It’s really a common occurrence, this realization that the holidays are literally days away and you have 2-3 gifts incomplete. Perhaps time slipped away while you were working on something else or perhaps the original plan went off the rails. Maybe you just procrastinated, but the fact is you need something quick.
A cutting board is a quick and relatively easy project that you may even be able to pull out of your scrap bin! A classic wood worker item, the variety of wood colors and grains as well as patterns make this as simple or complex as you want to make it. The easiest ‘starter’ cutting board is an edge grain board.
To make an edge grain board, you first need to determine the size. If the board is for someone who likes to BBQ large slabs of meat, you’ll want to make it large. For the example here, we’ll go with a 24″x 18″ finished board. I like my cutting boards thick for many years of use so we’ll make ours 1.5 inches thick. You can make a thinner board but beware. Depending on the wood and orientation of the grain, you could wind up with a board that flexes, warps and eventually breaks if you go too thin. An added benefit to a thicker board is that after a few years use, when the grain is chewed up by all the cutting, you can sand it down smooth again. Basically you can ‘resurface’ a thicker board without sacrificing integrity.
With size decided, it’s time to shop for woods. The classic species for wood cutting boards are hard maple and walnut, but any tight grained hardwood will do. Some good ones that I have used are cherry, pecan, and purpleheart. Give some thought here to colors and grain. Too many different species/colors and you get a very ‘busy’ board. For our example here, let’s use a walnut/maple combo with a purpleheart accent stripe.
So how much wood do we need? For a board this straightforward you can do the math in your head, but if you are doing a more complicated board I recommend downloading the Cutting Board Designer. For this board we’ll have a 2.25 in. walnut strip, followed by a 2 inch strip of maple, a 2 inch strip of walnut and a 1.5 inch piece of maple The middle section is a 2 inch strip of purpleheart. Then you just work across the second half in reverse order. 1.5 Inch maple, 2 inch walnut, 2 inch maple and finally 2.5 inch walnut. Here’s how it looks.
So all told, we need a walnut board 9.5 inches wide, a maple board 7.5 inches wide, and a purpleheart board at least 2 inches wide. They should all be 25 inches long and a little over 1.5 inches thick.
The alternative to buying rough boards and cutting them to size is to get a kit from Rockler or Woodcraft. It comes with the boards already cut to size, you just have to do the glue up and finishing.
For tools, I strongly recommend a table saw – even a portable job-site saw will do. This can be done with a circular saw or jig saw, but it’s tons safer with a table saw. Other than that you’ll need a orbital sander and a router with a round-over bit and a bull nose bit. I use a planer to make sure everything is exactly matching in thickness and to clean up any glue up misalignment, but if you bought your wood already surfaced and the correct thickness, it’s just a convenience.
If you are cutting down your rough lumber, cut it to rough length – approximately an inch longer than you need. The strips always slide a tiny bit when doing gluing them together and this lets you trim the finished product to actual size later.
Next run it through your planer to get it to 1 5/8 inches thick if needed, again leaving a little room for final smoothing after all the pieces are glued up.
Set your Table saw fence for 2 1/5 inches and cut your two strips of walnut for the outside edges. Then move your fence in to 2 inches and cut your last 2 pieces of walnut and two of your maple pieces. While you are at 2 inches, go ahead and cut your purpleheart. finally, move in to 1 1/2 inches and cut your last 2 strips of maple.
Now get your clamps ready and get ready for your glue up. I recommend TiteBond 3 as it’s waterproof and has a bit of a longer ‘open’ time so you can be deliberate in your placement and not have to rush as much.
Set your bar clamps or pipe clamps on the work bench so that you can lay the wood strips across them. You’ll want to alternate clamps at the end so that you have even clamping pressure, front and back, so leave room for the ‘front’ clamps. Even though there is a joke about woodworkers and needing/using a ton of clamps, 5-6 clamps are plenty for this project.
Now for the glue up. To keep it straight on what goes where, I like to do a “dry fit” first. Just lay the strips out on the clamps, in the order they need to go for your pattern. Then rotate each board along the long axis 90 degrees to the left – except the last one! Now smear glue on the upturned faces again EXCEPT the last one. We don’t want glue on the outside edge right? Make sure to cover the entire upturned face of the wood thinly. Now now quickly rotate them back to the right so the glue is on the right side of each strip and press them together. Line them up as closely as possible and tighten the clamps snug but not tight. Add the ‘front clamps and snug them up as well. Then go back along all of the clamps and tighten until you see glue squeeze our of your joints and there is no space.
Alright, now you have about an hour to kill while you wait for the glue to firm up but not fully cure…….. you swept the shop up right? OK now that the glue squeeze out is skimmed over, gently scrape it off with a plastic putty knife or other smooth scraper. At this point I usually let it sit in the clamps overnight, even though the label says you can work with it in an hour. Those times are under ideal conditions and high humidity can slow the cure time. So best to be safe and do all of your glue ups in the afternoon and let them sit until morning.
The next morning, go take the board out of the clamps and gently scrape off the remaining glue squeeze out and feel along the seams. If there is no more than a tiny bump, you can go straight to the sanding. Otherwise if there was some shifting while clamping, a couple of very light passes through the planer will clean up any unevenness.
Take your board back over to the table saw and cross cut the ends flat and even. We’re getting into the home stretch!
Now take your router with the round-over bit and run it around the edges to ease over the sharp edges. Swap out bits to your 1/2 inch bullnose bit and set the edge guide on your router to about 3/4 in. Set the depth to about 1/8 inch and route a juice groove all the way around the top. If you notice a little burning as you go, reduce the RPMs and move the router a little faster. Finally drop the depth to 1/4 inch and make another pass. Doing it in two passes reduces tear out and burning.
Next sand every surface smooth. Start with 150 grit in your sander and then move up to 220 or even 320 if you want. Once it’s smooth it’s time for the magic. Time for the finish!
For food safety, most woodworkers like to use either straight food grade mineral oil or a mixture of mineral oil and beeswax. I prefer doing it in two stages myself. Get a clean soft rag like an old tshirt ready and flood the surface with mineral oil. The wood will soak up a lot of the oil. This is good, it’s what protects the board. Keep applying until it won’t take anymore. Then give it about 30 minutes and apply some more. once it’s taken all it can, wipe off any excess with a clean rag and buff in some beeswax/oil mixture. That will seal up the pores and keep it beautiful!
After a couple of washes in hot water – it may start to feel ‘fuzzy’. No cause for alarm , this is just extra wood fibers popping up. take a green dry scrubbing pad and buff it out and add more wax/oil mixture.
Make a cutting board is a great present for that person among your family or friends that likes to cook or grill. Once you’ve made one to get the steps down, they are easy to batch out in time for the holidays!