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Co-authored with Ben Borchardt
A lot of noise is being made about edge grain chopping boards on kitchen oriented websites. The basic gist seems to be that an edge grain board is stronger and less likely to show knife scratches and other marks. Another claim is that such a board is less likely to warp. One claim, to some extent, is probably true. The other is a broad oversimplification. To understand, we have to know what edge grain is and how an edge grain board is different from other cutting boards.
3 Basic Types of Cutting Boards
I (Eric) am not an expert in woodworking so I’m going to keep this simple so even I can understand what I’m talking about, especially since this subject can become very convoluted and jargon-laden. There are three types of grains usually discussed, end grain, edge grain (or vertical grain), and face grain (or cross grain). Sometimes you will also see the term flat grain. . Cutting boards are made, basically, in three different ways, with end grain, edge grain, or face grain. How do we understand the difference between these three?
It’s pretty easy. Just imagine a plank of wood. Let’s say we’re looking at a piece of 1 x 4 lumber. Look at the very end of the piece of wood. See the grain (in your mind’s eye I mean)? That is the end grain. You’ve probably seen end grain manufacture in butcher blocks. This is when it looks like many blocks of wood glued together to form a surface. Those are end grains facing up.
Now, look at the surface of the wider flat face of the board. This is the part of boards we usually see. If someone were building a table they’d probably put this part of the board facing up. The face of the board…ah, that’s the face grain. Pretty simple, right? Now, look at the thin edge of the wood. Yep, that’s the edge grain. Pretty darn simple to understand at this level but of course, if you want to build stuff things get more complicated. The choice of which grain to use can be purely aesthetic or more functional.
Not all planks of wood are the same, even if from the same type of tree. There are different ways to saw a tree into planks of lumber. The most common type of planks is plain sawn, which is the simplest and cheapest way to cut logs into planks. In this method, the log is just sliced parallel along its length into planks. This produces a minimum of waste and makes for an attractive piece of wood. However, depending on the size of lumber and the orientation of annular rings, it tends to twist and cup.
The two other main ways to saw planks are quarter sawn and rift sawn. In quartersawn lumber, the annular growth rings intersect the face of the board at 60 to 90 degrees. Instead of just being sliced into planks, the log is split into four quarters and then those quarters are sawn into planks. This type of board is less prone to warping or cupping
Rift Sawn is the most expensive and least common type of lumber. In this case, the lumber is sawed with the annular growth rings intersecting the face of the board at a 30 to 60 angle. Producing the most stable lumber.
End Grain Cutting Boards or Butcher Blocks
Although you will rarely see anyone use them at home, there are cutting boards made with end grain. These are becoming more popular. More often these are butcher blocks, which must be thicker and heavier to both stay in place and be sturdy enough to handle heavy-duty chopping of meat and bone. The end grain is a much tougher choice for a butcher block but trying to define a butcher block is getting into vague territory since they are defined by their role, and there are entire kitchen islands surfaced with butcher block. Another confusing term is the chef board which often is made with end grain and looks like a butcher block. These are mostly marketing terms. However, you can most certainly use a butcher block as a cutting board. One drawback is that they are heavier and thicker making them harder to move around and clean.
And, if you choose such a board, you need too think not only about the aesthetics and type of wood but the quality of the construction. We’re talking about a lot of little pieces of wood glued together. If enough attention is not paid to how the different pieces of wood work together, especially woods with different shrinkage characteristics, such a board might come apart, crack or warp. As a cutting board, however, when well-made they perform very well.
Face Grain Cutting Boards
I’d venture to say that most cutting boards are face grain boards. Imagine our piece of lumber again. Imagine you cut that down into lengths about the size of a cutting board and then glue those lengths together endwise, although it’s possible, especially with smaller boards, to find them made with one piece of wood. That would be a face grain cutting board. They are generally plain sawn to show off the patterns in the wood. As you’ve probably guessed, a better face grain cutting board could be made with quarter sawn wood.
Edge Grain Cutting Boards
If end grain construction means the board is constructed with the ends of the boards exposed, then edge grain must mean it is constructed with the edge, or staves of the board exposed. They are usually made from quarter sawn lumber These are more durable than face grain but less durable than end grain.
That leaves us with the original question. Do you need an edge grain cutting board? They are more dimensionally stable and moisture resistant than face grain cutting boards but probably lag behind end grain. Remember that so much depends on the details of construction, something an expert woodworker could explain to you.
