for a custom cutting board. His boards are beautiful. If I'm lucky, I'll get one for Xmas (but I'm betting I'll have to pony up myself at some point).

        There are threads over at Knifeforums kitchen forum with photos of David's boards in progress. I've expressed my envy of his shop and clamp collection over there.

      2. I don't think you'll have much problem at all getting the size and type of wood you might want, but I can be almost certain that it will not be any more durable or any better than a manufactured cutting board. The fibers are going to separate and splinter, and it's just not going to work as well.

        What issues are you having with store bought boards? I assume you've tried Boos Block or something similar - you mentioned "leading makers"? Why have they not worked for you?

        What about looking at David's link above? Damn, they look like very nice boards and if I had the need for one right now, I would be giving him a call! If something like what David makes doesn't fit your bill, I have a hard time believing that a simple slab of maple would...

        7 Replies
        1. re: HaagenDazs

          Hi, everybody, and thanks for the responses.

          I've had Boos and Adams' boards, several. Two have split in several places. But, for that matter, I have section (about 3 x 4) of countertop on my island that is manufactured hickory countertop, two inches thick, and I noticed a tiny split on the end of that the other day. may be something particular to my microclimate. I don't know what it could be. I oil that countertop well, frequently (like once a week). I don't even understand how anything could dry out in this house. We're always battling excess moisture. We get on average more 50 inches of precip here, I live next to protected wetlands, and everything else seems to rust or mildew.

          But, mostly, this is because I want something specific--something large in surface area that I can lift. I haven't bought large end cut boards, because they're too heavy for me in my "dream size". Perhaps I'd have better luck with them.

          I understand David's point re warping, drying, splitting, etc., remembering the time we spent waiting here for the moisture content in our floor boards to get to and stay at the point where it was safe to install them, here in our rainy climate.

          This is just one of those things for which I have had in my head a picture of what I want, for years now, and can't locate it around me for less than a mortgage. :-)

          I will definitely visit David's site, and want to thank David and all of you for the info and things to think about.

          1. re: Steady Habits

            Man, you must live in one tough climate. I have cutting boards that go back decades with no warping or splitting. Some of the deluxe cutting boards I've read about have had bad reports regarding durability. If nothing is going to survive very long anyway, you might be better off buying cheaper stuff and just discarding when it's run its course.

            1. re: mpalmer6c

              I know. It's really strange. Everything else is rusting, and but I jinx every cutting board that crosses my path into drying out. I just don't get it.

              I'm taking the cheap approach with the polypropene for cutting meat because I just can't handle emotionally (dramatic much, LOL?) the idea of not putting something that's had raw meat or poultry on it through the dishwasher.

              Then I got some flexible mats to cut veggies on, so I could conveniently take them to a saute pan, etc., but more importantly, I could run those through the d/w.
              But the prep area has counters that are oversized ceramic tile, the hardest ranked industrial ceramic, because I wanted to be able to put hot things, cold things, wet things, oily things right on the counter without fussing about it. And they've worked out just great for their purpose. But I figured out that only having thin flexible mats between my knives and that really hard ceramic was wrecking my blades. So I'm back to looking for wood.

            2. re: Steady Habits

              If you live in a climate that requires you use A/C a lot, that could be part of your problem. A/C by it's nature is a dehumidifier and if you run it a lot, the air in your specific micro climate (house) could be very dry in relationship to the out side air. The more efficient your A/C is the more moisture it will pull out of the air.

              1. re: Grillncook

                I'm not sure that's the problem, because we had to put a dehumidifier in the house, plus except for last summer, we hardly ever run the A/C. My cutting board jinx began signficantly before that. But...what about heating? That runs around the clock for about eight months of the year.

              2. re: Steady Habits

                Define "splitting". I hate to accuse you of being an alarmist, but are we talking about less than a millimeter or something larger? Wood cutting boards will sometimes shrink and very slightly split at seams where the different boards have been adhered together. Mine have in a couple spots. It's so small that you could barely get a piece of thread into the "crack" but it's visible if you stare at it.

                1. re: HaagenDazs

                  You're on right on target re one board. It split at the seams, which makes sense. I have one that's splitting now, but not at the seams. It's splitting along the middles of two boards (from the edge inward). The largest split is along the original tree's ring marking and is about 1/16 inch wide at its widest point. The others are smaller, but immediately visible. I don't care about the looks. There's work surface enough to cut on. But, 1) is it sanitary, and 2) I wish I could halt it where it is.

                  The only thing I can think of is that maybe the store I bought them from had them on the shelves for a long time? They exchanged one previous one for me, but when it happened again (and again), I assumed it was something here in this house or something I was doing wrong. But I'm not doing anything wrong; I've checked that. And as I think I said, I oil them frequently.

                1. re: Steady Habits

                  You can use an axe to chop your onions and use your car tires to crush garlic cloves, but it may not be your best option. Of course I'm exaggerating but examining why your boards are splitting is probably more advantageous than simply getting a replacement. I'm not saying that a board purchased from a lumber yard is necessarily going over the top, I'm just saying that what is happening to your current boards will likely continue with anything new until you resolve the underlying problem. Obviously this doesn't happen to all of us so there's something different with the way you're treating them or like you mentioned, possibly your climate. Good luck!

