Andrew Zhu

Making Cutting Boards

CuttingBoard1

Project Timeline

~August 2019 to the present

Inspiration

My mother is an amazing cook (you can find some of her creations below, as well as in the post showcasing her cooking), and my original inspiration for this project was to make a custom cutting board for her to use while creating her fantastic dishes.

I do not have every woodworking tool available – a jointer and a table plane would have come in handy – so even if are already many online tutorials to making cutting boards, I hope my process can inspire others to create their own cutting boards with a limited array of tools.

Materials & Tools

Materials:

> Hardwood boards: ~1+” inch thickness, variable width and length. I find that soft or hard maple, walnut, and cherry are good starting woods to use for their ready availability, contrast in color, and easy workability.

> Wood glue: Titebond III, which dries waterproof and is FDA approved for indirect food contact.

> Beeswax and mineral oil: For finishing the cutting board.

Tools:

> Table saw: I use a Dewalt Jobsite table saw, but up to your preference!

Random Orbital Sander, with sanding discs: Any brand will do, as long as the sanding discs are of good quality.

 

> Hand planer (optional): Any will do, as long as the blade is sharp! A longer length bench plane might be better for flattening boards of larger sizes.

> Router sled (optional): Very simple to make for flattening a board in preparation for sanding.

> Clamps: One can never have too many clamps! I like to use both quick trigger clamps and heavy duty pipe clamps during glue-ups.

 

 

Project Overview

1. On Wood Stock

2. Prepping the Wood Stock 

3. Glue-up

4. Planing, Routing, and Sanding

5. Finishing Touches

6. Gallery

7. Project Walkthrough

1. On Wood Stock

Wood grain can be defined as the longitudinal arrangement of wood fibers; from an aesthetic aspect, wood grain results from varying growth parameters through the seasons that account for alternating regions of wood color. The process of milling lumber from a log certainly affects the resulting grain. There are three typical cuts made in the mill: plain sawn (flat sawn), quarter sawn, and rift sawn.

Flat sawn wood, given the relative ease and lower cost of production, is the predominant in both the big box stores and hardwood lumberyards. When considering a plank of wood, there are three planes of interest – that of the face grain, that of the edge grain, and that of the end grain.

The face grain comprises the plane of the top and bottom face of the board, whereas the edge grain comprises the plane of the long edge of the board, and the end grain comprises the plane of the short edge of the board.

Of the three types of cutting boards, a face grain cutting board is the easiest to make. Essentially, if you have a plank of wood, you have a face grain cutting board. Easy!

The downside of a face grain board is that it typically is the least durable of the three, as cuts by the knife run deep across the grain.

Edge grain is the next step up in durability. The process of constructing these cutting boards involves ripping narrow pieces from the material, then rotating all the pieces 90 degrees before gluing up the pieces.

End grain cutting boards are even more durable, as exposed fibers run up and down such that the blade of the knife slices alongside them, not across them (as if cutting into an upright bundle of dry spaghetti strands). Making end grain cutting boards is the most consuming as it requires two glue ups, and even the steps of sanding and planing of end grain take considerably longer.

2. Prepping the Wood Stock

After obtaining the wood from the hardwood lumber store, I then plan out the design of the cutting board. When I first started making boards, I would use SketchUp and Microsoft Excel to actually plan out a design – I found that this process was helpful when making my Mondrian cutting board. Now, I find that good wood stock with a variety of grain color and pattern makes anything look good.

As I do not have access to a joiner or a thickness planer, I have an unusual process of ripping down the wood stock into long, rectangular pieces. I trust that the angle between the bed of the table saw and the rip fence is a true 90 degree angle, or within the tolerances I can accept. After rip cutting one face of each rectangular piece, I then place that ripped side facedown. I then trim another side with the table saw blade, creating a 90 degree angle. With this angle formed by the two cut faces, I can then rip down the remaining two cross-sectional faces to the appropriate dimension. 