But here is where we get into the reason why this is worth writing about. Making a big deal out of edge grain cutting boards with no other consideration is a good way to get duped. Because what’s stopping someone from taking a bunch of plain sawn lumber, cutting it down into little lengths, and exposing the edges or staves of those boards and calling it edge grain to sound cool? In a good edge grain board or countertop, the grains of the wood will run vertical, or as close to vertical as possible down the length of the boards.
Now, remember that face grain construction is how you get all those interesting grain patterns, some swirly patterns and grain running in different directions depending on the different boards used and just where out of the tree they came from. Take a bunch of these different boards with grains ranging from 20 degrees to 90, in thin little lengths, mix them all up and glue them together, you have a board that might just snap right in the middle or do other weird things. When other details of the wood are considered, then we can see that just because the term ‘edge grain’ is used does not mean we are looking at a superior product. Is it from quarter sawn wood? Was it made by an expert with true attention to detail? The point is, a face grain board made out of good kiln-dried wood by a responsible maker will still be better than a so-called edge grain board made out of throw together scraps, most of which are actually face grain from plan-sawn wood.
Pricing and Quality
All in all, if the product is truly a premium product, then end grain should be the most durable, stable, and high performing board. However, it is heavy and clunky and maybe a bit much for everyday chopping and cutting. Little end grain boards are wonderful for presenting food, however, such as a cheese board or for charcuterie.
A premium edge grain board made with quarter sawn lumber should be more affordable than a premium end grain board of the same size and same wood. Some edge grain boards are made extra thick, though, so they can still be quite heavy.
I am going to assume that if the same company made two identical sized boards using the same wood, one end grain and the other edge grain, the end grain would be the most expensive. Edge grain should give you exceptional durability, stability, and performance while being more affordable. However, with so many styles and sizes of boards made with so many different types of wood, there is no way to pin down relative price differences in a dependable way.
But, and this is a big but, just because something says edge grain, as I hope I’ve made clear, doesn’t mean it isn’t made from a bunch of plain saw scraps that were laying around. There are some teak cutting boards on the market, and I won’t name names, that claim to be edge grain. But even to my untrained eye (Eric) they appear to be face grain cut into strips and glued edge to edge. So, they are really no different than a regular face grain board, and perhaps worse. I’ve even seen boards that look as if they are a mixture of face grain (cut into strips) and edge grain, meant obviously to present an interesting visual pattern. Yes, there are boards that seem to be complete junk being sold as fancy edge grain boards. It is just as likely to be a marketing term as a technical one. Junk is still junk.
On the other hand, regardless of the ‘grain’ any cutting board can have flaws, even when made by the most responsible of manufacturers. When different boards are glued together, the different contraction and expansion characteristics of the two different boards can cause serious problems. It is not always apparent, no matter how careful a builder is, to predict that such a thing may happen. So, even with the best boards out there, a few will fail. What matters then is what the company does about it, recognizing that these incidents are not the norm. But when failing and low quality seems to be the norm, your best bet is to avoid the board.
Since I will assume that if you are looking for a board you will check online reviews, such as on Amazon, do not pay too much heed to dozens of 5-star reviews. Most of these are from people who receive a board (or anything else), use it once or twice and then write a glowing review of it. Almost all five-star reviews are unreliable for the simple reason that nothing is perfect. Pay more attention to lower star reviews. If most of these reviews seem unreasonable, with someone complaining about things that have nothing much to do with the actual quality and durability of the board, but there are plenty of favorable reviews, you can probably depend on the product as living up to its copy.
As well, if most of the reviews are favorable, but there are reports of a few flawed boards here and there (that the company responds to and seeks to make right), you’re probably looking at a good board. But if there are many negative reviews are about the board having cracks in it, or falling apart, etc., you can assume you’ve got a dud, especially when the manufacturer is nowhere to be seen. The problem with cutting boards, when they are very expensive, as some can be, is that you can’t take them home for a month-long test drive!
Seasoning the Board
Most premium boards come in their natural unfinished state. To look their best and to last as long as possible, they need to be seasoned, or, in other words, coated with oil, which soaks into the wood. And hard-drying food grade oil will work. Many opt for food grade mineral oil. You can also use flax oil, walnut oil, or tung oil.
For some reason, people also put wax on their boards. Unless they are planning to go surfing on them, I’m not quite sure why. There are beeswax products offered specifically to finish cutting boards, on top of oil. The wax will just sit on top of the board and will end up in your food. It does look nice and slick. Unless I’m missing something, you probably do not need it.
Most oils advertised for cutting boards are mineral oil, or mineral oil mixed with some other oils and perhaps wax. You can use a number of different hard-drying oils to season a cutting board, including mineral oil, flax oil, walnut oil, and tung oil. Here are some choices to consider:
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