Cutting Boards 101: Material-Mindedness

In today’s tutorial, we’re going to touch on the subject of materials, specifically what woods are good for cutting boards and what to keep in mind when choosing a material for your very own board. There a lot of different kinds of wood, and some are suitable for cutting boards, while some are less so. The reasons why are varied, but typically you can simplify whether a particular wood is a good choice or not by answering two questions:

1. Is the wood hard, but not too hard?
2. Is the wood from a tree that produces a foodstuff?

Let’s take a look at both these questions in detail.

Wood Hardness

Wood hardness is typically measured by something called the Janka hardness test. This produces a result measured in pounds of force (lbf), or kilograms of force for our Metric friends (kgf) regarding the amount of force necessary to press a 0.444 inch (11.28mm) steel ball halfway into a section of wood, typically on the face grain (refer to my article on wood grain here if necessary). This gives each wood type a Janka hardness rating, which is useful for determining what sort of material hardness you want. There are more than a few resources for finding Janka hardness ratings out there, so if you find different numbers than what I have, I sourced this article from Wikipedia, for transparency’s sake.

Woods like basswood and white pine, while good for constructing light furniture and other knick-knacks, are far too soft for cutting board use, typically speaking, coming in at 410 lbf (186 kgf) and 420 lbf (190.5 kgf) respectively. Soft woods run the risk of scoring and becoming damaged much more easily, though this is somewhat mitigated in end grain boards. Woods like cherry (995 lbf/451 kgf) and black walnut (1100 lbf/499 kgf) are much better for durability and long-wearing, being well under 2000 lbf, which is the higher point for woods recommended for cutting board use. Going higher isn’t making a bad board, per se. It’s just that you may find your knife getting dull faster, which can be irritating. Woods that also fall under this ‘cap’ are maple (1450 lbf/658 kgf), red and white oak (1290 lbf and 1360 lbf respectively), larch (1200 lbf/544 kgf), and many more. Conversely, there are some woods like ironwood, olivewood, and ebony that are very very hard, and while beautiful, you need to weigh the potential effect on your knives with the effect on your houseguests at having such an exotic, lovely cutting board.

A list of common woods for cutting boards that should perform well, for those who just want the quick and dirty guide:

  • Red Oak
  • White Oak
  • Black Walnut
  • Hard Maple
  • Cherry
  • Ash
  • Larch
  • Acacia
  • Purple Heart
  • Teak

Stick with these and you won’t go wrong.

Safe Wood

So now that you know all about the different hardness of wood and you’ll totally ace that Trivial Pursuit question, we can talk about choosing ‘safe’ materials for cutting boards. There aren’t a ton of poisonous woods out there, because handling them would be dangerous, let alone eating off of them, and no one would want to work with them. Treated lumber can be an issue (the stuff that’s been laced with chemicals while under pressure for outdoor use that’s rot and bug resistant) because once it’s been weathered, it can be hard to tell if it was treated or not, so using scrap wood or reclaimed wood is a risk, unless you trust the source. So I only use woods I both trust the source on, and know are a species that’s food safe. A good rule of thumb is that if a tree makes something you can eat (walnut, maple, oak, cherry) it’s going to have relatively safe wood for use with food. The best way to avoid any potential issue is not to use wooden containers for long-term food storage. Wood isn’t very good for that at any rate.

I will make a note that some sources will claim that cherry has arsenic in it, or some other toxins, and that it’s not safe. If this is true, they are in very small amounts, and are not something that will leech into food when used in preparation or service, and they also must not survive heat very well because cherry is a popular wood to smoke with. I myself use my cherry scraps to smoke chuck roasts and pork on the regular, so I’m pretty sure it’s fine.

Another thing to consider is whether you’re allergic to any foods. Tree nut allergies can carry through to the wood as well (black walnut being of particular concern) so be aware that if you’re acutely allergic, you should avoid such woods in your kitchen.

The last side-topic I’d like to mention is about porous woods like oak. There are some who don’t like using them because the wood can and will drink more moisture than a tighter-grained board will, on average. This is a valid concern if you use your board a lot, especially to cut wet things like fish or cucumbers or tomatoes. It can lead to increased incidence of staining and perhaps the odd smell. But that’s only a risk if you aren’t fastidious with cleaning your board and something soaks in. In most regards, it’s the same as any other wood in terms of moisture retention, as long as you’re not leaving it soak in a pool of dishwater or tomato guts. A well-sanded and surfaced oak cutting boards is just fine for everyday use, and if it matches your kitchen, I say go for it. It’s only a little less forgiving than other materials, and the hardness is about perfect in terms of compromise between durability and wear on your knife blade. I’ll cover this a bit more in the care and maintenance article coming in the future.

Other Materials

So you know all about hardness and safety regarding wood, let’s talk about the other materials in your cutting board. After all, you’re going to make your food on this thing; it should be food safe, right? Moisture is a primary concern here, so you’ll want to ensure that all parts of the board are going to react favorably. And you certainly don’t want it falling apart. So knowing how the board was assembled, and with what adhesive, is important. If a company won’t tell you, don’t trust it. I’ll be blunt; Titebond III is the best glue for assembling long-lasting cutting boards. It’s extremely water-resistant when cured (ANSI/HPVA rated for type 1 resistance), and it’s very strong, as well as being rated food safe by the FDA for incidental or indirect food contact, which means non-storage contact. Titebond II is also good, but not as water-resistant as Titebond III, though it shares the same FDA rating. Gorilla Wood Glue, a popular and very strong glue, is also well-rated regarding water-resistance, but I do not see an FDA approval on food safety, so I’d avoid it. I don’t think it’s dangerous, but it’s best to be safe rather than sorry.

The feet and the screws that attach them to your board are also important. You’re going to want rubber feet. They are ideal because rubber is usually food safe, and it’s also good for its anti-skid properties. Stainless steel screws are ideal because they don’t rust or corrode easily, and stainless steel is used in kitchens all over the world for that reason, as well as being easy to clean and keep sanitary. It’s pretty straightforward. Sticky foam feet are breeding grounds for bacteria because they are porous, and I wouldn’t recommend them. They’re fine for jewelry boxes or trivets, but not for cutting boards.

In closing, I hope this article, as well as the others I have written or will write in the future, help you transform from a consumer into an educated consumer. The best kind of consumer. Happy shopping!

Cutting Boards 101: Material-Mindedness

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.