Butcher Blocks

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Butcher block is a style of assembled wood (often sugar maple, teak, or walnut) used as heavy duty chopping blocks, table tops, and cutting boards. It was commonly used in butcher shops and meat processing plants but has now become popular in home use.

It is made in two basic styles:

End grain butcher block

This type of butcher block is made by gluing pieces of wood with the wood fiber perpendicular to the surface. Most commercial butcher blocks have a thickness greater than four inches. This produces an extremely tough, durable surface capable of withstanding repeated blows from large, heavy meat cleavers. Its thickness also allows it to be resurfaced many times without wearing away an appreciable percentage of the total thickness.

End Grain Butcher Blocks are generally preferred by professional chefs because the end grain wood fibers absorb the impact of the knife blade by allowing it to go between the fibers. This in turn keeps knives sharper longer and makes the boards more resistant to nicks and gouges.

Edge grain butcher block

This type of butcher block is made by gluing pieces of wood with the wood fiber parallel to the surface. As with end grain butcher block, the planks are then glued up under heavy pressure. Edge-grain butcher blocks are considerably easier to make than end-grain and are therefore less expensive. The number of times it can be refinished depends on its thickness.

Edge Grain Butcher Blocks generally feature full length wood rails that span the length of the piece, but they can sometimes be laid in a jointed construction, which looks like a hard wood floor. Both styles are equally durable, though not as durable as end grain. Both styles, if built with a natural oil finish, will need to be re-oiled to preserve the life of the wood. Both can be cut on directly.

History

The modern butcher block was developed in the 1880s and was called at the time “The Sanitary Meat Block”. It was developed to address a need by the meat cutting industry for a more sanitary and stable cutting surface. Prior to the invention of butcher block butchers cut on “tree rounds” or a section of tree trunk set on legs. Butcher block, because of its construction, was fundamentally more stable. Tree rounds were susceptible to cracking creating an unsanitary condition. Butcher block minimized this cracking. Solid northern hard maple was used because it is the proper hardness. This was important because the butchers cutting tools needed to be durable and woods harder would blunt the edge of these tools and woods softer would degrade quickly.

The modern butcher block was always solid and usually very thick. The thickness was important for the longevity of the block and also for the stability the mass provided. Butchers needed a block that was stable ensuring that the block would not move as large pieces of meat were placed on the block. Additionally, the blocks were usually very thick to allow the butcher to work on the block for a long period of time. A butcher would buy a block as an apprentice and use the block his entire career. When the block became worn it would be planed down to create a rejuvenated cutting surface.

Because of these features butcher block became tremendously successful with butchers. Today butcher block cutting boards are still considered food safe and acceptable for food preparation. Butcher Blocks are still manufactured by several companies.

Finishes

Butcher block can be finished with non-toxic oils (when used for actual food preparation) or with conventional wood finishes (when used for its decorative effects). Oil finishes tend to darken over time and must also be re-applied from time to time as exposed, unfinished wood will degrade fairly rapidly. Conventional finishes do not darken but are much more susceptible to damage from cutting tools and damage to them must be rapidly repaired or the underlying wood will be damaged. Note that olive oil and vegetable oil are not suitable for finishing, as they will become rancid, giving the block a sour odor and foods an off taste.

For butcher blocks treated with a natural oil finish, it is recommended that you re-oil every 3 months to maintain the health and life of your butcher block. You can use a pure white mineral oil that you purchase at a local hardware store or grocery store. In addition to the natural oil finish, some butcher blocks can be purchased with a durakryl 102 semi-gloss finish that is virtually maintenance free and does not need to be re-oiled. durakryl 102 semi-gloss finish butcher blocks are generally used in aesthetic applications and are not meant to be cut upon directly.

Use in the home

Butcher block is now commonly used in the home. It may form table tops, countertops, or the classical legged chopping block. Traditionally made from tightly grained hardwoods like maple, teak, walnut and cherry, butcher blocks are easily cut and shaped with conventional woodworking tools. Compared to many countertop materials such as Corian, granite or bamboo, offers a comparably long service lifetime with a relatively low purchase price.

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