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Scrap Wood Cutting Boards

Turn trash into treasure.

By Yoav Liberman


I love hard cheeses and hard-crust breads. My cheese-making skills are limited and my baking talent is admired only in our household and among close friends, so I use my woodworking skills to make distinctive cutting boards to serve the foods I like.

The secret to my designs is using cast-off lumber, those short cutoffs and deformed pieces that usually get thrown out or burned in the fireplace (Photo 1). I’ll demonstrate how I deal with the imperfections that characterize the scrap pieces I use. I’ll also explain how to turn a handle that’s functional and decorative.

 

Choose foodsafe wood

Maple, beech, cherry and birch are excellent choices. They’re hard, close-pored woods that are known to be foodsafe. It’s a good idea to stay away from tropical woods in general, as many, including rosewood, olivewood and cocobolo, contain known toxins or allergens.

 

Prepare the board

Scrap pieces usually need two or three operations: removing bark, flattening the surfaces and filling voids with epoxy. After you remove bark, clean the surface with a brass brush to get rid of grit and other loose material. Then sand.

Flatten the surfaces before you fill the voids. This takes longer than filling the voids first, because you have to remove the excess epoxy by hand. But epoxy can dull a sharp edge—why risk your jointer or planer knives when you can sand or chisel of the excess?

If the board you’ve chosen is more than 12" long, you can use your jointer and planer to flatten it. If the board is too short to be milled, savor the moment; this is a great opportunity to hone your hand-planing skills (Photo 2).

If your scraps are long enough, but too wide for your jointer, flatten them using only your planer. With the knives set to make a light cut, run the board cupped-face-down until the face you’re planing is flat. Then flip the board and flatten the cupped side. Use a sled if the board is twisted. Shim unsupported areas caused by the twist before planing. Once one face is planed, you won’t need the sled to flatten the other face.

 

Clean and fill the cavities

Cavities in a board are a natural home for minerals, sand and dirt to settle in over the years—these contaminants will dull your chisels and carving gouges. That’s why I use a high-speed rotary tool equipped with a carbide bit to remove decayed wood (Photo 3).

Use slow-setting epoxy to fill the cavities. I usually color the epoxy (Photo 4). For shallow cavities, just pour in the epoxy. If the void goes all the way through the board, seal the opening on the back side with masking tape. Use a spatula to work the epoxy into awkward cracks and small dents (Photo 5). When the epoxy is dry—but before it has fully cured—remove the excess by hand with a chisel, hand plane or sandpaper (Photo 6).

 

Turn and install the handle

I never make two handles alike, so I have to come up with novel shapes every time I turn a new one (Photo 7). I use this opportunity to explore interesting resources in the environment around me. Architectural details, mechanical components and natural formations are all sources of inspiration. Sometimes, I laminate the handle blanks (Photo 8).

It’s most efficient to turn two handles out of one long blank (Photo 9). The tenons on the ends of the handles are the only parts that must be accurately turned. I turn 1" dia. tenons for thick cutting boards (1-1/2" and up); anything thinner gets a 3/4" tenon. Always make the tenons longer than necessary and cut them to length when you fit the handle to the board.

If you orient the handles so they meet in the middle, you can turn one long tenon. But if you’re used to working in one direction, from the headstock toward the tailstock, for example, it may be easier to orient the handles in the same direction.

Establish the tenon’s diameter by plunging in with a parting tool at several locations along its length, using calipers to gauge the depth. Complete the tenon by removing the waste with a spindle gouge and finishing with a skew chisel.

Shape the handles’ beads, coves and fillets with spindle gouges and the skew. Sand the handles while they’re still on the lathe; remove them to cut them apart. Use the handles’ unfinished ends as clamping surfaces when you glue them in.

Drill a hole in the board and testfit the handle (Photo 10). Then brush epoxy into the hole and around the tenon. Install the handle and clamp it until the epoxy cures. Remove the clamps and lay the board on your bench. If it rocks because the handle’s diameter is too big, plane or sand the handle flush on both sides, so the board sits flat. Then finish shaping the end of the handle (Photo 11). Sand each board with 150-, 220- and 320-grit sandpaper before you apply the finish.

 

Food-safe finishes

I prefer using flaxseed oil or walnut oil for finishing (Photo 12). Unlike the vegetable or mineral oils that are often used as food-safe finishes for wood, flaxseed and walnut oil completely cure and polymerize. They’re very easy to apply, they enhance the wood’s natural beauty and scratches don’t show as they do on varnish and other surface-film finishes. You should be aware, though, that some people are allergic to walnuts. If this is a concern, go with flaxseed oil. Both oils are commonly available at health food stores.


This story originally appeared in American Woodworker December/January 2009, issue #139.


December/January 2009, issue #139

Purchase this back issue.

Click on any of the images to view a larger version

1. I make beautiful cutting boards from gnarly offcuts. Maple, beech, cherry and birch are safe woods to use for serving food.


2. Hand plane boards that are too short to flatten with your jointer and planer.



3. Remove decayed or unstable wood using a high-speed rotary tool equipped with a round or pear-shaped bit.


4. Fill cavities with slow-setting epoxy. I mix in artists oil paint to add color. Here I’ve added ivory black, but I often mix bright colors to create a dramatic effect.


5. Use a thin-bladed spatula to work the epoxy into narrow cracks and crevices. Dab on wax to keep the epoxy from draining out the end of a check.


6. Level the epoxy with the board’s surface. To make the job easier, start before the epoxy reaches maximum hardness.


7. I sketch new handle designs for each cutting board. All of the boards I build are unique, so it makes sense that the handles should be, too.


8. Laminating thin veneer strips of contrasting wood into the handle blank (inset photo) adds visual appeal.


9. It’s easiest to turn two handles on the same blank, with the tenons facing one another. Then you can turn one long tenon.


10. Test-fit the handle to make sure it seats fully. It’s okay if the tenon is a bit loose, because epoxy can fill gaps and still create a strong bond.


11. Use a chisel to finish shaping the handle after it’s glued to the board. Saw off the waste first and complete the job by sanding.


12. Rub on flaxseed oil or walnut oil. Then sand with 400-grit wet/dry sandpaper. Wipe the board dry and let the oil cure for several days.


Comments

Joe Johns wrote re: Scrap Wood Cutting Boards
on 07-17-2011 8:52 AM

Nice Yoav, a grand use for wood otherwise bound for the Island of Misfit Scrap.

Joe Johns wrote re: Scrap Wood Cutting Boards
on 07-17-2011 8:53 AM

Nice Yoav, a grand use for wood otherwise bound for the Island of Misfit Scrap.