Canadian Woodworking

Inlaid Cutting Board

Author: Glen Friesen
Photos: Glen Fresen; Lead photo by Vic Tesolin
Published: December January 2010

The attention to detail on this cutting board allows you to take something very utilitarian and make it beautiful and meaningful. 

My mother-in-law has dedicated her life to the service of her community and her family. Her gift is the ability to perform feats of magic in the kitchen and graciously share her creations with others. When deciding on what to construct for her for Christmas, I thought it only fitting that it should capture this aspect of her life. I decided to construct a butcher-block cutting board and inlay a short, relevant saying, cut from mother of pearl, in the front edge of the board.

I constructed the cutting board in classic butcher-block fashion with the cutting surface composed completely of end-grain hard maple. The 1 ¾” x 1 ½” pieces that make up the surface of the board have the end grain alternated or rotated, so the end-grain forms a ‘pattern’ when viewed from above. The alternating end-grain also reflects light differently, which enhances the look of the board. The Peruvian walnut border is also installed so that the end-grain is exposed to the cutting surface. This allowed the pieces to be bent easily around the gently-curved sides of the board without having to heat, steam or perform a bent lamination. To keep the board from sitting flat on the countertop and possibly being suctioned on when cutting wet substances, I added six 1 ¾” diameter by ¼” thick Peruvian walnut feet.

The inlay that customizes the piece and enhances its sentimental value is cut from white mother of pearl shell. Although the inlay consists of only five words, it transforms the piece from a nice cutting board to a family heirloom. Inlay has become a vital component in all the significant pieces that I construct.

I purchased seven bdft of 2″ hard maple for this project. In hindsight, I should have purchased more because blemishes would appear when exposing large amounts of end-grain, and having more wood than necessary would have given me more choices when removing blemishes and orienting the grain. I also purchased the widest Peruvian walnut boards that I could find to laminate together to cut the 1 ⅜” edge strips with the grain oriented up and down. The chosen board yielded 5″ of width and, to make sure that I would have enough, I purchased a piece 5′ long. Approximately 10 sq in of mother of pearl was used.

Keep things straight
 A paper pattern of the grain orientation will help when you are laying out the sections.

Glue it up
You shouldn’t need many clamps to bring the cutting surface together if care has been taken during the milling process.

Attaching the border
 Using custom shop-made clamping cauls will ensure even clamping pressure.

Preparing Material for the Cutting Area

It is not essential that the finished cutting board is the exact size of the drawing. Joint and plane the 2″ maple to maximum thickness. In this case the maple finished to 1 ¾” with both sides clean. Set the table saw fence to 1 ⅝” and rip the strips. Joint the strips on both of the cut sides.

Cut the finished strips into 30″ lengths. This is more than you need, but will give you options later. Laminate 10 strips together and remember to orient the end-grain appropriately. The extra piece allows you to stagger the grain pattern on final assembly. I used Titebond 3 for the glue-up. When the glue has dried, rip the lamination into 1 ⅜” strips across the lamination. This will give you ten 1 ¾” x 1 ½” by 1 ⅜” thick, end-grain pieces glued together.

Clean up the long-grain sides to prepare them for the next lamination. I used my vertical wide-belt sander, but any drum sander would work. Even taking very fine passes with the thickness planer works, although it just feels wrong to do this. Once the edges are true, laminate 15 strips together. This will make a piece approximately 23″ in length. Remember to offset the ends of the pieces to enhance the grain pattern of the cutting surface. Allow to dry and then carefully sand the cutting board blank to 1 ¼” in thickness.

Preparing Material for the Border

While waiting for glue to dry, I surface the Peruvian walnut board. Mine finished to 5″ wide and I planed it to ⅝” and then sanded it to 9/16″ thick. Cut ten 5″ long pieces. Assemble two pieces 5″ wide by 26″ long and be sure to glue long-grain to long-grain. When the glue has dried, carefully sand the pieces with a palm sander and be sure both sides are clean. Now you can rip 1 5/16″ strips off of the end. This will yield a bit more than you need, but you should have six 1 5/16″ wide by 26″ long pieces, four of which will be needed for the border.

