A high quality cutting board is one of the most useful tools you can add to the kitchen. A good hardwood cutting board will serve as the primary point for all chopping vegetables, kneading dough, cutting steak off the grill, and presenting the final meal on the table. Because it is serving so many purposes it is important to choose the best wood for cutting boards when buying one or making your own.
A quality cutting board made with the right wood will keep your knife blades sharper for longer, prevent bacteria from getting trapped in the wood, and serve as a focal point on display in the kitchen.
Luckily, with just a few woodworking tools, you can make your own long-grain or end-grain cutting boards. Cutting boards make for a great project to keep for yourself, or as a woodworking project you can easily sell.
Over the years, I have made cutting boards out of black walnut, sapele, maple, and purpleheart. Some are still going strong, while others have ended up in the scrap bin. These successes (and failures) have given me a lot of insight into what works and what doesn’t when choosing the right wood for a cutting board.
What to Look for When Choosing the Best Wood for Your Cutting Board
Here are a few of the factors you should consider when selecting wood species for your next cutting board project.
Wood hardness is measured on the Janka scale. The Janka scale was developed by measuring the force it takes to press a steel ball halfway into a piece of wood. Woods on the Janka scale range from the hardest at 3680, which is Ipe, to Basswood all the way down at 410.
The hardness ratings for some common domestic hardwoods on the list are:
- Hard Maple – 1450
- Cherry – 950
- Black Walnut – 1010
- Soft Maple – 950
- Butternut – 490
- Ash – 1320
- White Oak – 1360
- Birch – 1260
When constructing a wood cutting board you’ll want to choose wood that is on the harder end of the scale. This will help it stand up over time to repeated knife use and help prevent bacteria from absorbing into the wood.
If you’ll be making a board from multiple wood species it can be a good idea to try to keep them within a similar hardness range. Combining white oak with butternut will leave a pretty big variance between harder and softer woods on the cutting board. This can make finishing difficult and result in inconsistent wear patterns on the board.
The cost of wood can vary a lot by species. Commonly available domestic hardwoods like maple, ash, or cherry may only be $4 – $7 per board foot. This means that, by using these woods, the cost to build a large edge grain cutting board can easily be kept under $20 in material costs.
Conversely, if you wanted to build a laminated edge grain board using more expensive domestics like black walnut, or wanted to really up your cutting board game with exotic woods like purpleheart, Brazilian cherry, or (if we really wanted to get ridiculous) ebony or cocobolo, then you may find yourself paying anywhere from $10 to $150 per board foot.
That edge grain cutting board will have to sell for a nice premium to absorb all the extra material costs with these exotic woods.
There is a reason that most of the big domestic cutting board manufacturers reach for maple when making their boards!
Open or Closed Grain
The natural structure of wood includes grain that runs up and down the length of the tree. In some wood species, like oak or ash, this grain is considered open grain. This means that the pores in the grain are fairly large and can wick water straight through the wood in the case of wood like red oak.
Using an open grain wood in a cutting board is an invitation for harboring bacteria and wicking water into the wood which can lead to warping and cracking.
On the other end of the scale are fine-grained woods. These woods have extremely small pores and are excellent for making cutting boards as they can be finished to an extremely smooth surface that can be easily cleaned. The most common domestic hardwood in this category is maple.
For this reason almost any wood cutting board found in commercial kitchens will be made out of maple.
When the best wood for your cutting board keep in mind that there are some woods that present health issues for people.
Typically these wood sensitivities or allergies will be triggered by the dust from wood and not from handling a finished piece. But if someone you know has had severe reactions to certain woods then it is best to stay away from those species.
If you are working with exotic woods, this list is a good reference to determine which woods may trigger reactions.
There are a number of woods that are known to do a number on your woodworking tools when milling them. Not surprisingly, these blade dulling woods can also wreck havoc on your kitchen knives. Teak is infamous for quickly wearing out blades due to its high silica content.
Luckily, most of the commonly used domestic hardwoods are all relatively mild on both tools and knives.
SeriousEats published a post comparing the best cutting boards and ran several cutting boards through knife dulling tests. It was interesting to see the impacts that woods, like teak or woods that used fillers for cracks and gaps, had on knives.
Edge Grain vs End Grain Cutting Boards
There are two primary types of wood cutting boards.
Edge grain cutting boards are constructed with wood where the grain runs the length of the cutting board. These boards are the most inexpensive option as they can be made thinner and far less work than end grain cutting boards.
99% of wood cutting boards sold tend to be of this variety.
When made and cared for correctly, Edge grain cutting boards can last a long time, although they do show more knife marks than end grain boards.
