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Somebody has asked me to make some large shaped food-serving boards, about 600mm/24" across, engraved with a catering company name.

I've never taken anything like this on before and I have the following requirements I'm unsure of:

  • Needs to be food safe, durable and easy to clean. I know that beech is a good material to use as I have a beech chopping board at home, but would it make it even more durable / easy to clean by oiling the board e.g. with mineral oil? Is this still food safe etc? Is there anything else I need to watch out for with this?
  • I have no problem in general with laminating timber up to give large/wide boards, but do I need to use a special glue for use with food? Given that they are such wide boards and will be getting washed/wet do I need to make any allowances to stop the boards from warping, twisting, cupping, joints separating etc? I can easily insert dowels, or biscuits, or use a finger joint block to give increased surface area.
  • Would it be better to use a minimum amount of timber pieces e.g. 3 off 200 x 600mm boards glued up to make a large 600x600mm board, or will it be better to use a higher number of narrower boards which are 600mm long, or an even higher number of boards e.g. 50mm x 200mm with some end-to-end gluing? Presumably this may help with stability,
  • How long can these be expected to last if being used once or twice a week just for serving food, without being used for any chopping?

As far as actually machining / engraving the boards I have that covered as I have access to a large 5-axis CNC router.

Many thanks.

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Needs to be food safe, durable and easy to clean. I know that beech is a good material to use as I have a beech chopping board at home, but would it make it even more durable / easy to clean by oiling the board e.g. with mineral oil? Is this still food safe etc? Is there anything else I need to watch out for with this?

Beech is a fine choice for a chopping board. You can buy food-grade mineral oil at just about any grocery store (I get mine at IKEA since it's convenient for me to do so). The rule of thumb for oiling a cutting board is to soak it until it stops absorbing oil once a day for a week, then once a week for a month, and then monthly after that.

Oiling the board won't necessarily make it more durable in terms of chop resistance. However, it will make the board last longer just because it keeps it from drying out.

I have no problem in general with laminating timber up to give large/wide boards, but do I need to use a special glue for use with food? Given that they are such wide boards and will be getting washed/wet do I need to make any allowances to stop the boards from warping, twisting, cupping, joints separating etc? I can easily insert dowels, or biscuits, or use a finger joint block to give increased surface area.

TiteBond III is the universal standard for gluing up cutting boards. It's food-safe and has a bit more open time that regular TiteBond. There are food-safe epoxies, but I haven't been able to find one that's easy for me to get and as inexpensive as TB III.

To help mitigate the warping of the boards, I would make glue-ups of narrower strips that have the grain direction alternated, similar to the image below:

grain
(source: The Wood Whisperer)

Simple butt joints between the strips should be sufficient, though you can use dowels/biscuits/finger lock if you really want to spend the time doing so.

Would it be better to use a minimum amount of timber pieces e.g. 3 off 200 x 600mm boards glued up to make a large 600x600mm board, or will it be better to use a higher number of narrower boards which are 600mm long, or an even higher number of boards e.g. 50mm x 200mm with some end-to-end gluing? Presumably this may help with stability,

As I said previously, I would use more narrower strips instead of fewer wider strips to mitigate the warping issues. Most butcher blocks are made this way for this reason:

butcher block

How long can these be expected to last if being used once or twice a week just for serving food, without being used for any chopping?

Go to your local butcher and take a look at their blocks. They get used much, much more frequently than once or twice a week. Yes, they will show signs of abuse eventually, but they should hold up for quite a long time if properly treated.


As a side note, I would mention to your customer than these should never be put in a dishwasher, should always be dried immediately after hand washing, and never stored flat on top of a wet countertop.

Also, I usually just rinse my cutting boards off with warm water and my hand (no soap). Then pat dry with a towel and store on-edge.

