Cutting boards are as essential as knives in the kitchen, providing a solid, clean, and portable work surface for cutting, chopping, and arranging foods. Wood is a favored material for cutting boards, but some wood is better for this job than others.
The wood should be hard enough to remain durable without blunting knife blades. Wood must also have low porosity to prevent water damage and microbial contamination. Some of the best wood types for cutting boards include maple, walnut, and bamboo, so let us get acquainted with their characteristics, pros, and cons.
Types Of Wood For Cutting Boards
The timber industry categorizes trees into three types, namely softwoods, hardwoods, and exotic wood.
Softwoods are gymnosperms trees. The most common softwoods for timber are conifers like pine, spruce, and fir. Softwoods are not ideal for making cutting boards.
Softwoods contain many resin canals that transport sap through the trees. These abundant resin canals cause softwoods to be more absorbent than hardwoods.
The high absorbency of softwoods makes them ill-suited as cutting board material. Softwoods absorb water and other liquids, creating the conditions for potentially harmful bacteria, yeasts, and molds to proliferate.
Softwoods vary in hardness, with some varieties being as hard as hardwoods. However, the resin canals give softwoods a low-density structure that is prone to splitting and cracking. The prevalence of knots in softwoods also makes them crack and split more easily than hardwoods.
Softwoods also have a high resin content. This is unfavorable for cutting boards because the resin may affect the taste of the food.
Hardwoods come from angiosperm (flowering) trees. Familiar examples of this wood type are oak, cherry, and walnut. Hardwoods are the most advantageous for transforming into a cutting board.
Compared with softwoods, hardwoods are generally harder and denser (though the hardness and density of hardwoods differ considerably).
The principal reason for hardwoods’ strength is that they have pores instead of resin canals. The pores are more sparsely distributed throughout hardwood trees than resin canals, so hardwoods have fewer gaps and more wood tissue, resulting in a high-density structure.
This structural composition gives hardwoods the strength necessary to serve as excellent cutting board material. The dense quality of hardwoods also gives cutting boards extra weight and stability.
Hardwoods contain fewer resins and other non-structural elements than softwoods. Cutting boards made with hardwoods are less likely to taint foods coming into contact with their surface.
Exotic woods are from rare tree species that typically grow in tropical or sub-tropical regions overseas. Common examples are Brazilian walnut and Patagonian rosewood. The diversity of this wood type means that some exotic woods are better for cutting boards than others.
Most exotic woods are hard and dense. Some species such as Australian cypress have the optimal hardness for cutting boards. Other species (for example, black ironwood) are too hard and will hastily damage most kitchen knives.
Exotic woods often have attractive grain patterns. Cutting boards made with appropriate exotic wood are exceptionally beautiful. Due to their rarity and distant origins, exotic woods are usually expensive.
Another factor to consider is that some exotic woods contain compounds that cause allergic reactions in specific individuals. Exotic woods to avoid when crafting a cutting board include bloodwood, teak, and rosewood.
Woodworking’s Best Wood For Cutting Boards
Here are three wood varieties that woodworkers consider among the best for turning into cutting boards that are functional, durable, and sanitary.
There are many species of maple (Acer sp.), including softwood and hardwood types. Hardwood maples are some of the best woods for cutting boards, with sugar maple being among the most prized for this application.
Maple wood is light blonde-brown and usually exhibits interesting and artful grain patterns.
This wood is hard and dense, with a fine grain and minuscule pores. The Janka rating for maple is 1450 (Brazilian maple is 1500).
Walnut wood derives from trees in the genus Juglans. Black walnut (J. nigra) is especially prized in woodworking and is an excellent wood for cutting boards.
Walnut wood is a dark chocolaty brown and has a straight (or mildly wavy) grain. The pores in walnut wood are larger than in maple.
Walnut wood is strong but is softer and less dense than maple. Note that the hardness and density of particular walnut varieties differ. For instance, the Janka rating of North American walnut is 1010, while Caribbean walnut has a rating of 1400.
Bamboo is a giant grass with a long history in Asian woodworking, and it makes superior cutting boards!
The light color and organic look of bamboo are visually pleasing. Bamboo is light but surprisingly hard and dense. With a Janka rating of 1650, bamboo is as strong as many hardwoods.
Bamboo has smaller pore spaces and is denser than many widely-used wood varieties, including maple. This impressive woodworking material also has natural anti-microbial properties.
Pros And Cons Of Each Wood
Maple, walnut, and bamboo have specific pros and cons as materials for cutting boards.
The advantages of maple are its hardness. Maple is hard enough to handle the cuts and chops of kitchen knives but soft enough to prevent knife blades from being damaged.
Another pro is that maple wood has tiny pores, which means it has low porosity. This characteristic prevents maple cutting boards from absorbing liquids that might result in microbial contamination.
The light color of maple wood is a potential disadvantage. While the wood is not highly porous, certain food pigments (like those found in beetroot juice or turmeric root) might cause visible staining on a maple cutting board.
A second disadvantage of maple is that it shrinks after drying out. This can warp or crack a maple cutting board that is not properly oiled.
The hardness of walnut is an advantage. Walnut is strong enough to serve as an effective cutting surface while being sufficiently soft to protect the longevity and sharpness of one’s knives.
Walnut’s color is also a pro of this particular wood variety. Food stains on walnut cutting boards are inconspicuous due to the wood’s dark hue.
A notable advantage of walnut is that it shrinks and expands less than maple. The cons of walnut include the larger pore sizes, which make the wood more porous (and thus absorbent) than maple and bamboo.
The cost of walnut is another disadvantage. Cutting boards made from walnut wood are generally more expensive than maple and bamboo.
The strength of bamboo is a significant pro. Bamboo cutting boards are solid and durable while being soft enough not to damage the blades of one’s kitchen knives.
Bamboo is self-healing, so tiny cuts and scratches seal themselves and maintain the even smoothness of cutting board surfaces.
Bamboo’s low porosity means the wood is less absorbent than maple and walnut. The anti-microbial properties of bamboo also reduce the chances of cutting board contamination.
A crucial advantage of bamboo is its environmental sustainability. Bamboo is a renewable resource that grows rapidly, and its cultivation does not require harmful synthetic chemicals. Perhaps the only potential disadvantage of bamboo cutting boards is their low weight. Bamboo cutting boards might not be as stable to work on compared with maple and walnut.
Tips For Choosing The Best Wood For Your Cutting Board
Follow these tips to choose the best wood for a cutting board. Check the hardness of the wood. Avoid woods with Janka ratings below 1000, or above 2000. Use low-porosity woods that are designated as being ‘food-safe’. Avoid woods that shrink and expand excessively. Do not use resinous softwoods that might taint foods.
Some woods are better suited for cutting boards than others. Wood that is strong and has low porosity and shrinkage is the optimal cutting board material. Hardwoods are generally better than softwoods.
Woodworkers consider maple, walnut, and bamboo (technically a type of grass) as being among the best materials for making cutting boards.