Cutting Boards 101: Wood Grain and You

There are a lot of cutting boards out there, and a lot of people and companies that make them. And a lot of them are pretty good, actually. But most people don’t know what to pick, or how to pick a cutting board, and what actually goes into the process of making one. This first article isn’t about the process so much as the materials; specifically wood grains and what they mean. The process I’ll cover in another article, along with some pictures of my shop and maybe of the process itself if I can manage to clean it up enough to be photogenic. I doubt it. Sawdust is comfy.

Grain Types

The three wood grains.
Gaze in awe at the lovely, out of focus visual aid.

The first thing to understand about cutting boards is that there are a few different cuts of wood that boards can be made from: face grain, edge grain, and end grain. This has to do with how the wood is oriented in the board; face grain is the part of the grain that goes along with the grain of the wood, parallel to the heart of the tree. What this means is that when you split a log for boards, you go from end to end, following the grain of the wood. The wide, flat part of the board is the ‘face’. The side of the board that runs the length is the ‘edge’; this is where the board thickness is measured, typically. And the ends are, well, the ‘end’. You can see the tiny cross-sections of wood fiber in the end grain, if you look closely.

Face Grain

Close up of a peice of cherry wood displaying the face grain.
Face grain texture on a piece of cherry. Note the long, continuous grain pattern and lines.

When you look at hard wood floors, or tabletops, or other wooden furniture with flat, wide surfaces made of one or more boards, you are usually looking at the face grain of the wood. This is because you see more of the grain patterns this way, and it is usually more aesthetically pleasing overall. So for style points, face grain is nice. It’s the least durable of the three types of grain though; it’s the least resistant to knife marks and damage, and the most liable to warp due to excess moisture. In my opinion, it’s best for serving platters and trays, and cutting boards that won’t see heavy use, and are mostly for décor. That’s not to say face grain boards are garbage or bad; they just have certain characteristics to keep in mind. If you have a specific look you’re going for in your kitchen, then a face grain board can be what you need if you don’t plan on beating it up twice a day deboning chickens or filleting fish. The other issue is that face grain can wear down your knife faster, causing it to need honing or sharpening more often, depending on what sort of wood your board is made of, and the hardness of it. That’ll get elaborated on in the materials article. There is the chance that with time, face grain boards can suffer from the grain ‘fraying’; that is, the wood grain will become rough and the fibers may separate and make the board feel ‘fuzzy’. This is due to wear and moisture, and can be fixed with a simple sanding to resurface the board.

Edge Grain

Close up of an cherry edge grain cutting board.
Sample of cherry edge grain. Note the seam lines from where different boards were joined to make the pattern, and the shorter grain lines.

Edge grain, as has been stated, is the grain that rests along the ‘side’ of a board. The narrow, long edge that thickness is measured from. Edge grain is not as often seen in furniture or other wooden products unless you’re looking at a milled edge, like in molding or the edge of a shelf. It is also reasonably decorative, and it combines a beauty similar to face grain with a bit more durability, due to increased resilience to knife marks. Also, due to how the wood tends to deform and expand due to moisture and temperature, favoring warp (bending along the face, skewing the board to bow) as opposed to wain (bending along the length, skewing the board to the side), edge grain boards are more resistant to getting wet and being washed often, or absorbing a bit of excess moisture, so long as the pieces are glued together in the proper way. So it gives the edge grain board a bit more durability; I’ve seen less instance of edge grain cutting boards splitting than any other type. That’s a bit anecdotal perhaps, but it’s what I’ve seen in my experience. I personally think edge grain boards are a good combination of durability and looks; they give you plenty of resilience to scoring and damage, moisture, and use, and they also show off the full length of the wood grain, and can be made to show all manner of interesting patterns. Edge grain boards are also more affordable than end grain boards typically, because they are easier to make, but that’s for a later article. They do however suffer from the same issue as face grain boards in that they can wear knife edges down faster if the wood is particularly hard, and this can especially be an issue with edge grain boards as the grain is more durable and lest prone to shifting and deforming given how the boards are constructed. There is also the chance that with time, edge grain boards can also suffer from the grain ‘fraying’. Like with face grain boards, it can be fixed with a quick sanding to resurface the board.

End Grain

Close up of a cherry end grain cutting board.
Example of end grain cherry. Note the circles (growth rings of the tree) and the lack of grain lines. Instead, tiny dots form the grain pattern.

End grain boards are made from wood oriented as though it were standing on end, cut very short, and clustered together. The wood grain runs perpendicular to your counter top, unlike with the other two boards. I think it looks more rustic. You’ll have seen this grain in big chopping blocks that butchers use (one reason why end grain cutting boards are also called butcher’s block), and in some countertops; butcher’s block style countertops are popular. End grain is great because of all the other grains, it is the easiest on your knife edge, and it is the most durable overall. The reason for this is that when you run a knife across a face or edge grain board, you are running your knife across hundreds of wood fibers. The fibers are perpendicular to your knife blade and cutting direction, so they cause wear. This can also damage the board by shearing the fibers completely, causing scoring. Edge grain resists this because the fibers are running parallel to your cutting edge and your cutting motion, so the fibers of the wood actually part, making way for your knife. When the blade passes, the fibers, because they are packed together, close the cut and ‘self heal’ so to speak. This means the cutting surface is much more resistant to permanent marking, increasing durability and the lifespan of your board. End grain also resists warping due to moisture because end grain blocks tend to swell instead of bend, bow, or skew, and if you orient your blocks right when constructing the board, they will negate each other’s swelling and the neither the seams nor blocks will split. This can be an issue with cutting boards with multiple wood types, but that’ll be covered in the materials article. We’ll cover more about what to look for in end grain block orientation in the fabrication article. End grain is also more resistant to trauma than edge or face grain because of the orientation of the wood fibers as well; you can chop on them, debone on them, and abuse them more and they’ll just give way and self-heal. You’ll cause wear eventually, but it’s a slower process and shows less, causing the board to retain its appearance longer. A lot of people like the look too, because the grain patterns in the wood change from long lines and waves to circles, swoops, and ripples. It’s a beauty all its own. End grain boards are the hardest to make, so consequently they are the most expensive to buy, but they are also the most likely to be heirloom quality and the sort of thing you can give to your kids or grandkids.

Food Safety

I’d like to take an opportunity to make a mention of food safety regarding wooden cutting boards, since it has a lot to do with the grain. There is some debate in the culinary and scientific community regarding what materials are truly the safest in terms of preventing cross-contamination and bacterial infection in foods. There have been several studies on the matter too, and they are pretty easy to find online. Ultimately, you’ll have to decide for yourself what you trust, but I will say that I’ve extensively used wood and bamboo cutting boards, and read several of these studies, and I find that I agree with the proponents of wood and bamboo. Plastic and other materials are fine, as long as they are sanitized well (being dishwasher safe helps) but wood and bamboo, being fibrous as well as being hygroscopic (absorbing water) means that any bacteria that become trapped in the material tend to die due to dehydration/unsuitable environment. They simply could not live trapped in the depths of the wood fibers. This means that you don’t have to worry about sanitizing them with heat or chemicals; just a good, solid hand-washing will do the trick to clean the surface. Which makes wood an equally safe, and in my opinion, more beautiful choice overall.

Cutting Boards 101: Wood Grain and You

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