                  1. re: HaagenDazs

                    I think you're probably right about that, Haagen--that there's some underlying condition that will keep happening if not resolved. I don't think it's how I'm treating them, though. I wash them by hand with a warm, soapy dishcloth, rinse them, dry immediately as best I can, stand them up against the counter wall to finish air drying, oil them frequently. It's probably due to the climate or atmostpheric conditions in the house, somehow (which is NOT affecting the floorboards, btw). It's a mystery to me! TY for trying to help me.

                    1. re: Steady Habits

                      Yeah - I'm clueless. I do the exact same thing and I don't have problems like you're describing. Where exactly do you live? Even if you have a moist climate outside, the indoors will be conditioned when you run the A/C and will again be dried out when you use the heater. "Moist" to me sounds like the coast or the PNW (?).

                      1. re: HaagenDazs

                        I live a few miles in from the LI Sound, Connecticut side, Haagen. We get about 50 inches of precip a year, but a good portion of that is snow. Our property is surrounded by protected land, some of which are wetlands, which exacerbates a lot of things. Most years, we don't run the A/C much, but we run a dehumidifier as indicated. The furnace is usually running eight months of the year. I bought these at different times from the same merchant, and they're shrink wrapped. I wonder if it's because of an abrupt change once the wrap comes off?

                        1. re: Steady Habits

                          Who knows... I would think that the shrink wrap is merely used as a dust and dirt protector, not intended as a true vacuum sealed item. With a wooden board, I would think it's hard to truly seal the item because you're going to get some scratches in the plastic here or there. Anyway, while you're in a humid environment I don't think you're too much different from others in your general area.

                          BoardSmith might have some input though. (?)

                          1. re: HaagenDazs

                            I shrink wrap all my boards after waxing and finishing as a barrier against dirt, dust and abrasion. I doubt that it can effectively vacuum seal a block.

                            1. re: BoardSMITH

                              Thank you. I guess this is just going to remain a mystery, then, and I'll just have to use my judgment as to when to replace them.

              1. Hardwood such as hard maple is not pressured treated in any way. Hardwood lumber yards sell by the board foot and sell individual 'planks' from 4" to about 10" wide and in thicknesses noted by quarters. Note thickness is as measured before the plank was planned or sanded. A point which confuses most. So 4/4 (called four quarter) is about 13/16" thick, 8/4 is about 1 5/8" and 12/4 is about 2 1/2". So if you want that 2 1/2" thick piece you'll have to buy the whole plank. Lengths will be 8 to 16 feet. Depending on the yard they may be able to cut the plank into two more manageable pieces but will probably charge a mill fee of a few dollars. So if you want a 20" wide cutting board you'll have to glue two pieces. To answer your question specifically, you can just take home the pieces you want but you will be paying for the whole plank. It's a lumber yard not a butcher.

                If you want a water-proof joint you'll want industrial epoxy. Most hardwoods are kiln-dried to about 12% moisture. Until the wood acclimates to your indoor environment (6mos to a year), it will 'move' (shink, expand,twist,cup or a little of all of those). This is dealt with by resurfacing and dimensioning the wood after it has settled. At that point it will probably be stable for many years if conditions don't change.

                Now that you have some idea of the obstacles you can choose which is right for you. BTW, there will be little or no savings over buying a ready-made cutting board. The advantage is primarily in controlling the dimensions vs. a ready-made where you'll generally have to settle for the fixed sizes in their line. Custom made would give you that flexibility at additional cost.

                Maple is the most common choice since it's fairly close grained and economical. But beech and oak are also used. Wood is much softer than steel. Some exotic woods have inorganic deposits which are hard on cutting edges but you're not likely to run into those.

                7 Replies
                1. re: RichardM

                  Industrial epoxy is hardly an appropriate adhesive to use. It isn't food safe and is far to hard making it tough on the knife edges. Yellow glue is also not a good choice. With repeated contact with moisture, it will dissolve and fall apart. Look for a type 3 adhesive; waterproof and safe for food contact.

                  Maple is the traditional choice. Hard and close grained and very durable. Beech is used primarily in Europe where maple isn't readily available. Oak is okay to use but the open pore structure makes it tough to clean and sanitize properly. The exotic woods do look good but the silica deposited in them is a killer of knife edges. Some of the exotics are also quite toxic, something that has been lost on some amateur builders who are looking for something different looking. (A lot of the eBay sellers love exotic woods.) Even some domestic woods are toxic. Black locust will kill a mule and some cedars have insect repellent chemicals that aren't considered safe for use.

