Oversize End-Grain Butcher Block

Woodworkers kick around the issues raised by a client's proposed DIY project: a 4-foot by 7-foot butcher-block top. October 2, 2007

I have a client who wants to build his own end grain butcher block top. This top will be 2 1/2" thick, 2" x 2" squares, and approximately 5' x 8'. We are all a bit concerned about the weight, but being that this top will be mounted onto inset face frame cabinets with face frames to the floor, it'll probably be fine. Nevertheless, I've suggested he build the center portion only 1" thick, with the border being the only part 2 1/2" thick. He is concerned about the hollow sound and lack of support in the middle, and wants to laminate to plywood. I think it's probably a bad idea laminating solid end grain to plywood. I'm sure somebody out there has experience with this. Any thoughts would be welcome.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor P:
Weight shouldn't be much of an issue. I assume he'll be using maple or something. But I'd think even tropicals would weigh less than soapstone or granite. Making a very large end grain top is a bit of a challenge. I'd glue up long single runs, then joint and thickness the sides, then glue them together and sand the top and bottom flat. (A wide belt would really come in handy.) There may be a bit of an advantage to gluing them to a substrate in that you'd only have to flatten the top, assuming that the substrate is very, very flat. If there's a crown or dip or wave in the plywood, the top might crack over time. I personally wouldn't do it, though, because I'd think that the wood would move around and come loose from the ply or worse. I might come up with some sort of base on the top of the cabinet but not glue the top to it.

I think making a hollowed out spot in the middle is asking for trouble. As the wood moves, it's going to be uneven and I would bet that all sorts of cracks will open up. We make quite a few cutting boards and blocks. Making something as large as a countertop is going to present some unique problems, but it sounds neat.

From contributor G:
I don't think this is a good idea. I don't know how your humidity varies throughout the year, but the expansion and contraction on a 5 x 8 top would have it buckling and cracking in no time. Google "butcher block tops" and you'll get all kinds of sources for end grain fabricators. Spekva from Denmark is one of the best and I think they limit end grain tops to 24" x 48" for good reason. John Boos in Chicago also limits size on end grain tops. If the client won't consider a planked top and insists on end grain, maybe a number of smaller sections can be dry-joined together. Regardless of whether top is planked or end grain, the fastening system to the cabinets must allow for expansion and contraction - slotted holes with washers through the stringers or top.

From contributor T:
The biggest top we have ever made like this was about 4' x 7'. We made it out of cherry and it was at least 5 inches thick. It sat around the shop for about 6 months where it developed a 3/8 inch bow. Somebody on this forum gave us the advice to seal one side with visqueen, then dampen the other side with about as much water as you would use to wash a kitchen counter.

It took about an hour for the top to flatten itself out. Capillary action on the end grain sucked in the moisture, producing cones instead of straws. As the fibers swelled on the top side, the increased diameter pushed it back into flat. As soon as it dried out it, though, it got out of flat again.

It was probably one of the heaviest things we have ever built and one of the coolest too. The base that held it up was turned out of green beech with the intention of letting it twist and distort so that it looked 300 years old.

If this is something the client is excited about and something he wants to build, I would encourage this. People tend to be very forgiving of their own work (particularly civilians) and it provides a lot of joy, flaws and all. Tell him what we think he can expect, then run his stock through your 4 sided planer for him. It will be fun for him.

P.S. I think you are right about gluing end grain to plywood. Not good.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the responses so far. I am not going to dissuade this homeowner from attempting the project, as he's been dreaming of building this particular top for years. I will suggest that he make the entire top 2 1/2" thick with no substrate, and will also let him know of the movement issues he can expect.

From contributor V:
You're right about the homeowner. Just make sure that on your part, the attachment of the top to the cabinet can in no way be blamed for whatever takes place with the top in the future. If he does a good job and it stays together, he is happy. If not and it bows or buckles and has to be replaced, maybe you get more work.

From contributor H:
Tell him to have fun. I would not have anything to do with it. End grain is going to be a disaster that thin. Old butcher blocks with end grain were more than 12" thick. Only when they changed to horizontal grain in the 50's did they go to 1.5" to 3" thick.

From contributor C:
Oh yeah, this is a great idea. He'll have no problem surfacing a 5' x 8' wall of end grain - a few licks with a belt sander should do it. 4 x 24 or will a 3 x 20 do it? Can he borrow yours? The cabinets will hold it, won't they? Sure, the face frames won't pop off and shoot across the room. Hard to tell what the toe spaces will do. The dimensions suggest an island. When is something top heavy? Can it flatten the cabinets? How much will this weigh? What is the EMC of end use area? What about the finish? How much will it move, and can that amount of movement be accommodated? Fastening securely to the framework underneath can also be a challenge.

The homeowner and his principal adviser both sound naive on this whole thing. Granted he wants it badly enough. But if it goes sideways, or comes out less than his particular fantasy, he will be looking at you to correct or make better. "Why didn't you tell me it would be hard to do?"

I'm all for taking leaps of faith, going for it, or gambling if you wish to do it. But realize your professional demeanor and reputation could be at risk. If you have spent any time at all learning your craft, you would have enough blood, sweat and tears in it that you would not risk losing any of it. And if you had the knowledge behind you, you couldn't have ever considered that remark about laminating to plywood. You have a lot more homework to do on this. But, I'm a cynic.

From contributor P:
As for weight, granite is about 168 pounds per cubic foot, maple about 44 pounds. I don't think weight would be an issue. I'm curious as to how anything new ever comes about. Sometimes you just gotta go ahead and do it, then figure out the problems as they arise.

Cutting boards have been made out of end grain for who knows how many generations and are generally about two to three inches thick. Someone many, many years ago figured out that end grain shows fewer scratches, lasts longer, and doesn't dull knives as fast.
It'll be a pain to flatten, but so what? Isn't the whole point to do something unique and creative?

From the original questioner:
Thanks for posting that information about the respective weights. I was worried about the liability of one of my face frames shooting off and injuring someone (that's hilarious).