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Building a Butcher Block Table

How to make a butcher block table? This article is a step by step instruction of the method I used to construct my butcher block table. Like all of the items of furniture I design, the table is made with the following criteria in mind:

  • Longevity: I build furniture to last. This means that joinery must be well chosen for strength and durability, and it means that the natural expansion and contraction of the wood must be accounted for in the design.
  • Aesthetic: I tend to gravitate to simple lines, from the outside, this table’s appearance is pleasing and unobtrusive. The overall understatement of the form helps to highlight the details and craftsmanship.
  • Functionality: A butcher block table is nothing if not functional, and I use mine nearly every day.
How to Make a Butcher Block Table
Building a Butcher Block Table

How to Make a Butcher Block Table

In the following article, I’ll walk through the considerations, choices, and process I used when building the butcher block table.

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Selecting the Type of Wood

Before the construction is started, or any materials are purchased, we need to decide what species of wood will be used. Potentially, one could imagine using any type of hardwood, but in my mind a little more pruning of the options is necessary.

First of all, there’s the toxicity of the wood to keep in mind. No one wants to use a wood that is a relative of Poison Ivy (as some commercial species are) for cutting up their food, even if the table it makes looks great. I’ve not had an easy time collecting information about wood toxicity, but some information is available on the internet; from this information, some clear choices can be made.

The second consideration is the porosity of the wood. I’ve seen a lot of people use oak in cutting boards, but I would never use it in a butcher block because the pore size of the grain is very large. This means food and juices will have an easier time getting into packed deep into the wood, making cleaning difficult.

Finally, there’s hardness. Clearly, it’s important to ensure that the surface will last a long time without needing to be replaced.

Cutting Boards
Cutting Boards

To meet these criteria, I would probably limit my potential selections to either beech or hard maple. Both these woods are very hard and are used to make high-quality cutting boards. American beech is difficult to dry, and as a result, it is difficult to find it in thicknesses greater than 1 inch. Relying completely on boards that are this thin would require a lot more gluing work than would otherwise be necessary, and this by itself is enough to keep me working with maple.

Where I live, at least, hard maple is not cheap, but it’s a great choice for this project. Not only does it meet the three criteria listed above, but it’s the only wood I know of that is FDA approved for this type of use.

If you’re reading this article as a guide to building your own table, make sure you read through the rest of the document before you purchase your wood. Further on, I’ll talk about grain orientation and at the end provide a cutting list which may help your trip to the lumber mill a bit smoother.

Constructing the Tabletop

The top is perhaps is the best place to start the project. It is built using a very simple construction process and mainly requires the ability to make a lasting glue joint.

My table is 32 inches wide by 19.5 inches deep. This is a good sized table for most of my purposes. It is deep enough that I can push cut up vegetables to the back of the table while keeping a large enough area clear for more chopping. It’s also wide enough that I can keep a few items on the table without having a big impact on its utility.

In terms of thickness, I want to ensure that the top to be heavy enough to feel solid even under heavy use. Part of this quality is in the feel of the top, and another part is more psychological, and based on its appearance. My tabletop is 1.75 inches thick, which feels very solid even when I use a cleaver, but it still light enough to pick up off the table and move around if I need to.

Although it would be possible to make the top thinner while still maintaining a very rigid surface (over this relatively short unsupported span), I don’t think I’d go thinner than 1.5 inches, if only for aesthetic reasons.

Grain Orientation

The thickness of a tabletop must take into account both flexibility and weight as discussed above, and it must also take into account grain orientation. For the purpose of this table, there are two reasonable ways to orient the grain in the tabletop: along its axis to make an end-grain surface; and tangentially to the growth rings to make a side-grain surface.

Grain Orientation
Grain Orientation

End-grain orientation will make a traditional butcher block design. Here boards are glued together and turned on end so that the grain runs vertically. This gives the toughest, most durable surface for the table (at least in terms of getting worn by knives). However, there are some other aspects of this design that should also be taken into account.

First of all, end-grain orientation requires a much larger number of glue joints. Furthermore, because the glue joints are a relatively small surface area (i.e. the thickness of the tabletop and the width of each board) there is a greater likelihood that one of the joints will fail.

For this reason, I would not use this construction method unless the top was intended to be at least 2.5 – 3.0 inches thick.

Finally, there is the issue of cost. Because an end-grain top is thicker and will generate more waste (because of additional cutting), the top will cost about twice as much the alternative grain orientation in materials, and much more than that in terms of labor.

