Donated, rough cut hardwoods—walnut, maple, and cherry— sat in the back area of the Tri-County Industrial Arts classroom. It had sat there for about 40 plus years. Not stored in a very flat environment, these hardwood scraps had become warped.
So, what could these warped, decades-old hardwood scraps possibly be used for?
Tri-County School Industrial Arts teacher Brad Thompson researched possible uses and came upon butcher blocks— heavy-duty, thicker cutting boards people could use to butcher meat on. He had his Woods and Construction class take on this project.
“This was new to me, too, because we had never done this before,” Thompson said. “I stumbled upon it.”
About five weeks ago, the class began working on these butcher blocks and are scheduled to finish them this week. Thompson discussed the response to these butcher blocks, the process of putting them together, the CNC router’s role in this process, and the most enjoyable and valuable parts about the project.
These boards will get marked up, scratched, cut, and sliced when used, but, as Thompson said, they have a long lifespan and are built to take more of a beating.
“You could do heavier hitting on it. Sure the board will show it. But I mean, we buy them for two reasons,” Thompson said. “One (is) because they look nicer (and) two (is) because we need to have something we can really hit.”
Originally, the class planned to just make 17 pre-ordered 17-inch by 12-inch butcher blocks, but added a student at the start of the new semester. Thompson had this additional student then make some, leading to some extra butcher blocks beyond the pre-orders. The class includes six students— five seniors and one junior.
“Otherwise, I just wanted to sell what we could make, not knowing how many we could make in a normal timespan,” Thompson said.
The students used the side grain of this butcher block hardwood. This involves, if the board is lying flat, flipping the wood on its side. Using a table saw, they then cut the wood down into one and five-eighths-inch by 18-inch pieces, creating about 14 to 16 pieces depending on thickness. They then glue and clamp these pieces together— sandwich style— tightening them, and ensuring they are flat.
After these pieces dry overnight, the students pop these blocks out, and put them through a planer— a tool that surfaces the top and bottom to ensure the block is smooth.
Next, they use the miter saw to trim and square off the edges, and then the CNC (computer numerical control) router machine to machine in a juice groove on one side of the butcher blocks. According to Thompson, having the CNC router eliminated about half an hour of production time on each board, compared to using a hand router to create the juice grooves.
A juice groove is an area that runs along the perimeter of the board that collects the juices of the meat cut on them— to prevent the juices from spilling onto the counter. Creating a juice groove on just one side of each board gave each side its own use— one for meat and the other— the non-juice groove side— for vegetables.
The students used the hand router to cut slots or handles into the butcher blocks to allow people to place their hands into the sides of the boards in order to more easily pick them up.
“We had a lot of different skills and techniques that they have never done,” Thompson said. “Some of them I have not done for a long time.”
As of February 22, the students were sanding the butcher blocks to a fine finish before putting food-grade mineral oil on them to bring out the color of the wood and protect their surfaces. They’re finishing these blocks with a mixture of beeswax and carnauba wax. The hope is to have the butcher blocks completed by February 25.
They sold these butcher blocks at $35 apiece—less than half of what one would buy them for online, Thompson estimated.
“Since this was our first go around, I think the understanding is there may be some small imperfections,” Thompson said, “because this is the kids that are doing the work. And I’ve been really pleased with the results.”
The class had four unsold butcher blocks, as of February 22. If interested in buying one of these last boards, contact Thompson at the school via email (email@example.com).
The funds made from these sales will go to the school’s industrial arts account. Thompson is not quite sure what these funds will specifically be used for yet, being the class is still in the middle of a school year.
Thompson expressed hope in doing this project again. He did mention how the price of these blocks would increase from $35 in future years, since the class would have to buy its own hardwood, unlike this year’s free product. His plan is to find as affordable of hardwood as he can.
“I had great fun (with this project). I would come in in the evenings to put the pieces together,” Thompson said. “I enjoyed working with the wood this way. I hadn’t done it, stuff like this, since high school wood shop for me. So, I know it’s something that I want to incorporate into a yearly thing if I can find some access (to different hardwoods).”
To see the complete story, read the February 25 issue of the North Star News in print or online.