With 15 different species of wood to choose from for your butcher block, you might feel a bit overwhelmed by so many great-looking options. The purpose of this article is to help you filter your options using two important criteria: the wood hardness and the aesthetics of each wood species.
Comparing Wood Hardness
First, let’s address hardness. It’s a critically important variable to weigh when choosing a material for kitchen, commercial or industrial countertops. Your consideration set might well vary depending on whether you will be installing these countertops in a residential or a commercial kitchen; in an office or a garage workshop; in a commercial showroom or a manufacturing plant.
If you’re the type of chef who prefers a cutting board for cutting, slicing and chopping and will rely on your countertop for less aggressive tasks such as rolling and kneading dough and cutting out cookies for baking, or if the most rugged work you will do atop these counters is pushing papers or giving customers change, you will have the option of considering even soft woods, giving you many more options you might want to consider.
On the other hand, if you will be doing serious cutting, chopping and pounding, or operating power tools and maneuvering heavy hammers and wrenches for example, then of course it will make more sense to stick with a wood hardness that is less likely to suffer dings, dents and gouges. Fortunately, there’s a standardized test that’s used to measure a wood’s hardness, making it easy to compare hardness ratings different species.
The Janka Test Measures the Hardness of Different Woods
The Janka Hardness Test involves forcing a steel ball – 11.28 mm in diameter – into a piece of wood to the depth of half its diameter. The amount of force required to accomplish this feat, as measured in pounds-force (or lbf) tells us a lot about a wood’s resistance – a proxy measure for its hardness.
The wood hardness of different types of wood will vary depending upon the orientation of the wood sample being tested. For example, testing hardness on the surface of a plank (i.e., perpendicular to its grain) provides a measure of the wood’s side hardness; whereas testing on either end of the plank measures its end hardness. Moreover, there can be variation in hardness across wood harvested from different trees of the same species and even across specimens collected from a single tree. The point of all this is that you should not view Janka readings too literally. Rather, consider them as measures of wood hardness relative to others.
The chart below shows the wood hardness, i.e., Janka scores, for all 15 species of wood that Butcher Block Co. uses in making butcher block and plank countertops.
First, note that based on Janka scores, Brazilian Cherry is about FIVE times more resilient than Poplar.
Hardest – As you can see, Brazilian Cherry is far and away the hardest of the wood types we use at BBC. It earns a Janka hardness rating in excess of 2500 pounds-force. Hickory comes in second, scoring just under 2000 lbf.
Very Hard – Next in order comes a cluster of six hardwood stalwarts: Maple, White Oak, Ash, Beech, Birch and Red Oak. All achieve Janka scores between 1200 to 1500 lbf.
Hard – Tier three includes Walnut, American Cherry and Mahogany, each registering about 1000 lbf.
Not so Hard – Softest among the bunch are Spanish Cedar, Knotty Alder, Knotty Pine and Poplar, at 500 to 700 lbf.
Of course, there’s more to consider than wood hardness when choosing a wood for new countertops. Odds are you’re searching for a wood that will look great regardless of its destination. Are you interested in a counter or island top that matches the room’s décor; one that slightly contrasts with surrounding cabinetry; or one that accents the room?
Of course, there’s no equivalent to the Janka score to help us standardize along the dimension of beauty, but we’re happy to share with you our own way of thinking about the aesthetic dimensions that distinguish any species from others.
In the image below we arranged samples of all fifteen woods along two dimensions; one of which is wood hardness, as already discussed. Along the horizontal axis wood samples are lined up in accordance with their relative hardness (although not to scale). And they are arrayed vertically into four tiers according to their respective visual impact.Most Visually Striking: Mahogany, Walnut and Brazilian Cherry
Attention-Getting: Spanish Cedar, American Cherry, Red Oak and Hickory
Subtle but Elegant: Knotty Pine, Knotty Alder, Beech, Ash, White Oak and Maple
Most Neutral – Poplar and Birch.
So for instance, if you are seeking a wood that’s harder than most AND visually interesting but not overpowering, you might want to consider one among the quartet of Beech, Ash, White Oak and Maple. On the other hand, if you do most of your food prep on a cutting board and don’t have kids on hand who are prone to toss around backpacks or laptops, you might feel comfortable sacrificing a bit of hardness (remember, it’s all relative) in order to achieve the look of your dreams exemplified by Spanish Cedar or American Cherry.
At Butcher Block Co. we appreciate the magnitude of the decision you face. We hope this guide will help you think through the decision-making process and find the wood that’s perfect for your new countertops.
During the month of April, Butcher Block Co. is offering our biggest-ever savings opportunity on BBC-brand butcher block and plank-style countertops: 10% OFF. Enter code: 10BBCCT. Good through April 30, 2017.