The advantage of this technique is that it can mitigate imperfections in the lumber – warps, twists, bows. However, these extra cuts significantly increase the cutting time and leads to more dust production and wasted material. Moving forward, if I make the investment to purchase a thickness planer, I would use that machine to flatten the board so I can make do without these extra steps.

3. Glue-up Process

After stripping the wood pieces to the right dimensions, I then bring out the clamps for the glue-up process. Laying out the wood pieces in the desired order with the edge grain facing up/down, I then rotate each piece (aside from the last) 90 degrees to the right such that the face grain is now oriented upright. With the Titebond III bottle, I apply a generous coating of glue and spread evenly across the face with my fingers. I prefer to coat both sides of each inner piece with glue, and though many would argue this is unnecessary, I find it helpful for piece of mind.

When a wood piece has glue on both sides of the face grain, I then rotate it back, 90 degrees to the left, and position it to touch the other glued pieces. A tip that some folks use is to sprinkle a bit of table salt with the glue so that the pieces do not slide past each other upon tightening of the clamp – I will have to try this out sometime!

In my initial cutting boards, I used the table saw as a flat-ish base and clamped with a few bar clamps. For later boards, I added in trigger clamps for cross-clamping. In my most recent glue ups, I have used clamping cauls as a means to help keep the cutting board flat. When tightening the cross-clamps, go slowly and alternate tightening between clamps so that the clamping pressure is uniform. After an hour or so, the glue becomes tacky, and if you want, you can use an old chisel or scraper to scrape off globules of drying glue before it hardens. It is generally best practice to leave the glue-up setup to dry overnight or for 24 hours if possible.

4. Planing/Routing, and Sanding

For most of the cutting boards I have made, I have used a hand plane to flatten them down. There are numerous examples of how to sharpen, maintain, and use a hand plane available online, so I won’t go into detail there – better to get advice from an expert! This process can be tedious, so many woodworkers have invested in other tools to flatten their boards, including a thickness planer (e.g. Dewalt DW735) or a router with a bottom-cleaning router bit. I will go over the routing process when I cover an example project later in this post.

Note: If I were to make an end grain cutting board, I would crosscut the edge grain board into strips, then glue and clamp the boards again before planing flat and sanding smooth. There are many woodworkers who make videos online of putting their end grain cutting boards through a planer machine with no problem, though I have read that this can be quite dangerous. Given that I do not have a planer, I have never done this before and cannot recommend it!

Sanding can be a hassle. My two cents: go through each grit with skipping, raise the grain, avoid pressing too hard on the sander, and be liberal on switching out sandpaper. In early projects, I have in hasty manner, made one or more of these mistakes and have since learned my lesson!

5. Finishing Touches

Now comes the moment of excitement! The cutting board is well and truly sanded smooth, and more or less flat. I typically prefer to sand a round corner on all the edges. Some woodworkers like to install routed handles, juice grooves, or cutting board feet as well, but I prefer to forego these ornamentations. 

Now is the moment of excitement! The cutting board is well and truly sanded smooth, and more or less flat. Now, liberally apply mineral oil on all sides of the cutting board and let it soak in, preferably over a few hours. End grain is especially thirsty, and you’ll probably need to repeat this process several times until the cutting board is satiated. After, apply a mix of mineral oil and beeswax, rubbing it on to the board to finish.

The mineral oil / beeswax paste is easily made: here is a good tutorial.

The video is from one of my earliest cutting board projects. The board wasn’t perfectly flat, and I now use a 1 gallon container of mineral oil – more economical!

Play Video

6. Gallery

7. Project Walkthrough

I made a pair of end grain cutting boards over the holidays, finishing on New Year’s Day 2024, for my significant other and her family.

The selection of wood was obtained from the local hardwood store: Kettle Morraine Hardwoods. I used the table saw to rip down to strips of the desired thickness and width.

Don’t be like me: use good ventilation and wear better clothing! When I was making these cutting boards, the weather was ~20 degrees Fahrenheit. Not as cold as the typical Wisconsin winter, but not a temperature at which one would want to spend the entire morning in the garage.