                  1. re: BoardSMITH

                    TY, Smith. Since you brought the brought the topic up, what about hickory? I have section of counter on my island that comprises joined (and I literally mean, "joined," as in woodworking skills, *not* epoxied) pieces of hickory. I was never really intending to cut directly on that, and never have. It's there because hubby and I decided from a design POV that we wanted to showcase some of the iconic woods of New England in this house; it wasn't chosen for prep purposes. But...I have read online since building controversies and disagreements re using hickory for cutting surfaces. I've seen it *sold* in cutting boards, but some sources say some parts of the tree, at least, exude those toxins to which you referred and that it shouldn't be sold for cutting boards. Do you have knowledge about or an opinion on this?

                  2. re: RichardM

                    Hi, Richard. I want to thank you and everyone who's spent time to help me (especially with my faltering manufactured cutting boards mystery).

                    I have no problem buying a whole length. I understand how wood is sold. My house is custom-designed and -built, and when we fired our GC, there was no one to be the GC...except Little 'Ole Me. There was no one to patch up the relationships with the lumber purveyors whom he stiffed, but me. (Well, hubby, too, since he made sure they were all paid as soon as we found out about the problem, but I was the one was interacted with them daily to reinstall the things the GC screwed up, obtain the CO and beyond. Believe you me, I got to know our lumber suppliers, millworkers, and floor sources pretty darned well, and still consult with them from time to time as we continue finishing touches in the house. I understand about moisture (even if I can't for the life of me figure out what happened to my purchased joined cutting boards in this house), I understand about letting wood age before installation, checking the moisture content daily, waiting before use, having been through the process with our wide plank floors. And, as you can imagine, determining what *type* of floors we were going to install gave me a pretty thorough education in the relative hardness of woods and the Janka hardness scale.

                    My specific questions per the first post are that I just want to know if such a thing would be food-safe, knowing that at least some wood for construction is pressure-treated (and thank you for illuminating that for me), and if other woods besides maple are appropriate for my knife edges. So, basically, my questions are about wood for food prep, specifically.

                    What I'm gathering from all the responses is that I simply have to be specific with the supplier that I'm using the wood for food prep, right, and don't want pressure-treated?

                    1. re: Steady Habits

                      Any wood from a tree with either runing sap or edible nuts is safe to use. That includes hickory or pecan. Maybe a little bit to hard but good to use.

                      What others are suitable; black cherry, black walnut, hickory, pecan, maple, beech, birch and some mahoganys. As stated above, oak is far to porous to be easily cleaned or sanitized.

                      1. re: BoardSMITH

                        I have to disagree with you Board. Running sap would include all the firs and pines. Clearly not a good choice for cutting boards -- too soft.

                        Hickory is a good choice I didn't mention but not as common and more costly. I didn't include it because wide clear boards are hard to find in today's market. Mahoganies (real and subsitute) while hardwoods botanically are too soft for cutting boards unless you want to make a new one every few months.

                        Don't dismiss oak (white) unless you've used it. While its true that the surface is not SMOOTH the wood itself IS hard and as a result will not develop little microcuts where bacteria can grow. Also, the porosity is in the end grain not the suface grain.

                        Now to the OP, most hardwoods which grow naturally in the northern temperate zone are safe for food use. However, (isn't there always a catch) INDIVIDUAL people develop allergies to many different things including wood which everyone else seems to find benign. For example, I've worked with woods from most every part of the world and I have a slight allergy to claro walnut (California Walnut). Never met any other woodworker who has.

                        Many more people develop allergies to the toxins in tropical woods. These trees must fend off insect attacks year around and have developed stronger strategies than trees which experience frost.

                        So cocobola (a type of rosewood), genuine rosewood, teak (a little) are more risky choices. And much more costly. Last time I checked cocobola was about 15 times as much per bdft as hard maple. In the end hard maple is usually the winner with beech a fairly distant second. Just put a little mineral oil on it once in a while.

                        1. re: RichardM

                          "will not develop little microcuts where bacteria can grow."

                          Be aware of the differences in plastic versus wood boards and what kind harbors more bacteria and what kind doesn't. There's research out there!

                          1. re: RichardM

                            Maybe I need to clarify something. Running sap means - any tree in the maple family that has a running sap that is edible. This includes hard maple, where we get maple syrup from and rubber tree wood, where we get latex. I did not mean running sap like in a soft wood like pine or fir.

                            Hickory is available is wide widths, you just have to know where to go to find it. But it is just about to hard to use and is hard to work.

                            Substitute mahogany? Don't understand. There is genuine mahogany and various other species in the world but I have never heard of substitute mahogany. I use a SA species that has an edible nut which makes it food safe and is harder and more plentiful that the genuine species used for furniture. Genuine mahogany is far to expensive as well.

                            Oak, red, white and other species, are very porous wood species and using one for an end grain block will look like a sponge sucking up any moisture that gets on the surface. The cells in red oak go almost all the way through the wood and you can almost breath through the end grain. White oak cells are blind, that is they don't go for long, but they still are far to large for use.

                            Plastic boards are okay to use but are just as suspect for sanitation. The cuts left by knives produce a sharp point at the bottom of the cut which is a great place for bacteria to congregate and is out of the way for most water borne sanitation efforts. Use one for a while and you will see the surface discolor. I wonder why?

                            PS I love a good discussion.