Types of Wood and Designs for Cutting Boards
In recent years, wood cutting boards have been proven repeatedly to harbor less bacteria than plastic1, so many residential and commercial chefs are turning back to the traditional wood product. The type of wood, design, and fabrication method used for these cutting boards can have a big impact on the life of the board and how it affects your knives, which can of course also have a direct effect on the quality and appearance of your food.
Cutting boards with many scores and marks can lead to uneven slices and difficulty mincing. Boards made out of wood that is too hard can increase the chances of your knife chipping, which can be a danger to your customers if the small metal pieces end up in the food product. It can also significantly shorten the useful life of your knife.
Softwood is generally avoided for cutting boards, as the larger pores and open wood grain can harbor bacteria. On the other hand, some wood types can be too hard; for example, teak contains high levels of silica, and bamboo is so thin that its construction into a board requires a lot of glue, both of which can quickly dull or even chip a knife.
The Janka hardness scale2 can help you determine how hard different types of wood are. The scale was developed by determining how many pounds of force is required to embed a small steel ball halfway into a piece of wood that has been dried to 12 percent moisture content. Woods that measure between 850 and 1600 on the Janka scale are hard enough to use in the construction of a cutting board, without being hard enough to damage knives.
The hardwoods that are used for cutting boards typically have some edible component to the tree, such as the sap (syrup), fruit, or nut, to ensure that the wood will be food-safe. Keep in mind that some woods can be toxic or cause allergic reactions in some people. For example, those who are allergic to aspirin should avoid birch and willow wood, because they contain the main ingredient of the medication. Many people are also sensitive to rosewood and purpleheart, so those types are typically avoided.3
Popular Wood Types
The most popular type of wood in cutting-board construction is maple. Maple is a hardwood with a tight grain structure, meaning it will harbor little water and bacteria. Maple from colder climates, such as sugar maple, is usually preferred, as the cold weather makes the trees grow slower, resulting in a higher-density wood.
A close runner-up to maple wood in popularity is cherry. Cherry wood has a similar hardness to maple, and produces a deep red color when oiled, leading many people to choose it for aesthetic purposes.
Walnut is also widely used; although it is slightly softer than maple and cherry, it is still durable enough to serve well as a cutting board, and many people prefer its darker color.
While most cutting boards are made from a single type of wood, in some cases borders or decorative patterns are added by mixing in pieces of a different variety of wood. However, not just any combination of wood can be used. Any wood types combined in a single cutting board should rank close to each other on the Janka hardness scale, to avoid uneven knife wear.
There are three prevailing methods of construction for cutting boards:
- Face-grain construction uses the large, flat surface of a piece of lumber to form the surface of the cutting board. Because of how much of the wood grain this exposes, this type of cutting board is the least durable and most likely to warp.
- Long- or edge-grain construction uses the thin side of the lumber, glued together in long rows to form a board. While this type is much more durable than face-grain boards, the positioning of the wood still allows the knife to sever the wood fibers, resulting in scoring over time. Because of the balance of price and durability, edge-grain boards are the most popular construction type available.
- End-grain construction makes the highest quality of cutting board available. These boards are made with the wood grain running vertically, as if you were looking at the end of a piece of wood. This type is easily identified by its checkerboard appearance, with many square or rectangular pieces of wood glued together. The wood grain running vertically allows the knife edge to run between the fibers, which means both the knives and the boards last longer. Because the knife edge is running between the wood fibers instead of cutting them, the fibers can come back together after the knife passes, giving it a 'self-healing' quality and reducing scores on the surface. This type of cutting board lasts the longest and is the least likely to warp or split
Cutting boards are available in a variety of thicknesses, with end-grain construction usually being the thickest. Thick boards are heavier, making them less likely to shift, but this same quality also makes them harder to transport or fit into a sink for washing. The thickness can also add height to your cutting surface, which could make use more difficult or easier, depending on the height of the user. Other features such as rubber feet, wooden legs, or hand grips can make using and caring for your cutting board easier.
1. Plastic and Wooden Cutting Boards UC-Davis Food Safety Lab. Accessed August 2015.
2. Janka Hardness The Wood Database. Accessed September 2015.
3. Why Some Woods Are Better Than Others in the Kitchen The Cutting Board and Butcher Block Shop. Accessed August 2015.
4. Things You Should Know The Boardsmith International. Accessed September 2015.
5. How to Choose The Best Wood Chopping Block for Your Kitchen Foodal. Accessed September 2015.
6. Cutting Boards – Wood and Plastic Kitchen Knife Guru. Accessed September 2015.