A great cutting board sets the foundation for successful work in the kitchen. But what makes the difference between a good board, and the best one? It all comes down to the wood used to make it.
In my time in professional kitchens, sanitary plastic was the material of choice for cutting boards. But in the home kitchen, these plastic boards tend to be an eyesore.
It wasn’t until I took a few woodworking classes that I developed an appreciation for genuine hardwood cutting boards. So today, I hope to pass on some of that enthusiasm and experience to you. That includes explanations of which woods work best for cutting boards, as well as the type of grain that’s most desirable and how to care for your board long-term.
Why You Should Always Use Hardwoods (Not Softwoods)
There’s one rule that should always be followed when you’re making or choosing a cutting board:
Cutting boards should be made of hardwoods, not softwoods.
The difference between the two types of woods may seem trivial at a surface level. Hardwoods are naturally harder, with a denser grain. Softwoods are softer, with more room between their wood fibers.
But when applied to a cutting board, this distinction is all-important. That’s because softwoods are too porous. And because of their porosity, each cut you make on the board will create a little groove for bacteria to live and multiply in.
So over time, hardwoods will maintain their sanitary nature while softwoods will not.
Examples of hardwoods:
Examples of softwoods:
- Red cedar
Bamboo is a special case. It is not technically wood, but it has some of the same characteristics as both hardwood and softwood. Over time, the variations in hardness in a bamboo board can dull (or even chip) the edge of your knife. So while bamboo cutting boards are inexpensive, they’re not a great long-term solution.
The Best Types of Wood for Cutting Boards
With the necessity for hardwoods in mind, let’s take a closer look at popular hardwoods used for cutting boards.
Maple is the most popular hardwood for high-end cutting boards in the United States. This is because the wood is both widely available across North America, and especially dense.
The type of maple used for cutting boards is “hard maple.” This is wood from the sugar maple tree, as opposed to any other variety that may be softer and therefore less suited to cutting boards.
Maple is also a popular choice among woodworkers because of its attractive looks. Some maple has a very decorative wood grain as well, making for beautiful cutting boards that are nearly works of art.
Where maple is a very light-colored wood, cherry takes on a more decorative reddish-brown color. It gives an aged appearance to a cutting board, and with time and regular oiling will take on a deep and rich patina.
Cherry is nearly as hard as maple, but less commonly available. This often makes it a more expensive choice for cutting boards, but a very distinctive one nonetheless.
If you’re making your own cutting board, mahogany may be the right way to go. That’s because it’s renowned for its excellent workability and stability. It’s easy to cut and sand, and the pieces resist warping even after gluing.
There’s a reason mahogany isn’t the number one wood for cutting boards, though: There are many different grades and types of mahogany. And not all of them are equally pleasant to work with.
Without getting into too much detail, Cuban mahogany is the real deal. African mahogany is a suitable substitute. But once you get into other woods with the mahogany name, they’re not true mahogany (and won’t be as nice to work with).
Purpleheart is one of the most gorgeous and distinctive materials available to woodworkers. Native to Central and South America, it has a deep eggplant-purple coloration paired with excellent hardness.
But as you might expect, purpleheart wood is quite expensive. This has led some woodworkers to use it sparingly in cutting boards, as a decorative accent or trim alongside more affordable hardwoods.
Purpleheart is also known for being somewhat difficult to work with. If you use too high of a cutting speed, the wood will release a gummy resin that will slow equipment until it’s cleaned off.
With 21 species types found across Europe, Japan, and the Americas, walnut is a readily available hardwood. It’s another good choice for high-end cutting boards, as its exceptional hardness pairs nicely with being available in a wide range of colors.
It’s worth noting that some woodworkers stay away from using walnut for their cutting boards. Why? Because of the risk of allergic reactions. Nut allergies can be particularly severe, so much so that even exposure to the woods can cause a reaction.
Properly sanded and finished, though, walnut should pose no risk of allergic reaction. It’s up to each woodworker to determine whether walnut is a good choice for them and their families.
Types of Wood Grain for Cutting Boards
If you’re making your own cutting board, choosing the right type of wood grain will make a big difference in the finished product. Two particular cuts are the most desirable for cutting boards, detailed below.
End grain wood is what you get when you cut a tree across its growth rings. It’s the most highly desired grain for cutting boards, for two reasons:
- It shows off the character of the wood beautifully.
- The direction of the wood fibers naturally aligns with your cuts, keeping your knife sharper for longer.
End grain wood is also the most expensive type of grain. But if you want to use only the best wood for cutting boards, you’ll need to make the extra investment in this top-end wood.
Edge grain is produced from quarter sawn wood, and is the second most desirable grain for cutting boards. It doesn’t have the same consistency as end grain wood, but is very close.
An edge-grain board is an affordable alternative to an end grain board. But because the direction of the wood fibers doesn’t match up as consistently, it will dull your knife faster than an end grain cutting board.
Care and Maintenance of Your Cutting Board
Once you’ve bought or made your cutting board, you’ve entered into a lifelong relationship with it. Provide it with proper care and maintenance, and a cutting board will last a lifetime.
Here are a few tips on what goes into taking great care of your cutting board:
How Hard Is Your Board? The Janka Hardness Scale
The amount of care and maintenance your cutting board will need mainly depends on its hardness. And for woods, the most common way to measure this is with the Janka hardness scale.
Created by Gabriel Janka, the Janka hardness test measures the force necessary to insert a small steel ball halfway into a sample of wood. This force is then translated to the Janka hardness scale, giving an objective measure of a wood’s durability.
Hard maple, one of the most popular woods for cutting boards, has a Janka rating of 6,400 N. Cherry rates at 4,430 N, while a wood like Douglas Fir rates below 3,000 N. The best cutting boards are made from woods that rate around 5,000 N on the Janka hardness scale.
And the harder your cutting board, the less likely it will be to develop small grooves that can harbor bacteria. The harder surface also keeps your knife sharper for longer, by subtly refining the edge while you cut.
Harder boards also have the benefit of requiring less frequent oiling. The harder the board, the less porous it will be — meaning that harder woods maintain their oiled finish for longer. Choose a board with a hardness rating of around 5,000 N, and you’ll only have to oil it once or twice a year.
How to Wash Your Cutting Board
There’s one hard and fast rule for washing your cutting boards:
They’re hand wash only.
Don’t even think about running a nice board through your dishwasher. Between the high temperatures, the constant soaking, and the chemicals used, a dishwasher is a nightmare for any wood.
Try to get in the habit of washing your boards immediately after use. A little soap and warm water is enough to clean up any hardwood board. Then dry them right away, so extended water contact won’t warp the grain.
Conclusion: The Best Wood for Cutting Board Construction
And that wraps things up for our look at wood for cutting boards!
To recap: It’s essential to go with hardwood when you’re making a cutting board. And the harder the wood, the better — because it will keep your knife sharper and require less maintenance over time.
If you’re looking for the best kitchen knife, we have a complete guide to the best kitchen knives right here.