How to Make a Food Safe Aged Cutting Board
Today I want to show you one of the MOST useful DIY projects I’ve done in the last 2 years – I made a set of beautiful cutting boards for my kitchen and serving table. But after I first made them, I didn’t like the way they looked. Bare wood is sort of ho-hum. I wanted my cutting boards to look like they had been in my kitchen for decades – not days.
First of all, let me back up a bit and tell you about how I started the project. Since my power tools are limited, making an end grain cutting board was out of the question. Also, the main use of the boards was not intended to be an everyday chopping block, but more for cutting bread or serving things like cheese. And I had fallen in love with some slab cutting boards I saw at an estate sale. So I was set on the idea to simply cut the boards out of 1″x8″ planks, or slightly larger if I could find it.
Next up was to choose what kind of wood to use. I did a lot of research, knowing it needed to be a very hard wood that was also foodsafe. Cedar and pine were out of the question, they are too soft (and cedar isn’t really food safe anyway). Oak was my next consideration, but heard that even though oak is hard enough, it can also be too porous for food use. I saw that maple was the most common recommendation on woodworking forums, but all the maple I could find at the regular home improvement stores was bland with very little grain variation to make the wood look interesting. Other woods to consider were cherry, walnut, elm, or more exotic hardwoods. I’m not a fan of cherry (too red), walnut was out of the question because of my son’s nut allergies, elm was impossible to find, and exotic hardwoods were either outrageously expensive or questionable for food use. Which left me with hickory as the wood of choice.
I knew that hickory was a really hard wood, but I didn’t realize how extremely difficult it is to work with until I tried this project. You can sand and sand and sand and sand and sand…. and if you sand a lot more, you just might have a very slightly rounded edge. But the piece of hickory I found at a specialty lumber store was really, really pretty with lots of color variation in the wood grain. So I drudged through the sanding (it was worth it in the end!). The size of my piece was not standard 1″x8 or 1″x10. It was more like a 1.5″x9″. The extra thickness made the cutting boards look much more substantial and much prettier than thinner pieces of wood.
Here is a rough guide of how I cut the tops of the boards – you can easily wing this and adjust it as needed for the width of your own boards. By the way, we used a set of hole cutters to cut out the handles at the top.
Anyway, once you’ve cut out and sanded your cutting board well, you probably don’t want it to look so brand-new. I wanted my boards to look like their antique inspirations. But the extent of my existing wood ageing techniques were based on using paints, stains and varnishes – none of which I could use on a food safe cutting board. I stumbled upon the perfect solution somewhere along the way – a blowtorch.
The blowtorch was the 100% perfect solution to coloring the wood without using any chemicals at all. The trick to using it is to constantly keep the flame moving over the surface of the board. If you pause for even a few seconds, you’ll get a big black spot that actually looks like a burn. I just wanted to bring out the grain of the wood and accent the edges. As long as you are constantly moving the flame – and moving it with the grain of the wood instead of across it, the effect is both subtle and beautifully enhancing. I burned the surface area slightly, and burned it more around the edges and sides. It looked 20 years older already!
Next up was a way to seal the wood while again using something non-toxic. I used an old trick I learned when we had a butcher block in our kitchen from 2 houses ago – a combination of melted beeswax and mineral oil. Mineral oil is sold as a laxative at almost any place that sells personal care items. Target, Walmart, CVS, etc. Beeswax is found at grocery stores by the baking stuff (used for canning).
Scrape off bits of the beeswax with a sharp knife until you have approximately 2 tablespoons of shavings. Put them into a microwave safe (and preferably disposable) container with about 1/3 cup of mineral oil. It takes quite a while to melt them in the microwave – I used a plastic cup and warmed it in 2 minute increments 4-5 times before it was all liquid. Once it is melted and combined, use a soft lint free cloth or paper towel to wipe the mixture all over the cutting board, including the sides, bottom, and interior of the hole. Let it dry for a bit and use a second dry paper towel to wipe off any excess. Letting it dry overnight will allow the oil and wax to soak completely into the wood and it won’t feel greasy at all in thee morning.
The mixture will condition the wood, protect it from moisture, and darken it several shades as well. But it’s not permanent, especially if you use the boards and wash them frequently. I reapply straight mineral oil to the boards every few months, and give it another wax/oil treatment every 6-9 months.
Not only are the boards beautiful, but we use them every single day. I have one that is over two feet long, and I simply leave it on the table. It serves our bread and acts as a hot plate for our dinner every night. I store them in a wire basket in our dining room when I’m not using all of them. The before and after looks like they are 10+ years older, but these cutting boards came from the exact same piece of lumber. They are just as pretty to display as they are useful!
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