  • Should be dried immediately. (In context that could be misread as another "never") – keshlam Nov 20 '15 at 5:14
  • I thought the reason butcher blocks were made of narrow strips was to keep the endgrain on the cutting surface? The strips in the butcher block pic are oriented differently than the wood whisperer example. – Jason C Nov 20 '15 at 9:18
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    @JasonC, the narrow steps are used to create patterns on the cutting board surface when recut and glued up. Do a search for "cutting board patterns" and you'll see what I mean. – grfrazee Nov 20 '15 at 12:49
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Needs to be food safe, durable and easy to clean. I know that beech is a good material to use as I have a beech chopping board at home, but would it make it even more durable / easy to clean by oiling the board e.g. with mineral oil?

No. What it will do is introduce a 'finish' that never dries and needs to be topped up periodically for the entire service life of the boards. As bizarre as it seems it's also very much not waterproof. Beyond that, from an aesthetic point of view wood oiled with mineral oil looks permanently like it's damp, instead of having a truly finished look like you'd get from an actual wood finish.

So instead I would recommend polyurethane, specifically a thin wiped-on application of anywhere from three to six coats with drying time in between. Varnish is perfectly safe for direct food contact once fully cured (source: regulatory agencies worldwide).

I have no problem in general with laminating timber up to give large/wide boards, but do I need to use a special glue for use with food?

Not really, but some glues are almost universally recommended in this sort of context, including Titebond III. (Note: the actual quote on their site in regards to the food-safety issue is this, "Titebond III Ultimate Wood Glue and Titebond II Premium Wood Glue have both been approved for indirect food contact.")

Given that they are such wide boards and will be getting washed/wet do I need to make any allowances to stop the boards from warping, twisting, cupping, joints separating etc?

I would recommend selecting your stock carefully so that you're exclusively using quarter-sawn boards, where the grain is oriented vertically or nearly so on the board ends:

Quarter-sawn v. plain-sawn

As you can also see from the drawing, quarter-sawn boards also feature straight, uniform grain on their faces. Additionally in beech, as with oak, there's also the possibility of "ray-fleck" figuring on the board faces which some people find very attractive.

Quarter-sawn beech ray figuring

Quarter-sawn wood is more stable than plain-sawn/flat-sawn wood:

Sawing types and stability

I can easily insert dowels, or biscuits, or use a finger joint block to give increased surface area.

Believe it or not, none of those actually materially improve the strength of a glued-up top. At the end of the day they primarily function as alignment aids during assembly, which are unnecessary if the clamping operation is done right (e.g. using cauls).

Would it be better to use a minimum amount of timber pieces e.g. 3 off 200 x 600mm boards glued up to make a large 600x600mm board, or will it be better to use a higher number of narrower boards which are 600mm long, or an even higher number of boards e.g. 50mm x 200mm with some end-to-end gluing? Presumably this may help with stability,

Many narrower strips can end up stronger and more stable than a basic glue-up of wider boards (think glulam), however there is some dependence on the wood as always. Very stable wider boards could make a perfectly serviceable product, particularly if quarter-sawn wood is selected for the reason shown above.

How long can these be expected to last if being used once or twice a week just for serving food, without being used for any chopping?

As far as the customer is concerned: indefinitely.

Some upkeep will be required but the wood itself has a service life measured in decades at least, centuries at best.

  • Particularly useful info about the oil finish. I'll be leaving them unfinished for the customer to deal with I think. I have a (smaller) beech chopping board at home and I haven't had issues with warping etc. as I dry it after washing. – WhatEvil Nov 20 '15 at 21:41
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A colleague of mine has just come up with a good suggestion so I thought I'd post it as an answer so that anybody looking at this in the future could see it:

Use a pre-made kitchen worktop. You can buy a 3-metre length for around £80 ($120ish) and it's already glued up dead flat and straight. Just be careful to get something that is solid timber and pay attention to the finish - if you will be finishing it yourself you probably want it to be unfinished.

Edit: I should add that this is exactly what I did and it worked perfectly. The boards are really stable and perfect for this kind of job.

  • IKEA sells these too, though I'm pretty sure they have some sort of finish. My dad bought a couple to make into a workbench top and had to strip the finish before laminating them. – grfrazee Nov 19 '15 at 22:16
  • Yeah I saw, but came to the same conclusion as you about the finish. – WhatEvil Nov 20 '15 at 8:34

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