You know, it’s funny; on many of the woodworking podcasts, questions are sent in and answered. Every so often, someone writes in and says that they have reached the “cutting board stage” of being a new woodworker, and it always makes me chuckle. I foolishly thought that I had skipped over that stage long ago, but evidently my wife disagreed. Somewhere, she saw an end-grain cutting board and decided that it was high time that all of my woodworking tools were put to use for her benefit. So in order to keep the lovely lady happy (and my tool budget from drying up), my next project became an end-grain cutting board.
I went to my lumber racks and had a good pick through to see what I could use for the project. I found some Maple, Walnut, and Sapele that I thought would make for some interesting and attractive color combinations.
Once I had decided upon three colors, I needed to design a pattern. But how to do this and see exactly how it is going to turn out? I turned to excel. Though it is supposed to be for spread sheets, you can fill cells with colors and re-size the cells as you want, so I used it as a drawing tool. One important thing to remember is to design the pattern to have a centerline. When strips are cut from the pattern later in the process, every other one will be flipped to create the final pattern. The cell sizes should be symmetrical either side to the centerline. The cell colors need not be symmetrical, and will not create and alternating pattern if they are. Here was my first attempt:
I really liked this first design, but the wife said no, she didn’t like the solid lines that ran through the length of the board. Shame, I really liked this one. I had a few more design attempts and she chose this one:
Time to start making sawdust. I skipped the milling photos this time, as you’ve seen it all before.
I used some oak cauls to prevent denting the wood and left it over night to dry.
Once I had scrapped off the worst of the glue, I ran the board though the planer to perfectly flush up both sides. I then clamped a stop block to my cross-cut sled to cut even strips from the board.
The board was about 25 inches long, and yielded 16 strips.
Before proceeding with the glue-up, I decided to do a dry run and set up the clamps. I also milled some scraps of doug fir to the exact thickness and width of the cutting board. These are not cauls simply for clamping, but will instead be glued to the ends of the cutting board. This is done to allow the cutting board to be fed through the planer later in the process without splitting off the ends of the board. Once the cutting board is surfaced, the fir strips can be cut off.
Backing up a little here; while milling the original strips of wood, I found I had a few extras. I decided to turn these into a second cutting board with a slightly different pattern. I glued these up and when dry, cross-cut them to the same thickness.
Time for a couple of glue-ups.
I have often seen it written that you should not run end grain over the jointer or through the planer. However, I have a segmented cutter head in my planer with carbide cutters, and thought that it could handle the job. It performed the task well and left a fairly decent surface. I’d be curious to see how a 3-knife cuter would perform. The glued on douglas fir strips at either end should still prevent the ends from splitting out, but I imagine that the knives would get dull very quickly.
To further refine the surface, I decided to feed the boards through my drum sander. I sort of wish that I hadn’t done this. The drum sander left a light scratch pattern of long lines, running the length of the board. As it was in end-grain, these were very time consuming to remove later.
It took me a very long time to remove all the lines left by the drum sander. My guess is I spent at least two hours per board, maybe more.
The 240 grit sanding, left the boards feeling glass smooth.
With the sacrificial ends removed, I rounded the corners of the board at the disk sander.
Everything that I have read on the topic seems to indicate that mineral oil is the best finish for a cutting board. It’s food safe and won’t go rancid. I went to Walmart a bought two pints of oil for about $2 each. I wanted to soak the boards at least overnight and let the oil penetrate as far into the end grain as it could. My other dilemma was what to use as a container to soak them in. The boards are pretty large, and my first thought was to use a disposable baking tray. I bought one of these as well. Once home, I realized that the pan was too small. I tried to bend the pan and deform it to fit the cutting board. I needed to make it shallower but wider. This didn’t work and the metal tore.
I was a little annoyed with this and went inside, racking my brain about what I could use for a pan. I knew that we didn’t have a baking pan big enough, because I had already searched the kitchen for one. I pulled out the bottom (warming) drawer of the oven to check one more time to see if there were any large pans in it, and it occurred to me to just take the whole drawer out and use that instead.
To the sounds of my wife saying, “You’d better not mess that up”, I headed back out to the shop.
I kept wiping off any oil that seeped out of the board for the next couple of days. The oil had penetrated the board nicely, but for a top coat I wanted to use a mix of mineral oil and bees wax. To blend these two ingredients, they have to be heated and stirred until all the wax dissolves.
I let the wax/oil mix sit for and hour or so and then buffed it off. The last step was to install some feet. Since I will be putting screws into end grain, there would be a high possibility of splitting the board if I didn’t first drill pilot holes.
So, here are the finished boards:
This was a surprisingly fun and easy project and I was very happy with the end results. Most importantly, the wife loves her new cutting board and has been using it to make me all kinds of yummy food.
I hope you enjoyed this post and I’d love to hear your thoughts or comments.
– Jonathan White