When Something is Expected to Fail but Doesn’t

An experiment to see how quickly a wooden cutting board is rendered unusable

I made this cutting board and designed it to fail, but it didn’t fail as I expected! Here are the “bad decisions” that I made in an attempt to accelerate the failure of the cutting board.

Low density wood

I used butternut, which is a hardwood on the softer end of the spectrum. Butternut has a specific gravity of 0.43 which is about 40% lighter than hardwoods typically used for cutting boards such as beech (0.72) and hard maple (0.71). Harder woods will surely stand up to knives better than softer woods, right?

Carved letters to trap food and make it hard to clean

Wooden objects don’t do well in the dishwasher, so can’t be sanitized with heat like other dishes. I routed letters into the working surface on each side at the top with a router. Would small bits of food get lodged in the letters, making cleaning difficult or impractical?

Include a split and broken section, and sapwood

As a bolder experiment, and part of my relentless push to fail, I elected to not cut off the end where some of the wood fibres has split off, and a crack was showing in the end grain. It was an obvious place for bacteria to collect and mould to grow, but I wanted to know how quickly that would happen. Sapwood is the typically lighter band of wood that is located at the outside of the tree is generally considered less durable and is usually less dense as well. In traditional woodworking, sapwood is considered a defect. In this cutting board, sapwood comprises the top quarter.

Used a piece of wood prone to warpage

For stability, quartersawn wood where the growth rings run near vertical when you look at the end grain is unquestionably the best. Quartersawn wood is less likely to cup, twist, or warp. Rift sawn wood is the next best with growth rings around 45 degrees, and flat sawn lumber with growth rings running more or less horizontally is generally the least stable and most likely to warp. I used a single piece of wood quartersawn at the top, rift sawn at the middle, and flat sawn at the bottom.

No special care instructions or treatment for this cutting board

I threw the cutting boards into the cutting board drawer of our kitchen right alongside the plastic and wood composite ones with no instructions to my wife or kids on how to use or not use them. (They have, however, been educated that wood never goes in the dishwasher.)

Time to conclude the experiment

Today, after two years of regular use, I decided to retire the cutting board. It was used for bread, produce, raw and cooked meat on a daily basis with straight and serrated knives. The actual cutting surfaces are in pretty good condition. There are obvious knife marks, but they look like scratches as if somebody took a pointed wooden stick and dragged it across the board. (All pictures here were taken today.) The cutting board is also remarkably flat. It doesn’t rock at all on my countertops.

The lettering looks quite good – food didn’t collect in there, escaping cleaning as I thought it might. We washed the cutting board with hot soapy water and a cloth, giving it no more of a scrub than a plate. I don’t recall ever using a dish brush to scrub food out of the letters. Looking closely, the letters look a bit fuzzy on the end grain walls which might be due to repeated wet/dry cycles during washes. Perhaps someday I will try a bolder experiment with lettering right through the middle section of the cutting board that gets the most use.

But the real surprise is that the broken grain and crack in the end grain appears fine – there is no darkening or discolouration visible! Ultimately, I chose to retire the cutting board because other areas of the end grain were showing discolouration. I could have, and perhaps should have, replaced them as soon as I noticed the discolouration, but it wasn’t until today that I got around to finishing the replacements.

The new cutting boards are made of black locust (0.77 specific gravity), and laminated from 6 pieces. Let’s see how these hold up! If my attempt at failure lasted for 2 years, I’m guessing these will last a lot longer!

7 thoughts on “When Something is Expected to Fail but Doesn’t

  1. When my wife asked me to turn a set of dinner plates, I made a couple in pine as samples. Those two plates have been in daily use for 8 years or more – I eat my lunch from them. I also turn them over to use the underside to cut up apples. They have knife scratches and scars, some wear, and are still perfectly useful.

      1. I used camphor laurel for the good plates. Daily use and 8 years on. We make no special allowance. Serrated knives – steak knives – are used – but not regularly. Some scarring, but only minor. Occasionally we get some staining due to tumeric etc in curries, but that comes out after a couple of washes. They have been dropped, but never broken.

          1. Around Northern New South Wales, where I live, Camphor Laurel is a declared weed. It is a beautiful shade tree, fast growing, has great colour, and is a pleasure to work. We get a lot of salvage timber, mostly slabs. Trees grown for shade have shorter, gnarled trunks that make attractive table tops. Straight clear slabs can provide furniture grade timber. When worked, the Camphor smell is strong, and can be overpowering, especially when making heavy cuts when turning. The wood is close grained and somewhat oily. It carves well, and can hold good details, edges etc. Naturally, it is popular with woodcrafters…

  2. Some 45+ years ago I visited an upscale cooking store that specialized in Asian kitchen products. The store didn’t stick around too long, I suppose it was too much of a niche. I partially remember the experience because all the cutting boards were made of softwood. I asked about this and was told that they were friendlier to knives.

    I suppose you might remember the fad in the late 70’s or early 80’s when genuine end grain butcher blocks became a decorating fad. I have read that these blocks became available because wood was banned from commercial butcher shops for sanitary reasons and they switched over to plastic cutting surfaces…. We have subsequently learned that cuts and scratches in these plastic cutting surfaces harbor bacteria while wood contains a natural antimicrobial. This was published prior to the internet and is therefore more believable.

    1. Hi Dan,

      Thanks for sharing. Interesting thoughts on softwood cutting boards… I guess it depends whether you’d rather replace/resurface your cutting boards or sharpen your knives more frequently.

      I have heard and researched plastic vs wood vs glass. Very interesting thoughts. Wooden cutting boards are my first choice.

      And to tie both your thoughts together, I also believe that end grain wooden cutting boards are more friendly to knives than side grain wooden boards.


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