Nils Wessel’s Brooklyn Butcher Blocks began as a hobby in a friend’s basement, so it’s little surprise that he now runs his workshop in a cramped studio within a nondescript building in the industrial Gowanus area of Brooklyn. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, so they say. Filled with woodworking tools covered by a thin veneer of sawdust, the cave-like space features a wooden staircase pivoting up to a self-constructed second floor. In this cozy den, Wessel fashions thick slabs of butcher block under the label Brooklyn Butcher Blocks. His latest creation features a brickwork pattern, with “bricks” made from end-cut walnut and thin pieces of mahogany “mortar.”
Back in his apartment a few blocks from his workshop, he spoke with us about how he made this newest board, and the proper way to care for cutting boards to ensure a long life.
What is the thought process behind the wood you choose?
I generally try to stick with domestic woods, so I primarily use cherry and walnut. They have a rich history in furniture making. I personally find maple a little too hard, a little rougher on the knife. So I like to go with something that’s a little softer. I also use reclaimed wood, typically anything [sourced] outside of the U.S. The two most frequent of those are beech and mahogany. Both have a comparable hardness to maple, but they’re also just so beautiful. Beech is a pretty plain wood, plain in color, but it’s so uniform that it looks sort of monolithic in a way.
I get a rough cut, which means it’s not ready for gluing or much else. First I have to flatten one side, and it has to be perfectly flat so that it will be able to accept a glue joint. If there’s a little bit of a bend or something, the wood will inevitably want to bend and contort. You want to reduce that and keep the wood under control as much as possible. One way of doing that is making sure the glue joint is perfectly flat. So it goes through the joiner, then you get that perfectly flat, then I put it through the planer. The planer just makes it so that the second side is perfectly parallel to the side that was surfaced on the joiner.
I end up with five boards. Each one is two inches high, and let’s just say they’re like four feet long, and each one is about four inches wide. You glue together this panel, and then it has to be resurfaced. When you’re resurfacing, you don’t want glue all over the place, because it’s not very good for your joiner or planer, and it’s just going to wear the knives down quickly. After it’s been resurfaced, you end up with this panel about eighteen inches wide by four feet long by two inches high. And then you make a cross cut every two inches, and you end up with this one piece. You have a bunch of these and I basically flip them around to create a pattern. This way, too, it’s an inherently stronger joint. You see with a lot of Boos Blocks, there might be a checkerboard pattern, and where those four joints meet, it’s just a little weaker — there’s nothing really holding it together. With this brickwork pattern, this one brick shape is holding together two others.
I should also mention, when I’m doing the first glue-up, I’m trying to align the grain, and it creates an aesthetic pattern, but it also has a practical use. The closer to the center [of the grain] you are, the less that’s going to want to absorb and release moisture, as you get further down to the hardwood. That’s just more dense. Close to the bark is the sap wood, and that’s a little more susceptible to expanding and contracting. So the idea is to try to align it in such a way that the boards are going to naturally breathe together as a unit. That shouldn’t be too much of an issue provided that you regularly retreat it, but it’s one of those things where you try to do as much as you can to try to prevent the wood from what it wants to do over time.
Well, after I’ve glued the board together, it’s basically a funky mess. So what happens next is basically just hours of sanding. I’ve definitely improved this a lot, but basically you just have to sand it flat by hand. Then, afterwards, I brand it with a little iron. So first I burn the block, then mix some epoxy and use some epoxy pigment, then mix that together and coat that over it and let it dry overnight and sand it. Then it gets submerged in mineral oil. I have a tank, and I actually just leave it there for about an hour and let it dry overnight, or as much as needed. I should mention, when sanding, I damp the surface of it, just to raise the grain, sand it, and then I might do it again just to see if that grain’s still rising. So then it gets finished, and I’ll actually test it again with some water, and if it needs another sand after it’s treated until it’s smooth, there isn’t really an issue. Lastly, I buff in a beeswax mineral oil mix that I make. The proportions of which, I’m not really sure. I just kind of do it by feel. And the beeswax is from this small farm way upstate. I just buff it in, sort of like a furniture wax. Then I wipe off the excess, and from there it’s just packaging, which is really just a card and some string.
How should a person care for a cutting board over the years?
I say treat it once every two to four weeks with mineral oil. As time goes on, you’ll need to do that less frequently. When you treat a board it’s important that all sides get treated, not just the surface. And when you coat it with mineral oil, you want to let it soak in anywhere between fifteen minutes to overnight, whichever you prefer. And then you just want to wipe off the excess the next day. Then after that’s dried, buff in beeswax. Also, there are butcher blocks that are like a century old or something or dry as a bone, but are still in working condition.
Yeah, you can do a number of repairs. If the thing is really dried, it just needs to be re-sanded to finish any wear, going as low as you need to. Then, just re-coat.
How do you sanitize a board?
When it comes to cleaning, just a sponge with the scrub pad – just using that with a little bit of soapy water. I would soak up a sponge, press it onto the board and just scrape off any of the big stuff and then you want to dry that immediately. Then you probably want to do something to sanitize it. You can leave salt on it overnight. Some people use bleach. I don’t recommend using bleach whatsoever. But what I do us use a one to one ratio of vinegar to water, and just apply, let it sit for a few minutes, and then wipe that off. Then you dry that and treat it with mineral oil or beeswax.
Do different types of wood require different types of care?
As far I know, it should be the same no matter what.
Should a cutting board be able to last a lifetime?
Ideally, yeah, they should be able to, because there are ones that certainly do. So yes, it should last a lifetime, or at least twenty to thirty years.
Could anyone make a cutting board?
It depends. If you want to commit yourself to woodworking and growing that, then the short answer is, “Yeah, definitely.” But, if it’s like, “Oh, I really want to make [one] cutting board,” then no. You’d have to learn some basics, which can be done through research, but… ill-advised. A long-grain cutting board is definitely a lot easier. If you really wanted to, you could do it yourself. Among woodworkers, it’s one of the first things you may learn. But what it really comes down to is a lot of investment with tools. I don’t see how you could do it for under a thousand bucks, just to make one.
What are some common mistakes in caring for a cutting board?
Never in your dishwasher, ever. Never leave it soaking in a sink. Those are really the two big ones. You don’t want it to get too close to intense heat. A friend of mine – he lives out in California – I think he left his out in the window on a hot day and that window just made it even hotter and it cracked. There are some people who make a fuss about mineral oil, and it being petroleum. Any alternatives, when you come down to it, something like vegetable oil, you can’t use, or something like olive oil – you really don’t want to use those because they turn rancid. So even if you make the argument that petroleum is really bad for you and going to give you cancer when you’re older, it’s like, okay, or you could eat something that’s rancid and threaten your life this week. Tung oil, though, is something that can also be used. I don’t use it though, because it’s primarily sourced from China.