This is possibly the most minimal and simple cutting board you can make with the least amount of tools and know-how. Before I get to the tutorial, let me begin with the story on how it all started. About a year and a half ago I returned from my journey through Central and South America with a nice lil’ gal. We happened to return 1 month before Christmas and thus were expected to give eachother a fine present in traditional American style. Now – I have a tendency not to go along with societal expectations, but rather do what I feel is right…and something about Christmas never really felt right. The expectation of buying some electronic gadget, or fancy clothing, or other general meaningless knickknack – didn’t really seem genuine. In the end it usually adds up into an ‘arms race’ of families and friends spending more and more every year. If you go back and give less one year – our society has taught us to notice that and put a feeling of shame on it. And what happens to all of that junk in the end? I think most of it goes into storage units, attics, closets, and landfills.
Well I had had enough of that and decided to start something new. The new rule, halfheartedly yet optimistically agreed to by my girlfriend – that nice lil’ gal that she is, was that we were to make something by hand for eachother for every major gift giving occasion. Over the past year or so this has proven to be quite the challenge…as a handmade gift takes much much longer to give/make than one bought online. (Our last Christmas gifts were finally presented to eachother this June!) Both of us are learning that in order to create certain things – new skills need to be acquired and knowledge of certain tools needs to be gained. Every gift we have made so far has so much meaning and thought behind it as well as a boatload of memories of how much we screwed up while making them. It is a lot of fun and I would recommend it to everyone out there looking to make life a bit more interesting. So far on the list – a wood and glass night light, a leather purse, a tree stump drill bit holder, fine art drawings, wood and steel noteboards, and a walnut pencil, oh and this cutting board below…now let’s get on down to it.
I went to my local hardwood store, not the big name brand places…but a smaller guy with a huge selection of many species not normally seen anywhere near a Home Depot. I looked over every board of Walnut, my favorite due to it’s darker color and nice grain patterns. It’s important to look down the long edges of the board to see how straight it is. The straighter from the get go…the easier it will be to work with. No board is perfect, but it’s best to get one that’s close. I chose this piece because it was pretty straight, and also it had a nice light color near both edges, with a dark contrast in the center.
The board itself was about 10 feet long and about 1 inch thick – so it was a little unruly getting it strapped onto the car in gusty winds…and luckily it didn’t rip my roof racks right off. At home I clamped it to a pair of saw horses to prepare for the first cut.
Looking over the wood I decided what section I wanted to be the cutting board based on the pattern and knots. In a cutting board you can have the knots in it for show, but it may cause trouble down the line when that board gets wet and dries several times. The knot could pop out. I liked this knot a lot though so I decided to make a small cheese board out of that section and use a clearer section for the cutting board.
Once the cheeseboard section was cut, I measured out the length needed for the cutting board. I did this more by feel – eyeballing it to see what dimensions looked best. I then marked the crosscut with a square and sawed away.
On the tablesaw I made a ripcut (length of the board) to get the cheese board width down to size. You can also do this with a handsaw and a bit of sweat. Shown above and in the next two photos is the cross cut for the cheese board to get the length right. I held the board up against the miter gauge to slide it into the saw. In general it is safer to use a crosscut sled for this part…but again these cuts can all be done by hand with a handsaw.
Once both pieces were cut down to size, I then had to take care of the rough edges that came with the board as well as those from the table saw.
The fancy way of smoothing out a rough edge is to use a router table like a jointer with the bit on the left. The simple way with a bit more work is to use a hand plane or even just sand the heck out of it for a while. Since I am into learning new tools and techniques I finally set up my router table and easily fed the boards through, cleaning up all edges in seconds. In the photo below you can see a divot on the top board where the tail end of it fell into the bit too much. I need to do a bit more research to figure out why. The next bit on the right above, it to cut 45 degree angles into the corners of the boards, giving it a nice bevel and protecting the edges from splintering with heavy use.
I hate hand sanding, it is slow and monotonous…that’s why I acquired this electric hand sander which makes it easy, fast and fun. The sander hooks into a vacuum so there is virtually no dust at all. I used a 120 grit initially to sand out any major markings in the wood, then switched to 320 grit for smoothness. Again this can all be done by hand with the basic sheets of sand paper…but you may regret your sweaty pits.
For a little custom touch I used a wood burning tool and personalized the boards. It’s always the small things that make handmade goods priceless. If you do anything like this – make sure to protect the wood while in a vice, by putting a soft cloth between the wood and metal.
At this point I wet the wood on all sides to raise the grain. I then dried it quickly with a heat gun. Raising the grain allows you to re-sand everything back down to a super smooth surface. This is very important on a cutting board that will get wet – as you want it to stay as smooth as possible afterwards.
After re-sanding everything I applied a healthy coat of all natural walnut oil with a soft cloth.
This is always my favorite part for the reason seen above.
Here’s a great brand of walnut oil. After applying I let it sit for a day to soak in and dry out.
I then took and objective look at both pieces and realized that something was wrong. They were too straight and uniform looking. I needed to add more of a handmade touch. I decided a good way to do this was to add a subtle angle into the edge of one side of each piece. For this I used a hand plane and it was easy work. You can also use a piece of sandpaper attached to a wood block. For the cutting board – I didn’t make this angle go too far in so as not to disturb the practical useability of the board.
The cutting board needed something more. Again the straight edges bothered me. I think this is a result of using a machine to cut/smooth out the edges versus a handsaw and sandpaper. With machines you get almost perfect looking pieces. To stray from that I decided to add in a natural looking corner using a coping saw. by using a coping saw I was assured that I would not be able to cut in a straight line and the cut may look more natural.
After doing this I had a slight heart attack. It was a big move and on a nearly finished piece, I wasn’t completely sure I wanted it after I did it – but it was too late.
In my drill press I put a cylindrical sanding bit in place and used it to tidy up the cut corner.
To create a bevel on the cut corner I used this mini plane…which did nothing but rough up the edge…so I stopped using it. Sanding worked fine at this point and once I was done sanding it all down I decided the heart-attack-causing cut grew on me and I was happy with it.
As a final step I used a walnut oil, beeswax and carnauba wax mixture to coat the entire sides of both boards. This brand is food safe and looks great when it is all rubbed in.
On hindsight – I don’t think the wax is entirely necessary as it feels like it washed off within a fe uses. The oil however is very important to protect the wood in the long term. You should re-apply every month or two to keep the wood from warping or cracking.
Let me know waht you think and if you have any questions in the comment box below.