The alternative to end-grain is side-grain. Here the pieces of wood are oriented such that the grain runs horizontally (across the length of the tabletop) but the annual rings are oriented perpendicular to the plane of the tabletop (as in quarter-sawn wood).

It’s not easy to find quartersawn maple (at least around where I live) so the easiest thing to do is to get some relatively thick stock that is very close to plain-sawn, cut it into slices, and turn them 90 degrees before re-gluing to form the top. Because each piece has a very large gluing area (the thickness of the top times the length of the top), these joints are more robust than those in the end-grain design.

However, although the side-grain is more durable than the face grain, it doesn’t approach the durability of end-grain. However, I have been using my table for a number of years, and have yet to see any appreciable wear.

Glue up

After the choices of grain orientation and table size have been made, it’s just a matter of cutting all the necessary pieces and preparing for glue-up. To ensure a lasting glue joint, three things are critical, preparing the surface, selecting an appropriate glue, and clamping.

I Prepare the surface by planing the pieces and dry fitting them against one another in the order in which they will be glued. If the joint fits together tightly, at most a sliver of light is visible at the center of the joint (and none at the ends) the joint should glue up well.

There is an amazing amount of variety in the types of commercially available glues, both modern and traditional. For the purposes of a butcher block table, it’s important to consider three key properties: durability, water resistance, and toxicity.

I would probably consider only two or three glues for this project: Titebond II, a good two-part epoxy (like West Systems), and potentially a polyurethane glue. Of the three, Titebond II has been recommended for cutting boards, in part, I believe, because of its safety.

Although not as waterproof as either of the other options, it is easy and safe to use as well as affordable. The main downside is that clamping pressure should be applied in a very short time (take a look at the spec sheet available from Franklin’s website). The working time of epoxy and many polyurethane types of glue is much longer.

When gluing, it’s important to work efficiently. I lay out all the pieces beforehand, in the order they will be placed together and keep the clamps nearby. Because the tabletop consists of a fairly large number of pieces, I like to do the glue up in four stages: the first three gluing up individual thirds of the top and the last stage gluing each of these large pieces together.

It is a common misconception that glue applied straight from the bottle will result in a good joint, but this is rarely the case. To ensure a good joint, I apply the glue to the surface in a wavy pattern, and then I smooth it over with a thin piece of wood so that the glue covers the entire gluing surface.

Constructing the Apron

The apron lies just inside the perimeter of the tabletop. Its role is to provide a surface for the top to rest on, as well as a structural framework for attaching the legs.

A traditional approach to constructing the apron is cut mortises on each of the four legs and tenons on each of the pieces in the apron. Gluing these together provide a solid joint that makes the entire base of the table a single unit.

For this project, I favored a design that could be disassembled and transported more easily than the traditional approach would allow. To meet these criteria, a number of constructions are possible, depending on the amount of labor one is willing to commit to this aspect of the project.

The design featured in these pictures is unconventional and among the most time-consuming approaches. However, the design is robust, and one of the most aesthetically pleasing I have seen. Here, the apron is essentially a four-sided box joined at the corners by a series of hand-cut dovetails.

A drawer sits in the middle of the front apron for easy access to kitchen tools. Underneath, two bars run parallel to the drawer and can be used to hang pans, or can be fitted with customized holders such as the one shown in this picture to hold larger kitchen tools such as this Chinese cleaver.

Unlike many knock-down designs, the legs of this table are not held in place with bolts or screws. To maintain the hand-built aesthetic and provide a durable mechanical connection, a system of wedges is used to keep the legs in place.

Constructing the Legs and Skirt

Constructing the legs is a straightforward process, as they are essentially solid wood pieces, square in cross-section. To keep costs reasonable, the legs pictured here have been glued up from three pieces of maple, each approximately 0.8 inches thick. Once glued up, the legs are planned to ensure they are square in cross-section. Next, the top end of each leg is cut so that it will fit flush with the apron.

Finally, two blind, half-dovetail mortises are cut into the lower portion of each leg for the skirt which will provide additional rigidity to the structure.

Like the apron, the skirt’s function is to keep the legs fixed in position. Here, the skirt is constructed of relatively narrow boards, with a half-dovetail tenon on each side. The tenon is inserted into the mating mortise on the leg and held in place with a small wedge.

This joint ensures that the legs can neither compress together nor move apart. Yet the joint can still be disassembled easily by removing the wedges.

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