Final Shaping

Once the glue has dried and the maple cutting surface has been sanded to thickness, cut it to its final shape. I made a template from paper to ensure that I achieved the proper form without experimenting on my maple blank. Place the template on the prepared maple blank and draw a line, in pencil, around the template, then remove the template and inspect your line. The edge pieces should be the same size on each side as discrepancies will be easily visible in the finished product. Carefully remove cut marks on the disc sander.

Attaching the Border

Once the maple cutting surface is in its final form, mark the edges on some 2″ pine and cut four clamping cauls that perfectly match the curved contours. Using the clamping cauls, carefully test-fit the walnut border one piece at a time. Carefully mark the corners. Because of the curve of the board, these mitres are not 45° angles. I custom cut each corner. In this case, the actual setting on my mitre saw was approximately 36°, but this will vary depending on how much curve you put on your cutting board. Carefully fit all sides of the border and make sure all the mitres fit tightly. Do a ‘dry fit’ test run and, if it all fits well, glue the border on with Titebond 3.

The clamping cauls should ensure a good glue joint.

Completing the Assembly

Remove the clamps once the glue has dried and sand the entire board.

Be careful not to embed the dark walnut sawdust into the light-coloured maple when sanding. Sand with 100-grit first, then 150, then 180 and finally with 220 grit. Cut six ¼” thick by 1 ⅝” diameter disks to act as feet for the cutting board. I used the drill press and a 1 ¾” hole saw with the centering bit removed. I used six feet on this board to give it extra support when being used, but on the 2 ¼” thick version that I created, I used only four. Sand the feet thoroughly and place them on the bottom of the cutting board and glue them on with Titebond.

Installing the Inlay

Installing a meaningful inlay has become very important when I construct projects for people who are close to me; I feel that it really enhances the sentimental value of the project. Installing a basic inlay is not as difficult as one might expect. Select an appropriate font and size of font for the inlay and print several copies of the text. Cut the complete saying out of the paper and carefully decide on its final placement on the walnut. Do not cut each letter out carefully, but rather cut out the words, avoiding all the lines. When the text on the cut out paper is in the proper position, attach it to the walnut with cyanoacrilate glue. The shell was purchased from Rescue Pearl ( Since shell comes in small pieces, approximately 2 sq in for a larger piece, the text will often have to be cut as individual letters; this is why multiple copies of the text are necessary. Attach the patterns to the shell with cyanoacrylate glue as well. Use a jeweller’s saw with a 2 – 0 blade and a V-block and carefully cut along the pattern lines on the paper attached to the shell. De-burr the shell when the cutting is done with a small file. When the shell inlay is ready, attach it to the paper pattern on the walnut with balsa wood cement and allow to dry overnight. With a very sharp X-Acto knife, etch the walnut at the edge of the shell and rout out the cavity using a 1/16″ bit chucked in a Dremel tool. Set the inlay slightly proud of the surface and make sure the inlay fits in the cavity. Do not force the inlay into place because shell breaks quite easily. When the inlay fits the cavity, insert it and flood the area with cyanoacrylate glue. Allow it to dry and then sand it with a block and 80-grit paper. Using the X-Acto knife, clean out all the air bubbles that show up as light spots in the glue. Re-flood these areas with glue, allow to dry and re-sand. Sand with progressively finer paper and finish with 220-grit.

Applying the Finish

Since this board was going to be used to prepare food on a daily basis, I wanted a finish that was food-safe and easy to apply so it could be refreshed easily. I applied several coats of mineral oil because it is safe and easy to apply. This is a very practical project that could be undertaken on a weekend. It is extremely functional and, with the custom inlay, a tribute to its user.

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