I brought out all the clamps on hand for the glue up process, and I also made as pair of clamping cauls. I probably tend to use more glue than necessary, but then I can sleep soundly knowing the joint space is nice and inundated with glue.

After flattening the boards with a random orbital sander, I crosscut and prepared the pieces for the end grain glue up. The glue up process went better than the first time around, as I remembered to scrape off the hardening beads of Titebond III as they became tacky after an hour or two.

As the glue was drying, I made a rudimentary router sled to flatten the two cutting boards. I used melamine for construction of the jig given its factory-flat surface. As I only had a Ridgid palm sander on hand, not a full-size plunge router, I had to make more numerous passes. I would also recommend using a surfacing bit (I only had an end mill bit, so the result was not as clean).

I spent the better part of a day sanding the two cutting boards, working my way up from 80 to 120 to 180 to 220 grit. All I can say is that it took a long, long time. I raised the grain with water and then gave the boards a final sanding.  I finished the cutting boards with the usual mineral oil soak followed by applying a paste comprised of mineral oil and beeswax.

End grain purpleheart, redheart, and black walnut

End grain hard maple, redheart, and black walnut

Lessons Learned & Improvements

As laid bare in this post, there have been so many lessons learned over the fifteen or so cutting boards I have made thus far.

1. Safety: Use push sticks when ripping out narrow pieces of the board. Wear masks and eye protection when using all power equipment, and have good ventilation, especially when sanding. Some wood species, such as walnut, produce dust that is somewhat toxic to the body. I have made the mistake of sanding for hours with poor ventilation and dust collection in a cramped garage space, and it is no fun snorting out dark brown boogers afterwards and wondering what pneumoconioses one will develop in the future.

2. Patience: Patient is the key to success. Making cutting boards is easy, but it takes time. Time to cut, time for glue to dry, time to sand. A rush job is a hack job!

3. Saw blade: A dull saw blade can easily burnish thick hardwood when cutting, and this will all have to be sanded out eventually. Do yourself a favor and use a fresh or sharp set of blades (general purpose or fine cut) for your projects!

4. Clamping cauls: Cauls yield much better results for the glue-up process, which leads to time saved in the downstream flattening and sanding steps (though, again, don’t rush!). 

5. Grain orientation: Wood is not a static entity. With moisture and temperature, it contracts and shrinks along the grain. Therefore, when gluing up the pieces, care should be taken to ensure that wood grain is aligned. In other woods, if one glues up a piece of end grain to edge grain, this may lead to excessive strain upon the joint down the line when exposed to moisture, leading to development of cracks.

6. Sand through the grits: No one likes sanding, but sanding grits are there for a reason. Jumping past a grit will lead to visible swirl marks in the final product, which isn’t a functional deficit but still is a mark against good craftsmanship.

In addition, I like to dampen the surface of the cutting board prior to final sanding with the highest grit, as this raises the grain by swelling the wood fibers; once sanded down, in the future, water exposure will not rise nearly as much as it would have otherwise.

7. Mineral oil and beeswax: In my first boards, I used mineral oil exclusively to season the surfaces of the cutting boards. I have since found that while mineral oil is great to first soak the boards, a 4:1 or 5:1 mineral oil to beeswax paste provides superior durability when applied afterwards to the cutting board surface. Regular reapplication of the paste every several weeks should be enough to keep the board nice and dry from the water.

8. Have fun: Have lots of good adventures and learn from your mistakes! Making cutting boards can be quite rewarding, and one can continue to try new things: moving from an edge-grain board to an end-grain board; selecting different exotic wood species to add color to the board; adding in details such as a juice groove; incorporating inlay with a CNC router… the list goes on and on!

Reflection

The best gifts are those that are useful, and the most thoughtful gifts are those that are handmade. A well-made cutting board is both of these, and I have yet to give a cutting board to a friend or family member and have them be disappointed at the gift!

I included this picture in my post on home cooking, but it is too good not to post again. Here is my mother, a wonderful cook (and gardner!), holding proud a product from her home garden.