Only a handful of tree species are routinely used to make cutting boards and butcher blocks. But why are maple, walnut, birch, teak, and olive so 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:
You want your cutting board made from hard, tight-grained woods. 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 info will be important later.
In general, hardwoods have a higher density, so they are harder and more durable than softwoods. The high density is also what makes hardwoods an ideal material for cutting boards as they won't score as quickly. Cuts and scratches from knives cause an uneven cutting surface. The impact from knives not only damages the overall look but it also allows for allow for bacteria and water to enter the board.
End grain puts the wood fibers at the board's surface, so that knives run against the end of the fibers, instead of across. This design prevents the fibers from splitting and scarring.
For the 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 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.
OUR FAVORITE DURABLE BOARDS
Lark Medium Maple Board w/ John Boos
Sparrow Medium Stripe Board
Lark Large Maple Board w/ John Boos
Sparrow Large Stripe Board
Wood toxicity is a concern for woodworkers who are exposed to raw materials and wood dust. Wood toxicity can show up as irritation, sensitization, and even poisoning. While a typical cutting board user isn't exposed to wood dust, it does raise the question of whether the 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.
Unless you have a confirmed wood allergy, the toxicity isn't something you should be concerned with when considering the best cutting board option. However, we recommend sticking with the classic cutting board wood options like maple, walnut, cherry, or teak if you're concerned. These wood types have been tested numerous times and are almost coated in a food-safe finish when used in any kitchen product.
An important step to maintaining the beauty and food-safe coating on your WREN board is to utilize either the board wax or board oil. Both keep the wood grain in peak performance condition so your board is easy to clean and maintain.
Many complicated issues surround 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 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 WREN Home are certified sustainable or renewable, but other vendors are not as careful about sourcing. It is crucial 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. If you'd like to learn more about WREN Home's environmental stamps of approval and steps we've taken to be a sustainable company, feel free to check out the details here.
Did we miss any wood related questions? Let us know in the comments if you're curious about more wood product details!
The Perfect Charcuterie Board in 5 Steps
There are a lot of fantastic charcuterie board guides out there, but over at WREN, we keep it nice and simple. Aka, if it can't be done in 12 minutes or less, it's probably not going to happen. So we threw together a quick n' simple serving option, that will wow even the most critical of cheese-board connoisseurs.