End Grain cutting boards are made by laminating dozens of small pieces of wood together that have been stood on end. This means the entire surface of the board is made up of small pieces of wood where the end grain is exposed.
The advantage of end-grain boards is the open pores tend to be easier on knives and will “self heal” when coated with cutting board oil. This means the pores will absorb the oil, and the knife marks will tend to nearly disappear as the wood expands.
End grain cutting boards need to be made thicker to ensure the board doesn’t warp during use. They also require a lot more work to make than an edge grain board. These two factors contribute to the fact that these boards can cost significantly more than an edge grain board. The upside, though, is that a well-made end grain cutting board can last a lifetime!
The Best Woods for Cutting Boards
Here are our picks for the best wood for cutting boards.
Maple is our pick for the best wood for cutting boards as it checks the box for everything you’d want with either edge-grain or end-grain styles.
Maple is one of the most common domestic hardwood species available, so the cost is typically going to be lower. I am typically paying around $4-$5 per board foot for hard maple out here in the Pacific Northwest.
The end grain of maple also has extremely fine pores, so you can finish the cutting board to an almost glass-like surface. This will give the cutting board a beautiful look and keep any food-borne bacteria on the surface of the wood.
I prefer to use hard maple for cutting boards as the price difference is typically negligible versus soft maple, and I like the extra durability. Hard maple also machines really well, so I can get a very smooth finish right off the tools. This means less finish sanding, which is not my favorite part of woodworking as it is for everyone.
Birch is an overlooked wood when it comes to making cutting boards. In fact, it seems to be a fairly overlooked wood in the woodworking world in general.
Because of this, you can pick up birch for pretty cheap. Often even a dollar or two per board foot less than maple.
Note that there are a few different species of birch, and the hardness ratings between them can vary. Yellow birch is a common domestic variety and has a hardness ranking between hard maple and soft maple.
The end grain of birch is more porous than maple but once finished and oil, it shouldn’t pose any problems on either an end grain or edge grain cutting board.
Both birch and maple will have a similar creamy white to tan look once finished.
Black walnut is all the rage right now and the price of lumber reflects that demand. The high demand is for good reason though as it is one of the most beautiful woods once finished.
I love the look of end grain black walnut cutting boards and butcher block. We even have plans in the works to replace our kitchen island and install a new one with a solid black walnut butcher block surface.
In my area black walnut typically runs around 50% higher in price than hard maple so it is certainly more expensive. It is such an in demand wood for finished products though that consumers tend to pay a premium so you should be able to recover the cost if you’re making cutting boards to sell.
On the hardness scale black walnut ranks right around the same level as soft walnut. It is definitely a step below hard maple when it comes to durability but, with the right care, a black walnut cutting board will hold up just find.
Note that some people have a higher level of sensitivity to black walnut, although, once again, these sensitivities are usually triggered by dust rather than exposure to finished wood.
I sell a ton of items made from black walnut in my Etsy shop and it is by far the most in demand option.
Sapele (African Mahogany)
Sapele is the one exotic wood I’ll recommend as one of the best woods for cutting boards. I use it a lot as a matter of happenstance as I picked up a ton of it extremely cheap from a local carriage door company.
Buying sapele at retail is typically around the same cost as black walnut although wider boards can run more. One of the cool things about sapele is it is one of the easier woods to find in extremely wide boards. If you wanted to make a cutting board from a solid piece of wood you can typically find board in widths exceeding 16 inches!
I quickly grew to love it, though as it machined extremely well, takes on a beautiful finish, and has a really unique, almost iridescent look to the grain.
Sapele is on the same scale for hardness as hard maple, making for an extremely durable cutting board surface.
It takes glue very well also, so making it into either edge grain or end grain cutting boards means you’ll have a solid board that should last a long, long time.
Cherry, while on the softer side, is one of my favorite woods to work with. Over time, cherry wood will go from a light tan color to a rich copper or reddish tan, which I love. It is also super easy to work with and takes on a beautiful finish.
For cutting boards, cherry is another of the extremely fine-pored woods, making for a lovely end grain board.
Cherry is usually similar in cost to maple which makes it an economical option for making a cutting board.
Final Thoughts on the Best Wood for Cutting Boards
I hope this guide has helped with choosing the wood for your next cutting board to either make or buy. They are all wonderful choices, and a quality-made wood cutting board is such a great addition to the kitchen. Combining these woods to create patterns, especially in end grain boards, is also a popular way to make creative and eye-catching boards, especially if you’ll be putting them up for sale and want to stand out from the crowd!