Woodworking 101: Chopping Board

. 5 min read

This fall I signed up for a woodworking class and I look forward to it every week. My first project was a chopping board, which seemed easy enough. Just glue pieces of wood together right? The plan was to make a massive cutting board (16" x 26"), the kind that cost more than two hundred bucks at Williams-Sonoma.

First I prepped my boards so that they were flat, even, and straight:

  1. Cut all the boards the same length with a miter saw
  2. Fed it through the planar for consistent thickness
  3. Ran it through the jointer for a 90° edge.

I measured out pieces of wood to the golden ratio (such a design nerd I know) and cut them with a table saw. Since I had several razor thin slices, I cut those first and used feather boards with push sticks to save my fingers. The whole process of prepping and cutting took 5 hours. I was using these tools for the first time so I'm sure experienced folks would be much faster.

Then I glued the pieces together. I learned that if you bond long grain to long grain, it's actually stronger than the wood itself. Pretty wild! My setup took 10 blocks, 19 clamps, and half a bottle of waterproof glue.

  • 4 clamps on blocks sandwiching the top and bottom to even out the surface
  • 4 clamps along the length squeezing the space between pieces
  • 2 clamps holding the setup to the table and another 2 to hold blocks against the board to make it 90°
  • 7 clamps for a test cutting board I made out of scraps to practice new tools

This step took me 3 hours, 1 hour for gluing and the rest of the time scraping it off. It's messy work but it saves time removing extra glue before it hardens into diamond glue.

I gave it more than a day to thoroughly dry and then started finishing the piece. It was really cool to see it come together. After chipping off the extra hardened glue (not fun), there were a couple of steps:

  1. Run board through drum sander to even out thickness and remove the last pesky bits of glue.
  2. Cut down sides to a proper 90° with a table saw. I used a table saw sled since this was a cross cut and in danger of kicking back.
  3. Created soft corners with a router, the coolest machine ever

Doing all this finish work really added nice details so that it's more than just a hunk of wood. This actually didn't take that long, just an hour or so.

Finally, I sanded the board multiple times. Halfway through I messed up and started over again. It was really a labor of love and I spent 5 hours on this. Here was my process:

  • Scrape down surface with a rectangle cabinet scraper to clean to wood. This removed scratches and burn marks.
  • Sand down with a 100 grit sandpaper block and worked my way through 120, 180, 220, and finally 320.
  • Do the same for the edges and with sandpaper instead of blocks

My thumbs and arms were so sore afterwards, but it was totally worth it. The entire board became soft and smooth as velvet! In retrospect 320 might have been overkill but I was ready to do anything to improve it even slightly.

Someone suggested that I use beeswax to polish the board but I forgot to get it and only had mineral oil on hand. This is to protect the wood from drying out and adding a nice finish. What a difference it made too! The colors became darker and the grain stood out more. The finished result is beautiful and I love that it's the size of an entire COUNTER.

I was so excited to bring it home and I've been too afraid to actually cut things on it. So far it's been used to serve up delicious Chinese food and BBQ. Maybe one day I'll work up the courage to use it for real.

To sum up my biggest learnings:

  • Never trust wood to be straight or square or even. Check everything because wood misbehaves, even after you work with it. Maybe it rains and your wood decides to curl and expand by 1/16 inch. Tough luck.
  • Do things right the first time. I thought the orbital sander would save me so much time but it added more work since I had to work out the scratches it left by hand sanding.
  • Take your time. Originally I thought this would take 5 hours and it took more than 12. At first I was frustrated by how long it was taking but then I realized that I didn't do this to save time. I slowed down and enjoyed the process more.
  • Accept imperfection. Despite my best efforts, there were still many little mistakes like a slightly sunken board or uneven rounded corners. And that's OK because it's in the nature of wood to be organic and imperfect.

Thanks for reading! I am still wrapping up my next project: a trio of bread saws, and I'll write up my process for that next.

Xin Xin

Designer of healthcare, games, ceramics, and tiny houses. Name translates to spicy happy in Chinese. Currently a senior product designer at One Medical.