Updated: Jul 24, 2020
Of the thousands of tree species in our natural world, only a handful are routinely used to make cutting boards and butcher blocks. But why are maple, walnut, cherry, teak, and bamboo such popular woods and pine, fur, and cedar not? It turns out that there are many factors to consider when choosing the most suitable raw materials for cutting boards:
Wooden cutting boards should generally be made from hard, tight-grained woods. Let's break this down. Most cutting boards are made from trees classified as hardwoods. This classification is a bit confusing as it doesn't depend on hardness, but the type of tree. Hardwoods are angiosperms aka flowering plants with broad leaves. Think maple, oak, and birch. Softwoods are gymnosperms (about 80% of the world's harvested timber) and include pine, firs, or redwoods.
Another distinction is that hardwoods have pores to transport water, while softwoods rely on a different mechanism called medullary rays. This will be important later.
Having said all this, in general, hardwoods have a higher density so are harder and more durable than softwoods. This makes them an ideal material for cutting boards as they wont score as easily. Cuts and scratches from knifes cause an uneven cutting surface, allow for bacteria and water to enter the board, and can be unsightly.
Manufactures such as Larch Wood, make blocks from softwoods, but solely use end-grain construction to retain durability. End grain puts the wood fibers at the surface of the board, so that knives run against the end of the fibers, instead of across. This design prevents the fibers from splitting and scarring.
For you tree enthusiasts, you may recognize that oak is a hardwood, but is not often used in cutting boards. The reason is that oak, while hard, has very large pores. When these pores are cut through they are visible to the naked eye. Large pores cause the same problem as cuts and scratches – they harbor bacteria and can cause water-logging. Woods like hard rock maple, walnut, cherry (all materials used by John Boos), and teak are considered “close grain,” meaning they have small pores for a smoother surface less friendly to bacteria.
Wood toxicity is a concern for woodworkers who are exposed to the raw materials and wood dust. Wood toxicity can take the form of irritation, sensitization, and even poisoning. While a typical cutting board user isn't exposed to wood dust, it does raise the question of whether wood is food safe. Oils and resin can leach into foods you are preparing, so it is important to consider in the case of rare or exotic woods not typically used in cutting board construction.
Rosewood is a good example. It is a rich, dark brown timber prized for its beauty and hardness. However, some people are sensitive to the oils it leaches. While there are very few woods that are viewed as toxic after being finished, it is important to remember that some individuals are more sensitive than others.
Another toxicity concern stems from reclaimed lumber – wood that is retrieved from its original application for a different use. Examples are timbers from fencing, old barns, factories, or warehouses. Wood from these sources is often beautiful and has a distinctive worn look. However, this timber could have been treated with dangerous chemicals or exposed to toxins. Though gorgeous, cutting boards made from reclaimed lumber may not be food safe.
There are many complicated issues surrounding the use of lumber such as questions about habitat destruction, deforestation, sustainability, and human and economic rights. Some of the most durable and beautiful wood for cutting boards, guitars, and furniture are also endangered. The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) was an agreement formed between governments in 1973 that established protection for species including trees. There is also the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) which identifies, maintains, and publishes a “red list” of tree species that are in danger. You are probably familiar with their classifications: critically endangered, endangered, and vulnerable. Certain types of mahogany, walnut, ebony, and teak can be found on these lists.
All cutting boards and butcher blocks sold on CuttingBoard.com certified sustainable or renewable, but other vendors are not as careful about their sourcing. It is important when considering a cutting board to think about the environmental ramifications, especially if it is made from a type of wood that you are unfamiliar with. Ask questions and chop responsibly.